A Christian View of the Amber Heard Case

An acquaintance informed me that the verdict in favor of Johnny Depp would mark the end of the “always believe the woman” jurisprudence known as the “me too” movement. I had ignored the entire process while it was happening, but this assessment piqued my interest enough to watch dozens of hours of the court hearing five months after the fact, along with commentary by others. My conclusion is that we must be slow to reach the conclusion my associate made. But some unpacking is required.

In making this reflection, it is necessary to talk about the parties in a way that would be inappropriate in a private matter. It is awkward to speak publicly about people in the third person. But in this case, the boundaries (or lack thereof) have been made public by the parties themselves.

For jury selection, Depp’s fiery Colombian advocate Camille Vasquez favored a female-dominated jury (until 38:10) but their team’s jury consultant favored the opposite, and prevailed. To analyze this choice, we need to speculate to some extent. Camille admits that a male jury will tend to be more logical, yet her instincts favored a female jury in this case, even though the strategy was to be fact-based. Evidently, Camille modeled the situation as coming down to a shootout between herself and Miss Heard, as indeed was the case in the event. If you think of this as a “catfight,” then Camille was confident that the females would side with her — as indeed proved to be the case in the wider society.

However, getting a male-dominated jury worked fine in this case as well. The main danger to Depp’s case of having a male jury was if Amber had succeeded in presenting herself as a naive and fetching damsel in distress. Men are suckers for that. This spin was crucial, but Amber’s team fumbled badly. Instead, they presented her as an unsympathizing middle-aged spinster librarian, with tight hair and severe clothing: almost a stock character for a Seinfeld spoof. She only looked 5 years younger than Depp, not the actual 23 years. In just six years, Miss Heard came to look like Miss Heard’s mother. They must have coached her to keep turning her head to the jury, probably to fish for sympathy: but in the event, it just looked creepy and manipulative. It seemed like they made her face up to look puffy and with a permanent shadow of a mark on one cheekbone, and even rings around the eyes, probably thinking this would create a meme of the long-suffering, battered wife. Instead, it only reinforced the unbearable fakeyness of her histrionic presentations: the broad gesture and the vibrating yet ever-dry eyes turned heavenward, like Italian opera back in the era of the fat lady. Listening to and watching those skits, and above all the audiotapes of her aggressive, querulous, taunting speeches when she and Depp were still together, could only evoke revulsion in a man — and apparently, most women as well. Indeed, any self-respecting male would wonder why Johnny didn’t beat the insufferable hellcat black and blue. They should have fined him for not giving her a richly-deserved beating.

Two other pivots from the deposition six years earlier were, on Amber’s team, the wardrobe confusion — she toggled between a yellow housewife dress, a tuxedo, and blouses that buttoned up on the man’s side, as if creating cognitive confusion were part of the plan. This kind of projection might not sell as well in Virginia as West Hollywood. One of the outfits when she took the stand was an obvious meme plant — a sweater that looked like the collar was torn off, and a neck ornament that looked like a noose. The hairdos also oscillated rapidly, going from bun to buster brown to french braids without any context preparation. If nothing else, it could only reinforce the image of spoiling wealth, to be able to have, essentially, full-time hair-dressers on call. I really wonder what counsel was thinking. 

To add insult to injury, the french braids were not even very skillfully done. 

In the 2016 deposition videos, Miss Heard presented herself as the naive young girl, but that showing also failed to evoke sympathy, for other reasons. Her cheeks were always stuffed with bon-bons, and she was constantly evading, looking away, smirking and rolling her eyes. Her lawyer was rude and condescending, constantly scolding and schooling Depp’s attorney.

Foxy or boxy, that is the question.

So her legal staff chose two quite different ways to present Miss Heard, but neither one worked with the public. It’s hard to imagine what a third way to present her would be.

If there is no way to model a person as honest, then that person is not honest. It is fairly elementary logic.

On Depp’s team, they astutely perceived that striking a conciliatory, self-deprecating tone, as Blair Berk had done in 2016, would not work with such an obstinate girl, so they switched to a firm, almost scolding tone, which Camille pulled off relentlessly, and with great effect. “Miss Heard. Miss Heard! I have not asked a question yet.”

On the other hand, it is a serious mark against Depp that he fell for the strumpet, dumping his long-term paramour and mother of his children for her.

