My Photo

« Repeating the Past | Main | What the Far Right Has Become »

December 18, 2009


d beasley

Altruism, defined as helping others without expectations of reward and sometimes at peril for life, is relevant. Is altruism inherent to the human psyche or is selfishness inherent? Are both a part of the decision making for survival of the individual, self preservation, and for the individual to help others thrive and survive at ones expense... altruism. Jesus seems to insist on altruism when he asks what is the point of just helping your neighbors... go out and help your enemy. Jesus seems altruistically concerned about everyone regardless of nationality, creed, color. Every grain of sand. So the way of Jesus would be altruistic and not selfish nor self centered. Although I have heard the reasoning that such loving forgiving nature... not just legalistic... has enormous reward. To avoid that legalism I believe surrender to Jesus is necessary. That would mean something like Jesus' very own surrender as described so beautifully in Phillipeans 2 as he became nothing but a servant. Are humans capable of such? Does God desire this? Hi Chuck!


Chuck, I find most of what you have written here about hermeneutics to be very excellent, particularly about literalism and non-literalism. I came from the literalist camp, and attend a church that is largely confused by what that means, and when challenged (as I did in adult sunday school class last month), they seem perplexed, even when I'm not abandoning the validity and value of Scripture. But that's another story.

I think in particular your comparing our modern presuppositional perspectives to the ancient Eastern ones is very important. We do far too often reach conclusions about definitions of words and concepts that reach backward into the original context, grasping for thoughts and notions that simply were not there. (One thinks of N.T. Wright's complaint that the language of justification has been perverted by those who refuse to define it by anything other than "Reformed" lenses.)

But none of what you have written here challenges my own view of Scripture. I've never asked you to say, "Point to a verse that says..." because, as you mentioned, some doctrines cannot be pointed to specifically. Which is why there are implicit assumptions that suffice as explanations (such as Jesus assumed people would be free to choose to follow him rather than be forced to do so by outside restrictive influences), and why some truths from Scripture can be explained by progressive revelation and careful examination (one might think of eschatology here). Personally I follow a more post-foundationalist method of theological construct, similar to my former professor John Franke's, though he is much more adept at it than I am!

A few thoughts about property, rights, and relationships. It is a false dichotomy of sorts, and a straw man at that, to contrast relationships vs. property, or profits vs. people. Property rights cannot be separated from human rights, because we as humans are stewards ("owners") of our own bodies. If human beings do not deserve to have their property protected, slavery, murder, rape, or other forms of aggression are justifiable in the name of "relationships." But even reading that sentence makes it obviously absurd! Criticize individualism as a modern Western ideal, but one cannot value relationships if we do not value individuals because without individual respect, injustice has no structure. Poverty is not unjust because it is a "general problem," but because individuals are starving and have no shelter. Slavery is not unjust because a "people group" is being oppressed, but because a single individual is being oppressed.

If justice means restored relationships, then you have no argument from me! In fact, it seems to me that restored relationships can take place much better under a free society than one which places constraints on people who are forced to do things they would prefer not to do. No libertarians believe that profits matter more than people. I'm sure some conservatives have acted this way, or seem unconcerned with the plight of some people, but I don't believe we must choose. If we are in a position where we must choose, then the structure of society needs to be reconsidered.

As for the self-interest vs selfishness, that was Roger's nuance, but it was unfair to say that he said it couldn't be determined the difference because he said that a MARKET could not define the difference. From an action point of view, I'd define the two as follows:

Self-interest is the nature of humans making decisions based on perceived gain versus perceived losses.
Selfishness is the nature of a choice being made without regard for how this decision affects others.

There is a notable difference between these two. The former is the natural state of humans, even those who seemingly do things in the interest of others (which doesn't prove anything other than that the person found it in their interest to seek the interest of others—even a seemingly sacrificial act has intrinsic, internal gain on behalf of the sacrificer). Our problem is not that we seek pleasure for ourselves, but that we do not seek it in the highest possible form: joy in Jesus. Nobody acts in such a way that is would perceivably make him/her worse off. Maybe I've not made it clear, but internal gain is included in my understanding of self-interest. And it is important to note, PERCEIVABLE self-interst; we are not all-knowing, so our knowledge is limited, but we still choose and act according to what we know.

