Thursday, August 31, 2006

So long, PT

OK, this time I really mean it. Honest. I am done with the Panda's Thumb. First of all, they don't post as often as they used to. Secondly, their posts are not as interesting. Thirdly, their commenters are (for the most part) the same people saying they same things yesterday, today, and presumably tomorrow. And finally, I think their site is hosted on a Commodore 64 in PZ's garage. It can takes ages to download their main page, if it downloads at all. I'll go there if I am directed from another post, but I'm through browsing PT. It's a site that's so 2005.

For "opposition" sites, I’d recommend both Jason Rosenhouse's Evolution Blog and Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

Atheism is not a Religion

There is a discussion on Uncommon Descent based on the premise that atheism is a religion. Personally, I hate that argument, and I especially dislike basing important debates on such a weak foundation. It atheism is a religion, then the word "religion" has no real meaning. It simply means: everyone believes something, and whatever it is, it's their religion. It means the same as philosophy or world view. A working definition for religion is: religion is whatever atheism/agnosticism isn't.

Atheism isn't religion. It's closer to being an antonym.

At a minimum, a religion should include some aspect of the supernatural.

Happy Thoughts about Original Sin

Here's the deal. I'm supposed to be at work, but I'm sitting at home waiting for the piano tuner. It's the first day of school here in New Hampshire, and we got a call this morning at 6 am. It was the high school, asking my wife if she could sub. Since we didn't expect that she would sub the first day, I didn't plan on the possibility of working at home while waiting for the aforementioned acoustic engineer, and so I didn't bring any work home—and so here I am.

I have been discussing original sin on other blogs, and so I was thinking about it in the shower, and decided to write about how lucky we are for original sin. Thank God for original sin.

Just a quick review of what I mean by original sin. It is the essentially same as the idea of Total Depravity, although you might argue (I don't see why) that one is the cause and the other is the effect. At any rate, original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)
Original sin does not mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. That is a misconception. Lead a sinless life (go ahead, I dare you) and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Have a nice day!

Actually: Thank God!

And even thank you Adam, for being my representative.

Adam was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it. On the one hand it seems unfair. But only superficially.

For it is illustrative of the fact that God interacts with man collectively--in addition, of course, to individually. The fact that God interacts with mankind and not just individuals, obvious as it sounds, is often neglected in modern evangelism, with its emphasis on a personal this and a personal that. In fact, I am resolved that if anyone ever again asks me whether Jesus is my personal Lord and Savior I am going to reply: Of course not, what a ridiculous question! Why, the mind reels! Jesus is the Lord and Savior of all who trust in the power of his blood. Why would I consider him my personal savior?

The fact that God has allowed the many to be corrupted because of the sin of their representative sets the stage for God to allow the salvation of many based on the righteousness of a different, perfect representative.

What if there was no original sin? What if Adam's sin had consequences only for Adam, and not for his descendents?

We all know what would have happened: You would still have sinned, and I would have too.

And if we were not represented collectively by Adam, how can we suppose that we would have been represented collectively by Christ?

In that case, we really would be in need of a personal Lord and Savior.

This way, that we have a common Lord and Savior, is much better.

Now I know this wasn't well thought out, but I'm in a grouchy mood because I need to get some work done and the piano tuner is late.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Phone Home

Here is an interesting little ethical dilemma.

Last week I spilled coffee on my cell phone. It now does all sorts of fascinating stuff when you plug it in to the charger, but none of which includes functioning as a telephone.

Today I went to Verizon. The clerk informed me that he had the dreaded good news and bad news. The bad news: my phone is only a year old and so I would have to pay full retail for a new phone--the cheapest being in the neighborhood of $129. The good news: whoever handled my upgrade last year (when I got the now caffeinated phone) did not enter it into the computer. The computer, it turns out, thinks I am eligible for a free upgrade, even though I'm not. He proceeded to add that while he wouldn't give me an upgrade in the store, if I went online they'd be nothing stopping me from obtaining a free phone--one for which I am not entitled.

Of course, I'm not going to tell you what I did.

Rome: Please Don't Explicitly Embrace ID

In the subspace of the internet hypersphere that cares about such matters, there is a fair amount of chatter about the apparently very real possibility of the Catholic Church embracing Intelligent Design.

Personally, I think it would be a bad idea.

Oh, in the short term it would be amusing beyond belief. Just reading the reactions of those on the evolution side of the ID vs. evolution debate would provide untold hours of comic relief. Any modest restraint now (though not uniformly) in place, and based on the premise that it is better to misrepresent Rome's current position (as pro-evolution) and declare her as an ally rather than renouncing her dogma, would be jettisoned. Many true and ugly colors would be exposed. Who wouldn't enjoy that?

