Monday, July 31, 2006

Next Sunday School Topic

For the new semester beginning in September, I am thinking of the topic of Cessastionism for my Sunday School class.

Cessationism teaches that the charismatic gifts: tongues, prophecy and healing, gifts generally associated with God the Holy Spirit, ceased being practiced early in Church history, either at the Church's reception of the canon or with the death of the last apostle.

As always, I selfishly pick topics that I am interested in. I have never studied Cessastionism thoroughly.

I have a bias going in: for some reason that I can't quite pinpoint, I want cessastionism to be the biblical position. Perhaps it's the excesses of the charismatic practices that have prejudiced my view. However, in the very little that I have studied in this regard, scripture is by no means superficially clear. I am sure there is not simple, slam-dunk enumeration of proof-texts for either side. Just like for the infant-baptism debate, or the end-times debate.

(Although not for the predestination debate—there predestination "wins" either by a careful study or by simple, good-old-fashioned, head-to-head, proof-text mudslinging.)

Intensive study, of course, can change everything. The first time I did a study of eschatology I wanted to be convinced of dispensational premillennialism. Not much is as soothing as believing in an imminent, left-behind style rapture—just the thought of standing in the dessert line at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb while reading post-disappearance comments on the Panda's Thumb is enough to bring a smile to any believer's face. Even so, I expected that a careful examination would actually point to amillennialism. The unanticipated result was that I became persuaded of postmillennialism. So you just never know.

I have ordered a couple books on this subject, including Kenneth Gentry's The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy. I gather he takes a cessationist position, at least in regards to prophesy. His books are always meticulously researched so it will be fascinating to see how compelling he makes his case.

Of course, all this is pending approval through the mysterious proceedings of the secret Star Chamber known as "The Elders" (I mean really, couldn't they come up with a less Machiavellian name?)

Friday, July 28, 2006


I can do technical work for hours and hours without feeling the need for a break. But today I have to write my own performance review. Of course I've known about this for some time, and naturally put it off to the last moment. Now I am so sleepy and so bored that I am distracted by peeling sunburned skin off my forearms. (Fortunately I have my own office--however the door is open so I really should stop.)

Is there anything worse that filling out your own performance evaluation? Maybe one thing: reading and evaluating other people's reviews. Fortunately my company recognizes my lack of management skills and consequently I have nobody reporting to me.

When I was a professor I served and chaired the faculty review committee, where we evaluated promotion and tenure applications. To get tenure, you essentially need to demonstrate that you walk on water--those self-reviews come in the form of multi-volume binders. I preferred root-canal over reading those dossiers.

My favorite account of someone applying for tenure is so near-and-dear to me that I fictionalized it in my book (which most of you haven't bought-forcing me to embellish this year's accomplishments so that I don't have to feed my kids dog food.) A professor in my department inserted a letter from him mom into his tenure application which read:
Dear Committee,

Please give my son Marty his tenure thing--he is a good boy. If he had studied harder I'm sure he could have been a real doctor.
A real doctor. I love it.

Do you think I'm procrastinating? Ooh—some more loose skin just begging to be peeled…

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Survey Says...

Over on the Contemporary Calvinist, Lee Shelton (via Marc Heinrich) asks (with more details than reproduced below) an interesting survey question:

What is the Most Damaging to the Body of Christ?
  1. The Anglican's naming a woman Presiding Bishop who supports ordination of practicing gay clergy.

  2. The PC (USA)'s allowing the renaming of the Trinity to "compassionate mother, beloved child, and life-giving womb" instead of "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"

  3. The Southern Baptist Convention resolution on alcohol:
    RESOLVED, That we urge that no one be elected to serve as a trustee or member of any entity or committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that is a user of alcoholic beverages.

    RESOLVED, That we urge Southern Baptists to take an active role in supporting legislation that is intended to curb alcohol use in our communities and nation ...
Lee chose number three. I agree, for similar reasons. In defining liberal as a man-centered deviation from the bible, each of these is an ultra-liberal excursion away from scripture. The SBC's evangelical/fundamentalist form of liberalism—that would be legalism—is the most insidious in that it wraps itself in a fa├žade of conservatism. Legalism attacks the church like a boa-constrictor.

