Friday, February 22, 2019

I'll take that literal passage metaphorically, if you don't mind!

I bet you are expecting a discussion on creation? If so, sorry for the click bait. No, I'm thinking about a passage that came up last evening in my devotions with my bride. Here it is from Mark's gospel:
25 And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26 She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27 When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29 Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. (Mark 5:25-29)
This passage refers to an actual event. It is literal. However, I find that it is also to my advantage to read it metaphorically. I have so many doctors to whom I turn to make me feel better: financial security, status, credentials, career, etc. On these faith healers I have invested much--but I'm only getting worse. There is but one physician who has and who is the cure for what ails me.

Well that's kind of sobering in a Debbie-Downer sort of way, and not the usual way I look at things.

OK, since you be may looking for something juicier, and apropos the title but not the post, which of these timelines do you take literally, and which do you take as imagery?
And there was evening, and there was morning—the [first, second, ...] day
Does day mean a 24-hour day?
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt. 24:34). 
Does this generation mean this generation, or does it mean some future generation with a sliding window?
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom (Matt. 16:27-28) 
Did the son of man come in his glory within, say 40 years of this statement? Or are some of those who were present still alive 2k years later?
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. (Rev. 1.1a) 
Does soon mean soon? Or does it mean millennia and still counting?
Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (Rev. 1:3) 
Does time is near mean time is near? Or does it mean millennia and counting?

If you take them all literally you are a YEC and a full or partial preterist. The rest of us mix and match.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Cool books that are (IMO) fraught with delightful errors

I find some books are extremely cool even though I am in basic disagreement with their theme. For example, consider the famous fundamentalist evangelist Jack Hyles. In his book (online version) Let’s Go Soul Winning (a rare 10 on the title-coolness scale) he gives this advice to door-to-door evangelists:
"There are two or three things a soul winner ought to watch. A soul winner ought to always watch his odor. That is tremendously important. Not only watch about your body odor, but you ought to be careful about your breath. One thing that will hurt more than most anything else in soul winning is bad breath. I would suggest that you carry mints with you. We men have a little pocket on the inside of our pocket. Put some mints in there. I always put one in my mouth before I conduct the invitation on Sunday and meet folks at the altar. So keep some mints handy. There are other ways you can help your breath. Gum is good if you can chew it when no one sees you. Someone said the only difference between a gum-chewing flapper and a cud-chewing cow is the intelligent look on the face of the cow! You can also use Sen-Sen. I used to get a bottle of Listerine to keep in my car and between each visit I gargled."
Good advice! Hard to argue against it. Except when you are simultaneously arguing that what is at stake here is the eternal destination of a person. Then you are effectively asserting that the sovereign god who created the universe can be thwarted by a piece of yummy garlic toast.

Another must-have book for any serious reader is The New Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism No. 2. This volume (the second of four) is at the level of preparing Catholic Children for confirmation, typically around age seven. What is fantastic about this book is that it is both informative and yet delightfully anachronistic. For example, in a section on "Occasions of Sin" there is a picture of a boy reaching for a pack of cigarettes on a dresser, with an ashtray and matches nearby. The boy reminds himself: "These are my father’s cigarettes. But he told me not to smoke, I'm too young..."


On the inside cover of the catechism we read:
"The faithful who devote twenty minutes to a half hour to teaching or studying Christian Doctrine may gain: An indulgence of 3 years. A plenary indulgence on the usual conditions twice a month, if the above practice is carried out at least twice a month. --Apostolic Brief, March 12, 1930; S. P. Ap., May 26, 1949. "
In teaching about the Eucharist and transubstantiation, the catechism states:
 351. Is Jesus Christ whole and entire both under the appearances of bread and under the appearances of wine? Jesus Christ is whole and entire both under the appearances of bread and under the appearances of wine. 
Notice what it states, for it is substantive: it argues that the body and the blood are both present in the bread and wine separately. The bread is not only body, and the the wine is not only blood. The reason for this doctrine, which is to defend the historic practice of withholding the wine from the laity (because they have a tendency to spill it, which necessitates special cleansing) is not mentioned. If the blood is also present in the bread and not just the wine, then the bread constitutes a complete meal, and the laity is not missing anything by not drinking the wine, so no spills to worry about.

