The God who speaks

“The importance of God’s speech as a fundamental means of his self-disclosure cannot be overestimated. Creation itself is the product of God’s speech: God speaks, and worlds leap into being (Gen. 1). Many of God’s most dramatic deeds of revelation would not have been understandable apart from God’s accompanying speech. Moses views the burning bush as a curiosity until the voice tells him to remove his sandals and assigns him his new responsibilities. Abraham would have had no reason to leave Ur were it not for God’s revelation in words. Again and again the prophets carry the burden of ‘the word of the LORD’ to the people. Verbal revelation is essential even in the case of the Lord Jesus: during the days of his flesh, he was, first of all, the teacher. Moreover, apart from the explanation of the significance of his death and resurrection, preserved both in the gospels and in the letters, even these momentous events would have been unbearably and tragically obscure. So central is God’s speech to his own self-disclosure that when John the evangelist casts around for an encompassing way to refer to God’s ultimate self-disclosure in his Son, he chooses to refer to him as ‘the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The Word became flesh’ John 1: 1, 14).”

D. A. Carson in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham,  IVP (1994).

Conflict for the Darwinian Dispute

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) is often portrayed as a believer struggling with doubt, reluctantly yielding to rational thinking in light of the evidence he found while journeying on the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands. Wiker[1] points out that while Darwin’s ideas are well known, much of the story of his life is either unknown or mythical. To summarize just a few of his more relevant points;

First, evolution was less innovation and more popularization, having been believed by his father before him and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin. During Erasmus’ time there was a resurgence of interest in the philosophy of the ancient Epicurean philosopher Lucrecius, who propounded evolutionary ideas. Evolutionary thinking was already a part of the ethos of the age we call Modernism and Charles Darwin was a man who set out on the Beagle to find proof of evolution, rather than someone who reluctantly came to accept the idea because of the weight of the evidence.

Second, Darwin’s brief tenure studying theology was less from conviction or faith in God, and more to maintain a social acceptability by conforming to what was then considered to be stabilizing cultural norm – the church. His departure from that institution was less from lack of belief, and more to follow his true interest – the study of nature.

Third, Darwin’s thesis was not the bombshell it has been made out to be.[2] Many Christian’s of the day, including Charles Lyell (1797–1875)[3] easily accepted evolutionary ideas and yet remained critical of the Darwinian posturing toward God no longer being necessary to explain the origin and diversity of life. Darwin’s associate and co-discoverer of evolutionary theory Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913) became convinced that natural selection alone – without God – would not suffice. The beauty and intricateness of such a process, he thought, was too grand and astounding, and still could not explain human morality, rationality and even physical nature.[4]

Fourth, the idea that there was a thoughtless rejection of evolutionary theory on behalf of the church when Origin of Species (1859) and the Decent of Man (1871) were published is mainly rhetoric. Christian thinkers, both scientists and theologians, were for the most part civil and maintained friendly dialogue. Asa Gray (1810-1888), the American botanist at Harvard and Evangelical was one of these: a friend and long-time correspondent of Darwin who saw design and order in the natural world of evolution progress. Moore writes,

“There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of learned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.”[5]

In order to understand the avid rejection of evolutionary theory by some Christians one needs to understand that another science appeared in the nineteenth century. Higher criticism leveled its gaze on the orthodox view of scripture and with the philosophical assumptions of the Enlightenment and Modernism challenged much of Christian belief. There was no official response given by the church on Higher criticism, Evolutionary theory or Darwinism, however individuals within the church did deem to respond to these intellectual challenges. Responses were indeed inevitable if merely by virtue that these ideas became engrained in the culture. These responses can be categorized into four distinct groups: the Liberal response, the Neo-Orthodox response, the Evangelical response and the Fundamentalist response.

The Liberal response to Higher criticism was acceptance. Liberals rejected the authority of the Bible and traditional Christian orthodoxy and therefore did not consider conflict with science possible[6] – science and religion were non-overlapping magisteria. The Neo-orthodox response was dialectical, and so to a lesser extent did the same as the Liberals and accepted the insights.

The Evangelical response was that of accommodation. This was in the tradition of Calvin and in-line with Augustine who advocated perceived conflicts could be reconciled with better interpretation of either the Bible or of nature. John Calvin (1509–1564) the French theologian gave to science two gifts. First, he encouraged the study of nature. Nature demonstrated the wisdom of God and provided proofs of his glory.[7] Second, he removed the need to interpret the bible literally. By offering people a hermeneutic of “accommodation” he made the emergence of the natural sciences possible[8] and firmly grounded a tradition within evangelicalism allowing science to be integrated with the scripture.[9]

Evangelicals therefore attempted harmonization with the insights of Higher criticism, which would eventually yield new insights in theology, and breakthroughs in historical Jesus research. For evolutionary biology harmonization meant a variety of differing positions like Theistic Evolution[10] and Progressive Creationism.[11]

It was the reaction of Fundamentalism that was to have the most profound influence on the way the relationship between science and Christianity were perceived. Higher criticism and Darwin’s popularization of evolutionary theory elicited a negative reaction by some who felt that society was becoming more and more depraved in their thinking. Fundamentalism, distinguished by cultural isolationism and a dogmatic biblical literalism, decided to judge science by the Bible. Evolution is therefore a fraud. This response represents a “circling of the wagons” and as evolutionary theory gained prominence it created a siege mentality. This is why many describe Fundamentalism as obscurantist, insular and militaristic.

