Monday, September 21, 2009

McDowell's Trilemma Argument - Part 9

In More than a Carpenter, McDowell makes four key points based on passages from the synoptic Gospels:

1. "...Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sins." (MTC, p.18)
2. "...Jesus received worship as God." (MTC, p.12)
3. "Jesus responded to Peter's acknowledging its validity..." (MTC, p.12)
4. Jesus "confessed his divinity" at the trial before the high priest. (MTC, p.23)

Let's take a closer look at the first point. McDowell quotes an argument from Systematic Theology by Lewis Sperry Chafer:

"Since none but God can forgive sins, it is conclusively demonstrated that Christ, since he forgave sins, is God."
(MTC, p. 19)

Here is the argument in standard format:

1. Jesus forgave sins.
2. Jesus can forgive sins.
3. Only God can forgive sins.
4. Jesus is God.

The logic is good. This is a valid deductive argument. Although the logic is good, this is a lousy argument, and I think understanding why this argument fails will help to clarify our thinking on this issue.

The inference from (1) to (2) is valid, because if Jesus did in fact forgive somebody's sins, that proves that he can forgive sins. We might want to add temporal qualifications here, since that fact that "A did X at time T1" does not imply that "A can do X at time T2". The fact that I did 100 sit ups in less than two minutes when I was in high school does not prove that I can do that now (some thrity years later). Thus, if it were a fact that Jesus forgave sins of one person two thousand years ago, this would only show that Jesus had that power/ability two thousand years ago, not that he has that power/ability today.

But if we interpret (2) narrowly, as only implying that Jesus at one point had the power/ability to forgive sins, the logic of the argument still works. If God is the only being who ever at anytime had (or will have) the power/ability to forgive sins, then the fact that Jesus had this power/ability at one point in time is sufficient to show that Jesus is God.

The problem with this argument is that both of the basic premises are theological claims, claims that cannot be empirically verified or falsified in any straightforward way. A logical positivist would say that both basic premises were cognitively meaningless, because they are not subject to verification by empirical observation:

1. Jesus forgave sins.

3. Only God can forgive sins.

The alleged activities and powers of God are not subject to empirical verification or falsification. God is supposed to be invisible and intangible and bodiless, so we cannot watch God, see God in a telescope, find God on radar, capture his activity on video, etc. Premise (3) is a controversial theological claim that is inappropriate for use in an apologetic argument aimed at rationally persuading a skeptic.

Jesus, of course, had the power to utter sentences like "I forgive you." and "I forgive your sins." and "Your sins are forgiven." But simply saying these words does not mean that the intended change has been accomplished. Anybody who can talk, can utter those sentences, but that does not mean that anybody can forgive sins.

To actually establish that the intended change happened requires that one must first observe that there is some sort of emnity or separation between a particular person and God, and after the uttering of the words of forgiveness (e.g. "Your sins are forgiven."), one would have to then observe that the previous emnity or separation between that person and God had gone away. Finally, some additional evidence would be needed to confirm that the association between these events was more than just a coincidence. One would need some additional reason to believe that the first event caused or brought about the second event.

None of this is something that is a matter of straightforward emprical observation. One cannot literally see a "gap" between some particular person and God. One cannot literally see God at all, since God has no body, and thus God does not reflect or absorb visible light. Any conclusion that a particular person currently is spiritually separated from God must be grounded either in some sort of "spiritual" experience (unacceptable as evidence to a skeptic) or else grounded in more ordinary experience but interpreted in terms of some specific theological theory or system that allows for translation between ordinary observations and theological conclusions (also unacceptable as evidence to a skeptic). Thus, premise (1) is not subject to empirical or historical evaluation.

The argument from Lewis Sperry Chafer will not work as an apologetic argument. It must be modified so that the premises are subject to empirical and historical evaluation. Here is my first attempt at such a modification of this argument:

2a. Jesus believed that he could forgive sins.
3a. Jesus believed that only God could forgive sins.
4a. Jesus believed that he was God.

I think this is much closer to the argument that McDowell had in mind. In the next installment, I will examine and evaluate this modified argument.