Chuck, your last paragraph was confusing to me, especially the last part. Where is the contradiction? People will act out of self-interest whether they are free or completely under oppression. Liberty and action are unrelated, not contradictory.

It's difficult to defend my position because you are arguing against points which Roger has made that I may have stated differently or actually disagree with. It seems to me, though, that you misrepresent my view more often than not, so defending it is rather difficult. It's rather frustrating that you make claims on behalf of those with whom you disagree, but you don't represent them accurately! If I said I don't like Christianity because it promotes slavery and human injustice, you would rightly complain that I'm disliking it for something it isn't. I feel you are doing the same. Your arguments have been helpful to me in understanding and explaining my own positions, and nuancing them where I've found your comments and responses helpful. Thank you for that. I hope I've helped return the favor at least a little bit. Perhaps we should have a permission rule, where we ask whether or not a position is accurate before we actually speak against it. It may take less time, but we would get much further if we're all talking about the same things. The words and phrases often used in these arguments are rather loaded terms, whether we like it or not.


(I just re-read my first paragraph. I'm not a literalist by any normal understanding of literalist. I agree with Chuck that more heresies have occurred because of literalism.)


another great lesson, mr loopy! thank you.

Roger McKinney

Chuck: “I picked up a disturbing hermeneutical position in the course of the comments which seemed to indicate that the only thing that would count as a “clear” biblical argument is the location of passages that explicitly state something. So, the only thing that would count as a persuasive and clear biblical argument for governments being involved in care for the poor is if one could find a passage that says, “Governments are to do x with regard to the poor.” Such a position is highly, highly problematic on a number of fronts.”

Your hermeneutics are equally disturbing and problematic to some of us. However, it’s good that you admit that the Bible does not state directly that God commands governments to tax the rich and give to the poor.

But your characterization my take on hermeneutics is not accurate. I never denied that the use of reason and nuance is impossible; only that it should have limits. If reason and nuance are limited only by one’s imagination, then all kinds of false teaching can be justified from the Bible. I debate atheists quite a bit on the internet and they regularly cite odd theologies that someone has justified by use of nuance in interpreting the Bible. The wide ranges of denominations we have today in Christianity are direct results of such nuance.

The question is “what limits nuance and imagination” in interpreting scripture? I’m not sure what the answer is. And I think we should show some tolerance on issues not directly related to the fundamentals of the faith. One obvious limit is that conclusions drawn from nuance cannot contradict other clear passages. Another might be to limit the length of the string of syllogisms that one uses.

Take the example of the trinity. The Bible clearly and directly states that Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Father are God. These verses contradict each other unless one assumes that they don’t and a higher meaning should be sought. The doctrine of the trinity does nothing more than turn an apparent contradiction into a paradox with deep truth. The string of logic is not very long.

And the problem with the Arians was that they relied on isolated proof texts, as do many denominations today, instead of trying achieve a comprehensive theory based on the totality of scripture.

“I’ve tried to give a “sense of the text” from various locations and then drawn conclusions accordingly.”

How can we know if the “sense” that we attribute to the text is what God intended the text to mean, or if we are just reading into the text what we want it to say? Everyone who has played with logic knows that small changes in a premise can lead to error in the conclusion. In using nuance to interpret scripture, the premise is the meaning of the passage and we draw conclusions from the meaning that we give to the passage. A “wooden and literal” approach to a specific text is necessary in order to determine what God intended to say in that particular passage. We should be limited by the rules of hermeneutics, because if we’re not, our imagination can get carried away. Then any series of syllogisms will lead to truth and not error.

“When we go to Scripture and impose the sense of justice that comes from a blind folded Lady Justice, we are taking a relatively contemporary Western definition of “justice” and reading it back into the texts.”