With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him. He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks; Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life. (Prov. 7:21-23)

Miss Heard is not even particularly pretty. That is a criticism of Depp, not Amber. She has sound, fair skin, which allows her to apply the paint in any way she pleases, as if onto well-primed wallboard. As a result, pretty much every picture of her looks different. (Young men: let this be a warning. If she looks different every day, turn and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.) She has strong hair and high cheekbones, which with the good skin allows her to treat her body as an easel and present this or that  image as it suits her of the day, like a mannequin at the front door of a department store. Plus, it helps to have a wardrobe budget of infinity. But without the makeup and coif, every small town in America has a dozen girls that are prettier. 

Far worse, her facial expressions are not natural, even in settings preceding all this contention. Put on your Hoffman lenses, and watch her smile. It looks exactly as if demons were trying to animate a corpse to display a smile — pulling this muscle up here, tugging that one there. Her smile looks like a zombie about to bite your head off. The subtle, orchestral interplay of muscles reflecting an emotion cannot be faked — or at least, it takes a good actor to pull it off.

A smile, Wormwood, a smile!

No doubt, there are some men that are attracted to this kind of girl — the same men that are attracted to lipstick and fake eyelashes. But though she milks her only marketable asset of alleged female beauty for all it is worth, she never appears to feel happy to be a girl; it doesn’t seem like it is fun for her. Her very essence is just a shtik to gain attention, prestige, or money. The inner core is… literally nothing.

Ask any man who has not been ruined: would you rather spend an evening with Amber or Camille? (Baby boomers: think Ginger vs Mary Ann. Except that Ginger was deprecated merely for superficiality, not malice.)

A decade ago, in an interview after the engagement was announced, Depp identified Miss Heard as his Southern Belle. That is interesting. Miss Heard grew up in Austin, which unfortunately is only half-Southern if that. Many Yankees think that “Southern Belle” connotes a demure, chaste, conservative maiden. This image misses the mark widely, as the excellent study by Gail Jarvis explains nicely. (Teaser: what do Mencken and F. Scott Fitzgerald have in common?) However, if you think of the scheming, violent, lustful Scarlett O’Hara as the archetypal Southern Belle, then Depp may have intuited something about Miss Heard. Think of the scene where Scarlett heaves the vase against the wall. She didn’t know that Rhett was present when she heaved it; in contrast, Miss Heard knew that her Rhett was there, and apparently heaved the vase right at him, clipping off the tip of one of his fingers.

Also, I gotta say it: Scarlett never would have squeezed a fumet out into Rhett’s bed. I mean, I suppose she might have considered it for a few seconds if the thought had ever crossed her mind. But the thought never would have crossed her mind.

So… shall we say there has been some cultural decline in the last 150 years? Or is Miss Heard demon-possessed?

Florence King did a nice piece on how the Southern Belle is propagated from generation to generation. The town’s most dashing and ambitious chad wins her hand, and for the first year is ecstatic. He showers her with gifts, tries heroically to make her happy. Gradually, it dawns on him that he is stuck with a spoiled prima donna. Meanwhile, a daughter is born. So Southern Gentleman that he is, he lavishes gifts on the new daughter, and she sublimates the attentions he once wanted to endow his wife with. And thus, 16 years later… another Southern Belle emerges.

This is what Rhett and Scarlett illustrated, though the tragic wrinkle was the early death of Bonnie.

The key to this system “working” were several things obviously lacking in the story of John Depp and Amber. First, there was no child. And why not? If the absence was intentional, that is a serious mark against both: indeed that might be the most soul-damning element of the whole story. Second, they were not surrounded by people like Miss Ellen, Melanie and Mammie that formed an ethical societal web that could survive rends wrought by their waywardness. John had many decent people around him, but they were employees, not a true society. Third, the Southern society also served as a lodestone to bend the compass needle back. Despite her selfishness, Scarlett constantly found her actions bent toward the good of her folk, willy nilly. In Amber’s case, there was no lodestone to draw her back, to keep her selfishness from destroying her soul.

But that too was a choice.

Every wise woman buildeth her house: but the foolish plucketh it down with her hands, Prov 14:1.

I often have some sympathy for murderers, especially if a crime of passion. But try as I may, I cannot find a hook to sympathize with Miss Heard, even a little. She seems like the egotist in pure, rarified form. Indeed, according to Wiki, she even punished God for taking her “best friend,” refusing to believe in Him any more. A universe in which Amber’s needs are not at the center cannot exist. (Amber should ponder whether the “best friend” wasn’t taken to rescue her from her.)

It is obvious that Miss Heard is going to take her stories to the grave; and this very lack of a flinch makes one initially think there must be at least something to these stories. How could even a liar weave such a complicated narrative with a straight face? This is the aspect that requires the most pondering.