I found quite interesting an explanation as to why transubstantiation doesn't go all the way--that is, why only the substance of the bread changes, but not the appearances:
The appearances of bread would also change into those of Christ if God did not prevent this by a miracle. When the priest says, "This is my body," at Mass, you would immediately see Christ, and not the appearances of bread, if God did not prevent it by a miracle. He keeps the appearances of bread in existence to enable us to eat the flesh of Christ without difficulty. (p. 165) 
Awesome.

These are both fantastic books--but the undisputed gold medalist in this genre (cool wrong books) is the Scofield Bible.

click to enlarge
C. I. Scofield was a genius. A misguided genius, but nevertheless a genius. Scofield did something that was a novel innovation. He published his Scofield Reference Bible (1909, rev. 1917) in which he embedded his notes and extensive cross-referencing scheme--unambiguously written from a dispensational viewpoint, into the biblical text rather than in a separate commentary. Combined with the fact that his notes were written with an air of absolute authority left many believers with the impression that Scofield's commentary had been vetted by ages and sages.

Some trivia about Scofield, especially given the types of churches that still adhere to dispensational premillennialism (which is cool but wrong in its own right ) is that he was an Old Earth Creationist. It is interesting--dispensationalism is the only systematic theology developed in the scientific era. As such, Scofield was well aware of fact that geology teaches us that the earth is old. So he embedded a particular form of OEC into his notes: the gap theory. He taught of an unknowable (from scripture, at least) long period of time between the first verse of the bible and the second. When he picks it up in the second verse he sounds like a garden variety YEC--he taught literal 24-hour days and even included Bishop Usher's calculations (with the dreaded 4004 BC result) in his original notes. So many people think was a YEC. But he wasn't.

 Note to church librarian: why are these classics not available in our book nook?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A Little bit of Douglas Wilson goes a Long Way

I preface this by saying I am not much of a Douglas Wilson fan. His “let’s educate the best and brightest Christian students” model is, in my opinion, unbiblical. (Yes it’s personal. The school under discussion here is a Wilson-model school) and regardless of its merits, his justification of his model demonstrates that he is inept at statistics. (Students who take Latin do better in a second foreign language? Duh! Can you spell “self selected”?) He is a Presbyterian wannabe but his church has no oversight. And he likes to wax nostalgically about the antebellum south and how things weren’t so bad for the African slaves. Then there is Federal Vision, unwarranted arrogance, and general acute, congenital, smugness...

Wilson is not happy that Al Mohler apologized for his public support for C. J. Mahaney. In his article, Wilson performs a bait and switch. Mohler correctly apologizes for his public, boisterous support of Mahaney which is unseemly and potentially harmful. And yes, Mahaney is only accused. Wilson makes a big deal out of this. He charges Mohler with abandoning Mahaney, and makes a ridiculous (fatuous even) comparison to those who abandoned Paul because he was accused of "stuff". Paul was not abandoned because he was accused of "stuff", he was abandoned because some of those who were with him walked away from the faith. Secondly, there is no evidence that Mohler is abandoning Mahaney. Rather, Mohler is apologizing for a misguided over-the-top public exoneration. Mohler would not need to apologize if he privately supported his friend Mahaney, and perhaps he still does. It is the potential affront to real victims that Mohler should have avoided, as much as he may believe Mahaney to be innocent.

If Pastor X or Professor Y is accused of sexual misconduct, and the accusation clearly exceeds (as it does here) the threshold where one can easily dismiss it as obvious extortion or revenge, then your very public support of the accused must respect the potential effect on victims--even if it turns out that there are no actual victims. This is not "believe the victim no matter what" but rather "let's be restrained and publicly cautious until there is an independent investigation."

In my profession (professor), I could be accused. It is not far-fetched. This are my instructions to my friends: by all means talk to me and, if you believe me, give all the private support you can to me and my family. Please don't abandon me. But there is no need for unseemly, dogmatic, public support. I will not be hurt if publicly you say that you do not wish to talk about it until the investigation is complete. I won't like waiting for an investigation--but the bottom line is that there is a protocol here, Mohler violated it, and I applaud him for apologizing.

Wilson, on the other hand, is in his common position of missing the boat.