However, long term it could be a disaster--depending entirely on the specificity of any new Vatican position.

A statement that zeroes in on any particular ID example or theory would set the church up to be (potentially) on the wrong side, scientifically, of the argument. Any reference to this irreducibly complex component or that theory of information complexity would position the church in the midst of a specific scientific debate--a place where it has experience in ending up on the losing side, at a cost to the credibility of Christianity.

The bible makes very few testable statements about science. (On the other hand, it make loads of testable statements about history and archeology.) The church should no more endorse ID than it should String Theory.

Rather than embracing ID, it would be much better if Rome unambiguously clarified its position on evolution, with no mention of ID.

The Vatican position on evolution is available--but it is immersed in a fair number of unfortunately vague statements with too much wiggle room. Statements that lend themselves to "The Catholic Church approves evolution" quote mining.

For example, one of the best sources for Rome's position is this document, which contains this unambiguous clarification of John Paul II's unfortunately imprecise statements:
Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that "new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge" ("Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution", 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis ), the Holy Father's message acknowledges that there are "several theories of evolution" that are "materialist, reductionist and spiritualist" and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe. (Emphasis added.)
If this were a quote from blog rather than from the Vatican, you can almost imagine it ending with: so stop quote-mining JP II!

The Catholic Church has never approved of evolution that excludes God's personal and continuing involvement in the physical realm. It has never approved of a view (deism) that has God merely setting the initial conditions—even if it is posited that he set them so perfectly that the differential equation for the universe has spit out just what he planned. No, even this "perfect" set of initial conditions set by a benevolent loving God is incompatible with Catholicism, which has always (and rightly) taught of a God who continues to interact with creation in both the spiritual and the physical domains.

In fact, there has always been an excruciatingly explicit acknowledgment that God did not just set everything up and watch it unroll. Rome teaches that at times he purposely intervenes in the material realm in the most radical of ways: by suspending the physical laws. When the intervention is sudden and spectacular the Catholic Church has always affirmed these intrusions as miracles.

So what would be useful from Rome is a single, definitive statement, using unambiguous language, stating that while evolutionary processes appear to have been used by God, there are clear limitations to the applicability of evolution as a theory. Some of the important points that are already Rome's position but are scattered about include:
  1. Deism in creation, even "perfect" deism wherein the universe is evolving according to plan, is not compatible with Catholicism. The picture of God in scripture and tradition is that He intervenes not to redirect a universe that has veered into an unforeseen direction, but because it pleases him to do so.

  2. The species man was an inevitable part of God's sovereign plan. Any theory that states that the development of man included, even in part, truly random processes is not in alignment with Catholic teaching. Nor is any theory that God just waited for a sufficiently intelligent species to evolve, and it happened to be man, but that whales, under different circumstances, might have been just as suitable.

  3. Catholic scientists are certainly free and encouraged to approach life science from an evolutionary view point. They are not required to search for discontinuities that might be evidence of God's intervention. On the other hand, it is not acceptable for them to proclaim that it is impossible for such discontinuities to exist in nature.
Finally, my dream encyclical would include a pronouncement that anyone stating that Catholicism approves of evolution without reference to the full complexity of the Church's position is guilty of misrepresentation.

Such a clarifying statement by Catholic Church would not represent a shift in it her position, and would not place her in the dangerous position of affirming the scientific truth of ID.

It should be quite interesting. Let's hope it's not much ado about nothing.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Lesson 8: The Atonement (Part 3)


(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 list of links on the left for the posts for this class.

This is the last post from this Sunday School. The links for the first two parts on the Atonement are:

Part 1
Part 2

Was It Fair?

A reasonable question to ask regarding the Atonement is: was it fair for Christ to be judged for our sins? Well, if Christ was judged involuntarily for our sins, then of course that would not be fair and would impugn the character of God. However, if Christ chose be a propitiation for our rebellion, then that changes the equation. Is the bible clear on whether or not Christ went to the cross of his own volition? Yes it is painfully clear. We read, in one of the most gut-wrenching passages of scripture, occurring in the Garden of Gethsemane:
41 And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, 42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:41-42)
The passage again drives home the reality of the incarnation, and the relationship of the incarnation to the atonement. First of all, the very prayer, not my will, but yours, be done, speaks of voluntary submission. Which nature of Christ is submitting here? Just like there is only one nature of Christ that can die, there is only one that can submit (in the sense of doing something that, all things being equal, it does not really want to do, all things being equal) to the will of the Father: the human nature. Christ’s divine nature, being sovereign God itself, cannot be “persuaded” into anything, but the human nature, reflected by Christ’s words, is clearly submitting. Its will is, naturally, to avoid the anguish of the cross. While there is no option for Christ's divine nature other than whatever it does, it does voluntarily (it is sovereign), the human nature might require coercion to go to the cross. Jesus’ words teach us that his human nature did not—he voluntarily submitted; he did not merely relent to an irresistible force. This renders the atonement “fair” in the sense we have been discussing. Both natures, the divine and the human, went to the cross voluntarily.