Besides the very bigness of the lie, there are three factors that make one, for a few moments, wonder if there was a grain of truth behind her bizarre narrative. One factor is some of the language she used in the audio-tapes of the private sessions with John. Another is some of the language John used. Finally, there is the opaqueness of a motive.

1. In one of the audio-tapes, Amber makes a speech something like this: “Stop pushing me; stop pushing me in the corner and then poking me with a stick and then saying ‘why aren’t you using the words you want me to say?’ Stop poking me, stop rushing me, stop throwing me against the wall, and then saying ‘what, you don’t like the wall?’ Stop pushing me.”

At first, this sounds confirmatory of physical violence wielded against her. But a careful second listening reveals that all those expressions are poetic inversion. When she says, “stop pushing me into a corner and poking me with a stick,” she actually means, “stop running away from me.” No doubt this expansive, ironic way of talking was one of things she learned from John himself in the early romantic period. Is Amber a budding new Faulkner? Not even. Her frequent solecisms betray someone that learns stock lines without understanding. Grasping this must be part of the hermeneutic.

That’s the charitable way to interpret those lines. The possibility cannot be ruled out, however, that actually, she knew she was being recorded and intentionally was planting memes of violence that could be exploited later.

2. Johnny too made some communications that raise the eyebrows.  One class of these were ribald texts to friends that men immediately recognize as locker talk. Amber’s grandma lawyer may have been shocked, shocked, but a male jury would not be. (In reverse, it reminds of when Miss Lewinsky was caught on tape saying to a confidante, “all I’ve ever done my whole life is lie, lie, lie.” Florence King observed that the male journalists were shocked, while the female journalists were “like right, we got you, girl.”)

The other class of communications, actually more serious, were the times in the audio tapes when Amber would be whining about how the “abuse” would need to be dealt with and John would immediately concede the point. “Yes, Amber, the abuse will need to be dealt with, then we can move on.” In context, however, it gives the strong impression that these were not so much concessions so much as attempts to avoid triggering her, to avoid what we used to call “getting a rise out of her.” It is like that line delivered by the courtiers in Rigoletto,

Coi fanciulli e co’ dementi
spesso giova il simular;

(With children and with madmen, pretence is often best.)

It would be exactly like a boy telling some bullies that surrounded him on the playground, “Okay, we’ll tell the principal all about how I intentionally tripped you, now let’s all just go back so we are not late for class.”

3. As with certain crimes, one is flummoxed trying to find a motive. Money was obviously a big part of it, but there are reasons to question whether that is the whole story:

  • the vindictive aspect 
  • at the time of the divorce, she probably could have squeezed even more money from him than she did, since California is a “common property” state
  • it is hard to believe that she entered the relationship from the very beginning with this plan, since it would have been such a long shot

If there is even one way to model reaching that point, then it is possible. I think what we observe in Miss Heard’s development is the step-wise teleological unfolding of depravity from dimness into full self-consciousness. At each stage, the full wickedness is tacit, hidden from self-awareness. At the beginning, she really did have a kind of schoolgirl love or crush for Johnny. They modeled the age difference after Bogart and Bacall, even taking the nicknames Slim and Steve from To Have and Have Not (which indeed had Faulkner as a screenwriter). Which is fine, but it shows there was an element of fantasy that was needed to resolve a basic tension. Soon, the boredom of mediocrity combined with wealth took its toll. The cachet of cool off-beat music morphed into disgust at a bunch of old men sitting around playing the guitar, while she was ready for the rodeo. She started to become argumentative, pugilistic, scrappy, demanding — partly, no doubt thinking “Johnny likes a feisty girl, no matter what he says.” He put up with a lot, because she was a young… well, every man knows why. Though the precious 30th birthday was much later, it can be taken as a symbol for what they had become. She, the Disney princess on drugs, that everyone should dote on; he, willing to dote a lot, but also with business that needed to be attended to. Even a brief absence grated on her whole world; a very important world: indeed, the only world; and the irritation continued to fester like a canker. She started to punch, to slap, to throw things more and more in the course of weeks.  Maybe he grabbed her by the wrists one day to keep her from hitting, and they smarted for a couple days. Then, she started to realize that she could really get back at him, maybe threaten his very career. Revenge, envy, and greed all started to cloud her vision. Someone told her to start building documentation. Finally, she summoned the paparazzi and appeared with the “bruise.” That was the fatal turn. Now, lie had to build on the previous lie. Just little white lies at first. She remembers how her wrists smarted for a couple days. Gradually, she started to re-interpret events in the hysterical, melodramatic way that we witnessed. 