Monday, February 18, 2019

The world according to Barth

It is hard to believe that there used to be sightings of Swiss Reformed theologians as recently as the 20th century! While not officially extinct, they-- along with other close relatives in the genus Western European Reformed Theologians-- are on the endangered species list.  In trouble in the New World is the Trustworthy Evangelical Celebrity Pastor, which is very hard to find in the wild. (The subspecies Celebrity Pastor may soon be easier to find in captivity.)

Anyway,  the most famous of the 20th century Swiss theological big cheeses 1 was, of course, Karl Barth (1886-1968) 2.

Barth was one asked what was the most important word in the New Testament. He chose huper (ὑπέρ Strong's 5228) which is often translated as on behalf of, or for the sake of, or simply just the word for.

Here is a few places where we find huper used, just in one book, Romans:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom 5:6) 
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8) 
and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:27) 
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Rom 8:32) 
who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. (Rom 8:34)

The word huper is a one-word uber-synonym for the substitutionary atonement and for the continuing intercession--indeed for the gospel itself, which is accurately explained in terms of what was done for us, not by us.  Barth was spot-on. No holes in that Swiss. 1


1 Didja see what I did there? Didja?

For the longest time, at the start of my self-taught theology educational journey,  I thought Francis Schaeffer was Swiss. (Which is another reason, among many, why one should not be self-taught.) I was mildly disappointed to find out he was a Yank. Kind of a man of two countries, like Masterpiece Theater's longtime host Alistair Cooke. Cooke once said of himself (paraphrasing from memory) "In the States I am considered a distinguished British gentleman. While in the UK, people think of me as an enlightened American." That's awesome.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Death Sentences of Ananias and Sapphira

One of the more disconcerting passages in the New Testament is found in the book of Acts, chapter the 5th, when Ananias and Sapphira are summarily and divinely executed. We first read of Ananias’ sudden heart failure:
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. (Acts 5:1-5)
Three hours later, his wife Sapphira suffers the same fate.

What seems troubling to some (by which I mean to me) is that Ananias and Sapphira appear to receive so-last-testament-style capital punishment for not giving all they could to the poor.

But that is not the case. At least I don’t think so.

That is not to say one should not give all one can to the poor (the purpose of the apostolic collection), or that it is not sinful to withhold what can be given for alms. It is rather to say that Ananias and Sapphira were, I reckon, guilty beyond garden-variety greed. I believe that their guilt was compounded by three factors—I don’t know which is the most serious, but my gut tells me it is the third of this enumeration:

First, when they presented the partial gift it appears they implied it was a full gift.  This compounded their greed with bald-faced lying.

Second, they delivered the reduced gift with "it's all about me!" pomp and circumstance, laying it directly, we are told, at the feet of the apostles. So to greed and lying we add rank hypocrisy, which is rarely a good combination.

Which brings us to the third distinctive, and I think the worst. For  Ananias and Sapphira have the dishonor of blotting the nascent church with its first stain of corruption. Back up to chapter 4, and you read of the church as we all hope it could be. A church that needs no corrective apostolic epistle. It was probably the closest example ever to Spurgeon’s famous adage: “The day we find the perfect church, it becomes imperfect the moment we join it.” Ananias and Sapphira provide us with the lesson that the church will have to deal with the sins of its members, and God takes it very seriously.

And God takes the mercy ministry of the church seriously. I think the modern evangelical community should take that lesson to heart. What percentage of your church's budget is for aiding the poor in your community compared to its foreign mission budget?

I don't know how to make the comparison, because mercy ministry is relatively inexpensive but requires a great investment of time. Foreign missions are expensive, but you can cut a check and be done with it. I don't know what budget calculus to use that takes into account money and time, but if there is one, I'd speculate that a healthy church would have comparable line items for mercy and for missions.


I need to say that Ananias and Sapphira did not receive injustice. Sin is a capital offense, and God would be perfectly just to take us all out. But mercifully, he allows most of us to live for a short while. Ananias and Sapphira are an exception, 2 but not one that impugns God’s character, but rather one that reminds us that we all are breathing on the basis of stays of execution. For if the greed of Ananias and Sapphira always led to immediate death, there’d be, for sure, no traffic jams. Anywhere.