Essentially Fundamentalism is Evangelicalism on the defensive, though there is a range of responses to both sciences encapsulated by the term.[12] All refuse the Grand Evolution story for its atheistic implications, but there are a great variety of opinions to the extent which evolution has played a role in the development of the diversity of life. Some criticize evolution on the basis of flaws in theory, others dogmatically refuse in principle and offer no more explanation. Some in the twentieth century sought to re-interpret the evidence without the Rationalist and Materialistic presuppositions and developed Creation Science, which for the most part that militantly rejects evolution in favor of a young earth and a literal 24-hr/six-day creation period.

It is Fundamentalism that fueled the Creation/Evolution controversy in the twentieth century, and this is nowhere more typified by the Scopes Trial (referred to now as “The Monkey Trial”) in 1926. John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution, and backed by the ACLU,[13] lost when the Tennessee law was upheld, but the fall-out from media sensationalism at the time lent credit to the Conflict Thesis. The influence of that media storm made it the subject of a play Inherit the Wind (1955) later adapted to a movie in 1960. The idea that science and religion are at war is still very much a part of the general public’s consciousness, even though it is not “religion” as such, but one specific branch of Christian belief that insists on literal interpretations.[14]

Today the relationship between science and Christianity is very healthy. It is believed the renaissance of Christian philosophy over the last fifty years has been so successful the effect has been the resurrection of Natural Theology, including powerful refurbishment of the teleological arguments.[15] The increasingly powerful Intelligent Design movement can be viewed as an effect of this renaissance in Christian thinking. The so-called “New Atheism” is an aberration to the general trend (perhaps also a reaction to it) and represents a movement out of touch with the higher echelons in academia that rejects the Conflict Thesis.[16] There are many other models that are used to describe the relationship between science and religion, but as Brooke says “general theses are difficult to maintain.”[17]

Alvin Plantinga views Christian belief as fundamentally congruent with science and only peripherally hostile.[18] Gary Ferngren summarizes,

“While some historians had always regarded the Draper-White thesis as oversimplifying and distorting a complex relationship, in the late twentieth century it underwent a more systematic reevaluation. The result is the growing recognition among historians of science that the relationship of religion and science has been much more positive than is sometimes thought. Although popular images of controversy continue to exemplify the supposed hostility of Christianity to new scientific theories, studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. If Galileo and the Scopes trial come to mind as examples of conflict, they were the exceptions rather than the rule”[19]

Concluding then, Christianity has been an overwhelming boon to the scientific endeavor.[20] Kenneth Samples writes:

“Conflicts between scientific theories and the Christian faith have arisen through the centuries, to be sure. However, the level of conflict has often been exaggerated, and Christianity’s positive influence on scientific progress is seldom acknowledged.”[21]

Christianity provides a philosophical foundation for the success of science and today enjoys a fruitful conversation that has endured since the seventeenth century. Although many people presuppose and implicitly if not explicitly accept the Conflict Thesis, this is largely dead in academia. A particular type of Christian belief, namely Fundamentalism, remains reactionary towards a particular type of science, namely evolution. The broad mainstream accepts science as useful to theology, particularly in supporting the project of Natural Theology. When difficulties arise harmonization with a hermeneutic of “accommodation” can be attempted. The relationship is best described as a flourishing dialogue rather than with militaristic terms.

Footnotes

[1] Benjamin Wiker. The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (2009)

[2] Dr. Matthew Flannegan argues evolutionary theory, if correct, only undermines a specific teleological argument for God’s existence and the rest of Christian theism is still on solid ground.

[3] The eminent scientist and founder of modern geology

[4] Talk with Greg Koukl and Dr. Benjamin Wiker, Stand to Reason.

[5] Quote found at God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[6] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 14.

[7] In order than no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place them in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him. . . To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advances proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them. (Institutes I.v.1-2)

[8] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 11

[9] “Prior to the nineteenth century there was a widespread agreement in the West, particularly in Protestant Christian circles, that resolution to these questions could be achieved by combining insights from both science and Scripture in a unified field of knowledge. If such an integrated view on the level of method and reference was established, it would become the focal point on which the understanding of life depended. Consequently, science and the Christian faith were presumed to be on the same die, mutually compatible, and dealing with the discovery of truth through a uniform epistemology.”