Her wickedness reached biblical proportions. When she was caught in the lie about the donation, she whined that she wasn’t even obligated to have donated it to begin with. Exactly: even as Ananias and Sapphira.

But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. Acts 5:3-4

Does this mean she self-consciously knows her stories are lies? There may not be a simple yes or no answer, as Bahnsen explained. The real Amber knows those stories are false. But perhaps the real Amber also believes that she believes them to be true. 

The Christian should fall to his knees in terror, lest such fearsome self-deception overtake him. The is how wickedness bloats into self-realization in a temporal being. Each step seems very small. 

I don’t know. It seems implausible that self-deception could go that far. If she still has a voice of conscience, maybe the inner dialogue went something like, “I’m just a girl so I get to embellish, and Johnny did ignore me that time after all.” Just like a thief might be persuading himself with the inner voice that “they really stole this much and more from me with all the abuse I took, and not only that, the insurance will pay them back anyhow.”

Getting back to the original thesis of my correspondent, does this jury’s verdict, combined with its public nature, indicate that a corner has been turned in the direction of restoring justice to the courtroom? 

In favor of saying yes was Camille’s repeated “oh you don’t remember? then let me refresh your memory.” This reestablishes the objectivity of truth. This method was actually vantilian. 

However, on the other side of the question are these considerations.

  • It was the women that ruled against Miss Heard here. Yes, it was the jury legally, but this would not have set well as a precedent if not for the verdict of the women. So we cannot say that the feminist principle has been overthrown. An opaque judgment has been rendered that has formal validity, but we are not confident it coincides with biblical norms.
  • Depp was quite likable and Miss Heard was exceedingly unlikeable. But these should not be criteria for justice.
  • Much of the outcome seems to have been the result of bad decisions and clumsy execution by Miss Heard’s lawyers, and/or good “luck of the draw” by Depp’s. But this needn’t have been the case. For example, what if the TMZ guy had not come forward?
  • Even though the evidence was overwhelming against Miss Heard, it took a six-week trial, with many many witnesses sworn in, and thousands if not millions of dollars spent by the taxpayers to achieve this rarified result. (BTW — All these millions tossed back and forth between Depp and Miss Heard — excuse me, can we taxpayers also get a little back of what we have spent on your behalf? Also, don’t forget the insurance companies were paying for Miss Heard’s defense. And the insurance companies get their money from us insurance premium payers as well. So when the dust settles, this is largely yet another huge transfer payment from the peasants to the lawyers.)
  • Even at that, if the preponderance had only been 90 to 10 (rather than 99 to 1) for Depp, it could have gone the other way. Justice is expensive and precarious.

So it seems like, at best, we can say that it is now possible to overcome an arbitrary and unsubstantiated charge from a woman.

When we look at the meta-narrative, things don’t even look that good. Shortly after this Hollywood and social media trial was over, Alex Jones was denied due process and fined an obscene amount, even though no proof could have been brought that his alleged false assertions caused the plaintiffs any actual damage. Our rulers maintain their hegemony over public discourse by financially plundering their opponents: it’s both cleaner and more lucrative than shipping us off to concentration camps. 

Then Kanye West poked the wrong lion in the eye, and our rulers are now filled with rage and are obviously going to try and destroy him. Chase bank fell in line and cancelled his accounts. Now, if a multi-billionaire has his accounts cancelled for insulting the wrong people, how do you think it stands with us peasants? Precarious indeed. Kanye asked for Camille’s firm to represent him, and they said they would, but only if he retracted his offending statements.

Humanly speaking, the Depp-Amber trial outcome is a tiny blip in an otherwise dire landscape.

Celebrating this makes about as much sense as the Evangelicals that celebrated N. T. Wright’s labored conclusion for the resurrection of Christ.

The TOC objection to Sola Scriptura

If I estimate it correctly, most of the churchist attacks on sola scriptura are based on the thesis that without an authoritative church, it is every man with his Bible and his own private interpretation; no one could know what the right interpretation is; we could never have one holy catholic church; and Protestantism’s 26,000 denominations (or 35,000, or 48,000, or whatever number is alleged today) is all the proof we need of the impossibility of sola scriptura. [Note: by churchist I am trying to find a term that covers both EO and RC polemics. I thought of prelatic, but prelacy need not be founded on a position that denies sola scriptura, at least formally. I hope my neologism is not deemed to be offensive or provocative.]