2 For some reason this reminds me of the physicists' joke regarding that elusive particle, the neutrino. Neutrinos barely interact, and there are gazillions of them (mostly from the sun) passing through your body at any moment, and then most pass right through the earth. Given all these uncountable neutrinos passing through your body, calculations show that one will actually stop in your body on average about once every 70 years. That's the one that kills you. 3

3 That's the joke. Not funny? Give me a break, we are physicists.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Christians and Gambling


I break gambling down into three categories:
  1. Gambling for income
  2. Gambling as entertainment
  3. Social gambling
I will address these one-by-one

Now, for my theological presupposition, I'm of the mind that what is not explicitly prohibited by scripture (or easily derived therefrom)  is permissible with all the attendant caveats about idols, covetousness, making your brother stumble, and especially the lesson that all things should be done in moderation.

Gambling for Income

No way. I cannot possibly reconcile this with the body of scripture. Although--it is not quite as straightforward as I might have hoped, given there is no direct "though shall not gamble and thou shall be a good steward"  command. Even worse, the parable of the talents suggests that one is to be lauded for getting a 100% return on investment, which in any culture involves placing your money at risk. However we must remember that a) it's a parable, and they are never to be taken literally and b) the intent of the risk-taking servants in the parable was to return the profits (all of them) to the master, not to provide income for their family. Their intent is not the intent of the professional gambler. 

I think that with all the scripture related to stewardship, and other scripture related to things like providing for your family, and scripture related to performing honorable work, and especially the picture of God's providence that clearly emerges, the case against gambling for income is solid.

Gambling as Entertainment

By this I mean things like stopping at the 7-Eleven on the way home from work and participating in the most regressive tax ever devised by man, the lottery. 1 I never do this, so naturally I am tempted to take a "Thank you God that I am not such a sinner as he!" attitude. But I hear people say things like: 

It's just for fun. It's cheaper than a movie!

True enough. But what is it about the lottery that is fun? The fun is, I think, in envisioning what you'd do with the money. Still, I feel reluctant to cast a judgement, mostly because I have the trunk of a redwood tree in my eye regarding things that are fun but possibly sketchy (is that still a cool word?) Color me ambivalent.

Social Gambling

This is when you are with friends, typically non-Christian friends, and a gambling situation arises. In this situation, I have no problem with minor gambling. Here I view it (if done right--which implies without seriousness and involving as little money as possible) as a form of fellowship and even the benefit demonstrating the Christians are not (always) legalistic killjoys.

For example: if I am in a group at an event that has a 50-50 raffle,  and most in the group are participating, I would not, as a matter of principle, take the position "I'm a Christian and I don't gamble." The bigger lesson I would see here, absent an explicit prohibition, is to be all things to all people.

Or office lottery pools. The last time the MegaZillions lottery had a 10 figure prize, someone in the department organized a pool, and almost everyone threw in a dollar. I did too. Somehow we "won" a tiny amount because shortly after the  drawing he distributed $0.75 to all participants. (And by winning, I mean we all only lost $0.25 each, rather than $1.00)

Once (maybe ten or so years ago) I was on a work related trip to San Diego. My colleagues at the facility I was working invited me to participate in their weekly game of Texas Hold 'em, which I roughly understood from ESPN—although I hadn't watched enough to appreciate the finer points of small and big "blinds" and the like.

Well—I wiped 'em out! I won everything! ($120).

I never played again. Texas Hold 'em—man that is some game. It involves an intoxicating combination of luck, memory, mathematics, and psychology. That game is dangerous—that game is one that could suck me in. That is "capital T" Temptation. 

Christian Liberty

Somehow this reminds me of a story from some Presbyterian theologian whose name escapes me...hold on it will come.. oh yeah, that R.C. Sproul fellow. He related (paraphrasing from memory) how he went to lunch with a group of Christians and the waitress came to the lady at the head of the table and asked if anyone would like something from the bar. The nice lady huffed indignantly and said something like "We are Christians. We do not drink." R.C. said when the waitress got to him he was oh-so tempted to say "I'll have single malt, neat!" But he refrained. Good man.

I once went to lunch in DC with a group of hard core internet atheists including this guy, where I the lone Christian, (and a Baptist no less) and yet was the only one to order an alcoholic drink (beer). It was a Twilight Zone moment.