Diepstra, George R. and Gregory J. Laughery. “Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1-3” European Journal of Theology, 18:1, p. 6.

[10] There is a wide range of opinion encapsulated in this broad category, but generally means God created the first life and got the evolutionary ball rolling, but then left the process alone.

[11] Again, this is a broad category, but generally means God was involved and intervened in the process of creation.

[12] The term is also employed to describe a quagmire of other things, such as theological positions and hermeneutical methods, social agendas and political associations, etc., which make the title an honorific, a slur, and without context too vague for proper use.

[13] American Civil Liberties Union

[14] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 22.

[15] The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, pp. 69-85. Ed. M. Martin. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge University Press, 2007  also Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism” Philo 4/2(2001): 3-4.

[16] “God Is Not Dead Yet.” Christianity Today. July, 2008, pp. 22-27.

[17] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 5

[18] He also convincingly argues that it is naturalism that is fundamentally hostile and only peripherally congruent. (Science and Religion: DVD, Naturalism ad absurdum).

[19] Gary Ferngren (editor). Science & Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. p. ix

[20] Kenneth Samples, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://www.reasons.org/resources/apologetics/christianscience.shtml; Retrieved 27 Jan, 2009), 1998.

[21] Ibid., See also Stuart McEwing, “The Historic Alliance Between Christianity and Science” (http://talk.thinkingmatters.org.nz/2009/the-historic-alliance-between-christianity-and-science/; Retrieved 27 Nov, 2009)

Friday Night Miscellany

Some late night Friday reading from the interwebs. Knock yourselves out, peeps.

Christianity and Politics

-This week, the story that has dominated discussion in Christian circles has been the recent joint declaration by Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders on the need for Christians to stand up for moral issues. The document, titled the Manhattan Declaration, included signatories such Wayne Grudem, Tim Keller, Dr. Peter Kreeft, Josh McDowell,Albert Mohler Jr., J. I Packer, and Ravi Zacharias. Drafted by Chuck Colson, it calls for a renewed vision of justice and ethical life in government and society, especially with respect to the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage as a union of husband and wife. While some have applauded the declaration and view its “ecumenism of the trenches” as a necessity, others wonder if the Gospel is being obscured.

– Timothy George and Al Mohler defend their decision to sign the document.

Alistair Begg, John MacArthur, James White, Frank Turk, Tim Challies explain why they disagree with the document. David Doran, Steve Hays and John Stackhouse also offer their thoughts, while Brian McLaren just misses the point completely.

Apologetics

Brian has a great list of apologetic podcasts.

Does God really want all people to be saved? Video interview with Dr R. C. Sproul.

Relativism vs Pluralism: What’s the difference?

– In his post, The Basis for Moral Realism, Tom Gilson puts forward several questions for atheists who want to hold onto moral realism, including:

  • What is a moral value or duty; specifically, to whom or what is it a value, and to whom or what is the duty directed, owed, or pointed?
  • To whom or what was it directed, owed, or pointed when there was no person in the universe toward whom it could have been so pointed?
  • Who or what held any responsibility for these moral values or duties before there was any intelligent life?
  • In what did these values or duties inhere, or in other words, where did they exist?
  • Was there such a thing as evil while the stars and planets were forming? What was it?
  • Was killing immoral for the first 3 billion or so years of evolution, before humans arrived?

Does “I don’t know” work as a defense for certain moral issues?

Theology

Kevin DeYoung offers an apologetic for the prominence of words in worship.

John Piper’s presentation at ETS concerning “A Common Word”.

Douglas Wilson recounts the thinkers who have rocked his world: “The men I am most indebted to philosophically are: C.S. Lewis, Cornelius Van Til, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Calvin, Richard Weaver, the early Rushdoony, Augustine, John Knox, Gary North, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, G.K. Chesterton, Paul Johnson, John Stott, Christopher Dawson, H.L. Mencken, William Buckley, David Wells, R.L. Dabney, E. Michael Jones, P.G. Wodehouse, Greg Bahnsen, and Peter Leithart. And after a diet of such books for twenty-six years, I have to say that reading an emergent book by Brian McLaren is like watching a six-year-old do card tricks.”

David Mathis reviews NT Wright’s new book, Justification: Paul’s Vision and God’s Plan.

Doug Groothius’ audio presentation on ‘Everyday Spiritual Warfare’.

Christianity and Culture

Exegeting the Cohen Brothers’ latest film, A Serious Man

– Coming to a pulpit near you? Movie producers hope to try and get pastors in on the marketing of the new film adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak apocolyptic novel The Road.

Dr Who and morality.

Official photos from the set of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Behind the scenes video of the Radio Theatre’s dramatic audio production of The Screwtape Letters.

Other Stuff

– This week marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Time magazine interviews Dennis Sewell on Darwin and his legacy.