That’s an astonishing take on justice! Where did the “Western” concept of blind justice come from? Certainly not from Roman or Greek law. It came from the Bible, and Eastern book. Blind justice has nothing to do with blindness to the circumstances of a situation. It means that the judge doesn’t show favoritism to the wealthy against the poor, or vice versa. Justice is blind to race, wealth, and position, not to facts. And who is blind toward those with regard to our salvation and his treatment of us, if not God? The whole concept of the rule of law came from the Biblical principle that God is not arbitrary but has given us a law that applies t everyone equally.

“There he argues that what God was mostly trying to get Israel to see in the OT was that he intended his people to live in accord with a different kind of political economy, one in which relationships, and not markets, were normative. God consistently favored relationships and people over profits and property and when he gives instructions about how we are to live together, relationships always trump.”

What is the market if not relationships? Separating the two is a false dichotomy. In the sphere of commerce, Church scholars debated for centuries about the just price because they knew that the market is where people interact, that is, have commercial relationships. They were trying to determine what governs how people relate to each other in the market and what a just interaction, or just price, would be. In the 1500’s the scholars at the school at Salamanca, Spain, the leading school in Europe, that the just price can only be determined in a free market. As for profits, they gave pretty much the standard free marketeer justification for them.

You try to make profits and relationships polar opposites and enemies of each other. They’re not. There is no antagonism between them. Profits are as necessary to life as food. If a farmer doesn’t reap more than he sows, he and his family will eventually starve to death. That doesn’t mean that people can’t become obsessed with profits to the detriment of relationships, but as Adam Smith demonstrated, the free market will handle that better than will the corrupt, blunt force of the state.

“This difference is rather untidily summed up by saying that we live under the presuppositions of a “forensic” or “juridical” grasp of reality, whereas the biblical writers lived under an understanding of reality rooted in “honor/shame” categories.”

That is not historically accurate. We don’t have the honor culture that was common in the Bible, must Western principles of jurisprudence came from the Bible. That’s why our jurisprudence is so different from that of the rest of the world.

“In similar fashion, we think of justice as a concept that is more “getting what you deserve,” rather than in the more biblical notion of justice as that which promotes inter-dependent relationships.”

You’d better talk with some Christian legal experts about that. That seems way out of line to me. As I wrote, my reading of the history of Western law is that it depended heavily upon Biblical principles. You’re coming very close to being guilty of syncretism with that statement. I don’t see how you can reconcile that with the Mosaic Law, either.

“Because of this, we tend to over-exaggerate the importance of freedom in the sense of “freedom to choose,” and tend to be blind to the more biblical notion of freedom as freedom from corruption and perversion.”

Actually, the Biblical emphasises freedom to serve God; freedom from slavery to sin. So aren’t you even a little bit curious why Westerners place so much emphasis on freedom to choose? Just a tiny bit, curious? Well, even if you’re not, I’ll bore you with the history: Again, it came from the church scholastics of Salamanca. They determined that the only just price in commerce is one determined in a free market. The opposite of a free market is one in which people are forced to by something because the state gave a monopoly to some nobleman. The scholastics hated monopolies and considered them a great offense to God. Free markets are nothing but the implementation of property rights. Property right means that the owner has complete control over the property to dispose of it as he wishes. Also, anyone who wants to sell in a market should have the right; else his property rights are hindered. That results in consumers having choices, but the right is not for the consumer, but for the producer. Still, it benefits the consumer greatly.

“On a different point, I continue to be distressed at the extent to which history is being cited in ways that attribute only good things as causally connected to capitalism and all bad things are merely correlated to it.”

Has Christianity ever been perfectly implemented? Obviously, not. So we should consider it a waste of time and go see what the East has to offer? The principles of capitalism are derived from Biblical principles of commercial relationships as derived by church scholars over centuries of study. (BTW, it took them centuries to understand the workings of the market, that is, develop a science of economics, not to understand the Bible.) Like other Biblical principles, humans implement them poorly. What capitalism can’t do is change human nature. No one ever claimed it could. The claim is nothing more than that capitalism can limit the damage that evil men will attempt better than corrupt bureaucrats. If the market fails to do its job, then it’s not hard to find where the state intervened in the market and prevented it from doing so.

