Yet Another Update

Things have been happening in the New Zealand apologetics community. A couple of weeks ago Jason and I met with the editor of Christian News, and also with some members of the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society. We spent a lot of time talking about the state of apologetics in New Zealand, and the various groups and individuals around the country. We specifically focused on our concerns over the feeble and fragmented nature of, and lack of communication within, the New Zealand apologetics community.

To cut a long story fairly short, we all agreed that, if we could draw as many people as possible under a single banner, it would go a long way toward empowering the apologetics community. The Thinking Matters ministry presents itself as an obvious locus for connecting people in this way. Subsequently, Christian News and the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society will be joining us under the Thinking Matters banner. They will, like Thinking Matters Tauranga, remain autonomous in their functioning; but we’ll share the same name and resources. This means that Thinking Matters will subsume and expand on the role of the New Zealand Christian Apologetics Society.

What this means for you

Three main things need to be said:

1. The Thinking Matters website is going to change a lot

Since Christian News is being conglomerated into the Thinking Matters domain (thinkingmatters.org.nz), but remaining separate in terms of operation, we’re having to be fairly creative from a technical perspective. Christian News will still be accessible from http://christiannews.co.nz, but will change its primary address to http://news.thinkingmatters.org.nz. News will be aggregated on the main Thinking Matters site, here. This means that a lot of cosmetic changes must take place as well. Fortunately, both sites run WordPress, so we’ll be adopting a new, commercial WordPress theme so as to ensure that we have a consistent image, and also to reduce the amount of work required of myself and other Thinking Matters contributors in developing and maintaining the various sites.

2. The Engage New Zealand forums will be shut down

We made this decision because we don’t feel that the forums contribute positively to the purpose of Thinking Matters. While we do want discussion to take place, it seems much more sensible to have it take place here on the main site, in the comment streams of the various articles which are posted. This is a more dynamic and accessible way of having discussions than the monolithic forum structure allows. We want to ensure that this discussion contrasts with and complements Thinking Matters News, so we’ll be rebranding the blog to take on the “Engage” moniker, thus specifically encouraging the view that articles are springboards for discussion.

3. The Thinking Matters Journal will be delayed

The journal is still a strong part of our purpose for Thinking Matters, and our first issue is in fact ready to go. However, to accommodate the changes we’re making to the website, we felt it better to delay publication until things are properly re-organized. The journal will be published at journal.thinkingmatters.org.nz as soon as everything has settled down.

The upshot

The upshot of all this is that we’re going to be under construction for a while. Please bear with us as we go through this transition. We’re confident that it will be for the best.

"God is Not Dead Yet": Natural Theology and New Atheism

This months issue of Christianity Today ran a cover article by Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, entitled “God is Not Dead Yet” (an online version is available on their website), assessing the recent trends within natural theology (the attempt to acquire knowledge about God using only commonly available cognitive resources). Craig addresses the current myths about the perceived intellectual inferiority of belief in God and that contrary to the shrill clamour of the New Atheists, there is a revolution of thought quietly occurring in the academy:

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

Since it was published, Craig’s article has provoked a fair amount of discussion. Among those in disagreement was Nathan Schneider, a freelance writer and blogger. Writing in Religion Dispatches, an online magazine devoted to religious commentary, Schneider was critical of Craig’s assessment of the health of natural theology and particularly New Atheism:

Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against. His bygone atheism is a straw man. A quick look at the religion section in any major chain bookstore shows a whole crop of habitable sequels to the New Atheists’ opening salvos. There are atheism readers, atheist spiritualities, and all the chicken soup an atheist soul could need. Rather than lacking “intellectual muscle,” as Craig puts it, the online community formed around Edge.org shows that some of today’s most dynamic scientific minds all but assume atheism.

Today, on the blog for the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Craig responds:

…Mr. Schneider misunderstands me when he says that my “bygone atheism” is a straw man. What I characterized as “bygone” was not atheism, but the past generation dominated by the sort of scientism and verificationism that still lingers in the so-called New Atheism. The fact that such popularistic drivel continues to pour forth from the presses and to fill our bookstores at the mall does nothing to refute my claim that the New Atheism is in general predicated upon epistemological assumptions that are no longer viable.