Positive comments from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel on Stephen C. Meyer’s new book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins): “Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.”

Great photos from the National Geographic’s 2009 International Photography contest.

– And finally, Kevin Staley-Joyce recalls a great quote from the masterful G. K. Chesterton:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to itand says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.”

To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”

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Conflict in the Newtonian Worldview

In the first article of this series I gave a history of the Conflict Thesis and described its origin. In the second I have shown how Galileo’s role in the Copernican controversy is not a good example of conflict between science and religion, any such attempt being an overly simplistic and therefore a wholly inadequate description. This article will briefly sketch – very briefly – the period from Galileo in the seventeenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century in terms of the supposed conflict between science and region.

Stephen Hawking lauds Galileo as the person responsible, perhaps more than any other single person, for the birth of modern science.[1] Galileo’s influence on science was more than a beleaguered theory. Gonzalez explains;

“…Galileo proposed . . . a strictly empirical and mathematical method for the observation of the universe. This was probably his greatest contribution to the development of modern science.”[2]

It was Isaac Newton (1643-1727) who went further than Galileo by applying the same empirical and mathematical method. He managed to show that a broad range of observational data conformed to certain principles. Like the cogs of a clock the universe was a grand machine[3] running according to “laws of nature.” The theological entailments of the “mechanistic” worldview that came to be attributed to Newton were two sided.

First, it cleared the path for Deism, for it was seen that the direct and miraculous intervention of God was no longer needed to explain the universe.[4] Rationalism and skepticism were already a part of the milieu of the age, and Deism was the application of these to religion. There were Deists present before Newton, such as John Locke (1632-1704), but their thought gained in influence when this Newtonian ethos was also imbibed in the culture. The result was thinkers like and David Hume (1711-1776) in Britain, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Voltaire (1694-1778) in France, and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) in America – all famous Desist. Philosophies that were anti-Christian in flavor, such as Scientism and Empiricism found in this new age of scientific discovery a modicum of credibility, which led to an increasing disengagement with ecclesial authority and Christian doctrine; especially on revelation, miracles and the divinity of Jesus. Brook notes;

“In an age when unprecendented confidence was placed in the power of human reason, the methods and achievements of the sciences were a powerful resource for those who, with a variety of motives, launched their assault on established Christianity. But to reduce the relations between science and religion to a polarity between reason and superstition is inadmissible, even for that period when it had such rhetorical force. It was often not the natural philosophers themselves, but thinkers with a social or political ax to grind, who transformed the sciences into a secularizing force.”[5]

Second, it immediately suggested design, and provided a philosophical foundation for the Natural Theology that would blossom in the nineteenth century.[6] William Paley (1743-1805) was one among many who was impressed with Newton’s work and the idea of the universe working as a clock works unaided. Set against the background of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution and people’s interest in machines, Paley rescued the Newtonian clockwork metaphor that was hijacked by Deists and argued that watches require watchmakers. Rather than implying Deism, Paley saw that mechanism implies contrivance: watches require watchmakers: laws need lawgivers. His Natural theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1805) is widely regarded as the most significant contribution to the teleological argument.[7] It had a profound effect on English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, and was required reading for Cambridge University applicants until the twentieth century.[8] Paley’s arguments and other publications were direct responses to David Hume’s (1711-1776) critiques. These employed observations of the world as demonstrations of divine agency.

There was a mixed response, therefore, to the “mechanistic” worldview. Science was being used by Christians to help prove – or at least demonstrate the plausibility of – the theological thesis of God’s nature and existence. Science was also used being used in conjunction with anti-Christian philosophies accompanying the Enlightenment to disprove theological theses – or at least demonstrate their implausibility. The conflict between science and religion then (if it ever existed) historically was only because science combined with philosophies that were surplus and separate to it.[9] For Newton the notion of a conflict between science and religion was alien, for he viewed both as complimentary interests. The mechanistic worldview that was given the name the “Newtonian” worldview because it was produced by his achievements, was not one held by him.

This is evident in that Newton distinguished himself with more than scientific and mathematical genius; he was also a dedicated theologian who hoped his work in natural philosophy (or scientific studies for the modern ear) would encourage people to believe in a deity. The motivation for his work, it is argued, was to show God’s activity in the world[10] rather than an absentee architect. He was like Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who famously said;

“I was merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it befits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God.”[11]

Moreover, Newton had a profound impact on the philosopher, America’s greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards, who was no small enthusiast of observing and investigating nature and saw no conflict there. Many Puritans in the New World like Edwards were impacted by Newton, and went on to make significant contributions to science, their Christian faith providing the motivation, conceptual framework, and ethical values required for the scientific endeavor to succeed. This was also true for the culture as a whole, for Christians built the first universities providing higher learning and education for a broad range of people to whom it was previously unavailable.