There are many bobs and turns to the point-counterpoint that are set in motion with this class of attack. James White has brought many good points to bear in this battle, though his own anabaptist convictions leave him vulnerable at a couple of points where a sound ecclesiology would help a lot. For example, given a proper ecclesiology, there are really only, what, maybe a couple dozen Protestant denominations, and as many of the “divisions” have to do with language and national settlement as fundamental disagreement on interpreting Scripture.

But my interest in this essay is to focus on a second class of artillery that is being brought out with regularity, which is similar to the first yet quite distinct. That is, they press the question, “how would you even know what Scripture is unless the Church defined it for you?” This is summarized pithily in the conundrum: your Bible has a Table of Contents (hereafter: TOC); but where in Scripture is the TOC to be found? Scripture alone cannot even establish its own contents: the church is necessary for this. Therefore, it is not even a coherent doctrine. (e.g. Patrick Madrid, Michael Lofton, Jay Dyer, [about a minute or two each] and Jimmy Akin). Jason Stellman talked a lot about the TOC problem in the aftermath of his conversion (prior to his full apostasy).

All of the churchists are impressed by this conundrum. Jay Dyer is so confident of it that he won’t let a Protestant make even one point on any subject unless and until he, there and then, gives an answer to the conundrum to Jay’s satisfaction (or here). 

R. C. Sproul seems to have yielded to its force by conceding that the TOC is a fallible guide to infallible revelation. 

But that is surely inadequate.

Note that this conundrum is different not only from the interpretive question (which is outlined in the first paragraph), but also different from the question of whether there is an oral tradition in addition to Scripture.  In short, there are a variety of attacks on sola scriptura, which should be sharply distinguished:

    • not possible because of need for interpretation
    • there exists a second repository of apostolic teaching (e.g. liturgy or Tradition); hence it is not sola
    • there is a continuing source of infallible teaching, such as the consensus of the bishops, the magisterium or pope
    • it is impossible without the TOC, and the TOC does not come from Scripture; therefore, sola scriptura is self-contradictory, since another source of authority is required even for its statement

The focus here is only on the TOC objection. Of course, the TOC objectors are also going to hold one or more of the first three bullets; but here, the burden is to unpack and expose the TOC objection. I will gather the argument under rubrics for digestibility. (Note: this essay only addresses the NT canon question. The Apocrypha is properly a question of OT canon.)

1. Tu quoque

Where is the TOC listing indicating which ancient Christians we are to regard as “fathers”? (for objectors that hold to the fathers as exemplifying one or more of the first three bullets). 

Of course, you can buy a multi-volume set of books with titles like “the church fathers.” But this is analogous to the TOC: how did the editors know which authors to include as fathers?

I suppose the answer would be something like this: in the course of time, a kind of consensus develops whereby some authors are set aside, others ratified by virtue, if nothing else, of being copied, manuscript to manuscript (but who granted this kind of authority to the intuition of the copyists?) Every so often, a convocation or Council is called whereby positions are staked out that ratify certain earlier authors (but in every respect? or just as pertaining to the question being debated?) At length, volventibus annis, we reach the present, where there is a general inherited consensus that certain authors are to be venerated as fathers, others as heretics. (But why privilege the trunk that happens to lead to us?)

What this reflection shows is that an appeal to the “fathers” to vouchsafe a “tradition” can only be sustained in terms of Christianity as a complete system of truth. A piece-meal or foundational appeal to them, or it, cannot be sustained without question-begging. Which also brings us full circle back to the role of Scripture in Christianity as a system of truth.

2. Non-falsifiable

Suppose it were discovered that one of the “books” of the Bible indeed contained the list of 66. Would this satisfy our opponents?

Obviously not. That list would only be authoritative if it were already determined that that book was God-breathed. It would be question-begging.

This should give our opponents pause: they are asking for something that would not satisfy them even hypothetically.

3. Inherently impossible to know a Word from God without church?

If they are saying it is impossible for verbal revelation to be known as such without the church, then they are asserting that there is no possible world where such is the case. 

But this is far-fetched. Of course there is a possible world where God speaks, and men hear it and understand. Just as in a possible world, a father can speak, and his family knows he has spoken and knows the content of what he has spoken.

The objection is a metaphysical argument for impossibility similar to the Greatest Rock argument used by naive atheists. Can God create a rock so large that he could not lift it? If so, he is not omnipotent; if not, then he is not omnipotent; one or the other must be the case; therefore, he cannot exist. (I knew a Chinese woman who said this argument was taught to them in their government schools.)

Every Christian knows there is something wrong with this argument, and he knows he is within his rights to continue believing in God, even if he cannot identify the fallacy in the Greatest Rock argument.

4. Sartre’s objection

Moreover, we know (3) is wrong because, at certain times, men have validly recognized the voice of God in our world, the actual world. 