Christ died for Unbelievers

Yes, seemingly contrary to what we have said several times, namely that the atonement achieved (rather than just made theoretically possible) salvation for Christians, we acknowledge that in a certain sense we have put the cart before the horse. In this sense, Christ died for unbelievers: he died so that certain unbelievers would become believers. In other words, he didn’t die so that he could give what he promised to believers—who otherwise would have wasted their sincere belief—by his death his blood provided the power by which sinners are regenerated and come to life. In a sense, the true gospel message is not to believe in the person or even the deity of Christ—scripture has examples of “believers” who are not saved—the gospel message is to believe in the power of Christ’s shed blood. The book of Romans makes this clear:
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (Rom 3:25)
We often present the gospel this way: If you repent of your sins and believe in Christ you will be saved. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. However, it is probably more accurate to say: If you repent of your sins have faith in the power of Christ’s blood pay their cost, you are saved.

In short, Christ didn’t die for Peter and not for Judas because Peter was a believer and Judas wasn’t, he died to make Peter a believer:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:13)

The Gospel Call: Universal or Limited?

We have seen that Calvinists and Arminians agree, even if they are sometimes slow to realize it, that the atonement is limited: it is effectual only for believers. What about the gospel call itself? Is it universal or limited? The answer: both.

The offer of the gospel goes forth to all. No Christian should hesitate from offering it to anyone at all. The call is universal, but the intent is particular. In other words, the gospel call would have gone out to Peter and Judas, however, intent would only have been for Peter. Christ death accomplished salvation for Peter. Through faith in Christ’s blood, Peter was saved, but we are not saved in a vacuum, the normative secondary means are by hearing the gospel.

Let us examine how the gospel call is both unlimited and particular. Let’s use a typical rendering of the gospel:
Jesus Christ calls everyone, everywhere to confess his sin and to trust in Him for salvation and deliverance.
Clearly this call is universal: Jesus calls—which should be understood as a command, not a request or a plea, for all men to confess thier sin and place their trust in Him. But in what way is it particular? In a subtle way it is very particular indeed: The gospel call is universally extended to a particular group: those who acknowledge their sin.
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Mark 2:17)
The very words of our Lord limit the call as we have described: the call is to sinners, not to the (self) righteous. Though all men are sinners and guilty before God, not all men are aware of their guilt. Men do not universally acknowledge the guilt and need that they universally share. Many are in fact insulted by the mere suggestion that they are in need of a savior. They may even be repulsed by the thought that only the shed blood of Jesus can cleanse them of sins they don’t even acknowledge. Christ’s own words are clear: the call is not intended for “healthy” people such as these.

The Atonement and Mercy

God, we all agree, is a God of mercy. However, the atonement is all about, it would seem, justice. On the surface there is a seemingly absence of mercy. God is receiving the payment for sin. Not from the sinners, to be sure, but nevertheless He is paid in full. Suppose we owe money to the bank. Would the bank not be merciful if it forgave the debt entirely? But if the bank simply receives payment from a benefactor rather than from the debtor, where do we see mercy?

To put it very bluntly, at the risk of being impertinent, if God has been paid in full, not only is mercy out the window, but God in fact owes the sinner that Christ purchased for him. This is actually true: God owes a pardon to a sinner who repents and claims the blood of Christ. No question about it. In that narrow sense, there is not mercy but simple justice.

As always, there seems to be a conflict between mercy and justice. As always, at least with God, that conflict disappears upon closer examination.

And when it comes to the atonement, mercy abounds, in at least three important ways.

First, while it may appear at first glance that the atonement is all about justice when we consider God the Father, it is clearly about mercy when we consider God the Son.

Secondly, it was the Father’s extremely merciful act to send his son to die so that He (God) might end up in this bizarre sounding position of “owing” a pardon:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
So we have the ultimately sublime: the atonement, which is the ultimate expression of divine justice, was made possible by the ultimate act of divine mercy.

