Atonement: A Balance of Punishment?

The theory of penal substitutionary atonement states that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, took the punishment that we deserve. Some suggest that if Christ takes the punishment we deserve, then he must take the same (or identical) punishment we deserve. This thought generates an objection to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. The argument is something like:

  1. If we deserve eternity in hell, then, in order to take our punishment, Christ must spend eternity in Hell. 
  2. Christ does not spend eternity in Hell. 
  3. Therefore, the penal substitutionary atonement theory is false. 

There is good reason to reject this argument.

The first thing to notice is that this argument rests upon interpreting "Christ takes the punishment we deserve" as "Christ takes the punishment identical to the punishment given to sinful human beings who reject Christ." But why accept (i) that the punishment must be identical and (ii) that the punishment must be identical to the punishment actually given to unrepentant sinners? Surely, we could use the same argument to conclude not that the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement is false, but that Christ does not have to take the punishment that is identical to the punishment meted out to unrepentant sinners. There is nothing in the penal substitutionary view that assumes that the punishment must be identical. After all, if the punishment must be identical, then every unrepentant sinner must be crucified. What is implied by the view is that Christ must suffer a sufficient punishment to count as a just desert for the sins of those Christ's action atones for. In the case of Christ, the punishment is death on the cross at the hands of the religious leaders and the Roman authorities. Nothing in the penal substitutionary view entails that only Christ spending eternity in Hell is sufficient punishment to atone for the sins of the world.

Moreover, the punishment actually given to unrepentant sinners--an eternity in Hell--could have been different. God could have chosen to punish sinners in a different way. Of course, his punishment is not arbitrary. Indeed, God metes out punishment according to his perfect wisdom and just nature. But this only shows that his perfect wisdom and justice can punish the Son in a different way than he punishes an unrepentant sinner. If the criteria for judgments lies only in the wisdom and justice of God, then God alone determines what counts as just punishment for the sinner and what counts as sufficient punishment of Jesus, sufficient, that is, for the atonement for our sins.

If what I have said is true, this provides some help in interpreting scripture. The Bible does not describe the death of the Messiah as the same death that unrepentant sinners are destined to experience. This is important to notice because it affects how one thinks of the death of Christ. As I recently reflected on Jesus' use of Psalm 22, it struck me that the cry of dereliction does not imply that the Father has forsaken the Son. Rather, if we are to take Jesus as pointing his hearers to the psalm, Jesus was proclaiming that he is not forsaken (despite the appearance of forsakenness). Many suppose that since unrepentant sinners will know the forsakenness of a life without God, Jesus must have experienced the abandonment of his Father. In other words, they suppose that the Father actually did abandon his Son on the cross. How else would Jesus be able to 'pay the price' of the sinner? But this runs against the message of the psalm that clearly indicates that the Lord will not abandon his anointed one in his hour of death but will deliver him. And if it is also not entailed by a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, then there is no good reason to speak as if the Trinity was 'broken' when Jesus died on the cross.

Am I right? I am very open to counter arguments. Let me know in the comments below.

Scrapping Over Crime: How Assumptions About Human Nature Explain Political Divisions

In clear-cut cases of crime, terror, and other instances of wicked human behavior, you'd think we'd all be on the same page. But we're not. We argue over it, especially if we talk politics.

It seems we can all call something bad, but when we talk about what we or the government should do about it, we can't agree. Why not?

The answer is fairly simple and comes down to our views of human nature. In other words, the argument is not primarily political but a question of worldview. 

Consider any event in which a person has done some immoral action. Now, consider why the action was taken. What is the explanation for the action? You will probably pursue one of two lines of thought. Either you will find no further explanation necessary - a person commits a crime because the nature of human beings includes the property of being highly prone to evil actions or you will seek an explanation outside the agent in question, some feature of their social fabric or other environmental factor.

To inquire about motive is not necessarily to attempt to explain an action. A motive for an action is an emotion or desire that incites an agent to perform some action. For example, a desire for companionship may incite a person to steal a cat. The desire for companionship serves as a motive for the crime. However, motives don't usually serve to cause crimes. One may be motivated to tell a lie by a love of approval, but a love of approval isn't sufficient to cause anything.

In contrast, to seek an explanation for an action is to seek a sufficient cause of an action. Those attempting to explain the actions of an evil-doer outside the evil-doer are often looking for an explanation for the action that lies either in some environmental or psychological factor. Even when a psychological explanation is sought, the explanation serves only as a means by which one might discover a further, more fundamental, environmental factor. An assumption of this view is that the fact that human agents often carry out evil acts is not sufficient to explain their evil actions. There must be some further factor, some detail about the evil-doer's background, social group, or health, that is a sufficient (or jointly sufficient) cause of the action.

Those who either leave it at that or wonder about the motive generally don't require an explanation for the action that is beyond (i) the motive and (ii) the fact that it is carried out by a human being. What else is there to explain? People have been doing wicked actions ever since there have been people. Notably, for those who think this way, the explanation for the action lies primarily within the agent. In which case, it is not strictly true that no explanation is required. It is rather the case that no explanation beyond the agent is required to explain an action.

Consider the recent assassination attempt of a republican lawmaker. If, upon learning of the incident, you turned with ease to find an explanation among the rhetoric of left-wing leaders, pundits, and their Hollywood allies, then you are probably prone to seek environmental explanations for evil actions. If, on the other hand, you require no more explanation than the fact that the perp had priors and hated republicans, then you are of the former type - wicked acts of people are explained not primarily by factors external to the one who carries out wicked actions, but primarily by the person himself.

Many political debates about crime, terrorism, and rogue states can be reduced to a difference of perspective on this point. If one thinks that there is some explanation for an evil action that lies outside the person who carried it out, then you will think that changing the environment of potential criminals, terrorists, and enemies will change the kinds of actions those people will perform. It will also provide the basis for criticizing the opponent based on the idea that the opponent's plan will turn out to be one of those causes of crime.