Sartre asked, how did Abraham know it was the voice of God that commanded him to sacrifice Isaac? 

The answer is: somehow he knew. If he did not know, then nothing about the story makes sense. Then nothing in Genesis makes sense. Then redemption makes no sense, the Son did not come as a sacrifice for sin, and there is no Apostle Paul explaining the gospel. 

We don’t need to know the mechanics of how Abraham knew. That he knew, is part of the package. It is a system of truth that is at stake here.

Frege argued that we know the sense conveyed by our words, even if we can’t explain how. Otherwise, language could not be passed on from one generation to the next. But language is passed on from one generation to the next.

It is a programmatic truth that Abraham heard the voice of God. It is not a deduction, nor an isolated axiom. It is part of the system of truth that we call Christianity.

Actually, lots of people heard, and understood the voice of God, without an external authority to vouchsafe it. Adam and Eve before they sinned, in the evening. The prophets, when they said “thus saith the Lord.” The Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus. The chaps on the road to Emmaus.

5. Formal vs material

The TOC objector (especially in Jay Dyer’s aggressive form) thinks that one cannot get to first base with a confession of sola scriptura unless one has all of the inspired books, and none uninspired, and able to justify each and every one — in short, unless the canon question is already settled and known; which he thinks is only possible on the premise of church authority, and thus impossible on the premise of sola scriptura. This is a variant of (3) and (4), with the focus on the totality question, i.e. on a closed and complete canon. By hinging the argument on the totality (i.e. closed canon), he claims the idea is implausible, that any individual could attain to the exact and entire canon. The totality is either 

    • known by private, subjective conviction, in which case it is implausible to imagine that a single, universal canon could emerge, or
    • known by a publicly objective standard, in which case it rests on a standard outside the canon itself, and thus refutes sola scriptura

But sola scriptura is a formal, not material principle. That is, it says

X is Scripture —> X trumps a mere word of man

for all X. In other words, the principle stands apart from determining what satisfies the protasis concretely (let alone, the complete set of X).

This is so even if a Word of God can only be known concretely; nevertheless, as a limiting concept, sola scriptura is a formal, not material principle. It is a statement of an attribute of any Word of God vis-a-vis any competitor, transcending this particular text before me.

So the accuracy or completeness of the TOC is not even an important topic unless the formal principle is first conceded; so let our opponents grant the formal principle or give up the argument.

In short, the situation is exactly the converse of what Dyer thinks.

6. All or nothing fallacy (historical form)

As in (5), Dyer’s form of the TOC objection is that sola scriptura is meaningless until there is a settled canon, and you only can have a settled canon by mediation of the church.

But this is tantamount to saying you can’t know you have any writing that is the word of God, unless you know that you have all of them. Which is obviously false.

To have any teeth, this objection needs to add “after the canon is closed.” Obviously, for most of the time of human history, the people of God only had a fraction of what would be the eventual canon. Yet sola scriptura applied at every point, we say.  But the canon being closed is a heterogenous principle to that of knowing the voice of God.

7. TOC(t)

The churchist might concede a time dependence, as if to say, at any time t, the TOC at that time, say TOC(t), would have to be known without the church vouchsafing it, in order for sola scriptura to be true. 

But evidently, TOC(t) was known without a church to vouchsafe it, at least for some t. For example, at t = the time of our Lord’s ministry. He made frequent reference to “the Scriptures,” and did not expect to be answered with Jay’s Objection, and in fact wasn’t.

The churchists say, “then there must have been an equivalent authority that vouchsafed it, analogous to the church’s.” But this is an argument from silence, with no evidence.

8. All or nothing fallacy (insufficient-subset form)

Beyond any dispute, there is a large subset of what we call the NT canon that was recognized as the authoritative word of God, virtually from the moment the last apostle died onward; yet without any churchly pronouncement on the matter whatsoever.

This large subset would be S = {the four Gospels, Acts, the 12 undisputed letters of Paul, 1st Peter, 1st John}. 

Here we have the “catholic principle” (believed by all at all times) at work without any pronouncement or ruling of the church whatsoever! It is evidenced in the writings of the very earliest Christians.

We do not need to concede that “the remaining TOC needed the church’s pronouncement” in order to observe that S is already sufficient to establish the way of salvation and the establishing and ordering of the church. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a single doctrine in the Nicene Creed, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the 39 Articles, or the Catholic Catechism, that (i) would not be entailed by S but (ii) would be by the full TOC. (A trivial exception is the inclusion of the TOC itself, as in WCF 1.2.)