But the mercy does not end there. It gets more personal. Recall what we noted just a moment earlier: God owes a pardon to a sinner who repents and claims the blood of Christ. Now apart from mercy, who can place himself in a position to be “owed” by God a pardon based on Christ’s payment? Who can, of their own, repent and claimed their just due? Nobody. As we discussed earlier in the course, man’s fall has left him in a position where he is incapable, in his natural state, of accepting the gospel call.
When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, (2 Tim 2:14)
As with faith, there is this tension: we are commanded to repent, we are commanded to come to faith, yet we are incapable of doing so. In a sense are three things that must happen:
  1. We must repent
  2. We must come to faith
  3. The penalty for our sins must be paid
We are completely incapable, on our own, to accomplish any of these. Without divine mercy and divine justice, we would be lost.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Upcoming Speaking Engagement

Next Cosmological ID talk:

Sunday, September 10, 5:30-7:30 pm
Trinity Baptist Church
33 Lund Rd.
Nashua, NH 03060

If God hadn’t wanted me to give this talk, he wouldn’t have scheduled that week’s NASCAR race on Saturday instead of Sunday.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

PTers are a rather transparent lot

The Panda’s Thumb (PT) gang treats the Young Earth Creationists (YECs) as useful idiots.

It's like this: 99.9% of the time PTers overtly regard and characterize the YECs as little more than in-bred, red-necked, biblical-hyper-literalist, flag-waving, fundamentalist, homophobic, sexist, racist, taliban-like, mouth-breathing NASCAR fans.

Ask your average PT type about a YEC's concomitant interpretation of virtually anything in the bible--such as the scripture's stand on homosexuality or the role of women, and you’ll get no-holds-barred condemnation.

However, there is one passage in which the YECs are seemingly held in high esteem by the PTers--namely the interpretation of Genesis One as six literal 24-hour days. Here, rather than treated as sub-Neanderthals, the YECs are presented as exegetical savants. Yes, the YECs get everything else wrong, absolutely everything, but in this instance, by-George, they are spot-on.

Why do the PTers make this claim? It is very simple.

  1. They do not want the bible to be consistent with science, and so…

  2. They dismiss any exegesis (such as the day-age view) that can reconcile the creation account with science and so…

  3. Having “established” the YEC position as the only possible intelligent interpretation, they can…

    • return to treating YECs as idiots and,

    • tout all the scientific evidence for an old earth and,

    • by this rather transparent stratagem they “demonstrate” bible-science incompatibility and, as a corollary, they “refute” biblical inerrancy, a doctrine that they consider beyond the pale.
Christians, across the board, OECs and YECs alike, while often engaging in heated disagreement over what exactly constitutes good science and/or good theology, agree that science (done correctly) and the bible (interpreted correctly) must be harmonious. For, unlike the PTers, God does not abide dissonance, and thus His general revelation cannot possibly be at odds with His special revelation—that is, in spite of our disagreements, neither group buys what they PTers want to sell: that the bible (even if you must accept it as God’s word) does not align with nature (even if you must accept it as God’s creation.)

The evidence, I’m happy to report, shows that the YECs are smarter than the PTers. Because while PTers like Jason Rosenhouse write, regarding Genesis One:
I don't say this very often, but I think [Ken] Ham has a point. The clear and simple meaning of the text is that “day” refers to a standard twenty-four hour day. To interpret it any other way is to suggest that God laid out a creation story riddled with obfuscation and ambiguity.
I haven’t seen evidence of Ken Ham (or someone similar) taking the bait and writing: “see, even on Panda’s Thumb and EvolutionBlog they know that only a 24-hour interpretation of the days in Genesis One is sensible.” No I suspect that Ken Ham would recognize, quite plainly, that Rosenhouse’s compliment here is just a ploy.

By the way, I want to draw your attention to a small detail in the Rosenhouse’s article to which I linked. You’ll notice a disclaimer at the start:
I have slightly revised the third paragraph of this essay.
What was revised? You’ll find it buried in my first comment on that post, where I wrote:
You [Rosenhouse] wrote:

“No one who wasn't specifically trying to reconcile the Bible with modern science would interpret the days of Genesis as anything other than twenty-four days”

This is demonstrably false—since it is well documented in the writings of the post-apostolic church fathers that a very common (if not the majority) view in the early church was that each day of Genesis was a thousand years. I can provide references if you like. They did not take the view that 1 day = 24 hours, even though (obviously) they were not trying to reconcile Genesis with modern science.
What Jason removed from his post was an incorrect claim that only someone trying to reconcile the bible and modern science would interpret Genesis in anything other than literal 24 hour days. Since it was pointed out to him that it was an easy exercise to find church fathers who interpreted the days as something other than 24 hour periods, even though they had no scientific reason to do so, he updated his post with the trivially-false argument removed.

But that is really the killer to Rosenhouse’s entire argument, which he essentially repeats on a post on his new blog.