Consider John Kerry's response to a terror attack on the streets of London. Kerry displays a commitment to an external explanation for terror. First, he says that homegrown terror can be explained by the isolation of Muslim communities from society. Then he claims that President Trump's immigration policies will only provide fodder for the terrorist canons. Both these statements assume that the fact that people do evil things due to some internal factor is insufficient to explain those evil things. Neither human nature nor the expressed motives of the terrorists' actions are enough for John Kerry. For him, there must be something else.

The distinction between John Kerry's view and others is an assumption about the basic nature of human beings. While Kerry considers human beings to be basically good and only prone to commit wrong actions when the environment is conducive to wrong actions, others consider human beings to be basically sinful. If human beings are basically sinful, then there is some feature of all human beings that renders them prone to commit immoral actions and that those actions are sufficiently explained by the nature of the one performing those actions.

Christians generally hold to this view for theological reasons. We think that it is part of human nature to have a propensity to commit wrong actions ever since Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden of Eden. One could also hold to this view for empirical reasons - there is no evidence of any culture existing at any time in human history that have been free from wrong actions. One might infer from this that there is some feature of human nature in virtue of which human beings commit wrong actions.

There is one other view worth discussing - genetic determinism. Ferran Suay, Professor of Psychobiology at the University of València, argues that we should not seek explanations for human behavior in environmental factors but in genetics:
nobody will deny that we walk on two legs or have a hand with an opposable thumb because evolutionary pressures have shaped our anatomy in this way...But the situation is very different when we apply the same principles to the study of human behavior. In this area, there are scientists prepared to deny any genetic influence whatsoever. Some will say instead that behavior is wholly the product of social and environmental variables. Others will try to consistently minimize the explanatory power of genetics.

Suay argues that academics should apply the same conclusions about how we got our bodies to things of the 'ought' nature. Not to do so is just unscientific. Scientists are perfectly capable of telling a coherent tale about genetic determinism, but when it comes to explaining human behavior academics fold and start appealing all sorts of things like social conditioning: 

Why should the same logic not apply to human behaviour? Let’s take physical aggression, for example—the tendency to impose on others through coercion. Didn’t aggressive individuals enjoy (some) reproductive advantages? Didn’t the most aggressive males climb the hierarchy of social groups thereby enhancing their ability to attract resources and mates? Didn’t that privilege the transmission of aggressive genes to the next generation?... However... this trait is not a universally accepted product of evolution. Instead, it is a response to social conditioning, such as patriarchal education, the nefarious influence of the media, or the excessive availability of violent video games. In this scenario, miraculously, evolutionary pressures have no part to play, and the socio-environmental, psychosocial, or psycho-socio-environmental variables are the sole determinants of behavior.

Suay's point appears to be that genetics provides a comprehensive explanation for human behavior. Though Suay's view points to the nature of the person performing the evil action, it is couched within an evolutionary model. It is consistent with the view that human behavior can be explained without reference to God and human rebellion. However, if so, then there is no explanation of human moral behavior - behavior, yes, but not of failure to meet moral obligations. Indeed, to take Suay's view seriously would entail considering past immoral actions as good actions if those actions also further the survival of the species. A past murder that served a species advancing purpose would be a morally praiseworthy murder. And even this is a stretch for it is not clear that any action could be subject to any moral judgment. What grounds for moral judgment would be possible in a world in which genetic mutation is the explanation for all human behavior? Indeed, on Suay's view, moral judgment is a species of human behavior and therefore determined by genetics and not by any objective moral standard. But a gene can no more be an objective moral standard than a number can be a motion.

Perhaps Suay is right - genetic determinism is more consistent with a non-theistic (if, indeed, this is what Suay has in mind) evolutionary explanation. However, while it might explain behavior, it cannot do so without abandoning any grounds for moral judgment of any behavior. So, there is a good motive for inconsistency on the non-theist's part.

When having discussions about foreign policy, criminal justice, and social policy, it is worth getting to this fundamental difference before one attempts some pragmatic discussion about what policy might achieve a common goal. It may not be resolved, but it will help us not to talk past each other. It is also much more valuable to argue about fundamental questions of worldview than about policy.

I have previously argued that the view that human beings are basically good is a flawed view (see here). 

What is the Meaning of the Cry of Dereliction?

On the cross, the Messiah cries, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46b). His words are a quotation of David's prophetic psalm, psalm 22. But what can Jesus possibly mean? How could the Son be forsaken by the Father? How do we explain the Messiah's question? Surely he of all people knows why he is on the cross.

The answer lies in an understanding of Psalm 22.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in the first verse, David gives the Messiah his script. His cry is a forlorn cry of dereliction:

My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. My God, I cry by day, but You do not answer and by night, but I have no rest.

In the psalm's context, the opening words comprise a complaint: God has forsaken the Messiah and abandoned him in his hour of terrible need. This raises all sorts of difficult questions: Can the Son be forsaken by the Father without damage to the Trinity? Isn’t the fellowship of the Triune God eternal and unbreakable?

Instead of reading this as a statement of the forsakenness of the Messiah on the cross, we can read it as posing an idea – that the Lord will forsake his anointed one (and therefore his people). The psalm portrays the forsakenness in graphic terms – providing all the details of what will make forsakenness plausible (rejection by men, mockery, death), but then responding that God has not forsaken the Messiah. In verse 24, the Messiah declares that the Lord has not forsaken him: 

For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard. 

Thus, we can take the psalm to raise the possibility that God will reject his anointed one and then emphatically denying that the Lord would do such a thing. Even when bearing the sins of the people on the cross, Jesus is never abandoned. The Lord is never far off even when everything tells him otherwise.

The point is that the Lord will not abandon his Messiah even as he bears the totality of our sin. And if he won’t abandon his Messiah, then he will not abandon us, even when everything tells us otherwise.

For a good read on the topic check out Tom McCall's Forsaken

Successful Prophecy: Psalm 22 (A Response to Bob Seidensticker)

Bob Seidensticker argues that Psalm 22 is not a prophetic psalm depicting the suffering of the Messiah.