The thesis is not to deny that there are inconsistencies between some of these confessions, but rather that the TOC objection does not take into account the extent to which the undisputed TOC-subset S is able to prove all the important systematic doctrine, at least in the minds of the purveyors of them.

Why there are some discrepancies between some of these confessions is a different matter: it is not related to TOC. 

This observation alone, shows that the TOC objection claims too much. You don’t need the complete TOC to confess sola scriptura and to come to know the way of church and salvation from it.

9. The deictic fallacy

It is hard to know whether Jason Stellman was really being serious with the TOC objection. (Can it be that a Westminster West graduate would not have learned these things?) There are two things that should be observed about any TOC.

(i) A TOC is deictic, not propositional.

Deictic is a word used by linguists to pick out words that point without having an inherent meaning apart from their pointing function. That one (pointing).  The deictic function is external to the thing pointed at; it is not part of the meaning of the thing referenced. 

“Which was the book you mentioned that has a complete and self-contained exposition of Newtonian Physics?” 

“Oh, that one over at the end of the shelf there.” 

“That doesn’t make sense — are you saying, the expression ‘that one over there’ is part of the exposition of Newtonian Physics?”

That is the function of the TOC.

(ii) The TOC is built up iteratively, starting with a single entry

Suppose there were only one inspired book. Then, you could hand it to someone, saying “here it is; taste and see.” That statement, “here it is,” is not part of the claimed content, namely, that the text pointed to is God-breathed.

Now, suppose there were two. Then you could staple them together, and put a yellow stickie where the second one begins. “Here it is; the second one begins at the yellow stickie.”

And so forth.

The idea that the TOC must be God-breathed for the concept to make sense simply misunderstands the function of the TOC. It is just a stapler in literary form.

I know that the TOC objection is actually a metonymy for the question, “why do you say this or that text is inspired?” However, metonymies and other figures of speech have a way of taking on a life of their own. People start to think it is actually a logical problem per se.

If there is a way to recognize any Word of God, then the TOC takes care of itself; it is not a separate problem.

10. “The fact that there was any TOC history shows Scripture is not self-attesting.”

This is really a summary of all the TOC objections, and the answer is similarly compendious.

The canon was not approved by, but imposed on the Church, by the Apostles, who received their commission to do so directly from our Lord. It is not some miscellaneous collection of traditions set to writing, which the church must then authoritatively gather together and put its stamp of approval on. No: it is imposed on her and on all men: entering the church is tantamount to receiving them.

That is a brief summary of a magnificent little book by Herman N. Ridderbos, titled Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.

Scripture proofs are provided, and a review of the relevant incidents from church history, and rebuttal of alternate theories.

Let me unpack the thesis a bit, as properly understood, it answers all objections.

(i) The person and work of Jesus Christ is the culmination of redemptive history; the way, the life, and the truth.

(ii) Part of the extended event which was the work of Jesus Christ was commissioning the apostles to teach and baptize, promising them supernatural assistance in their remembrance and proclamation.

(iii) The mode of the apostles performing their commission was tradition. Tradition in the NT (paradosis) means receiving X and then handing X on. Think of what each runner does with the baton in a relay race. It is not a vague “stuff a lot of people have been doing for a while.” No it is concrete, definite. In this case, it must have a divine origin and be handed on as apostolic tradition (= handing-on, paradosis, tradition).

(iv) Canon in the NT, or standard, rule and norm is already present from the beginning as the apostolic tradition (p. 13).

(v) The apostolic tradition = Canon was initially completely oral in form. 

(vi) This tradition/canon was gradually converted to written form.

(vii) By the time the apostles were gone, it was found that alleged oral teachings could be manufactured at will by manipulators. Hence, it was realized that the canon was closed and that only that which was written (objective, public) could be appealed to, in order to settle a controverted point.

This model actually answers all of the objections to sola scriptura in one fell swoop. The scriptures are the tradition in objective form. The tradition is imposed, not held up for approval. 

The apostolic tradition/canon establishes the church, not vice versa. 

I recommend the book to both friend and foe.

In a sense, one can truly say that there is no canon without a church testifying to it. But this is a correlation with the opposite causality to what the churchist thought.

Becoming a Christian is tantamount to accepting this tradition/canon, in that it is constitutive of the system of truth that is accepted or rejected. How one comes to hear the voice of God is biographical, and might be a little different in each person’s case. For some, it is immediate upon first exposure. For others, it starts from the testimony of a trusted authority, such as parents, or church. For others, it is a gradual realization — although, I am inclined to think that this latter condition would be equivalent to someone that is not yet in the church; there is no Jesus Christ to be united to other than the one presented in the tradition/canon; doubting one is doubting the other.