You can read the rest of the reply, including Craig’s appraisal of Schneider’s interaction with some of the arguments of natural theology, on the Society’s website here.

Colbert, Ehrman and the textual transmission of the New Testament

An old interview but worth dusting off, if only to see how not to do apologetics. Stephen Colbert, on his show The Colbert Report, engages the agnostic Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman. Colbert replicates the fundamentalist timbre, retreading the familiar rhetoric and arguments that many Christians can often fall back on too easily. This is Colbert, of course, at his inimitable best – imitating a subculture for deliberate comedic effect. Ehrman however, is not trying to be funny, he actually wants us to take him seriously.

The book he is promoting in the clip went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Misquoting Jesus narrates Ehrman’s own intellectual recourse from Christianity, after encountering problems in the Gospels during his PhD program. In the wake of the Jesus Seminar and the Dan Brown frenzy, Ehrman’s conclusions have captured the attention of the media and popular consciousness. It’s no wonder; questions about the trustworthiness of the Gospels assail at the heart of the Christian faith. If the New Testament documents are inaccurate and an unreliable guide of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – our Christian footing is infirm, our hope misplaced.

Colbert aside, there have been compelling scholarly responses to Ehrman. While the Biblical self-witness must not be robbed of its place and power in determining its own authority, Christians can confidently argue for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. Many critics have shown that Ehrman handles the data in a way that exaggerates the significance of the discrepancies in the textual streams. At the Greer-Heard Forum with Dan Wallace in April this year, Ehrman tellingly admitted that no essential belief of the New Testament was compromised by the textual variants. Yet a more controversial side of Ehrman seems to persist and, along with the Jesus Seminar, portray a skewed, idiosyncratic representation of the scholarly world. Such a segment stands in contrast to what has been called the third quest for the historical Jesus. A movement that is substantially more optimistic about reconciling the Jesus of history with the Jesus of the New Testament.

For those interested in a primer on Textual Criticism Paul D. Wegner’s A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bibe is a good start. To keep up with the contemporary discussion from the evangelical perspective, the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog has a fine grouping of contributing scholars.

Some actual reviews of Ehrman’s book (I recommend reading their full appraisals):

Dan Wallace: “He still sees things without sufficient nuancing, he overstates his case, and he is entrenched in the security that his own views are right. Bart Ehrman is one of the most brilliant and creative textual critics I’ve ever known, and yet his biases are so strong that, at times, he cannot even acknowledge them.”

Craig Bloomberg: “What most distinguishes the work are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not.”

Ben Witherington: “Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the NT have not yet been produced.”

Thomas Howe: “A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been “radically altered.” There is no question that the manuscripts differ from each other … but there is a big difference between saying that the variants make a difference in the theological conclusions we draw from these particular texts, and to claim that the multitude of variants call into question the validity of our theology.”

Some Questions on Science

Dale Campbell, in a recent blog entry, asked three questions about science which I think probably echo the thoughts of many Christians in the Western world:

  1. How should it be defined?
  2. Is it inherently naturalistic (and if so, why)?
  3. What is the relationship between philosophy and science?

This is something I’ve written on in the past, and I think there are clear answers to these questions from a Christian point of view. Because the issue of science and religion is so important to Christians living in the Western world, I’d like to answer Dale’s questions here.

1. How should science be defined?

To answer how science should be defined, it’s helpful to know how science is defined by those who study it. Science is the effort to discover and understand how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding.1 Integral to this effort is the scientific method. Briefly stated, this is (I) the observation of a phenomenon ? (II) the formulation of an hypothesis with testable predictions ? (III) the experimental testing of the hypothesis ? (IV) the reasoning about the new experimental data. If the data can be interpreted to support the hypothesis, it can become a theory; if not, the scientist returns to step (II).