1 The most perfect parable in the lottery universe is the fact that the only time a state run "pick three" was ever rigged in the US, the number drawn was 666. Awesome. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Science is the Evangelical Trophy Wife

In many evangelical circles, science has become a trophy wife. Put her front and center, and show her beauty in, say, the form of Hubble nebulae photographs, with the requisite Psalm 19:1 caption, but do not ever let her speak, for she is likely to embarrass you. Her theological utility is only in the pleasant optics, not in the substance.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Nothing makes me more of a pariah among my fellow believers than my support for theistic evolution (or by the preferred name du jour: "evolutionary creationism"). I honestly don't even know if it is considered (any longer) an acceptable view in my own church. I sort of don't want to know.

Evolutionary creationism, like every other ism, has a liberal-conservative spectrum. That range is on full display on the portal devoted to evolutionary creationism: biologos. I play a lot in the site's forum, which is a relatively collegial environment, beset only by the occasional troll. 1

On biologos, I think it is accurate to say that I'm on the conservative end (maybe even lunatic fringe end) of the spectrum (which is an odd place for me, this rightward lunatic fringiness). My enumerated summary of my position is this:
  1. The physical evidence, from a number of independent studies from disparate disciplines including geology, plate-tectonics, physics, astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, all point to an earth that is about 4.5 billion years old and a universe that is roughly three times older.

  2. It would be a Herculean task to show why any one of these methodologies is wrong, let alone all of them. And in the unlikely event that you prove them all wrong, you are left with the equally difficult task of explaining how they all arrive at the same wrong answer.

  3. There is a fossil record that numbers in the millions that shows plenty of transitional species, including the most famous, the Tikaalik, whose existence and fossil location was predicted by applying a combination of evolution and geology.

  4. Evolution was the secondary means God used to create the diversity of life on earth. It was never out of his control and man was always the intended and inevitable pinnacle of this ordained process.

  5. Adam and Eve are historic beings, the first ensouled people. There were, at the time, other genetically identical hominids; it is perhaps from those that the sons of Adam and Eve selected their wives. 2
It is #5 in the list above, the historicity of Adam and Eve, that is something of a minority position on biologos.

I take solace from Reformed Baptist Augustus Strong. From the Wikipedia entry on Agustus Strong:
Augustus Hopkins Strong (3 August 1836 – 29 November 1921) was a Baptist minister and theologian who lived in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His most influential book, Systematic Theology, proved to be a mainstay of Reformed Baptist theological education for several generations.
Strong had a progressive (that's a bad word, isn't it?) view on evolution. He wrote:
There is a Christian conception of evolution, and in light of it, I propose to interpret the fall and the redemption of man. To prevent misunderstanding, I must define what I mean by evolution. Evolution is not a cause but a method. God is the cause. He is in his universe, and he is the source of all its activities with the single exception of the evil activity of the human will. When I speak of evolution as the method of God, I imply that the immanent God works by law; that this is the law of development; that God, and the old the basis of the new, and the new an outgrowth of the old. In all ordinary cases God works from within and not from without. Yet this ordinary method does not confine or limit God. He is transcendent as well as immanent. His is not simply “in all” and “through all” but he is also “above all.” 3, 4 (emphasis added)
I am weary of the arguments against a non-literal view of Genesis from young earth creationists. 5  Some, like Wayne Grudem and Al Mohler, like to make slippery slope arguments about how a denial of a young earth will ultimately lead to a denial of the gospel, and most likely the proverbial cats and dogs living together out of wedlock. I have been an old earth creationist for some time and so far I still affirm the gospel. Apparently the slope on this slippery slope is not very steep.

Try not to ponder that if the world's voluminous database of observations, from the fossil record to the comic background radiation to the recently discovered (as predicted) gravitational waves, should they be nothing more than faith tests, points to a God of deceit and confusion and not the God of the bible.

And by all means don't consider that the solid state devices in the computer you are using to write your polemic against "scientism", evolutionary creationism, and indeed any form old earth creationism is the self-same science by which we understand radiometric dating.

Send the trophy wife inside when her beauty has served its purpose.


1 The trolls that do show up can be from any ideology: atheists, young earth creationists, intelligent design proponents (biologos is anti-ID), fundamentalists, etc.

2 This is, of course, pure speculation, but no more so than the speculations of young earth creationists who either speculate on incestuous relationships for Adam and Eve's sons and never-mentioned daughters, or invoke additional special creation about which the bible is also utterly silent.