All of these positions spit in the face of the bible. Each removes, ignores, modifies, or adds something that is not there. Each represents classic liberal arrogance: I don't quite like what I find (or don't find) in the bible. I'm sure God actually meant something else, something I would mean, if I were god.

Bad SBC, bad!

We await your condemnation of all the high-fat, destroying-the-body-as-a-temple foods that are desecrating the third Baptist ordinance: pot-luck. Pit barbeque leads to the Pit!


After moving to New Hampshire four years ago, I was introduced to the regional Moxie Soda, allegedly America's "oldest continually sold commercially marketed carbonated drink." It tastes something like Root Beer where all the sugar has been replaced with alum. Definitely an acquired taste.

I only learned recently what most people may already know—that the really cool word moxie, meaning "the ability to face difficulty with spirit and courage," comes from the soda (or at least its purely medicinal precursor). I would have guessed a coincidence, or perhaps the other way around, but never the truth.

I think that’s just perfect.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Oy Vay! Genesis One and Two Disagree!

In the Genesis One account, and in the fossil record with which that account is consistent, animals are created before man. However, moving on to the next chapter, in Genesis 2:19 we read:
So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Gen. 2:19, ESV)
Unsophisticated bible critics label this an obvious error.

Now there are a fair number of difficult questions regarding scripture, but this isn't one of them. Talented bible critics never bring up Genesis One v. Genesis Two as a problem, since they recognize that, in fact, it isn't.

The irreconcilable discrepancy, as it were, is clear. In the English, Gen. 2:19 reverses the order of creation given in Genesis One. In Genesis Two, it appears that man was created before the animals.

Like, o my gosh that's embarrassing! How could we not have noticed?

We first note, not as an explanation but just as a datum, that Genesis One is a chronological creation account, while Genesis Two is not. Genesis Two zooms-in on the creation of man, elaborating on his duties and responsibilities.

We also suggest that this verse presents something of a problem for young earth creationists, because Adam's naming of the animals would have to have been completed in a matter of hours (or minutes), since other things also happened on day six. Adam's ability to name (thoughtfully, it would appear) all the animals has been explained in a number of problematic (meaning without biblical support) ways, such as pre-fall supernatural speed, or and/or a pre-fall super-intellect. Of course, for old earth creationists this is not an issue.

Back to the point at hand, where we will find that there is a simple explanation.

And we expect a simple explanation, because the ancient Hebrews were not idiots. Hebrew scholars, along with Christian theologians, would surely have noticed the "obvious, slam-dunk" refutation of biblical inerrancy that every two-bit bible critic seems to imagine he discovered on his own. Over thousands of years, you'd have to expect that the Jews would have corrected such a blatant inconsistency.

The crux of the correct explanation is that the form of past tense for a verb used in ancient Hebrew was based on context. (In other words, the varieties of distinctive tenses we use in English, which are independent of context, were not used.)

Hebrew scholar Victor Hamilton writes
it is possible to translate formed as 'had formed.' (Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, p. 176, 1990).
Indeed, some scholarly English translations do render using the pluperfect tense. While the plain past tense is used in the KJV and in the ESV that I quoted above, the NIV reads:
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Gen. 2:19, NIV)
Clearly this translation implies no temporal ordering.

In their encyclopedic commentary on the Old Testament, scholars Keil and Delitzsch write:
our modern style for expressing the same thought would be simply this: ‘God brought to Adam the beasts which He had formed (C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1996).
H. C. Leupold, another Hebrew scholar, wrote regarding Gen. 2:19
Without any emphasis on the sequence of acts the account here records the making of the various creatures and the bringing of them to man. That in reality they had been made prior to the creation of man is so entirely apparent from chapter one as not to require explanation. But the reminder that God had "molded" them makes obvious His power to bring them to man and so is quite appropriately mentioned here. It would not, in our estimation, be wrong to translate yatsar as a pluperfect in this instance: "He had molded." The insistence of the critics upon a plain past [tense] is partly the result of the attempt to make chapters one and two clash at as many points as possible. (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 1942).
In summary, scholars over the last few millennia didn't "miss" the problem. They simply recognized that the defensible option of choosing the pluperfect tense rendered any such discussion moot.