If all the church fathers agreed that the only reasonable interpretation of Genesis One was 24-hour days, then it would be a better argument --but not bullet-proof--that only a misguided attempt to reconcile the bible with science could explain deviating from that interpretation. It wouldn’t be bullet-proof, because I could still argue that, having no evidence for an old earth, it is understandable that the early church uniformly affirmed a 24-hour view. Happily for me, I don’t have to make that argument, because the early church fathers did not see the 24-hour view as the only possible interpretation.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Dissonance as a Way of Life

The (mostly) scientific groupies who write for and comment on Panda's Thumb and similar sites/publications appear to go through life in a haze of incoherency. The only alternative explanation is that they possess a fox-like craftiness. Most likely the reality is some malodorous admixture of both species.

Now, I can understand how people have different world-views, but I can't understand how people are comfortable with a personal philosophy that is not, at a minimum, largely self-consistent.

Their surrealism (or disingenuousness) allows them to imply that (a) abiogenesis is easy, and certainly the universe is teeming with life, and therefore earth is not privileged--but then, when it suits them, claim (b) abiogenesis is difficult, which is why it defies explanation and why we don't see it happening all the time in field, or why we can't coax it along in a controlled, laboratory experiment.

Or, it allows them to argue that (a) ID is not science because it doesn't publish peer-reviewed papers and (b) peer-reviewed journals should reject ID papers as unscientific and (c) nevertheless, IDers enjoy a level publication playing field.

And all the while they make these arguments about the primacy of peer-review, we are supposed to, out of courtesy, be silent about the fact that their alpha attack-dog "scientist" has not published a peer-reviewed scientific paper this millennium.

Moving on, they will argue that it is the IDers who wish to impose their religion on society at large--while heaping accolades on their guru, Richard Dawkins, who believes that parents who raise their children in their religion are committing child abuse. Is the implication of what will happen to religious families, should Dawkins's bigotry ever go mainstream, not clear?

Similarly, they will argue like libertarians if a local government mandates the teaching of ID along with evolution, and turn around and argue like totalitarians if a local government simply permits it. No government intervention can be their mantra in Georgia, on Tuesday, while the government must take control of a school's curriculum will do nicely on Wednesday, in California.

Or it allows to them to argue (actually, in this case, lie is probably more accurate) that the Catholic Church is fine with evolution period, when in fact the Catholic Church is demonstrably fine only with a very narrow perspective: theistic evolution. If pressed too hard, their arguments will start sounding like: individual Catholics (meaning Ken Miller) get to define what the Catholic Church stands for, not the anachronistic pope, and not the obscure Magisterium.

And speaking of theistic evolution, they will at times argue that it is indistinguishable from "regular" evolution or, if politically expedient (or, more likely, if caught off-guard) will treat it as little more than religious charlatanry. So while, for effect, they make Ken Miller dance for the cameras, the view behind the curtain is all Sam Harris (HT Telic Thoughts):
It is time that scientists and other public intellectuals observed that the contest between faith and reason is zero-sum. There is no question but that nominally religious scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth R. Miller are doing lasting harm to our discourse by the accommodations they have made to religious irrationality.
In fact, in some strange ironic twist, the owners of Panda's Thumb, who claim Christianity, seem not to realize that, below the surface, they are mocked and used by those who benefit from their efforts. Or, to be more charitable, they perhaps are rationalizing that there is nothing they can do to avoid being taken advantage of by the Sam Harris-like Dawkins worshippers who, given the chance, will tolerate them just a wee bit longer than they will tolerate the likes of me.

It is just unimaginable.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Any NASCAR Fans?

I have a new blog of NASCAR humor. You will not find any of these comics even remotely funny unless you are a fairly devoted NASCAR fan, in particular one who watches the races--for example the second comic is a play on a current NASCAR controversy and a commercial campaign that airs only on race-related broadcasts.

So the jokes, such as they are, will appeal only to insiders. Of course, even if you fit in that category, you may not find them particularly funny.

Monday, August 21, 2006

You Intolerant Fundy!

On another blog I was accused of intolerance. This stemmed from an argument in which I took the position that the God of Christianity is not the god of Islam. It wasn't a very deep discussion--I simply made a trivial point along the lines of:
  • If a Christian saw Jesus, he would say: "there stands God."
  • If a Moslem saw Jesus, he would say: "there stands a man."
Of course, the same would apply to Judaism as well. If one religion's god is viewed as a man by another, then it seems fairly obvious that they do not worship the same God.