“I must say I am pretty amazed that we think we can construct arguments that sanctify self-interest, especially in light of the biblical witness on the issue.”

All you demonstrated with your definitions is that the modern usage conflates self-interest with selfishness. But the socialist fixation on the term “self-interest” comes from Adam Smith’s use of it. So wouldn’t the honest thing to do would be to determine what Adam Smith meant by it 200 years ago? Let’s assume the modern definition of self-interest as being nothing but a synonym for selfishness. There is no difference between the two whatsoever. I have two questions:

1) Do you honestly think Adam Smith intended to sanctify selfishness in Wealth of Nations? If so, I can’t think of anything more dishonest. Even a casual reader would understand the opposite. There have been some free market people who glorified selfishness, such as Ayn Rand. But they are exceptions to the rule. And Smith never promoted, glorified, sanctified or in any way recommended self-interest as a guide or principle. He merely assumed it existence in every heart, because he believed in original sin and knew that every man is a sinner. He showed that a free market will use the sinner’s own desires against him if he lets them get out of control.

2) What word would you use for the God-given desire to provide food and shelter for oneself and family? You have taken self-interest from us and I don’t have anything to replace it with. Please provide an alternative.

“Finally, I really am surprised that we are still arguing the idea that persons only act in accord with their interests.”

And I’m equally surprised. No one argued that.

Philip Koplin

The supposed distinction between selfishness and self-interest was emphasized here by free market enthusiasts (“self-interest will force the selfish businessman to restrain his selfishness”), but note that Roger uses the two words in his first paragraph on Adam Smith as though they were synonymous. In an earlier attempt at clarifying how a selfish businessman would be driven out of business, he added, “if he doesn’t change his way," as though that caveat provided the mechanism I was asking him to explain.

In addition, in the context of determining how to implement the rule of law, my request for criteria on how to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate actions was deflected into an unanswerable one about motives. In light of the various contradictory comments on selfish and self-interested behavior, it's difficult know how to fit this distinction/nondistinction into the search for legitimate rules of law.

I won’t comment on the challenges of biblical hermeneutics beyond noting, with regard to the expressed view on the trinity, that in order to turn the contradiction into a paradox, one has to assume that the Bible can’t contradict itself, which is an assumption beyond the reach of logic.

Philip Koplin

By the way, Chuck's aside that the church after four centuries managed to draw the "correct" conclusion about the trinity is also rather problematic.


Roger, your last comment that nobody has argued that people act only in their self-interest was made by me. Chuck has a grand 'ole time coupling some of your statements, some of mine, and then presenting them as a single argument, as if "we" are the sum of the free market defense on this blog. It's convenient for him, but not helpful.

Anyway... my point about self-interest was made, and I tried to make the distinction between self-interest (a neutral explanation for why a person acted in a certain way) versus selfishness (which has to do with the motive and consideration of others vs. self).

Philip, could you describe why it is an assumption beyond the reach of logic that the Bible cannot contradict itself? I'm inclined to agree with you to some degree, primarily because belief in a non-contradictory scripture is an a priori assumption about the Scriptures, taken primarily from enlightenment thinking that truth cannot be true if somehow there are contradictions. What we often say is "apparent contradictions" to mean that we simply cannot understand the two things to be true at the same time, acknowledging that it is our understanding that is flawed, not the actual truth of the matter. I have a catholic friend who doesn't find it problematic that some scriptures could possibly be inaccurate factually because that doesn't mean that the Scriptures aren't from God and cannot function as primary guide for Christians' lives. He points out that it is modernity that insisted on factual clarity and absence of contradictions.