First, Seidensticker argues that the opening phrase, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” could not be the words of the Messiah. Instead, those words are a gnostic application of the psalmist:

Does forsaking Jesus sound like part of God’s plan? This doesn’t sound like the cool-headed, in-control Jesus written about in Luke and John... What it sounds like is Gnosticism (not in the Psalm, but when transplanted into the gospels). The Gnostic Gospel of Philip (third century) explains it this way, “‘My God, My God, why, lord, have you forsaken me?’ [Jesus] spoke these words on the cross, for he had left that place.” That is, Christ the god entered Jesus the man at baptism (remember the dove?) but then abandoned Jesus at the crucifixion.

Seidensticker seems to assume that if Jesus said these words, they could not mean anything apart from what a gnostic would mean by them. But this is simply to ignore other options (of course, Sidensticker also has to deny the veracity of the gospel reports). Admittedly, exactly what the Messiah means is not given to us by either the psalmist or Matthew and Mark. But that is not to say that we have to accept a gnostic view either. Some commentators think that there is a real rupture within the Trinity. Others think the cry is the cry only of the Messiah's human nature. Still others consider the Messiah's cry to be emotional and does not reflect any real abandonment of the Son by the Father. All these discussions have implications for one's view of the Trinity and the incarnation, both of which are difficult doctrines. Nevertheless, it is entirely false that only a gnostic reading makes sense of the text. 

Second, Seidensticker argues that verse 16 should be translated, "wild dogs surround me—a gang of evil men crowd around me; like a lion they pin my hands and feet." not as, "For dogs have surrounded me; A band of evildoers has encompassed me; They pierced my hands and my feet." The difference lies in how one treats a Hebrew word. Is the word ka-aru, meaning 'they pierced'? Or is it ka-ariy, meaning 'like a lion'? 

Seidensticker rightly notes that there are arguments for both sides, but opts for the latter reading. He provides two arguments for his view. First, the NET agrees with Seidensticker's reading. And second, his reading fits better with the context (since we already have wild dogs and other zoomorphisms in the psalm). 

So, what about arguments for the other side? Here are four arguments from Micheal Wechsler's commentary: First, the LXX, Peshitta, and the Vulgate all support the traditional reading. It should be noted that the NET is unusual for contemporary English translations with the NASB, ESV, and HCSB all supporting the traditional view. Second, the NET has to supply the verb, to pin. Without it, the phrase is very obscure and awkward. Third, if the lion is supposed to be a symbol for the 'evil men' why is it in the singular and not the matching plural. A far more natural thing to say is that the evildoers are like lions. Finally, the oldest extant manuscript of this psalm attests to the traditional reading. 

Seidensticker lists three verses that he thinks discount a prophetic reading of the psalm:

Verse 9: “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you”—again, this sounds like an ordinary man. The first person of the Trinity wouldn’t need to make the second person of the Trinity trust him... Verse 12: “Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan [a place known for its cattle] encircle me. Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me.” Bulls and lions? That sounds like martyrdom in an arena, not crucifixion... Verse 17: “I can count all my bones.” This unfortunate guy is clearly mistreated, but (again) this isn’t the gospel story.

Each of Seidensticker's comments is worth a response. In regards to verse 9, Sidensticker equivocates between a non-divine human being's trust in God and a divine human being's trust in God. There is no reason to suggest that the Messiah would not trust in the Father in the latter sense. Indeed, Christ's life is one that displays meticulous trust in the will of the Father (Luke 22:42). Nor is there any reason to suggest that in order to be 'made to trust', Jesus would have to begin to trust having not trusted him before. After all, the kind of trust being displayed--that between the divine, incarnate Son and the Father--has a beginning (at the point of being brought from the womb or thereabouts). But this does not entail that the divine Son had no trust in the Father prior to the incarnation. 

In regards  to verse 12, as Seidensticker has just suggested with his interpretation of verse 16, the use of animals is not to be taken literally. Indeed, the psalmist is using standard zoomorohism, the ascription of animal properties to persons. As far as bone counting, I have (in a v. brief glance of a couple of commentaries) found no precise meaning to this phase apart from the obvious imagery of being stretched to breaking point. But this does sound like the gospel! 

Finally, Seidensticker argues that the psalm could not be about the Messiah since it contains no reference to the resurrection. It might behoove Seidensticker to complete his reading of the psalm focusing on the latter half (verse 22-31). The Messiah leads the people of Israel to praise and glorify the Lord. But he does so after his suffering. Though not explicit, the resurrection is quite compatible. Indeed, the Messiah promises a similar deliverance to those who trust in the Lord (25-26). How else might the sufferer "eat and be satisfied" after his suffering unless he has been delivered from that suffering. And if that suffering is death (v. 15), then deliverance is resurrection. 

Writers Who Speak as if They are Other People

For some writers, "the author suggests..." "It is argued...", and "so and so says..." are all a waste of writer's ink and reader's time. Why not cut the padding and just write as if you are the person whose work you are writing about? Cornelius Van Til, King David, and the president all do it. The trouble is that it is very easy to confuse voices. Consider the president's recent tweet:

Upon first reading, it sounds awfully like the president has told us that he is being investigated. Indeed, prior to his tweet, no one thought he was under investigation apart from the Washington Post. So, was Trump confirming the report?

Apparently not.

According to Fox News, his lawyer, Jay Sekulow has a better explanation: "Trump’s tweet that led people to believe he was under investigation was in response to a Washington Post story in which unnamed sources said the president was being investigated." 

So, the president was summarizing the WaPo story and accusing the newspaper of a witch hunt. He was not describing the circumstances--that he is being investigated--and calling the investigation a witch hunt! 

In order to interpret the tweet correctly, just add, "According to the Washington Post..." 