Of course, you don't have to use the pluperfect. You could choose the vanilla past tense, in which case the problem reappears. But biblical defense does not demand that the only possible interpretation supports the desired result—it demands only that some reasonable and defensible interpretation does so. In this case, the requirement is met easily.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Rotary Talk

Giving this Cosmological ID talk at a local Rotary club tomorrow. (2.3 MB download.)

Congratulations are in Order!

I can now proudly claim that this is an award winning blog.

The Cambrian Explosion

I don't know much (in detail) about the rapid onset of phyla known as the Cambrian explosion. In particular, I don't how to evaluate either it or irreducible complexity (its main competitor, as far as I can tell) as the smoking gun for biological intelligent design.

After all, I am biased. I believe that:

Cosmological ID : Biological ID as
physics : evolutionary biology

meaning we are comparing a fundamental science making precise, testable predictions (e.g., the precession of Mercury's orbit) to something much more heuristic. Folks, the really big payoff is in cosmology, not biology. In cosmology there is no fuzziness regarding irreducible complexity or specified complexity or explosions of life, there are only cold-hard facts: tweak the cosmological constant, and you get nothing instead of something.

It may be true that biological IDers make too much of the Cambrian explosion. I really cannot say. It is certainly true their evolutionary opponents tend to react by making too little of it. In following the on-line discussions, you'd get the impression that the Cambrian explosion is no-big-deal, not a problem, what's all the fuss about, etc. Even when acknowledging (begrudgingly, it seems to me) that the Cambrian explosion is, at least in a modest sense, "real", evolutionary apologists will, in some cases, make inane rationalizations.

Case in point: über-scientist-without-portfolio P. Z. Myers wrote, regarding the Cambrian explosion:
But another important lesson, and one that creationists like to hide, is that while this was a sudden event in a geological sense, it wasn't actually all that rapid in human terms. The evolution of the canonical Cambrian forms was drawn out over tens of millions of years. (emphasis in original)
This is a rather crude Red Herring argument. Myers is diverting attention from the true issue, that the Cambrian explosion occurred in a geological blink of the eye, to a irrelevancy, that it didn't happen on human time scales, a claim not held by any serious skeptic.

At any rate, that brings me to my main point: it appears that all is not rosy when it comes to an orthodox (scientifically speaking) understanding of the Cambrian explosion. Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge has published an article entitled Darwin's dilemma: the realities of the Cambrian 'explosion'.

(Hat tip: Hugh Ross.)

The abstract of Conway's article acknowledges the controversy and recurrent confusion (among mainstream biologists—not between IDers and the establishment) regarding the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian explosion is real, and so-far it has defied explanation—although of course Conway sets out to rectify that problem.

You can tell that it is an evolutionary paper, because the abstract ends with the sentence:
Here I propose that despite its step-like function this evolutionary event [the Cambrian explosion] is the inevitable consequence of Earth and biospheric change.
All evolutionary post-dictions, either explicitly or implicitly, have the luxury of boldly proclaiming how what has already happened was inevitable. Evolution is in a class by itself in proving that the past unfolded as Darwin's marionette. They are decidedly less adept at predicting the next act.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Lesson 8: The Atonement (Part 2)

(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Atonement from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.

Limited Atonement

Everyone agrees that only believers are made acceptable before God by imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which was completed once and for all by His death on the cross. This is an important point: Both Calvinists and Armininians agree that Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for believers—hence both camps actually profess a form of “Limited” Atonement. Only Universalists do not limit the atonement.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)
The Arminian view is that Christ’s atonement had to be big enough for the entire world because, in principle, the entire world has the wherewithal to accept the Gospel call. Again, however, they agree that the atonement is effective only for those who actually do. So the Arminian view of the atonement is:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world).
  • Indefinite in effect (there is no countable set of predestined “elect”)
The incorrect representation of the Augustinian or Calvinist view is that the atonement is limited in extent and definite in effect. The first point is not part of the Augustinian view although it is frequently offered as the Augustinian or Calvinist position. Augustinians do not think that while Christ was on the cross there was a meter running counting the number of sinners that His suffering was sufficient to cover and, when the number reached the number of the elect, His suffering ended.

