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The Gospel According to Dawkins

The ‘new atheists’ have frequently ignored their best qualified critics, particularly in recent years. As Richard Dawkins tours NZ this month, will he continue with this trend? If his many confident claims about the core historical aspects of the Christian faith (an area well outside his field of expertise) were subjected to rational scrutiny and public debate, would they survive? Dr Graeme Finlay’s recent book ‘The Gospel According to Dawkins’ suggests not. It moves rapidly through a wealth of detail including a lot of quite recent work in the field, but in a very accessible way. The conclusion is clear – Dawkins and friends are well out of their depth in this area. 

Professor Dawkins needs little introduction, as a populariser of evolutionary theory who in the early 21st century used that platform to help develop the movement that came to be known as the ‘new atheism’, a movement widely believed to now be in decline, subject to as many attacks from fellow atheists as from believers.

Dr Graeme Finlay is a senior lecturer in the medical school at the University of Auckland, and an experienced participant in science-faith discussions, author of many helpful books (e.g. on evolutionary genetics), booklets and articles in the field, also having training in theology. For more background, here’s a transcript of an interview with him on this book. Dr Finlay is also a project director of the recently established NZ Christians in Science

The book starts with discussing the relation between faith and evidence, and the ways in which our culture, in particular our scientific worldview, is so inextricably embedded within the Christian tradition – many of the conclusions of which, ironically, many atheists take on faith. Not all faith must be blind in this way, however – “Dawkins asserts that faith ‘requires no justification’. But I gladly acknowledge Christian faith precisely because it is rooted in the empirical world of human history.” Indeed, Christianity is perhaps uniquely among the religions focused on historical claims rather than ecstatic experiences, rituals, or prosperity.

As background, in the first two chapters, Finlay briefly traces the history of science, and the pre-Christian foundation for science to the New Testament. He also shows the relevance of theology, particularly the biblical descriptions of God’s nature (e.g. good, acts freely, has supreme authority), in understanding Christian views of the world (respectively: matter is not evil; nature is contingent – must be observed; and nature is secure and not at risk of being overwhelmed by chaos).

Next, it is asked – did Jesus exist? Leading new atheists and many of their followers have flirted with the claim that he didn’t – keeping it as a live option, while (for most of them) never quite fully committing to it. The historicity of some parts of the Hebrew scriptures are briefly touched on to follow up on a comparison Dawkins made with king David. Then Finlay gives the various early non-Christian references to Jesus substantive treatment. These references are widely discussed in introductory writings on the topic, but ‘the Gospel according to Dawkins’ provides a lot of helpful context which I wasn’t aware of – particularly fascinating is the discussion around Tacitus’ treatment. Then, we have the writings of Paul, and early Christians from the end of the first century, with many fascinating insights along the way.

The rest of the book explores the authorship of the gospels (we can know more than often thought), the history of gospel scholarship, the transmission of the gospel texts (reliable), other writings that got called gospels (late and uninformative), the historical value of the gospels (high), the problem of sin, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and much more. A recurring theme is that the new atheists engage in something similar to science denialism when they disregard the findings of New Testament studies. This book is written by a scientist and touches on science-related issues in a few places, so is particularly suitable for those who have or think they have a scientific mindset. It also works well though as a general introduction to reasons to take basic Christian ideas seriously. 

One of these central ideas is the idea of sin, which Dr Finlay helpfully explores towards the end of the book. Dawkins castigates Christians for obsessing over this topic, but the chapter on sin helps to show why it is as crucial for our modern lives as to people in any other era. In particular, it is illustrated with careful discussion of the environmental crisis our society faces and which all of us living in the modern world contribute to. This is no unthinking fundamentalist tract, but instead the product of decades of scientifically informed Christian thought. 

I highly recommend this book, it is much more interesting than I can adequately communicate in this short review. There is material here for old Christians, new atheists, and everyone in between, including many helpful references to the wider literature. I hope that Professor Dawkins and many members of the movement he has given birth to will also read it – they may find here a path to the intellectually fruitful and personally fulfilling enlightenment which they seek.

Why not pick it up on kindle now?  And if you have comments after reading, feel free to get in touch with me to discuss them. 

Dragon Speak (Or, What is Theology?)

You have nice manners for a liar and a thief  (Smaug in the Hobbit)

A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.  

The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).   

The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.

When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)

This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what  if you don’t believe in Jesus?

Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic,  wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).

Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)

But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.

The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.

St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not  Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.    

It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.

Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.    

References:

Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.     