So it is more the case that science was grown and nurtured by Christians rather than pitted against religious thinkers. Newton and Edwards, among many others intellectuals the Enlightenment, understood that seeking scientific truth was a Christian enterprise that showed not only the beauty and wonder of God’s creation but, by extension, God Himself.[12] Dissenting voices were not entirely absent – there were those who thought science disproved religious claims, but theirs was a science wedded to dispositions and ideologies that were anti-Christian to begin with.

The next installment in this series will be on the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1822) and on the response to evolutionary theory.


[1] Stephen Hawking “Galileo and the Birth of Modern Science.” American Heritage’s Invention & Technology, Spring 2009, Vol. 24, No. 1, p. 36

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[3] “Newton was able to demonstrate that a cast range of observational data could be explained on the basis of a set of universal principles. Newton’s success in explaining terrestrial and celestial mechanics led to the rapid development of the idea that the universe could be thought of as a great machine, acting according to fixed laws.” Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 17

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 3. (Nashville; Abingdon Press, 1987) p. 319-20

[5] John Hedley Brooke. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) p. 13

[6] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 18

[7] Ibid. p. 99.

[8] Willaim Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian truth and apologetics, Third edition. (Grand Rapids, Ill.; Crossway 2007) p. 256.

[9] Religion, specifically Christianity, also combined with philosophies that were separate and surplus to is as well. For example, in “Conflict for Copernican Controversy” it is explained that the Catholicism made itself the guardian of Aristotelian philosophy and Ptolemaic geocentricism.

[10] Richard L. Gorsuch, Integrating psychology and spirituality? (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002) p. 16.

[11] Alan L. Gillen, The Genesis of Germs: The Origin of Diseases and the Coming Plagues, (New Leaf Publishing Group, 2007)

[12] To work in the sciences, for the Christian, imbibes a spiritual dimension that could be seen as worship. Nature reveals God in a sort-of third testament.

The essence of Christianity is Christ

[According to some, the Sermon on the Mount] is the essence of Christianity, and Christ is the best of human teachers and examples. But he is not divine, for his function is only a human one, to teach and exemplify ethics. Christianity is essentially ethics.

What’s missing here? Simply the essence of Christianity, which is not the Sermon on the Mount. When Christianity was proclaimed throughout the world, the proclamation (kerygma) was not “Love your enemies?” but “Christ is risen!” This was not a new ideal but a new event, that God became man, died, and rose for our salvation. Christianity is first of all not ideal but real, an event, news, the gospel, the “good news.” The essence of Christianity is not Christianity; the essence of Christianity is Christ…

The Sermon on the Mount not only comes from Jesus but also leads us to Jesus. It does not divert us from Jesus to a set of abstract ideals, but its ideals lead us to Jesus. who alone can fulfill them in us, if we let him. The sermon is an arrow and Jesus is the bull’s eye, not vice versa.

Peter Kreeft, Back to virtue: traditional moral wisdom for modern moral confusion, Ignatius Press, 1992.

 

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Metastasizing the Christ Myth

What is the relationship between ‘myth’ and the art of following Jesus? Ought we to treat the reports we have in the canonical gospels in the same way as we may treat the tales of Thor, Osiris or Hercules?

This question intrigued Clive Staples Lewis, a professor at the Oxford University and an expert in the elaborate myths of Scandinavia; the ancient tales of gods and men, Yggdrasil and Asgard. For much of his adulthood, Lewis was a spiritual skeptic, but eventually became captured by the claims of Christianity. He came to view the ‘good news’, centered on the person of Jesus and clearly rooted in the time and space of first century dusty Palestinian villages as a true fulfillment of the stories found in so many human cultures. He concluded that “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”

To many readers, Lewis is famous (and in some circles infamous)  for incorporating numerous aspects of the Christian story into works of fantasy for children; the Chronicles of Narnia. I read them often as a child and near-completely missed the religious references. Now, of course, these stories make more sense. It was, however, in the process of making sense of them that I was able to understand the brilliant Oxford scholar’s understandings of God’s story and, through his insight, make more sense of the world.

That, of course, is one of the benefits of art. Myths, poetry and art are able to speak to the core of a human person in a way which cold equations and data tables seldom do. Does this mean we should reject rationality and objectivity? I do not believe so. Most people would accept the legitimacy of using a metaphor to add depth to a description and most would acknowledge the need for art and poetry. Eric Metaxas has rather delightfully written:

“For me, the main purpose of art is transportation. I’m not talking about murals on the sides of buses. I’m talking about the singular ability of art to pull us, Alice-like, through the Looking Glass and into other realms.”