In reality, of course, things are a bit more complicated. Even within Christianity different viewpoints describe God's attributes differently--for example his sovereignty. Given that the gods of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are all described as the "God of Abraham", then there is a case to be made that they are the same God. On the other hand, given that only the Christian god is a triune god, and given that the gods of all three have established vastly different and opposing redemptive histories and sovereign plans of salvation, I think the case is much stronger that they are not the same god.

Then I made a similar point about Mohammed:
  • If a Moslem saw Mohammed, he would say: "there stands a true prophet."
  • If a Christian saw Mohammed, he would say: "there stands a false prophet, a charlatan."
It was this comment that resulted in the charge of intolerance, and the assertion that some Moslems reading the blog might not be too happy about it.

I'm guessing the word "charlatan" was deemed particularly offensive--but it seems to me that a false prophet is necessarily a charlatan--unless he is delusional--which I doubt is more pc. Nevertheless I admit that in this way of making my point I omitted a third possibility: Mohammed might have been a true prophet (a man of God), a false prophet (a charlatan) or an honest but delusional man (mentally ill).

Describing this as intolerant makes my head spin. I would think that a thinking Moslem reading my comment would not be offended, he would disagree. He would, I imagine, reason this way: "this guy is a Christian, so of course he thinks Mohammed was a false prophet, otherwise he'd be a Moslem for crying out loud."

He wouldn't be offended; he'd just think I was wrong.

Similarly, why would a Jew be offended by the Christian claim that the only way to salvation is through Christ? Wouldn't a thinking Jew expect Christians to hold to such a belief? Wouldn't he say to me "I understand why you, as a Christian, believe that--but I have to tell you it is just plain wrong."

And reversing the situation, should I be offended if a Jew or a Moslem or a Jehovah's Witness calls me a polytheist for affirming the Trinity? Of course not! That is exactly the charge (among others) that they should make, given what they believe.

I don't know if any Moslems were actually offended; I know only that at least one non-Moslem was offended on their behalf. Maybe he was right--maybe many would be offended, people do offend easily.

Anyway, I asked the person whose sensibilities were placed under extreme duress by my comment to tell me what his viewpoint regarding Mohammed was:
  1. Mohammed was a true prophet, and I am a Moslem (sensible).
  2. Mohammed was a false prophet (or delusional), and so I am not a Moslem (sensible).
  3. Mohammed was a true prophet, but I am not a Moslem (dumb).
  4. Mohammed was a false prophet (or delusional), but I choose to be a Moslem anyway (dumber).
I don't think this represents a false dilemma, but maybe it does. It seems to me, given that this person is not a Moslem; he must chose (2) or (3). That is, he must choose between the position he labeled as intolerant (2) and one that is clearly fatuous (3).

He declined to answer my question, and instead just called me more names. That was apparently much more satisfying and is, after all, the Panda's Thumb way.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Spiritual Arrogance, The Garden of Eden, and How I Learned Not To Worry That A Dead Mouse Could Render Jesus Inconsequential

As the title suggests, this is a rather rambling post. One article that I read has triggered what should be two posts, but I'm going to try to tie them together into one.

It was a paradise. There was no death, no disease, no predators, and no weeds. Nature was in perfect harmony. The lamb feared not the lion, nor the mouse the thunderous footsteps of the elephant.

Is this (more-or-less) a description of:

  (a) The Garden of Eden
  (b) The entire pre-fall Earth?

I think that if you are a Young Earth Creationist (YEC), you have to pick (b). Hold that thought--I'll came back to it later.

The article that elevated my blood temperature

The writings of Dr. John Morris, president of the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) often test my Christian patience and leave my scientific and theological self speechless (figuratively).

Recently I stumbled upon this "Ask Dr. Morris" essay, reproduced here, and entitled Should a Church Take a Stand On Creation?

"Recently my family and I joined a small church plant pastored by a former student of mine at Christian Heritage College—a man of real wisdom and integrity.

A church constitution was being written, which, of course, included a Statement of Faith. A solid creation and young-earth plank appeared in the first draft.

Although there was no disagreement among the members (many of whom were young Christians) as to the doctrine of special, recent creation, there was concern in making this a requirement for membership. I was asked to comment.

Given the fact that most of America's Bible colleges and seminaries would not even agree with the content of the plank, I acknowledged my own hesitancy about being so exclusive, but I proceeded to demonstrate how beliefs in creation and a young earth are integral parts of Christianity.

The doctrine of God is at stake. for example, is the God of the Bible a gracious, purposeful God of wisdom, or does He resort to trial and error in His deeds, testing His creation by survival of the fittest and delighting in the extinction of the weaker? Is God long ago and far away—only occasionally involved, or is He near and intimately concerned with the affairs of life?