So is this how science should be defined? Is this how we as Christians ought to think of science? Within certain constraints, I think it is. Science, biblically speaking, is what we do in the pursuit of having dominion over creation and subduing it. In this regard, practicing science is a good thing, because it is directly obedient to the command of God in Genesis 1:28. Science is a God-given tool to help us interact with creation and make use of it. That is its place. Of course, this implies that its place is not as a tool for learning ultimate truths about reality. It was not given for that purpose; only God himself can communicate such truths. It cannot answer questions like “what is the purpose of man?” or “is there such a thing as the soul?” It is a tool for learning about and using the physical world. Thus, scientific “truth” is truth about how we interact with creation. It is not necessarily truth about reality as it really is. This leads into the second question—

2. Is science inherently naturalistic (and if so, why)?

Since science is “the effort to discover and understand how the physical world works, with observable physical evidence”, the answer to this is simple: yes, science is inherently naturalistic. That is to say, science is a method or process for learning about the natural (physical) world. It follows what is called methodological naturalism. Questions about the supernatural (spiritual) world are beyond its purview, and so it cannot answer them. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be answered, of course, or that they aren’t meaningful—just that science isn’t the right place to go to for those answers.

So science is characterized by methodological naturalism. When investigating natural phenomena, scientists assume that these have natural causes. This is reasonable as far as it goes, since that is the place and purpose of science. It is not equipped to deal with supernatural causes or ask questions about supernatural things. The problem is that methodological naturalism has led, particularly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, to philosophical naturalism. This is the view that natural things are the only things which exist. Thus, not only can science only investigate natural things, but natural things are the only things which can be investigated. Obviously, this puts science in a powerful epistemic position. Since the natural world is all there is, and science is the best means we have of learning about it, it becomes the sole standard for truth. Science, under philosophical naturalism, is really the only way we can learn anything about the world. The rise of philosophical naturalism is what has caused science to be held in such high esteem as a means of discovering truth today. Which leads me into the third question—

3. What is the relationship between philosophy and science?

A lot of people would like to say that science has no real relationship with philosophy. Scientists, in particular, are fond of distancing themselves from philosophical questions, and “sticking to the facts”. But, as the example of philosophical naturalism shows, this is a bit of a smokescreen.

Plenty of scientists are happy to affirm that only the natural world exists. They like to say that we can only explain things in naturalistic terms; that only naturalistic theories have explanatory power; and that talk of the supernatural is pointless or even meaningless. But these are obviously philosophical, rather than scientific views. Science doesn’t say that the supernatural world doesn’t or can’t exist, or that we can’t know anything about it. It just doesn’t comment on the matter, because science is the study of the natural world and it can’t answer such questions.

So for someone to say, “there is no evidence for the soul,” when what he means is scientific evidence is really just question-begging. Scientific evidence is always naturalistic, but the soul is supernatural, so obviously there can be no scientific evidence for the soul by definition. That doesn’t mean that no evidence exists whatsoever, unless he’s refusing to admit anything other than scientific evidence in the first place. But on what basis would he refuse to admit any other kind of evidence? He can’t do it on the basis of science—after all, he can’t show experimentally that non-natural evidence is invalid. So he has to make an assumption. He has to make a philosophical commitment to naturalism. In this regard, these sorts of scientists make up the rear guard of a venerable but fairly disrespectable philosophical view called logical positivism.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Logical positivism is a philosophical position which claims to be based on science. But the problem runs much deeper, because science is actually based on philosophy. Science is not merely intimately related to philosophy. Philosophy is the foundation of science.

For example, the scientific method relies on some key assumptions about the universe. One of these is the uniformity of nature. This is the assumption that (a) the future will always be like the past; and (b) the laws of nature are the same everywhere. If this assumption were false, science would be futile. But it isn’t a scientific assumption, is it? It can’t be experimentally verified. We can’t run some empirical test to see whether the future will be like the past, since by definition the future is always out of reach. As soon as we try to test it, it becomes the present, and then when we’re done it’s the past, so whatever data we gathered doesn’t apply any more. Similarly, no one has tested the laws of nature in every part of the universe (or even every part of the earth). So this key assumption of science is a philosophical one. It isn’t itself scientific.