In considering Christianity and myth, it is worth explaining a well-known and slightly blurry distinction between myths and legends. Myths are cultural stories unconnected with history, while legends have some kernel of truth concerning distant events buried within them. Perhaps the figure of Jesus, so clearly located within our own world, should not be treated as myth but instead regarded as a legend? Could the details of his exploits simply be clever stories devised with dodgy motives and no more historical than the stories of, say, Maui or King Arthur? This is, perhaps surprisingly, not a difficult question to answer. In a world befuddled by and besotted with claims of subjectivity and religious inclusivism, we can forget that when we turn to the New Testament we are dealing with historical writings which make historical claims of a factual nature. Yes, many claims are difficult to substantiate from outside these pages, but some key ones are not. Was Luke, for instance, the careful historian that he claims (Luke 1:3) – when he talks about historical people, places and happenings? The answer, from various archaeologists and experts on the Roman world, appears to be yes. If Luke, for instance, can be trusted in the small things of geography and government, we are not justified in simply dismissing his claims concerning God and His specific actions in history.

There are of course other objections. Some claim that the details of Jesus’ life sketched in the gospels are clearly derived from earlier pagan sources; a couple of Egyptian gods are prominent, as is Buddhism and other eastern religions. It is argued that the resurrection and accompanying details can be derived from the Mystery Cults widespread in the first century of the common era. There is a quite a bit of scholarship on the topic; for ease of access, there is a good digest of the different arguments on this page at Tekton. To summarise: many of the claims are bogus; a few are most likely a result of Christian influence on other religions; the primary sources for the more-impressive claims are not recorded and there is often a reliance on superficial appearances of etymological similarity without any reason for supposing a real causal link between certain names or themes.

If we are to treat the gospels not as myth or legend but as rooted in history, we should ask how the gospels compare in the essentials with other historical works of the time? Even a cursory look into Classical Studies will show that the records of great leaders such as Alexander the Great are beset by many problems resulting from widely differing sources – yet they are still deemed essentially historical. The broad lines of Jesus’ life have attestation from numerous accounts including many secular references. In the Gospel and other New Testament records we have an embarrassment of riches[1] compared to any comparable secular writings. For the majority of ancient historical works there is a massive gap between the earliest manuscript copies we have available and the original written text. The NT radically breaks this pattern with numerous fragments and even whole manuscript-books from the second and third centuries AD. The once-popular claim that various items in the canon were written in the late second century have fallen foul of papyriological and other evidence. The gospels were written within the lifetime of eyewitnesses – period.

If we return to Lewis’ claim: how could a man, a mere human being, be the fulfillment of the inherently nonsensical genre of myth? Skeptics may even find the question nonsensical. But laying the issue of begging the naturalistic question aside, this could only be the case, it seems to me, if this man was in fact something more than legend or myth (empiricists take note: this is what the evidence suggests). In fact, the classical Christian defence, which still has worth today, has from the beginning been eager to refute the claim that the gospel has any association with fable, as Peter wrote: “For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.” (2 Peter 1:16)

If we can admit where the evidence leads, we will see that the story of Jesus is not too good to be true. And neither is it too true to be any good. Novelist Dorothy Sayers reminds us of the awesome dramatic reality of this story:

“So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the under-dog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man like other men He had made, and the men He made killed Him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.” (Dorothy L. Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1938), p. 15).

It is good news: the Creator God is not indifferent to the human condition and has entered into the storybook of history. And he waits, ready to enter into the story of our own lives.

Notes

1. “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of material… Besides textual evidence derived from the New Testament Greek manuscripts and from early versions, the textual critic has available the numerous scriptural quotations included in the commentaries, sermons, and other treatises written by early Church fathers. Indeed, so extensive are these citations that if all other sources for our knowledge of the text of the New Testament were destroyed, they would be sufficient alone for the reconstruction of practically the entire New Testament.” Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 51, 126.

The scientific community and self-criticism

Whatever your view on anthropogenic global warming, the recent hacking of private emails of the world’s top climate scientists has been a fascinating story. Over a thousand emails and documents were electronically stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the UK, uploaded to a Russian FTP server, and made available for anyone to download.

I don’t have a stake in the debate – even apart from the question of whether global warming is the best scientific hypothesis – we should yet be firmly committed to the stewardship of the environment and practices that are sustainable and responsible. What I find interesting, however, is the way these emails give a rare insight into the behind-the-scenes efforts of scientists and the lengths some will go to shape the public perception of the claims of science. Andrew Bolt, writing for the Australian Herald Sun, argues that these emails point to:

Conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.

If legitimate, the private messages paint a damning picture of the defensiveness and insularity that can occur within the scientific community. Questions can also be raised about the frequently trumpeted guarantor of scientific truth: peer-review. Far from an impenetrable safeguard of intellectual rigor, peer-review can just as easily be captive to personal and political agenda. Bolt and others catalogue stunning examples of conflicts of interest, bullying, and other forms of manipulation that took place by the top climate change scientists to keep opponents from publishing in credible journals. The admission by realclimate.org, in their response to the hack, that scientists are “generally very competitive” is a magnificent understatement.