The Difference Between Old Testament War and Qur’anic Jihad

Imad Shehadeh (Professor of Theology at Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary) puts forward several reasons why we should distinguish God’s OT command to kill the Canaanites from qur’anic Jihad:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”center”]

  1. It is limited to one time, not all times.
  2. It is limited to one land, not all lands. It judges sin to fulfill prophecy, not to adhere to a religion.
  3. It shows God’s holiness, not his power. Its goal is to bless the whole earth, not subdue it. It is God fighting for his people, not the people fighting for God.
  4. It is according to God’s trustworthy nature, not according to a capricious nature.
  5. It prefigures God finally absorbing the deserved judgment and wrath on all nations in Christ’s death on the cross. Judgment deserved became judgment absorbed.[/pk_box]

From his review of Allah: A Christian Response (Themelios Volume 36, Issue 2, Aug 2011).

 

Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?

In the comment thread of ‘What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel?’, I told a commenter, Elizabeth, that God does not love sinners in hell. Stuart disagreed, saying:

I disagree with Bnonn on the idea that God does not love those he has to punish. The wrath and hatred of God is reserved only for sin, and humans are caught up and are complicit in it, for which they suffer the consequence on the merit of their own choices. Therfore, God may still love the people in hell.

This is a pretty important topic, because it has huge consequences for what we tell unbelievers in apologetics and evangelism—so I want to bring it out of the comments and respond in a new post.

Read more

Love Actually

Doug Wilson:

“Rob Bell believes that hell is what we create when we reject God’s love. Amen. But I would want to add the absolutely critical proviso that this love of God (that is so rejected) must be defined as He defines it in the Bible, and not as we would wish it might be defined in our Big Rock Candy Mountain versions of Heaven. Read more

Suffering through Romans: Part Two

In the first part of this series I briefly sketched the historical and socio-cultural backdrop of the Roman Empire, its capital city Rome, and its citizens. In this second part I will survey this theme in Romans within the wider of context of Pauline theology. Read more

Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?

“There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would be wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner. A difference must be maintained between God’s view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1:18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).

Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness. But his love … wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God.”

D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (2000 Crossway books), page 68-69.

What Does Jesus Save Us From?

In this video, Douglas Wilson talks about the human predicament and why we need a saviour.

[vimeo 14483003]

Our Greatest Need

“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”

– D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Baker Book House, 1992) (HT: Of First Importance)

Look But Don't Touch

Recently, I had the privilege or misfortune to see the BBC documentary Alesha: Look But Don’t Touch. The show follows Alesha Dixon, singer and former member of girl band Misteeq, who sets out to expose the promotion of an idealised body-image, particularly the feminine figure in the beauty and fashion industry,  including the effects this has had and is having on the culture and the self-esteem of people.

While I can readily agree with most of what was said, there is one thing that bothered me while watching. The presentation was completely one-sided. It was so completely one-sided it appeared to have presupposed the conclusion; the industry is at fault, and something – we know not what – needs to be done.

During my training in Visual Communication for my Bachelor of Design degree this issue was something I was confronted with. Knowing there was a distinct possibility that I might end up performing tummy-tucks and face-lifts, etc. with Photoshop the ethical issues were something I had to wrestle with. Moreover, as a theologian with a bent for cultural critique, I see the need to be even-handed and not emphasise one side over another.

The problem can be expressed in these two penetrating questions; Does the idealised image of bodily perfection come from the creative designer and/or advertising producer, or does it come from the consumer? Does an image conform to a pre-existing ideal in culture, or is an ideal created new and adopted by culture?

We were taught of a never-ending circle;

1) Industry feeds culture,
2) Culture feeds industry.

The documentary focused on the first, but completely ignored the second. This is a “chicken-and-egg system.” That is a system with mutually dependant components – in this case culture and industry. Neither can exist without the other. As such no blame for any effect can be laid entirely at the feet of one or the other.

From a biblical worldview perspective, the reason for the downward spiralling problem can be correctly diagnosed and equally attributed to both the culture and the industry which are composed of fallen creatures. That is people are existentially in a state of estrangement from God, their essentially good nature corrupted with sin. Ultimately it is this marred human condition which is responsible for the idealised image of perfection, the ever increasing need to seduce consumers, the low self-esteem of those who consciously and unconsciously imbue it, and then are deceived into placing a higher priority on appearance than what should be.

Christianity can furnish the self-image of individuals and communities with lofty resources. That man looks on the outside, but God looks at the heart, thus eternal value is pegged to the condition of ones inner life rather than outward appearance. That Male and Female were made in the image of God. Their creation was the crown that made a good thing “very good.” Christ loved us, even though we were in a fallen, sinful and repulsive state of existence, so much he gave his life as a substitute for us. And in Him alone are all the deepest needs of the human heart fulfilled.

It is no wonder the program had no solutions forthcoming. Alesha could not diagnose the problem.