King David also freely moved from his voice to the voice of his promised offspring, the Messiah. In Psalm 2, there is a very confusing dialogue that takes place:

"But as for Me, I have installed My King
Upon Zion, My holy mountain."
"I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your possession.
‘You shall break them with a rod of iron,
You shall shatter them like earthenware.’” (Psalm 2:6-9)
The interpretive difficulty is caused by a lack of punctuation in the Hebrew text and a liberal use of pronouns. Though some see the voice of David himself in the text, I take David to be speaking as if he is the promised Messiah. Compare the ambiguities of the text above with my annotated version below:

“But as for Me (the Lord), I (the Lord) have installed My King (the Messiah)
Upon Zion, My (the Lord's) holy mountain.”
“I (the Messiah) will surely tell of the decree of the Lord:
He (the Lord) said to Me (the Messiah), ‘You (the Messiah) are My (the Lord's) Son,
Today I (the Lord) have begotten You (the Messiah).
‘Ask of Me (the Lord), and I (the Lord) will surely give the nations as Your (the Messiah's) inheritance,
And the very ends of the earth as Your (the Messiah's) possession.
‘You (the Messiah) shall break them with a rod of iron,
You (the Messiah) shall shatter them like earthenware.’”

Many scriptural ambiguities are created by a text's lack of clear indication of who's speaking where. For further examples, see Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and the Letter of James. Indeed, unless on presupposes some implicit idea in the text or some piece of background information, it is very difficult in some cases to know where the author ends and the quotation starts.

My final example is from Cornelius Van Til. A polemical writer at the best of times, Van Til also had a knack for pretending to be his opponent. This causes no difficulty in lectures when one can give many clues as to the fact that one speaking from another point of view, but it is very confusing in a book. Van Til's criticism of Karl Barth is contained in the pages of The New Modernism. Van Til gets so carried away summarizing various views that it is almost impossible to tell when he is speaking for himself. Indeed, so difficult is it to tell, that some criticisms of Van Til are criticisms of his opponents!!

Blunting the Fallacy Fork

Marrten Boudry claims that there are far fewer fallacies out there than we think. His reason involves a 'fallacy fork.' The fallacy fork is a dilemma the conclusion of which is supposed to show us that fallacies are not usually fallacies. Here is the fork:

Either the fallacy is hardly ever used, or it is hardly ever fallacious.

For a fallacy to count, it must imply some deductive form. Since, we hardly ever make deductive arguments that are candidates for fallacies, we should prefer the second fork. So, are what we call fallacies not really fallacies after all?

Consider, the ad hominem fallacy. A candidate for office claims that policy x will make everyone safer. Her claim is rejected on the grounds that she has known terrorists as personal friends. On the face of it, the claim could not be decided merely on the grounds of the friendships of the one who makes the claim. The assumption one has to make is something like, "anyone with terrorists as friends should not be trusted when making a suggestion about what will make us safer."

Whether or not a fallacy has been commited might depend on all sorts of contextual factors. Say, for example, the friendships are with the very terrorists from which the candidate is claiming to keep us safe. In this case, the reasoning is not suspect. If, however, the candidate is suggesting a water filtration system to make water cleaner (and is attempting to keep us safe from unclean water), then her friendships with terrorists is less relevant.

Boudry suggest that fallacious reasoning can only be determined given a multitude of contextual factors and they are far less common than freshmen taking a critical reasoning class think.

So, contexts determine whether a fallacy has been commited. But what are those contexts? One plausible context is the worldview held by the claimant and the fallacy accuser. Consider one of Boudry's suggestions taken from Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Sagan suggests the following as an example of ad hominem reasoning: 

“The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously” (Sagan 1996, 212). 

The authors claim that no fallacy has been committed:

...unless Sagan’s argument is meant to be deductive (first prong), it is not fallacious at all (second prong). If we know that the good Reverend is an evangelical Christian, who dogmatically clings to a literal reading of Scripture, of course this will color our judgment about her arguments against evolutionary theory. I’d go even further: pragmatically speaking, this fact alone is reason enough to dismiss her arguments, and not to waste any further time on it. It’s simply naïve to think we have an obligation to scrutinize the arguments of every single crank. In an ideal world perhaps, with unlimited time on your hands, but not in this one. So ad hominem arguments are indispensable for navigating our way through a social world.

The context in question appears to be the worldview of the evangelical Christian, "who dogmatically clings to a literal reading of scripture." Such a view of scripture colors the judgment of the creationist and renders his claim a waste of time. But what is thought to be a context of an ad hominem is actually a factor that removes the argument from the candidacy of being an ad hominem. To see this consider the ad hominem spelled out in full:

  1. X claims that evolution is false
  2. X believes the Bible is literally true
  3. Anyone who claims the Bible is literally true is not trustworthy
  4. Therefore, we should not take the claim that 'evolution is false' seriously. 

The ad hominem premise is (3). It claims that some feature of the claimant renders what he says false. But that is not what Boudry suggests: he suggests that to reject the view of the creationist is not an ad hominem because it is right to reject claims by people with a worldview, a belief of which is that the Bible is literally true. The problem is that the opponent to the creationist has not even committed a candidate ad hominem. The argument against the claim that evolution is false is not based on an attack on a person. It is based on an attack on a belief of that person. Take the ad hominem argument above and replace

3. Anyone who claims the Bible is literally true is not trustworthy


3'. The Bible is not literally true 

Once one does this, there is no ad hominem premise. Instead, we merely have a rejection of one or other belief that the claimant holds.

What the authors say next is that a creationist might make a claim about evolution that does not rely on a religious belief about the Bible but on some scientific grounds:

None of this is to deny that, logically speaking, even a die-hard creationist could conceivably level a good argument against evolutionary theory. If you think that the Reverend’s argument must be wrong, given her evangelical faith, you are making an error of deductive logic. But let’s be honest: if some Jehovah’s Witnesses hand you a pamphlet with “scientific” arguments against Darwin, are you going to give them your full attention, lest you succumb to ad hominem reasoning?

What's strange about this response is that on the one hand it admits that a creationist could have a good argument against evolution, but, on the other hand, suggests that it would be reasonable to reject it because of the religious worldview the creationist holds. The authors clearly commit an ad hominem at this point: even if the creationist offers a good non-religous argument for her claim, her claim should be dismissed solely on the grounds of her being religious!

Why Latin?

To the surprise of anyone who sat next to me in Latin class when we were ten years old, I am now a Latin teacher. My Latin teachers would be especially surprised. One teacher threw a piece  of chalk at me when I was paying no attention (actually, this may have been my French teacher, but my memory fails). I suppose, I couldn't see the point in it. Latin is a ‘dead’ language after all. Why study a language no one uses? 

Now I teach Latin and I realize how important it is. Here are four reasons for learning Latin:[1] 

First, Latin is a precise and highly regular language. Consequently, Latin is an ideal language from which to begin learning how to memorize words and endings, comprehend rules of grammar, and produce translations. 

Second, Latin is the language of ancient literature. Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Augustine all wrote their great books in Latin. Latin was the language of theologians for over a millennium. Our doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and revelation were forged by Latin. Consequently, knowing the language in which a text is written produces better readers of English translations. This is also true of learning a biblical language as anyone who has done so will tell you. 

Third, the demise of Latin is overstated. Indeed, much of the vocabulary of an English speaker owes its existence to Latin. Knowing a Latin root aids our comprehension of English. For example, the Latin, vīta, means life. We find it in the English words, vital, vital signs, vitality, vitamin, revitalize.[2] 

Finally, learning any language helps us to read any text better. Our present culture seems to encourage reading as fast as possible while only seeking the main points and disregarding the rest. Learning Latin helps to develop attentive reading of text. An unfamiliarity with a language forces us to ask deeper questions about what the author is saying. A habit of reading slowly for good comprehension not only aids study of text books and literature but also helps us pay close attention to what God is saying in Scripture. 

Latin also sounds cool (have a listen here)

[1] For further reasons see Doug Wilson, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), Chapter 16.
[2] Frederic Wheelock, Wheelock’s Latin (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 18.

Cultural Appropriation: Problem?

I am a Brit living in America. My favorite restaurant is Cracker Barrel, I display a large star spangled banner in my study, and occasionally practice my 'mercan accent (much to the embarrassment of my wife). I am constantly appropriating a culture not of my own. But then I've been doing it for years. In my teens, my guitar heroes included black blues players like Albert King and John Lee Hooker. And I'm not alone: Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Gary Moore, and a host of other white Brits spent hours appropriating the sound, look and psychology of the poor black man from the delta.

So, are we doing something wrong? Is there something immoral about the act of cultural appropriation? Is my opening paragraph a confession or compliment? If a white American celebrates Cinco de Mayo, is he somehow demeaning another culture? If hoop earrings are mostly worn by black women, is it wrong for a white woman to copy them?

Some people argue that if a powerful group appropriates the culture of a less powerful group, then it is immoral. Thus, rich white Americans adopting the styles of a minority culture is considered wrong. The relevant feature that distinguishes an immoral and a virtuous appropriation is power. So my appropriation of Cracker Barrel style is fine, but my blues licks are a sign of bigotry.

It is not entirely clear what power we are talking about. Is it political power, media influence, or just being a majority? And what is the scope of the criteria? Is it bound to a city, state, nation, or globe? I know American missionaries who appropriate the culture of their hosts. Is this wrong?

It is not clear why it is wrong to copy a culture. It is not theft in any meaningful sense of the term. Cultural features don't belong to anyone in any way in which one might steal them. In law, property rights belong to individuals or companies. Cultures are neither. There is no cultural copyright on hooped earrings, no festival rights on Cinco deMayo.

It might be suggested that such things are cultural commodities like French cheese, or Champagne. In recent years, the EU decided that anyone manufacturing sparkling wine could only name it Champagne if the grapes came from the Champagne region of France. But products falsely claiming to be from a region are making false claims about their product. No one is making a false claim when appropriating some feature of another culture and they're not ordinarily profiting from it either. Of course, courts sometimes follow the mob and not the book so it will not be long before a white guy making a taco will face some kind of punishment for doing so.

Consider the case of an 'artist' who reconstructed several historic gallows. One gallows was found to be a version of the gallows used in 1862 to hang 38 men from the Dakota Oyate tribe. The Dakota people complained and the art gallery burned the piece. According to a statement, the artist has "committed to never create the Dakota gallows again. He commits to transferring the intellectual property rights of this work to the Dakota Oyate." It may be that in future we will be conferring property rights to cultures in order to subject perpetrators of cultural appropriation to criminal charges. 

Another relevant feature of the debate is the motive of the people doing the appropriating. As a compliment, cultural appropriation suggests there is something of the other culture an appropriator has come to value. As a condemnation, a person might engage in cultural appropriation in order to display an attitude of disdain by mocking the other culture.

This raises the issue of whether one culture can be better than another culture. What makes one culture better than another is also a matter for debate. It is not soley a moral issue. For example, a highly moral culture may also be a less educated culture. Conversely, a culture that is highly literate may be morally repugnant. And even making these judgments presupposes that education and morality are goods worth having in a culture.

Some people are prone to the view that all cultures are of equivalent value and to say not is to engage in some form of bigotry.


When one emulates a gang culture one is emulating a wicked culture - one based on murder, theft, and a desire to stick it to any authority figure their path. Even in jest, appropriating such a culture is not appropriating anything of any value. Emulating the culture of the Klan is no poorer choice. Both cultures thrive on group-think spite. On the matter of the Klan, it has been argued that they are the least guilty of cultural appropriation (read an amusing dialogue to this effect here)

But this at least leads to the idea that we ought to be appropriating good cultures and not bad ones. Of course, the postmodern person might reply that it is culture that determines what is good and bad, so there is no way to determine which culture ought to be appropriated. But this is silly. Can one really hold that there is no objective difference between the value of the culture of MS13 and the culture of the Sisters of Calcutta? Surely we would want a vicious law-breaker from MS13 to begin a journey of cultural appropriation, appropriating pretty much any culture other than his own.

Snowflakes and the Origin of Language

According to Chomsky, nothing has happened to language in about 50,000 years. Take any child from any place from any time within the last 50,000 years and put him in a family in Boston in 2017 and he will grow up speaking like a Bostonian.