Philip Koplin


I don't mean to imply that the assumption isn't rational, just that one has to start with some presuppositions that seem "reasonable" to the person or community that makes them and go from there, and I don't see any obviously self-evident statement or logical principle from which to derive the notion that the Bible can't contradict itself.

The need to avoid contradictions if one's argument is to have much force hardly seems a modern invention.

Roger McKinney

Doug, Actually I was using Chuck's definition of self-interest in my last sentence. When you wrote that people act out of self-interest, you did not conflate it with selfishness as Chuck does.

I asked Chuck to give me another term for the God-given desire to meet the needs of yourself and your family that doesn't fall under selfishness. I'm at a loss as to what to call it.

Roger McKinney

A few more thoughts on hermeneutics. This is what I was taught in school and I think is still good. How do you keep yourself from introducing into the text what you want it to say as opposed to what God actually said? After all, more serious error has come from flights of fancy in interpretation than in sticking to a wooden interpretation. Wooden interpretation is limited to the text, whereas flights of fancy are limited only to one's imagination.

The anchor of sound interpretation is to take a wooden, literal interpretation as your anchor. Expand that interpretation if the immediate context gives a reason to. For exmample, is the passage poetry? Of course, look at who, what, where, when and why of the writing of the passage. Look at the historical context. Does the passage include any idioms that need to be viewed from the perspective of the culture at the time it was written. (My favorite is Jesus talking about the eye being evil. That was an idiom referring to what was know as the "evil eye" which referred to envy.)

Next look at the entire body of scripture. Does the interpretation of that passage fit in with the whole body, or does it contradict some? If there is a contradiction, is the passage you're interpreting clearer than the one it appears to contradict.

There has to be limits on interpretation or we end up making the Bible conform to our ideologies.


(Chuck, have you shoveled yourself out yet?!)



it's impossible not to think of self/family in terms of survival. the rub is the fine line between survival (maintaining life at a basic level) and wanting more for self/family in a way that harms others (selfishness).


So is it wrong to have more than just survival? Is it wrong to accumulate more than that?


it's wrong if people (or the earth and the wildlife that inhabits the earth) are harmed in the process of that accumulation. harm can occur directly and indirectly. to people known and unknown to the accumulator.


Zero, I think it really is just that simple and straightforward. I think Galbraith got at this when he commented that the modern conservative was engaged in the age old task of tying to give a morally superior argument for self-centeredness.

The contradiction is simple. What you say is that when a person is faced with a array of choices, they really do not have a choice at all. They, according to you, always choose what they perceive to be in their best interests. When one can not genuinely choose from the array of choices facing her, then there is no freedom in the libertarian sense--the sense required for your view of voluntarism. You can take this as deep as you want. How does a person determine what is in their best interests? Well, as a consequence of antecedent values. How did they come to these values? Well, either they were inculcated (hence, not chosen) or they were the results of previous "choices." But, how did one make those previous choices? According to you, one always chooses in accord with what one perceives to be in one's best interest. If I am genuinely free, then I must have the power of contrary choice--that is, I must have been able to choose in some way other than I did in fact. However, according to you, I do not have the power of contrary choice, because I can only choose in accord with my perceived self-interest.

Of course, I have already pointed out the other problems with the position. So far, unless I have missed it, your only response has been to repeat your thesis. I defend your right to do that, but it does not an argument make:)


it is just that simple, mr chuch. thank you for putting a source (galbraith) to it. i fear, the way our society operates, i do harm where i intend none and don't know how to keep from doing so in the broadest sense.


Oh, by the way, due to time constraints and the verbose nature of some of my respondents:) I have tried to combine a number of responses in one shorter piece--don't have time for point by point response. I felt this could be sorted properly in reading through, but if not, my apologies for trying to respond to so much in such a short space.

Doug, I do find the claim that property rights can not be separated from human rights along the lines you lay out totally inadequate. For me to follow you, I would have to take what is to me an entirely unsustainable position that if I am for taxes I would also have to be for rape. If I think there is anywhere that the state can seize property for the common good, then I must think that murder is okay. I do defend your right to believe that (and it is, I think, the logical conclusion of your argument), but I cannot think of a sound and valid argument that would get you to that conclusion. Perhaps you could lay that out for us.