Indeed, the New York Times reports that “several scientists whose names appear in the e-mail messages said they merely revealed that scientists were human, and did nothing to undercut the body of research on global warming. “Science doesn’t work because we’re all nice,” said Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA whose e-mail exchanges with colleagues over a variety of climate studies were in the cache. “Newton may have been an ass, but the theory of gravity still works.””

I was reminded by this quote from David Berlinksi, former fellow at the Institute des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques in France and recent author of the book The Devil’s Delusion:

“The idea that science is a uniquely self-critical institution is of course preposterous. Scientists are no more self-critical than anyone else. They hate to be criticized… Look, these people are only human, they hate criticism — me too. The idea that scientists are absolutely eager to be beaten up is one of the myths put out by scientists, and it works splendidly so they can avoid criticism.

We’re asking for standards of behavior that would be wonderful to expect but that no serious man does expect. A hundred years of fraudulent drawings suggesting embryological affinities that don’t exist — that’s just what I would expect if biologists were struggling to maintain a position of power in a secular democratic society. Let’s be reasonable… the popular myth of science as a uniquely self-critical institution, and scientists as men who would rather be consumed at the stake rather than fudge their data, is okay for a PBS special, but that’s not the real world; that’s not what’s taking place…”

It will be interesting to see how this story will play out, and of course, if these correspondences are actually a fair representation of what has gone on. Our own local networks have been slow to pick up the news, but check out Peter Cresswell’s excellent summary and overview of the fall out. Glenn also offers some thoughts here.

Jesus among the historians

“While it is perhaps inappropriate to offer sweeping criticisms of scholars whose work I respect and from whom I have learned a great deal, I must say that [many portraits] of Jesus are unfair in that each presentation limits the evidence of the Gospels to a handful of sayings or events and builds an entire picture of Jesus primarily from one strand of the Gospel tradition. Yes, Jesus was a wise sage and a deeply religious man, and his teachings were undoubtedly more socially revolutionary than many evangelicals imagine; each of these portraits says something truthful about Jesus. At the bare minimum, they need to be combined for a fuller presentation.

My fundamental disagreement with each of them is that such a Jesus would never have been crucified, would never have drawn the fire that he did, would never have commanded the following that he did, and would never have created a movement that still shakes the world. A Jesus who went around saying wise and witty things would not have been threatening enough to be crucified during Passover when he was surrounded by hundreds who liked him. A Jesus who was a religious genius who helped people in their relationship with God and was kind, compassionate, and gentle would not have been crucified either. A social revolutionary would have been crucified (and this partly explains Jesus’ death, in my view), but it is doubtful that such a revolutionary would have given birth to a church that was hardly a movement of social revolution. And if in the process of surviving, this movement had to shave off the socially revolutionary bits of Jesus, it is amazing that they decided to connect themselves, even root themselves, into a person who was a social revolutionary at heart. No, these pictures of Jesus will not do.”

Scot McKnight, Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Jesus Studies in Wilkins and Moreland (eds), Jesus under Fire (Zondervan 1995), pages 61-62

Book Recommendation: Who Made God by Prof. Edgar Andrews

Who Made God by Edgar AndrewsA friend sent in the following book recommendation and associated information:

It is nearing the end of the year and although I have long lost count of how many books I have read this year, I have without a doubt just finished the best and likely most important book (other than the Bible) I have read this year.

I will be writing a formal review of the book for Themelios to be published next year, so I will have much more to say soon.

However, I really can’t wait until then to say “Buy this book and read it.”

I really cannot think of another book that so effectively shatters all of the major arguments from biology, to physics, to psychology, to just the average street-level atheist against the Biblical account of God and His Creation, the whole time pointing the reader directly to the Gospel of Christ as the only hope for man!

Find more about the book and the author on the website Who Made God? Along with a number of other reviews on the publisher’s site, here and Tim Challies’ review here.

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Conflict for the Copernican Controversy

Italy, in the early decades of the seventeenth century was the centre of the Copernican controversy. Today the perception of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is of a brilliant thinker unjustly persecuted and condemned by the church, the enemies of scientific progress. A champion of truth disgraced by those whose religious dogma is a hindrance to true knowledge of the world. But serious historians refuse to view the case as one of “science versus religion.” History is never so simplistic. It defies white-hat/black-hat renderings, as adherents of the conflict thesis try to make it out to be.

Galileo’s actions should be understood in relation to the volatile backdrop of the counter-reformation. By stridently defending the heliocentric model of the solar system with both observational and scriptural data, he embroiled himself in dispute with the Catholic Church. Catholicism had made itself the protectors of the Aristotelian philosophy and the Ptolemaic view of geocentricism,[1] and at the time was reacting against the innovations of Protestantism that were undermining the church’s traditional magisterial authority. Conceding Galileo’s new biblical interpretation was to undermine their strongest polemic that tradition was unchangeable, which would lend credibility to the Protestant movement.[2]

His major defense of the Copernican theory was initially received with sympathy within certain circles in the church, partly because Giovanni Ciampoli, who was a papal favorite, held him in high regard. Galileo lost support when Ciampoli fell from power in Rome, and this opened the door for Galileo’s condemnation.