The doctrine of Scripture comes into play. There are few Biblical teachings as clear as that of creation in six days and the companion doctrine of the global flood. Yet these two teachings are denied and ridiculed in many Christian churches today. Can the Scriptures be trusted? Can God say what He means? If a Christian can distort Scripture to teach such beliefs as evolution, progressive creation, an old earth, or a local flood, can that Christian be trusted with other doctrines?

The doctrine of man becomes skewed. Can man, with a brain and reasoning powers distorted by the curse, evaluating only a portion of the evidence, accurately reconstruct the history of the universe? Should his historical reconstructions be put on a higher plane than Scripture? Or is man and his mind locked in the effects of the curse—a poor reflection of the once glorious "image of God"—now blinded by sin and the god of this world, seeing things through a glass darkly?"

The doctrine of sin becomes questionable. If death and bloodshed preceded Adam's rebellion against God, then what are "the ways of sin?" How did the entrance of sin change things?

The doctrine of salvation likewise falls, for if death preceded sin, then death is not the penalty for sin, and Christ's death on the cross—accomplished nothing. Any form of evolution and old-earth thinking is incompatible with the work of Christ.

I still am uncertain about young-earth creationism being a requirement for church membership; perhaps it would be proper to give new members time to grow and mature under good teaching.

But I do know one thing: Creationism should be a requirement for Christian leadership! No church should sanction a pastor, Sunday school teacher, deacon, elder, or Bible-study leader who knowledgeably and purposefully errs on this crucial doctrine." (highlighting in red added by me.)
Now, let me dispense with what was going to be the gist this post: the unimaginable arrogance of what Morris wrote. Morris is not sure whether, were they to seek membership, he would find suitable for Christian fellowship men like: Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Gleason Archer, Francis Schaeffer 1, etc. Well, maybe they could join the church on a probationary basis, but extensive remedial education would be needed to wean them from spiritual Similac and onto solid food.

Then I got to thinking about the rest of Morris's post. From the litany of asserted theological disasters resulting from a old earth view, the one really presses my buttons is: "The doctrine of salvation likewise falls, for if death preceded sin, then death is not the penalty for sin, and Christ's death on the cross—accomplished nothing. Any form of evolution and old-earth thinking is incompatible with the work of Christ."

I have heard this many times, and every time a voice in my head starts screaming "what the hell are you talking about?"

Does there exist a well-thought-out exegesis to back-up this claim? If so, I have never read it. It is always asserted as manifestly true. It's as if Morris is pouring over God's Redemption.java code and has stumbled across: 2

if (beforeTheFall.nothingAtAllDiedNotEvenAMouse()) {
  jesus.goRedeemTheWorld();
}
else {
  jesus.stayHome();
}


God, not needing comments in his code, 3 has left Morris without any explanation as to why the death of a mouse before the fall renders Jesus incapable of affecting salvation--but Morris is certain that it does.

Morris, as he worded his argument, is missing the clear teaching of Rom 5:12: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned, namely that Paul is talking about the human species. Death came to man because of the sin of our representative, and death is defeated, for man, because of the work of another representative. That this applies only to mankind is evident from the fact that sin, in general, did not come into the world through Adam; it was already present thank-you-very-much in the person of Satan and his minions.

This is even aside from the argument as to whether or not the death in Genesis and in Romans is referring to spiritual and physical death, or just the former.

Which gets us back to Eden. And from this point on you are reading pure speculation on my part--I have no clue what the Garden was like--but neither does Morris.

If there was no death--no predator activity anywhere on earth before the fall--if the entire earth was a paradise, then what was so special about Eden? Yet the YEC view, in my opinion, forces you into this position, for it allows for no death anywhere on earth prior to Adam's sin. In this view, the whole earth is like a manicured golf course. Adam and Eve have their designated property lines, called Eden, but just outside are numerous, virtually identical lots awaiting future homeowners born of the first couple.

It makes more sense to me that Eden was like an enclave. Sin was already in the world, and outside of Eden the lamb feared the lion. But God supernaturally preserved a niche from the world's travails. In Eden, and only in Eden, God removed (almost) everything that would tempt man to curse him. No death at the mouths of predators. No childhood leukemia. No leprosy, yellow fever, ALS, or autism. It was God's biosphere—a laboratory in a certain sense, where the only evil present to tempt man to curse God as unfair was kept as minor as possible--and yet man failed. In this view, the earth didn't so much change as a result of the fall (although it may have) but rather man was exiled into the cruel, waiting, world beyond the gates. That is not to say that man wasn't changed—he most certainly changed radically and for the worse--in fact he died on the spot--and his need for a redeemer was absolute at that instant--independent of whether or not carnivorous activity was already occurring outside of Eden.