As to the claim that there is a "false dichotomy" between property and relationships, I can only puzzle over it. Many of the laws that God proscribes explicitly puts relationships (often explicitly in the sense of caring for the least) over property. I've given many examples.....

I do appreciate the generally improved spirit of conversation in this thread.


I have not tried, so far, to give hard limits in the abstract on your question on interpretation. What I have done, better in my mind because it connects specifically to the issues at hand, is give a short version of my much longer argument on why God's ordination of governments includes care for the poor. I understand you do not like it and disagree with it. Such is your right:) I have not really heard much by way of a response to it, other than that you don't like it....which is fine. But, I have followed the hermeneutic I've laid out, and in fact, it agrees largely with the points in your shorter post--particularly the issue of the general sense of the text as a whole. It's why my forthcoming book uses some 25 vignettes from all across Scripture and its various genre.

On the question at the end of one of your long posts, sadly, you have allowed your caricature of me to again fall into a false dichotomy. I have never said that self-interest must be entirely purged and is never a valid motivator in SOME SENSE. My points have been two fold:
1. Scripture tells us repeatedly that we are to elevate the interests of others above our own. That admits that we have a sense of our own self-interest, but it is to be subject to the interest of others. Once we have elevated the interests of others and submitted ours to it, then it is acceptable to think of self-interest as a motivator, so it seems.
2. And that leads to what I have called the irremediable tension between Christian faith and capitalism--the capitalist says that self interest is rightly the director of our actions and Scripture calls us to deny ourselves and elevate the interests of others. I understand that you and Doug think you can get around this by cleverly defining the terms, but to me this is just exactly the kind of things Jesus spoke against when he observed that the religious leaders had elevated the "traditions of men." Do not hear me wrong, I trust that you are both sincere and I know that you can find a strand of the tradition that will sanctify self interest in that way. I just do not buy it and think it is incoherent at the end of the day to think you can reconcile the elevation of self-interest and Scripture. That seems to me as plain as day, though I readily grant that it probably seems as clear in your direction:)
I think we have come to what WT Jones calls a "fundamental parting of the ways" in his 5 volume history of Western Philosophy. You have a set of readings, valuings, etc which you believe can be pieced together an argument for the kind of political economy that you have defended. I have a set of valuings, readings, etc. that lead me to a very different place. We have probably come as far as we can. You seem to me an ideologue whose interpretation of history, philosophy and Scripture have been subjected to your ideological presuppositions. You likely think the same of me...what better definition of a fundamental parting of the ways. At this point, I think we know enough of each other's positions that we can rather easily predict the other's responses:) (when we are honest, of course, sometimes it is too hard to resist a quick rhetorical flourish, eh?)

Roger McKinney

Chuck: "I have not really heard much by way of a response to it, other than that you don't like it....which is fine."

As Doug complained, you persist in misrepresenting what I have written. I have made several strong points, but I can only assume you didn't read them. I think your hermeneutical principles are nothing but an attempt to make the Bible conform to your political views.

"Once we have elevated the interests of others and submitted ours to it, then it is acceptable to think of self-interest as a motivator, so it seems."

If we always put others first and only when the needs of others are satisfied to we think of our own needs, we will starve to death.

"the capitalist says that self interest is rightly the director of our actions and Scripture calls us to deny ourselves and elevate the interests of others."

As I have written repeatedly, capitalists never have said any such thing. This is just one more indicator that you haven't read my posts. Beginning with Adam Smith, capitalist have assumed that self-interest exists. Nothing more.

"At this point, I think we know enough of each other's positions that we can rather easily predict the other's responses:)"

I know your position very well, but you haven't taken time to even read my posts. So a parting of the ways is fine. I think you misrepresent scripture and will continue to tell people that and give my reasons for it.

The comments to this entry are closed.