3 The Fall and the Redemption of Man in light of Evolution, Augustus. H. Strong, A paper read at the Baptist Congress, Buffalo NY, November 15 1898. Reprinted p. 163, Christ in Creation and Ethical Monism, Augustus. H. Strong, Roger Williams Press, Philadelphia, 1899.

4 In revising history, some modern Baptists will argue Strong never really supported evolution.

5 And they really are not an argument for a literal view of Genesis, but rather a particular literal view. Day-Age proponents (I am not one) will argue that their view of Genesis is just as literal, but it is done with the proper meaning assigned to the Hebrew word yom which is translated as day. They are on solid ground in that argument.

Monday, February 11, 2019

I get email

Like most of us, I ride an endless spiritual roller coaster, and at the moment I’m at the nadir of the current go-round. Which brings us to yesterday, when I received an email concerning this blog. Now most of the blog-related emails I get are negative— typically from my fellow believers "graciously" accusing me of the heresy of letting science trump scripture. But this one... this was nothing short of providential.

Here it is (with permission) and some privacy-preserving redactions:
Hi David, 
I just wanted to message you and let you know that I really appreciate your blog and am glad that your retirement plans were premature. 1 I am a [REDACTED] graduate student in physics/astronomy at UC Berkeley and a member of a local reformed church, so I particularly value the unique perspective you bring to the table. I first started reading your blog something like 7 years ago when I stumbled across it as a wanna-be Christian poking around on the internet to see if believing physicists were even a thing. To me, your writing was a revelation and almost instantly encouraged me; at the time the Christians I was surrounded by were the sort who poo-pooed science, accepted most things at face value, called God "Daddy," and consistently made extraordinary claims regarding healing or personal revelation. It really turned me off from the church for a while but reading things written by people like you gave me hope that there were other analytically minded believers out there. Eventually, after a (true) friend would not stop pestering me about how I needed to find a church, I stumbled upon a local orthodox Presbyterian congregation and I have not looked back. 
Anyway, I recently re-discovered your blog and appreciate it even more now that I know a little more doctrine/theology. Each Sunday evening I enjoy catching up on your posts. Keep up the good work! I am sure there are many others out there like me who read but never comment. [REDACTED] 
Regards, [REDACTED] | [REDACTED]@berkeley.edu
Thank you so much for this email.

Well, the writer (and my new friend) has possibly discovered by now that when it comes to academic departments, the least antagonistic towards believers is (at least in my anecdotal experience) physics. For real vitriol you need to look toward the humanities. I’m not alone in this assessment. In his book The Creator and the Cosmos, Christian astronomer Hugh Ross quotes one of my professors, Heineman prize winner Robert Griffiths:
 If we need an atheist for a debate, I go to the philosophy department. The physics department isn’t much use. 
Yes that’s hyperbole—but only slightly so.

You probably noticed that the writer of my recent email is a Christian graduate student at Berkeley. There is another name for that: foreign missionary.


1 I pulled a Brett Favre.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

God and the proton

The proton is remarkable. It is the perfect electrical counterpart to the electron, having exactly equal but opposite charge, thereby enabling the stability of neutral matter (atoms). And yet, the two particles could not be more different 1. The electron is (as far as we know) fundamental (non-composite) while the proton is a right-royal mess. 2 Naively thought of as three quarks (a picture that is woefully inadequate) a proton is actually complicated interacting soup of quarks and gluons, and its properties arise from the aggregate effects of this subatomic quagmire. Its fundamental characteristics are only beginning to be unraveled. 3

Our universe gives the appearance of being fine-tuned to create heavy elements, the ingredients of rocks and of life.4 These heavy elements are forged inside of stars. The scientific theist would indeed agree with Genesis that we are made of dust—star dust to be precise, the (providential) remnants of an exploding star.

The existence of stars is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a foregone conclusion. It depends on a detailed balance of the initial conditions of the big bang. A change in any number of factors (e.g., the absurdly small value of the cosmological constant, the baryon density, etc.) and we could have easily had, just post big bang, too fast or too slow of an initial expansion. If too fast the universe would be too diluted to form stars, and if too slow there would be a rapid reversal into big-crunch. In either case: no rocks and no life. So stars themselves are rather unexpected, should you merely pop a universe into existence via a big bang of random initial conditions and physical constants.