This raises some real problems for secular scientists, and leads me into my conclusion. Because science is based on philosophical assumptions, it is either naive or ignorant for anyone to claim that scientific knowledge is the only kind of knowledge there is; or that scientific truth-claims trump all other kinds of truth-claims (like religious ones). Before you can have scientific knowledge, you first have to have philosophical knowledge. Scientific truth-claims are really nothing special. Furthermore, anyone saying that scientific knowledge is the only “real” knowledge possible is fibbing through his teeth, because he is making a non-scientific statement. If scientific knowledge is the only “real” knowledge, then we couldn’t know that, because it isn’t scientifically verifiable.

So the problem for scientists (and for those who try to use science against Christianity) is that scientific truth-claims can only be as good as their philosophical foundations. If scientists can’t know that their philosophical foundations are sound, then they can’t know that their science is sound. So if the assumption of uniformity is nothing but wild speculation, then any science based on it is no better. This seems particularly problematic when you consider how utterly reasonable it seems that the future will be like the past. Surely if it’s so reasonable, we must be able to prove it? Things which are obviously true are easily proved.

Not so with uniformity. It isn’t a scientifically verifiable principle, and it isn’t logically necessary. The future could, in principle, stop being like the past, and there isn’t any real reason to think that it won’t. The fact that it hasn’t until now doesn’t imply that it won’t in the future unless we’ve already supposed that the future will be like the past. That’s begging the question. So we’re left with a quandary. On the one hand, it seems so entirely reasonable to think that all things will continue as they have from the beginning of creation. But on the other hand, how can we show that this belief is rational? That it is really reasonable? That it is actually true? How can we know it?

Well, the Christian can. The Christian knows that God has created the world, and sustains it moment to moment (Colossians 1:17). He knows that until Jesus comes again, all things will continue as they have from the beginning (2 Peter 3:4). So he knows, because God has revealed it, that nature is uniform and will continue to be. He knows that the world was created for man, and that man was created to have dominion over it. Because of this, Christians can hold a high view of science. Not as high as the their view of the Bible, obviously, since it relies on the Bible—but much higher nonetheless than what non-believing scientists can manage. Our view of science is based on the word of God, which is self-attesting and objectively true.

Secular scientists, on the other hand, ultimately base science on their gut feelings. They don’t have any assurance in the basic assumptions which underly their discipline. Even though they may take a view of science which seems much higher than that taken by Christians, their philosophical beliefs betray them. Science can only be as powerful as its foundations, and its foundations are philosophical. One can either just take these foundations on faith, having no reason to believe them except that they seem reasonable; or one can take it on the testimony of the creator of the universe. This is the relationship between science and philosophy,and it is why Christians should never be afraid of science.

  1. Wikipedia, ‘science’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science; retrieved July 1, 2008).

An update on issue 1 of the Thinking Matters Journal

We had originally said we would have the first issue of the journal published in late June. Clearly, late June is now slightly past. The reason for the delay is primarily because there are a couple of articles still outstanding which we want to include in the first edition, and we would rather delay publication than release things in dribs and drabs. One of the articles we’re particularly wanting to include is an interview with Bill Craig, which we sadly didn’t have time to do while in Tauranga. We’re organizing a phone interview, but we need to work within his obviously very busy schedule. Thus, we’re unfortunately not yet sure when it will be done.

In order to whet your appetite until then, here is the planned list of article topics for issue 1:

  • Opening address: a brief history of apologetics in New Zealand (Steve Kumar)
  • What is apologetics? (Jason Kumar)
  • Why does apologetics matter? (Stuart McEwing)
  • Principles of practical engagement (Elisabeth Marshall)
  • Exposition of 1 Corinthians 2:16 as a basis for apologetics (Dominic Bnonn Tennant)
  • Exposition of Acts 17 as a blueprint for apologetics (Sarah Tennant)
  • Faith and evidence, and the need for apologetics (Jason Kumar)
  • Postmodernism and apologetics: is apologetics relevant in today’s intellectual climate? (Jason Kumar)
  • Interview with Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig