Friday, July 30, 2010

How Much Theological Consistency Is Too Much?

Ken Pulliam has an interesting post at Why I De-Converted from Evangelical Christianity discussing the question of infant salvation/damnation.  Evangelical Christians believe everyone is born in a state of original sin that can only been erased by being born again.   This should mean that an infant who dies is separated from God and condemned to hell for eternity with all other unbelievers.  Of course this doesn't sit too well with anyone who has ever lost a child, so most evangelicals also subscribe to some notion of an "age of accountability" prior to which a child who dies gets to go to heaven rather than hell.  Under this view, the child starts saved, becomes lost as soon as they figure out what is going out in the world, and the perhaps gets saved again.

The point in Ken's post that generated the most comments was his assertion that he admired the consistency and honesty of evangelical theologian R.C.Sproul who refused to distinguish between infants and any other unbelievers who die without coming to faith in Christs.  On the one hand, it is hard to admire someone who who embraces the doctrine that infants who die in the crib spend eternity in the flames of hell.  On the other hand, is it any more admirable to fudge the beliefs one doesn't like rather than acknowledging that there is something wrong with a system of theology that requires infant damnation?

I think this kind of question comes up time and again for anyone who wants to treat the Bible as a magic book.  Does one acknowledge the ability of science to explain the world around us while clinging to some role for God by advocating "intelligent design" or do you put all your chips on the Bible and embrace young earth creationism?   Is it better to admit that the texts of the New Testament were corrupted somewhat in transmission while arguing that the essential doctrines have been preserved or is it better to insist that God worked some sort of miracle of preservation with the King James translation?  Some bible-believers argue that the resurrection of Jesus can be established by objective historical methodology while others go in for "presuppositional apologetics" which (as I understand it) argue that only believers are capable of applying logic and reason to the evidence.

In can't say that I really admire someone who embraces ideas like young earth creation or infant damnation, but I suppose I can respect the sense of intellectual integrity that compels them to follow their theological beliefs to their logical conclusions.  


  1. Yeah, this is something that I'm torn about. I know some Christians (not a few) that basically admit that slavery is perfectly moral. Some that look at massive civilian slaughters and point to I Sam 15 and say this is God's way, so what's the problem. They could take the easy way out and just be inconsistent but they don't. Should I respect that? I do to some extent. But then it produces a horrifying morality.

  2. Jon,

    It is a horrifying morality, but at least it's an obviously horrifying morality. When someone tries to rationalize those atrocities as somehow consistent with a loving God, it seems even worse.

  3. I'll comment here similarly to my comment on Ken's blog. I do not respect the consistency in someone's viewpoint. But I am torn, as Jon writes. Because normally it really, really bugs me a lot when people hold to things inconsistently or illogically. I guess at the end of the day I find the damning babies to Hell part more significant than the intellectual integrity part. I suppose I am resigned in life to people with irrational beliefs, and internally focus more on healthier beliefs in others than in more consistent ones.

    Possible analogy: someone in Nazi Germany who believed in Hitler and Nazi doctrine whole-heartedly, but could not find it in themselves to kill innocents. Intellectually inconsistent, yes, but far more respectable. Yes, it would be better if they through off the whole mantle of the doctrine, but still better to have taken a moral step regardless.

    Question: how much of this discussion comes down to how they are clinging to a doctrine of inerrency, as opposed to believing in Jesus and so on? I know Ken and others write about respecting someone who is a fundamentalist Christian more, because of their intellectual integrity, rather than liberal Christians. But that seems so academic to me. Again, at the end of the day, I give up on hoping others will be rational, I just want the toxic beliefs to be mitigated.

  4. atimetorend,

    On the other hand, it is hard for me to be too impressed with the evangelicals who would spare infants but accept as God's inscrutable will that all the Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims who adhere to their own traditions will fry for all eternity regardless of how well they have followed the moral vision that they have been given (not to mention the atheists and agnostics who dare to exercise the brains that God gave them}. I might analogize them to those Germans who simply turned a blind eye to what was going on.

    I personally have no problem with the liberal Christian who acknowledges that he believes what he wants to believe and rejects what he finds offensive. It is the rationalization of the offensive that I find problematic.

  5. "It is the rationalization of the offensive that I find problematic."

    Very well put, and a nice twist on the analogy. For me personally then, in relationship with evangelicals, the question is, how liberal can an evangelical really be? The liberal evangelical may only equivocate by saying that the Muslim / agnostic / brain-user sure could be hell bound, they just can't know personally, but they are still endorsing the horror as a reality. It just doesn't sound as bad on the surface as infant damnation.

  6. Even Sproul wasn't willing to go so far as to declare certainty about infant damnation: "We cannot say for sure what happens to small children who die." However, it seems to me that he is OK with the idea that it might be necessary to send infants to hell in order to serve God's ultimate purposes. Somehow that disturbs me more than the Bible believer who sees no way around the belief. Sproul recognizes that he has some choice in the matter, but he chooses not to reject it.

  7. Hey Vinny boom bots..

    this quote made me laugh;

    In can't say that I really admire someone who embraces ideas like young earth creation or infant damnation, but I suppose I can respect the sense of intellectual integrity that compels them to follow their theological beliefs to their logical conclusions.

    My first thought was, oh like the crazy folks that flew planes into various buildings in the USA about a decade ago? I think that following to the end... or whatever it may be called, is really a form of addiction or something. I think there was a reason that "moderation" is one of the 4 western virtues. BTW... didn't they kill Socrates for his unswerving pursuits? In any event, I enjoyed your thought.