If you have to pick a single verse that is viewed as the most difficult to defend against (from an Augustinian perspective), it is found in chapter two of 1 John:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
This seems to fly in the face of “the elect”, as evidenced by the phrase but also for those of the whole world. Obviously Augustinians cannot take this verse literally.

But neither can Arminians. The only people who can rejoice in taking this literally are Universalists. For, if Christ is literally the propitiation (payment) for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world has had its ransom paid and the whole world will be saved. This is contrary to a plain reading the rest of scripture and thus is rightly rejected by all Christians. So what do Calvinists say about this verse?

One possibility is that it simply means “the world of the elect” or “the world of believers”, the way we would say something like “the world of NASCAR.”

Another possibility is that John was talking to fellow (Christian) Jews and was pointing out that Christ’s death was atonement not only for “our” (believing Jews) sins but also for the sins of the world (believing Gentiles). This us/world = Jews/Gentiles identification is of course used in other places in Scripture.

Yet another possibility is related to the extent as opposed to the effect of the atonement. Somewhat in parallel with many are called but few are chosen-- it might be that Christ’s death was sufficient to save everyone in the whole world – but nevertheless will be efficacious only for the elect. If God wanted everyone to be saved he could do it, and Christ would not have had to suffer more—he already suffered enough for everyone. Yet God has chosen to save only some—for reasons that we will not fathom this side of glory (and perhaps not even on the other side).

While all points may be true, it is, in fact, this last “possibility” the represents the crux of the Calvinist view of the Atonement:
  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world)
  • Limited (or Particular or Definite) in effect (for the elect only)
The two views do not disagree on extent of the atonement—both agree that it was big enough for the whole world. In this sense it was unlimited—which is why the term Limited Atonement, because of the confusion it causes, was not a good choice.

As a final comment on 1 John, we can easily find other places in scripture where “whole world” does not mean “everyone in the world” (in fact, I am nor sure if it is ever used that way.) For example:
Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world is bearing fruit and growing--as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth (Col 1:5b-6)
Here, early in the apostolic church, Paul claims the gospel is bearing fruit in the whole world, when in fact it was confined to a very small portion of the world. Even today, it is probably impossible to claim, literally that the gospel has come and is bearing fruit in the whole world. John himself also uses the phrase again:
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)
But the whole world does not lie in Satan’s hand. In first John 2, John has used “whole world” to refer to the whole world of Christians—here it seems to use it to refer to the whole world of non-Christians.

Also, we note that Christ’s own words indicate that the effect of his blood was for the many, not for the whole world:
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt. 26:28)
Related to these questions, Augustine asked himself: are there any passages of scripture which can be taken unequivocally to mean that God has deliberately undertaken not to extend his saving grace to certain people who, if that grace had been extended to them, would have responded affirmatively? It appears so. Augustine (Enchiridion, Chap. 103) makes this observation:
"The Lord was unwilling to work miracles in the presence of some who, He said frankly, would have repented if He had worked them."
And he cited the passage:
20Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt. 11:20-21)
And other, similar and difficult passages, such as
10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12)

To be continued...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Martian Life

Life on Mars would have no impact on the strength of the cosmological ID argument. However, the absence of such life would land in the win column for privileged-planet type arguments. At the same time a lack of Martian life would be an easier pill for evolutionary biology to swallow.

If primitive life is discovered on Mars, some will say "see, not only is earth not privileged, not only is life not rare, but in fact it is so common that we find it on our next-door neighbor. Any discussion of one in a gazillion chance is clearly nonsense."