Prior to 50,000 years ago, there was no such thing as language. Something happened in a small space of time that gave us language. Some rewiring of the brain occurred and gave rise to a mechanism. The mechanism is like a snowflake - it is the way it is because nature produces it that way. In the same way a snowflake is need of no further explanation, the mechanism that the brain needed for language is in need of no further explanation. The mechanism occurred in one person and that person then had a capacity to think internally - a proto-linguistic thought process. This proliferated over time and at some later point was externalized in utterances. In order externalize the functioning of the mechanism, the mechanism in the head began to match up with sensory perception. Presumably, such a function was advantageous and so selected by nature in order to advance the species. Eventually, communities with such a mechanism and in which at least one person had begun to externalize the function of the mechanism began to communicate with one another and teach their offspring what we now call 'language.'

Chomsky's picture is attractive for two reasons. First, it posits the least amount of objects and processes possible - just bits of brain, time, and change. This is parsimonious and elegant. Second, it is a perfect fit with naturalism and manages to both distinguish humans from other animals without adopting any grand theory about human dignity that would turn on some metaphysical thesis outside the parameters of the linguist's project.

The trouble is that it is not plausible. How so? For the following reason: although the scratchings on a page and the sounds emitting from a vocal chord are physical, language and its grammar cannot be reduced to anything physical. Chomsky claims that whatever it is in our brains it can only be a physical thing - like a snowflake. But snowflakes don't pretend to have mental properties. Chomsky thinks mental "simply refers to certain aspects of the world, to be studied in the same way as chemical, optical, electrical, and other aspects" (Chomsky and Berwick, Why Only Us? p. 56). Not only is a mental property not the kind of thing one can study like a snowflake, it is not even possible to imagine what a mental object or property might be like to look at. If so, then it is nothing like a snowflake.

What is the Nature of Christian Classical Education?

Christian classical education is on the rise in the United States. But what is it? In what follows, I will attempt a sketch of the context of our present educational project, the assumptions of education in the classical period, and how such assumptions fit with a Christian educational model. I hope to demonstrate that a Christian classical school begins with a starting point not only in the hopes of a parent, but the reality of God’s creation and his intentions for our lives lived within it.

A Reaction to Pragmatism

Perhaps the best way at this topic is a brief sketch of educational theory that removed any vestiges of the classical model from public education in America. The place to start is with the advent of American pragmatism. It is not the source of the transition. That honor belongs to the European cohort of enlightenment philosophers. But as far as changes in educational philosophy within the United States is concerned, pragmatism heralded a new, and all pervasive, educational foundation. In fact, it is wrong to call it a foundation at all. If anything, it rejected foundations in an effort to free up the public education system to meet the pressing needs of the industrial revolution.

Prior to the tumultuous social changes that steam, steel, and sausage factories brought to the west, education of the kind we call ‘classical’ was exclusively the propriety of the upper echelons of society. This is in part due to the classical era’s insistence on excellence in political governance, the domain of the few, the well trained, and the elite. The rest of the population had relied on the passing on of trades. Farmers trained their sons to carry on the work and mothers trained their daughters in the art of homemaking. A basic knowledge of reading was sometimes passed on, but sons expected to take on jobs at least closely related to their father’s occupations. Industry changed all this. People moved families to the vicinities of the factory and roots were severed. As the needs of the workforce changed, so did education. The disruption of the industrial revolution gave rise to the abandonment of universal, timeless truth expressed in a rational, hierarchical society. In its place, education began to focus on human, communal experience. This had a huge impact on the nature of education in the industrialized world. Since the world was changing at such a rapid pace, education could not be about eternal truths or a static human nature. Instead education should be about the evolution of the higher species.

The leading figure of the modern educational movement in America was John Dewey. Dewey claimed that education was the key to the constant adaptation of our species to our rapid changing environment. He even claimed that if we fail to educate, we would fall back to a more bestial form of life. In his 1910 work, How We Think, Dewey sketched out a pragmatic learning process that began not with the nature of humanity, truth, or laws of nature, but with the diagnosis of hindrances to human flourishing. Education became a form of problem-solving. Dewey felt that the rigidity of traditional moral codes and educational methods stifled human flourishing. Crudely put, the pragmatist thought that morality was determined by whatever worked to achieve the advancement of the species.

In my own experience of theological education, I have listened to pragmatic theologians espouse similar methods in theological education. Instead of beginning with scripture and constructing a theology, one is asked to reflect on a community’s or an individual’s experience and consider a problem or question. Then, once one has analyzed the nature of the problem, one consults religious sources and brings their wisdom to bear on the problem. The aim of the process is not knowledge, but action.

While pragmatic theories of education have changed in the last fifty years, mainly because of the influence of postmodernism, the general idea of pragmatism still reigns in public education. To some extent, its prominence explains the reactive nature of the classical education movement. In the 1930s, a movement began in Chicago that attempted to re-establish a liberal and classical from of education in America. In post-war America, Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins produced a massive collection of books called Great Books of the Western World composed of what they considered the best written work in the western tradition. Their intention was to restore a more classical approach to education, but it was done in reaction to the mainstream.

To some extent we too are attempting to swim upstream. So much so, that some advocates of classical education seek to remind us that we can never actually have a purely classical education in our time. This is because the society in which we teach and learn is decidedly non-classical, even anti-classical. But classical education is, in part, dependent on the form of life of the wider society. David Hicks argues that the conditions necessary for a truly classical education are absent from western culture.[1] Whereas the classical world was committed to a material realm and an eternal immaterial realm, the contemporary west is only concerned with the temporal and imminent. Whereas the classical world shaped its form of life in accordance with nature, the contemporary world insists that we shape nature in accordance to human need. The classical world was deeply committed to a proper purpose of all life, but the contemporary west treats purpose as something determined by our own choices. Finally, Hicks says that the classical educator intended to preserve a form of life by passing it on. They were concerned with a continuance of the governing norms of truth, beauty and the good. In contrast, the modern educator is concerned with continual change and is antagonistic toward norms in general.

David Hicks is right about the counter-cultural nature of classical education. There is no doubt that a classical education is only really at home when those who pass through it share a common worldview with the wider culture. However, it is not the case that a Christian classical education is fraught with the same problem. Indeed, the normal from of life for Christians in history has been counter-cultural. Thus, adopting a classical form of life within our schools does not require a classical form of life to be adopted in the wider culture. Since our goal transcends the mere preservation of a bygone western culture, we are somewhat freer to pursue an education that, though running upstream, runs toward the goal of glorifying God with our lives.