But even given, on a silver platter, a universe that produced stars, you would not be home free. For the nuclear fusion furnace inside of stars is a veritable house of cards as it synthesizes heavier and heavier elements.5 The fusion chain relies on the relative strengths of fundamental forces, on fortuitous excited states of nuclei that permit the process to proceed at a decent clip, and yet quantum selection rules to prevent it from occurring too rapidly, lest all the material get converted to iron leaving the star with no lighter elements like carbon and oxygen (those are kinda important!) to seed the universe with when it obligingly explodes. (The explosion itself relies on some rather happy coincidences.)

As you dive deeper into serendipity of heavy element production (creation?)  you always end of at the same place—the remarkable properties of the lightest nucleus—the proton, viz.6 Its mass relative to its sister, the neutron. The fact that it just barely binds with the neutron, and doesn’t bind with another proton, both features necessary to avoid catastrophe. Its infinite or effectively infinite stability to decay.

I could go on. There is a laundry list of proton properties that are necessary if the universe is to produce the building blocks of rocks. And life.

My much smarter colleagues at Jefferson Lab have uncovered a new property of the proton. In the center of the proton there exists an outward pressure a hundred times greater than that found inside of neutron stars, cosmic objects (end of life stars) that are almost black holes; typically about 20 km in diameter and more massive than our sun, neutron stars that are so dense that a single teaspoon would weigh about a hundred million tons. Consider that for a moment: the humble proton, the building block of all normal matter, has at its tiny center an outward pressure greater than that of a neutron star. And yet—it is stable. Very stable. It doesn’t “explode.”

I think about my friends and I applaud and marvel at their achievement. I know that along with them I find it remarkable and beautiful. And yet I think (I don’t know for sure) we reach different metaphysical conclusions. I immediately think of Psalm 19:1. While I guess they are more of the Laplacian: Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.

I don't know how to explain that. It just is.


1 Given the electromagnetic force is about 1037 times stronger than gravity, if matter were not neutral the electrical forces would dominate, and there would be no large scale universe; no galaxies, stars, or planets.

2 The present upper bound on the size of the electron is about 10-18 m. (There is no experimental lower bound, so the electron could be much smaller than the present upper bound.) All current theories postulate it to be a point-like fundamental particle, i.e. it is not made of smaller constituents. The proton does have a discernible radius of about 10-15 m, small but roughly 1000 times bigger than the upper bound of the electron size. Furthermore the proton, far from being fundamental, is complicated composite of quarks and gluons.

3 And Jefferson Lab is at the forefront of much of the investigation.

4 The term fine-tuned is agnostic about the question of whether there exists a sentient fine tuner. Anyone who complains about the term fails to realize that we often anthropomorphize terms in science. We say things like: “the electron knew which slit to pass through” and “nature hates changing the magnetic flux.” Fine tuning is merely descriptive of the fact that the existence of stellar nuclear furnaces where the ingredients of rocks (and, as a happy byproduct, life) are forged appears to be so sensitive to the values of the physical constants that many believe the only non-supernatural explanation is the multiverse. Of course, if you are a theist there is nothing stopping you from taking the term more literally (and why wouldn’t you?). But even the theist should acknowledge that the phrase was not coined to be supportive of a universe designer.

5 Up to iron. The heavier elements, many of them ingredients of life, are created during the explosion (supernova) of large stars.

6 The proton is (is also?) the nucleus of the simplest element and consummate nuclear fuel: hydrogen.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Mark Dever: If he is right, then he is REALLY wrong

I don’t know much about Mark Dever. I do not browse his writings, and I don’t have any of his books. (Given his celebrity status, I assume he has “books.”) However, while recently following breadcrumbs, I was led to an article he wrote entitled The Sin of Infant Baptism, Written by a Sinning Baptist.

As an aside, and while it is neither relevant nor substantive: I hate the title. Why add the unnecessary “Written by a Sinning Baptist.” To me it is condescending and smug. Maybe that’s just me. We know you are a sinner Pastor Dever.

In my opinion, this article presents a truly atrocious argument. Not because Dever boldly calls something sin; I have no probably with calling sin, sin. (Although he is wrong, infant baptism per se is not a sin) Rather—it is really because his argument that starts off bad becomes even worse if you grant, arguendo, that he is correct: infant baptism is a sin. But let's first discuss why it can not be considered sin.