How one thinks one came to believe it need not reflect the primal reality.

The only thing is, is that for Ridderbos’ thesis to move from showing we are within our rights to confess sola scriptura, to the full position, that this is the only foundation for any knowledge whatsoever, let alone of knowing the church, requires a post-script to be added on the systematic nature of truth, circularity, and so forth. Which I hope to do anon.

Let there be shouting!

The evil jewess is dead, she’s dead!

When the wicked perish, there is shouting, Prov. 11:10.

At this very moment, she is receiving her eternal sentence.

The word of God gives us every warrant for rejoicing at this moment.

We may take a moment from the Big C hoax to shout for joy, at least for a little while.

OPC elders propose replacing Mt. 18 with public hectoring

There is a blog in which one Aimee Byrd successfully summons a posse of OPC cavalry to round up and arrest some boys that allegedly said some mean things about her on a private Facebook chat group. Apparently there was a spy that took a bunch of screenshots of the mean things and broadcast them. Now Miss Aimee is on the warpath and wants people to lose their jobs and/or be ecclesiastically disciplined. Continue reading

Greenville Seminary ready to recommend closing churches to beat on pots and pans

The first response of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary to the Corona virus on Apr 3, 2020 (later they posted several others, some much better) shows just how weak the modern church has become: indeed, the shuttering of the churches can well be modeled as us being hoist on our own petard in allowing such leaders. Continue reading

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #11

11. 1994 The Vanderbilt Agrarians, I’ll take my Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition [1930]

The delay in writing this piece on life-changing book #11 is that I wanted to go back and skim and the book for concrete ideas and have found it hard to do so. Instead, I will try to describe in broad strokes a vision of the world that has blossomed and ramified from the roots laid by the book. Continue reading

Brief Intermission: Tribute to Greg Bahnsen

A brief side-bar is needed in this autobiographical sketch of life-changing books. Spanning the interval 1983-1993, no single book stands out, but that was the period of my association with my dear friend and mentor Greg Bahnsen. Though I am avoiding mentioning names in this bookish auto-biography, his needs to be mentioned as the greatest single personal influence on my life in adulthood.

In view of that, it will perhaps be thought odd that I do not count any of his books as life-changing. Indeed, I found many of his books pedantic, even annoying. We had opposite tendencies at the aesthetic level. It is hard for me to imagine anyone becoming a Theonomist through reading Theonomy or its sequels. Then again, he may have felt the same way. Theonomy was actually a comparatively small part of his life, less in fact (by way of negation) than for many of his vitriolic opponents.

One of his teachings that drove deeply into my soul was the ramified implications of Matt. 18. Beyond the obvious three-fold “method” taught there for correcting offenses, Greg taught that even if you have a legitimate grievance, if the way you got to this point was via gossip, slander, tale-bearing, or prevarication, then you had to first go back and fix those errors before “continuing.” The putative grievance had to be left on the table until those errors were dealt with properly. Often, it turned out that the grievance all but vanished by the time those steps were taken — or at least, could be covered in love. What this taught me was that Matt. 18 is not some bureaucratic “manual of discipline,” but something much deeper: an insight into what it means to be human, and to be a human with integrity. The requirements of privacy and caution are not just little nuisances, but go to the heart of the matter. I have continued to develop this theme and hope to write on it anon.

Twice I turned against him. Both times, God gave me the heart to seek reconciliation, and Greg was gracious in a way that was itself life-changing. When I came to him the second time, I was moved to the core by his statement that the whole purpose of his ministry for the previous ten years may well have been, in God’s providence, just to set the stage for that moment. And afterwards, my offenses were never mentioned or remembered.

I will not try to summarize all the many ways he changed my life. That has come out before and will continue to do so. In summary, I will simply say he was a man of a great heart. Indeed, in the divine comedy, the literal heart ailment that killed him well before the age of 50 can be taken as a metaphor for his life. Like our Lord, he can be said to have died of a broken heart.

Ten or twelve life-changing books: #4

4. 1976 Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Throughout the grinding of our souls in the gears of the great Nighttime Institution, when our souls are pulverized and our flesh hangs down in tatters like a beggar’s rags, we suffer too much and are too immersed in our own pain to rivet with penetrating and far-seeing gaze those pale night executioners who torture us. A surfeit of inner grief floods our eyes. Otherwise what historians of our torturers we would be! (Vol 1, chap 4).

I can remember how passages like this made my hair Continue reading