So, the rise of classical education is, in part, explained by a reaction to the dominant form of education we find in public schools. Indeed, it may be that some parents choose classical education primarily because it is not the pragmatic, progressive education being offered at their local public school. Of course, our imaginary parent has gone beyond reacting to one thing and is asking about the nature of the thing she is attracted to. So, we return to our question: what is classical education?

A Return to Antiquity

At first glance, it may appear to be a method of education employed by the educators of the classical period, by which we mean in the pre-modern period stretching right back to the ancient Greeks in classical antiquity. This is partly right. The ‘classical’ in ‘classical school’ relates to some form of education carried out in the past. But it is not because it is old that it is better. Rather, there is some great-making feature of the older form of education that is worth repeating.

The most prominent feature of classical education that is worth preserving is the insistence on beginning education with a set of assumptions about reality. Whereas the contemporary educational scene focuses on adapting truth, morality, and nature to the end of human flourishing in a fast-changing world, classicalists focus on educating their students to adapt their lives according to the unchanging, immutable nature of truth, morality, and the laws of nature.


One of the features of a classical school is the insistence on reading older texts spanning the history of western civilization. But it is not because they are old texts that we read them. Surely great books have been produced recently and even if there has been nothing approaching greatness in the last century, the books we call great were, at one point in time, recent. It is a mistake to think that a great book only became great after a good deal of time had passed. So, what is it that makes these books great? It is tempting to find some utility to point at to justify our reading list. We might say that reading the great books makes us more fit for a changing world. The books show us how humans were able to flourish in history and help us in our present world.

In contrast, the classical approach to great books does not measure the usefulness of reading great books, but measures the greatness of the book by the ideas within its pages. According to classicalists, those ideas worth knowing are ideas that have stood the test of time and transcend human temporal situatedness. Classicalists go beyond the intuition that one ought to read great books in order to feel like one has a good grasp of western civilization’s background knowledge bequeathed to us by our better-and-wisers. Classicalists consider great ideas to be universal – they are good at all times and in all places. This is quite a controversial thesis. Indeed, we live in an age in which people presume that one idea is no better than another. To say that the western canon is better than their non-western counterparts is, in some circles, tantamount to egregious bigotry. But it is not a claim of cultural superiority. Indeed, if great ideas are found in well-written books from outside of the Christianized west, we should feel at liberty to include such books. One might point out as well that the western canon is not all we have at this school. After all, our primary text for life and learning is ancient and fundamentally Jewish. Books are not chosen because of the ethnicity of the writer but the exemplary ideas that the author records in his prose, poetry, and polemic. We read Shakespeare for his ability to cut to the center of human moral struggle. We read Cicero for his ideals, Plato for his ideas on ideas themselves. They have stood the test of time because the great ideas they express transcend culture, time, and student.


Another attractive feature of a classical education is that we generally insist on producing habits in students that become virtues, ways of being in the world that exhibit valuable characteristics. Many lists of virtues have been produced relating to morality, discipleship, and the intellect and some classicalists emphasize the cultivation of virtue in their definitions of classical education. For example, Martin Cothran defines classical education as “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.”[2] We should stop to think about this for a second. Who would not want to have their child exhibit such characteristics? The question isn’t whether those espoused virtues are good, but what is it about classical education that entails such things? What is the feature of classical education from which it follows that human virtues are held in high regard? It must be more than a general liking for the idea of a virtuous student. Anyone—atheist, secularist, and postmodernist alike—will hold wisdom in high regard.

The good-sounding characteristics we tell parents we want to instill in their children are only good if there is something proper about them. Why do we want children to exhibit such virtues and not vices? One answer, provided by Aristotle, is that every object that exists has a nature and a function in the world. The function of an object is determined by its nature and its nature determines what kind of thing it is. According to Aristotle, the human is a kind of creature that is distinguished from the beasts by its rationality. Accordingly, we are “rational animals.” Consequently, the proper function of the kind of thing we are is to exhibit rationality. And the better we exhibit such a feature, the more properly we function. Just as a car functions properly only if it successfully transports us from A to B, we function properly only if we exhibit rationality. Such a proper function comes in degrees. Some reason well, some poorly, and some excellently. Some cars excel at getting us from one place to another and they do it with style.

The use of the word excellence in education assumes there is some kind-appropriate function we wish to see exhibited by students. Excellence is a measure of the actualization of a power within an object. If a car is beautifully designed, brilliantly engineered, and never fails to get its owner to his or her destination, then it is an excellent car. The reason for its excellence does not lie in the opinion of the owner but in the nature of the car. It is excellent because its potential is more fully actualized than other cars. Similarly, a child who reasons well is not excellent because we find her to be so, but she is excellent because she is using her natural ability to reason to a high extent. She is actualizing the power she has in virtue of being a rational animal.

This view of human nature grates upon the modern educator’s assumptions. Modern education strives to create purpose-free zones in which we are free to provide our own purpose, determined by human desire and public need. Accordingly, a car has no privileged function. It can be a mode of transport, a dwelling place, or a museum piece and no one, apart from us, determines which. To say that human beings have a privileged function is tantamount to contemporary heresy. Who’s to say what the proper function of a human’s mind and body is? The secularist says that it is up to each of us to determine our own purpose and that no one can say which purposes are better than others.


Another strategy we pursue with our prospective parent is the emphasis of method. How do we get children to learn? The Socratic method is often heralded as a primary tool of classical instruction. The teacher asks a series of questions that mysteriously elicits answers from students. The student is led by the teacher to the lake of knowledge from which she drinks. At this point our pragmatic instincts are laid bare: this kind of process works. It produces the learning outcomes we have set: students appear to learn by going from one step to the next while the teacher asks the right questions. Magic, right? Interestingly, the paradigmatic Socratic dialogue between Socrates and a slave-boy in which the slave-boy is ‘taught’ geometry merely by answering Socrates’ questions had nothing to do with promoting a methodology in education. Indeed, Socrates’ aim in the scene is to show something about the nature of the human soul in virtue of which the boy is able to ‘learn.’ I place the word, ‘learn,’ in quotes for good reason. Socrates concludes from the incident that he taught the boy nothing at all and, furthermore, the boy learned nothing at all. If the teacher didn’t tell the boy the answers, then the boy already knew the answer. Socrates concludes that the only way the boy could have known geometry was if his soul had already experienced the discipline and was only at this point being prompted to remember it.