    BTW... are you an twitter? if so, could you send me your twitter name?

    Cheers! Rich Griese

  8. Rich,

    I don't understand Muslim theology well enough to say whether the jihadists really are following their theology to its logical conclusion or not. On the other hand, it seems to me that America's military adventures since 911 have been enabled and supported by the rationalizers.

    BTW, I don't tweet.

  9. The need to be consistent in my beliefs led me to accepting the doctrine that most everyone in the history of the world is going to wind up in hell. I finally reached a point where I could no longer tolerate the cognitive dissonance produced by believing a just God would treat humanity in a way which felt very unjust.

    To interject some psychology, when faced with dissonance, we either find a way to fit the facts to our view of things or we change the way we view things. Evangelicals do the former and liberal Christians do the latter. The common denominator seems to be that alot of folks on either side of the isle are uncomfortable with the traditional doctrine of hell.

    I think when we have a belief that we have to work hard to justify, it should make us want to evaluate it further. My concern about the doctrine of hell is what has me questioning my faith at this point.

    When we discussed hell in Bible class recently, several voiced concerns about the justice of it, but in the end, the prevailing sentiment was that God is just and will do what is right. The unspoken meaning was that surely God would find a way to save everyone we'd really like to see saved even though we couldn't see a way for that to happen in light of scripture. I just wrote about this recently on my blog.

  10. DoOrDoNot,

    Thanks for commenting.

    I don't recall being bothered all that much by the doctrine of hell when I embraced evangelical Christianity for a couple years in my late teens. Perhaps it was because as a teenager death was simply too remote. I would like to think that it would have bothered me more eventually if I had stuck with it. The big stumbling block for me was that I never felt like I was any more happy or at peace than I had been prior to being born again. It wasn't for another twenty years that I figured out that I suffered from depression.

  11. Vinny,
    I've read several of your posts and have enjoyed them. I tend to read rather than comment because I feel I still have so much more to absorb.

    I suppose there are many stumbling blocks to belief. I never felt much of an emotional change after baptism myself, but I chalked it up to being only 10. It's not like my life changed dramatically in any way. I was already attending services 3 times a week and any other time that came available with my family.

    I'm sorry you've had to deal with chronic depression. I hope you've found more peace at this point in your life.

  12. The reformed doctrine of original sin leaves room for some infants to go to heaven. We just don't know how many infants dying in infancy are elect: that's God's business. Similarly, we don't know how many African bushmen who died before the Gospel reached them were elect.

  13. We just don't know how many infants dying in infancy are elect: that's God's business.

    And you're perfectly fine with that?

    I guess the fact that I find this statement appalling indicates I'm not one of the "elect".

  14. cipher,

    It sounds like the the "divine command" theory. Whatever God wills is good and our notions of right and wrong don't have anything to do with it. Internally consistent and externally horrifying.

  15. PUGH
    The reformed doctrine of original sin leaves room for some infants to go to heaven.

    But 'Heaven' is just something people made up.

    You may as well talk about Valhalla or Tartarus.

  16. Vinny,

    I look in on your blog every once in a while, but I think I've only commented once or twice before. I was moved to do so this time because I was so outraged by that statement. Cool as a cucumber, isn't he? "Some" infants and Bushmen may be saved. Appalling.

    I looked in on Pugh's blog; I see you've argued with him before. Normally, I won't even speak to conservative Christians, particularly of the Reformed variety. Calvinism is an abomination, the most obscene, vile system of belief in the tragic history of our sorry species. I don't think most people outside of the evangelical subculture are aware of how pervasive an influence it is (along with Dominionism), even upon those who wouldn't identify as Calvinists. It's motivated them to commandeer society, and it will be our undoing.

    I'm sure you're aware that Pugh attends a Calvinist college in rural Tennessee. All of those smug, young Calvinists, secure in their salvation, looking down upon the rest of us from that mountaintop, eagerly anticipating our impending damnation, fantasizing about being allowed to watch. How special for them; how wonderful to be among God's chosen. You ever notice that one seems never to meet a Calvinist who doesn't think s/he's one of the "elect"?

  17. Cipher,

    I am in complete sympathy with your antipathy towards Calvinist theology. I am not sure whether true believing Calvinists are the ones doing the commandeering or whether they are being cynically manipulated. It's probably a little of both. Either way, the effects are pernicious.

    Based on the de-conversion stories of people like Ken Pulliam, it seems clear that some of these smug young Calvinists struggle with the cognitive dissonance that such intolerant beliefs tend to produce in thinking and feeling human beings. In such cases, excessive rigidity may be a means of coping with the dissonance rather than an expression of the Calvinist’s deepest desires. At least that is the hope that keeps me blogging about these things.

  18. I am not sure whether true believing Calvinists are the ones doing the commandeering or whether they are being cynically manipulated.

    I should have said that Calvinism and Dominionism together motivate them. Well, you know what I meant.

    It's probably a little of both.

    I know. I just see it as the Republican/Evangelical Axis of Evil.

    As I've told Ken, there's a small but growing body of evidence indicating a neurological foundation. That's where my money is. In any case, you're more optimistic than I am.

  19. Vinny,

    I took another look at Pugh's blog, and found this. (I don't know why I torment myself; God will supposedly get around to that soon enough.)

    Be sure to read his comment at the bottom. Absolutely appalling - and he considers himself to be a "soft" inclusivist. The tragedy is that he probably is, relatively speaking.

    These are the offspring of those who have commandeered society. They represent the future. This is the reason we're finished - certainly as a culture, probably as a civilization.