Part of the problem was Galileo’s prickly personality, but the crux issue at stake was how the Bible should be interpreted. The official response was based on two considerations. First, by affirming the Bible should be interpreted according “to the proper meaning of the words.” In other words with a more literal approach, instead of an approach of “accommodation.”[3] Each method of interpretation had had a long history of use and was considered legitimate, but the debate now came to bear on certain passages that traditionally considered should be interpreted literally. Second, by affirming that the Bible should be interpreted “according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and of learned theologians.” The argument here was that no one else of note in the past has adopted this new interpretation.[4] Thus it was dismissed as an innovation.

McGrath points out;

“Appreciation of this point is thought to have been hindered in the past on account of the failure of historians to engage with the theological (and more precisely, the hermeneutical) issues attending the debate. In part, this can be seen as reflecting the fact that many of the scholars interested in this particular controversy were scientists or historians of science, who were not familiar with the intricacies of the debates on biblical interpretation of this remarkably complex period.”[5]

The affair is one which historians and philosophers of science still debate regularly. There is now general agreement however that, though Galileo’s views were eventually vindicated, he was overstepping the line by insisting his model was the way reality really was. At the time he did not have the evidence to support that claim,[6] so the church wanted to moderate his idea as one interpretation that equally explained the phenomena.

Galileo may have been branded a heretic but his sentence was reduced to house arrest, which amounted to a comfortable retirement where he could entertain guests, carry on his scientific research and publish further works that solidified his place in the pages of history as the founder of modern physics. Not an altogether bad way for a 68 year old to spend the remaining ten years of his life.

This is no more than a brief summary of Galileo and his role in the Copernican controversy, but enough has been said to conclude that painting the affair as one battle in the war of “Science versus Religion” is inadequate. History is often a far more complicated and tangled web than is made out to be, and is not suited to oversimplifications such as those given by proponents of the conflict thesis – as Galileo might call them, Simplicio.[7]


[1] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 150

[2] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[3] As a nursemaid accommodates a small child by scooping him up to reach what is on the table, so the Bible accommodates with its language to speak so that every one can understand.

[4] In 1615 the Carmelite friar Paolo Antonio Foscarini published Lettra sopra l’opinione de’ Pittagorici e del Copernico (Letter on the opinion of the Pythagoreans and Copernicus) which argued that the heliocentric model of the solar system was not incompatible with the Bible. Galileo adopted a similar approach of “accommodation”

[5] Alister E. McGrath. Science and Religion, (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1999) p. 12

[6] (Craig, audio blog “Scientific Intolerance” 2008-02-25) William Lane Craig. “Scientific Intolerance” http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5887

The Ptolemaic system explained better certain features of the observational astronomy than did the Copernican-heliocentric model of the solar system.

[7] Meaning “Simple-minded.” Galileo put the words of Pope Urban VIII into the mouth of a character of that name, a thinly veiled criticism of a very powerful supporter. His famous work Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a attack on Aristotelian geocentricism and advocated the Heliocentric worldview.

Albert Mohler on the New Atheism

Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of the radio talk show The Albert Mohler Program, gives a presentation at the University of Louisville explaining and defending the content of his latest book, Atheism Remix. The new book is a popular-level engagement of the New Atheism, helping Christians to understand and respond to the intellectual challenges raised by the the movement. To listen to the audio only, go here.

[vimeo 7701979]

Source: Justin Taylor

Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design

The argument from design is the Comeback Kid of theistic arguments.  Once long neglected, recent discoveries in cosmology and physics have brought the word design back into philosophical and scientific discussions. Molecular biologist and Nobel Prize winner, Francis Crick once concluded “An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would be satisfied to get it going.”

However, many (including Crick) are critical of allowing a theistic conclusion to follow from the growing awareness of the finely-tuned cosmic architecture. Some go so far as to say that such theories are not scientific – either because theories of design violate the purpose of science ( it is argued that science a priori must be defined as the pursuit of naturalistic explanations to natural processes) or because such theories violate the practice of science (not meeting requirements of observability, testability, etc).

Into this debate, philosopher of science and atheist, Bradley Morton has written a new book arguing that the theory of Intelligent Design is science and that its arguments are stronger than most realize. In Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, the professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado discusses the plausibility of arguments for a cosmic designer, the scientific legitimacy of design theories and even whether such theories may be taught in public school education. The book is a unique one in the philosophy of science and it looks to significantly develop and enhance the debate surrounding Intelligent Design.

Check out Dr. Monton’s website here (includes several published articles) and also his  blog here.
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