Infant Baptism is Not Sin

One way to demonstrate that paedobaptism is sin is to present a scriptural command not to do it, or if its prohibition could be derived, unambiguously, from scripture. Another way would be to show that credobaptism is the only mode allowed by scripture. As a dedicated credobaptist I am here to tell you that Dever can do no such thing. 1, 2

In the article Dever writes
Nevertheless, as I understand the words of Christ in Matt. 28:18-20 Christians are commanded to baptize and to be baptized, and the practice of infant baptism inhibits the obedience of what I take to be a quite straightforward command. (Emphasis added.)
I am not sure if he meant to write "baptize and to be baptized" or if he intended "believe and to be baptized." Dever refers to the Great Commission passage—which says absolutely nothing about believing. We all agree that there is a command to baptize. But the Great Commission is silent on the question of who is to receive the sacrament. I am not sure what he is thinking here (perhaps Mark 16:16? 1 Pet 3:21? Acts 2:28?) Or is his issue really with the fact that infants cannot baptize?

In any event, lets stipulate that there is a command as plain as “believe and be baptized. " It still would not prohibit paedobaptism any more than John 3:16 excludes infants from salvation. The bible tells us the normative case, any special case (like elect infants who can never in any sense "believe") is to be inferred. The bible is meant to be read intelligently.

Dever is inventing sin where there is none. He might as well say that going to the movies is sinful.

In either a form of projection or to appear “fair-is-fair” gracious, Dever “concedes” that his paedobaptist brethren might consider him to be in sin. I don’t think so. At least, I have never read such a charge from modern paedobaptists. I was a Presbyterian (PCA) when I first became a Christian (as an adult) and while we made good-natured fun of Baptists 3 we never said that their failure to baptize infants was a sin. 4

What if Infant Baptism is a Sin? 

Well, if Dever is right about paedobaptism being a sin, then his error is magnified. Because he completely dismisses the seriousness of the sin. The sinners are awarded a get out of jail free card. He writes:
I certainly do not think my paedobaptist brethren are intentionally sinning in this. In fact, they even think that they are obeying God so, short of them changing their understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this, I can’t expect any “repentance,” because they lovingly but firmly disagree with the Baptist understanding of this.
and
I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.
These are his friends and brethren he tells us, multiple times, and he accuses them to be in sin in regard to one of the two sacraments commanded by our Lord. But it is not so bad—because they are sincere. And they are not intentional.

Do I have to give examples of false doctrines whose proponents are sincere and not intentional? Is Arianism to be treated lightly because, for example, JWs are friends and sincere and not intentionally sinning?

If Dever believes that paedobaptism is sin, then he should not have an “It’s cool, they probably think I’m sinning!” attitude. He should be calling them to repent. Even if they are his friends. Especially if they are his friends. If they are baptizing in a sinful manner, it is as serious as if they are celebrating communion in a sinful manner.

The whole article is, in my opinion, internally inconsistent and nonsensical.


1 Keep in mind that both Baptists and Presbyterians affirm credobaptism for older children and adults.

2 While it is not a logical argument, in fact it is probably a variant of the “argument from authority” fallacy, I find the “It can’t be that simple, otherwise...” retort to be compelling. In this case, we have an honor roll of theologians on both sides of this issue. People like Calvin and Spurgeon, all or most of whom we can assume would embrace any truth of scripture that was plainly given. To put it bluntly, if Mark Dever can derive from scripture that paedobaptism is a sin, then so can John Calvin and a gazillion other paedobaptist men and women of integrity. The bottom line is that God, in His inscrutable wisdom, has left both sides with nothing but an argument from silence. (Reminder: I’m a credobaptist, like Dever.)

3 Of the form: Baptists have three sacraments: baptism, communion, and Pot-Luck! And the oldie but goody: Why are Baptists against premarital sex? Because it might lead to dancing!

4 With some caveats. One relates to a repulsive subset of Presbyterians-- the theonomists. But those looney-tunes thought everyone who didn’t vote a certain way and send their kids to Douglas Wilson (barf) approved schools were hell bound. And then there were the paedocommunion types. But they were more concerned with the error of their non-paedocommunion Presbyterian brothers, accusing them of "spiritually starving" children. I even heard, more than once, a paedocommunion proponent argue that “at least the Baptists are consistent! But Presbyterians giving one sacrament to infants and not the other are not!” In that regard, I think they have a point.