Bzzt. Sorry, the more sensible response is: the conditions for complex are exceedingly rare in the universe. And given that earth had to be in the right part of the right kind of solar system, with the right kind of satellite, and the right kind of star, and the right planetary companions, in the right part of the right type of galaxy, in the right cluster of galaxies, of the right age, in a universe with the correct laws and constants—well if I were taking bets on the next most likely place to find life, I'd look first at earth's nearest neighbors, reckoning that they are closest to being in the habitable zone. If I can't live at the oasis, I'll settle for being within walking distance.

If any place other than earth should have life, it should be Mars. If Mars has primitive life (that didn't originate on earth—that would have to be ruled out) then it is because of its proximity to a favored location in the universe—not a sign that life is cheap and easy.

Personally, I don't think we will find evidence of non-terrestrial primitive life on Mars. New data from the European OMEGA satellite confirms Mar's lack of substantial water, or of any significant hydro-activity on Mars for the last 3.5 billion years.1 So when there was water on Mars, the solar system was at its most inhospitable—with the inner planets subjected to frequent life-quenching impacts from comets and asteroids.

It's fun to test the predictability of evolutionary biology by asking those practiced in that science to predict what life on Mars will be like, should we discover it. If you get an answer (not likely) and distill it to its essence, it will be along the lines of "Oh, I don't know, but whatever it is will be consistent with evolution." Can you imagine a physicist stating "Oh, I don't know even the gross details of the orbit of Mars, but whatever it is it will be consistent with gravitation."

Then again, if I were an evolutionary biologist I would be hoping that no life was found on Mars. I would not want to explain how earth (without being privileged) supports complex life while microbes on Mars remained microbes. I'd much rather Mars be sterile, so that I could blame the great evolutionary scapegoat, abiogenesis. A lifeless Mars permits the argument that "yes the origin of life is (possibly) rare, but if life were to have started on Mars, it would have evolved (as all life should, evolutionarily speaking) into more and more complex forms."

To summarize, and perhaps counter-intuitively, non-terrestrial microbes on Mars would be neutral in its impact on cosmological ID. It would be problematic for evolutionary biology, which would have to explain why evolution was so impotent on Mars. A sterile Mars, or a Mars whose only life consists microbes emigrating from earth, would bolster the privileged planet arguments, and yet provide an escape for evolution, which could, as it always does, sweep its most difficult problem under the I'm-covering-my-ears-and-not-hearing-you-because-abiogenesis-is-a-different-discipline rug.

1 Jean-Pierre Bibring et al., "Global Mineralogical and Aqueous Mars History Derived from OMEGA/Mars Express Data," Science 312 (2006): 400-04.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Hello Again

Yesterday I went, with my younger son, to the NASCAR race in Loudon, New Hampshire. It was 94 and sunny. There is no shade at the track. The seats are metal benches, and their per-person width allocation is less than coach-class and not nearly wide enough for the average funnel-cake eating, beer-drinking NASCAR fan. I loved it. Fortunately (and I mean this with no disrespect) Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver (by leaps and bounds, whoever is second is a distant second) was out of the race early with mechanical problems. When that happened, some nearby Dale Jr. fans got up and left—the race no longer meaningful for them—but rewarding us with some much-needed breathing room.

Only at NASCAR does the invocation routinely invoke the name of Jesus. I wonder how long that will last. At the moment, at least, generic Christian/Moslem/Jewish monotheistic prayers are the exception, not the rule. I make this merely as a social comment, without stating whether or not I actually believe that a short prayer ending with “in Jesus’ name we pray, amen” before a hundred thousand boisterous fans is glorifying to God or not. But regardless, it is astounding that it continues.

I have two Cosmological ID talks coming up. One will take place in a couple weeks at a local Rotary Club. The other will be in October, somewhere (TBD) in Nashua, NH and sponsored by Trinity Baptist Church in Nashua. The church will be advertising the talk, and will target teachers in particular. I’ll provide more information as the time nears.

I was planning to give a Sunday School lesson on humility as taught by Jonathan Edwards. However, I got bumped by a cruel Scotsman. So in a couple days I’ll post what I was going to teach.