The point is not to convince you that if you are committed to the Socratic method, you are also committed to the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul. Rather, I am attempting to point out that classical education is concerned first and foremost with the nature of reality. It is from this starting point that educational method is established. If we are pre-existent souls with knowledge obtained from our prior existence as participants in Plato’s realm of the forms, then our educational method should aim at aiding the souls of children to recollect those experiences. Teachers, like Socrates, ask questions that elicit the recollection of a child’s soul.

In sum, classical education is an educational form we have borrowed from the past. But we don’t merely cut and paste it onto our already established modern or postmodern worldview. Indeed, for a school to be classical, its teachers must be committed to a transformation in worldview, one which leads to the adoption of a pre-modern perspective on the world, the nature of human beings, and the nature of the ideas upon which human life depends.

A Relationship with the Faith

At this point, perhaps you wonder if we haven’t adopted something fundamentally unchristian. Surely, we should not accept Plato’s speculation about pre-exiting souls or even accept that human beings are only unique due to their rational faculties. Nor should we entirely accept the idea that great books exemplify only good ideas. Universal they may be, but surely not all of them are correct or in accordance with the contents of the Christian faith.

This leads us to the second question: what is the nature of a Christian classical education? Do we mean classical-plus? Educators of the middle-ages attempted a synthesis of the classical model plus the Christian faith. To some extent, they succeeded, but, as the reformers taught us, the project, in part, contributed to corruptions in the church itself. But we are left in a somewhat similar predicament with a classical model on the one hand and a set of Christian beliefs on the other. How are these to be combined? Perhaps it is merely classical plus prayer, plus Bible class. I’m tempted by the idea that it is classical plus Christian smile, a kind of warmer, friendlier classical. But that is not enough for us, is it? Indeed, if that’s all we mean, we could just as well have plain classical and let the parents take care of the rest. Such an instinct reveals our essentialist dispositions – if the school is neutral on matters and worldview, then they will teach the essentials—reading, writing and ’rithmetic—and the home will take care of the worldview. However, as we’ve seen, classical or any other educational model is not able to achieve neutrality.

Christian education is not necessarily the education of the classicalists. Indeed, much of the worldviews of classicalists is not the worldview of the Christian. However, the reason for their compatibility is the assumption that we begin our education by assuming a set of truths about the world, human nature, and the ultimate reality upon which all else rests.

First, classical education is most suited to a Christian education because it begins not with questions about human experience, problem solving, or political activism, but with questions about the fundamental nature of reality. The nature of a Christian and Classical education is its primary focus on the very nature of reality. In a Christian classical school, education begins with the nature of God, his attributes and works in the world. It is in virtue of those aspects of reality that we determine curriculum. Learning logic is not merely about being able to argue, but it is about learning to think God’s thoughts after him. Learning history is not merely learning from mistakes of the past, but about learning about the movement of the hands of the one who determines the boundaries of every nation (Acts 17). Mathematics is what it is because of the nature of God and reflects his infinite rationality and beauty. Augustine viewed God as a perfect harmony. There is no contradiction in God, no tension or any defect. Our studies assume the ultimate harmony of all we learn not because of human ingenuity, but because we assume that our harmonious God is orderly in nature and orderly in his works.

Second, the Christian classical school takes no knowledge for granted nor does it assume that the only knowers in the classroom are the teacher and her students. Rather, Christian education assumes there is one teacher. Augustine argued that a teacher could not teach all we know nor could a student learn it. According to Augustine, the words we use for teaching are but signs upon which the divine teacher, the Son of God, is prompted to illumine the mind of the student. This might sound far-fetched, but the fundamental assumption the Christian educator makes when he opens his mouth to speak is that no knowledge is possible unless God reveals it to us. God is the source of all human knowledge and we are able to know because God reveals knowledge to us in his creation and in his Word.

Third, virtues are not found by observation alone, but by divine prescription. God knows what it is to be human and it is his description of the Christian that determines his or her nature. The importance of proper function of human beings is related to divine rule, the Lordship of Christ over our behavior no less than over our minds. Furthermore, the Christian assumes that there is something wrong with the world that requires restoration. Thus, schooling is no mere training for the race of life, but the repairing of the ruins of our forbears. Schooling is, as John Milton points out, a part of sanctification: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”[3] The Christian classical school plays a part in the instruction of children in right behavior not merely for decorum or because it makes learning easier, but because our worldview entails that we teach sinners even as we ourselves are sinners. The Lord uses our efforts to shape his people, conforming us not to the standards of the world, but to the character of Christ.


In reading what I have said, I realize that I have inadvertently created a new version of the famous three R’s mantra, but instead of reading, writing, and ‘rythmatic, I have proposed a definition of a Christian classical education as a reaction to our modern/postmodern context, a return to antiquity, and a relationship to the Christian faith. All three aspects play an important role in our concept of a Christian classical education. We are never far from a fraying culture bent on excising God from public life, so we have always to have one eye on both our inadvertent absorption to contemporary culture and our place in God’s mission to a world full of lost people. Our role is especially discordant due to our adherence to a former world, one in which we find the lost tools of learning and attempt to retrieve them before the rust sets in. Finally, the Christian nature of our educational vision is not mere add-on, but an all-encompassing worldview that informs and governs every nook of our principles and practice.

[1] David Hicks, “Is Classical Education Still Possible?” Circe, 2017, 5:35-38.
[2] Cothran, Martin. "Philosophy | Memoria Press - Classical Education." Memoria Press, .
[3] John Milton, “Of Education” quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 163.