1 I cringe when I look back at my writing from my blogging start in 2002. Nevertheless, two of my most referenced posts came from June of that year. One on Francis Schaeffer and the earth-age question, and the other on my (perhaps irrational) prejudice against Christian schools. There are no comments on those posts only because I switched comment systems.
2 Surely Calvinists and Arminians can agree that the K&R bracing style was divinely inspired.
3 Programmers might complain, at their eternal peril, that the code violates the “thou shall always test for null-ness” commandment. However, the check:  if (jesus==null) is clearly unnecessary, and any good compiler would optimize it into oblivion.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Politics. It's not for me.

I believe that abortion is a form of murder.

I am opposed to gay marriage—although to be perfectly honest I don’t really care whether or not it becomes law. I don’t get worked up about it. All things being equal, I’ll vote against legalizing it, if given the opportunity. That is about the extent of my outrage.

I will vote for candidates who are Christians over those who are not—even if I am more politically aligned with the latter—although I cannot recall when has ever happened.

Truth be told, I don’t get very excited about politics, and in particular I am not at all motivated to become actively involved in political campaigns aimed at electing Christian candidates. I’ll vote for them if they are running, but I won’t go to their rallies or man their phone banks or knock on doors or give money to the campaign, and it’s not because I am cheap.

The Christian political machine makes me very uneasy if not embarrassed.

The reason is simple: I see nothing in the New Testament that even remotely resembles a call to political activism. I don’t read Jesus saying: “Don’t pay your taxes, because the government uses that revenue to funds crimes that violate God’s law.” Instead I read: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Surely Jesus knew that his tax payments would support slavery, help to build abominations, and fund murder—including his own.

Nor do I find Paul writing: “Let's rise-up against Roman slavery” even though Christian principles firmly establish, to anyone whose parents married outside of their own family, that Christianity is unambiguously opposed to any form of human bondage. Instead I read that the imprisoned Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to the slave-owner Philemon—with some strong advice that Philemon grant his freedom—but also with the clear impression that if he doesn’t—well then Onesimus can witness just as well if not more powerfully as a slave than as a free citizen.

Giving the gospel trumps all politics. So much so that Jesus and the apostles, to a man, appear to be apolitical. One’s political situation, fortunate or severe, is simply not a priority, it’s an opportunity. Slave or free, rich or poor, democracy or totalitarian state—those circumstances are ordained by God, and regardless of where you find yourself the command is to give the gospel, not change the government. Christians should help their fellow man, but the gospel is a gospel of redemption, not a call for social action.

I see no teaching whatsoever that is along the lines of: work to change the government if it is not aligned with God’s law. I see only instruction to obey those who, by God’s sovereignty, have been placed over you. And while it can be argued that your primary responsibility as an individual Christian is to God's law, and that given a choice a Christian should obey God's law rather than man's law, it does not follow nor is it taught that it is our responsibility to ensure that our government is obedient to God’s commands.

I have the textbook ingredients to be a theonomist—being a biblical inerrantist with a Presbyterian, covenantal doctrine and an optimistic postmillennial eschatology—but I find in scripture no support whatsoever for dominionism. None. One of the most intractable conundrums in my theological walk is how there can be people with whom I agree with on virtually everything when it comes to doctrine—but I cannot see any solid ground for their pro-theonomy positions. It is such a disconnect, that I wonder at times if I am missing something obvious.

Every once in a while I think that we Christians should remind ourselves that Constantine’s rule was no panacea for Christianity. It laid the groundwork for transforming Rome from the model episcopate of the early church to the monstrosity it became in the Middle Ages. And instead of chanting that there is no such thing as “separation of church and state” in our constitution, we should remember that the modern idea of the separation of church and state was championed by Christians to prevent their abuse at the hands of states, precisely at a time when the states in question were effectively Christian theocracies.

Another Oldie but Goodie


This is a clever proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, usually attributed to the Chinese. Where are the words, you ask? There aren’t any. That adds credibility to the belief that this argument originated in China. The pictograms of written Chinese are perfect for poetry, but not at all suited for longwinded mathematical proofs—witness that Chinese textbooks routinely break out the Latin characters for displaying equations.

Anyway—do you get it?

I killed Bambi

Oh, the perils of country living.

Many of you know I live in a small town in New Hampshire. In a month or so, the scenery will knock your socks off. Believers will marvel at God’s creation, while unbelievers will be left without excuse.

Today, however, I had an unpleasant country-life experience. About 6:30, on the way to a men’s bible study, I killed Bambi.

Actually, it’s worse: I maimed Bambi.

I was just be-bopping down the road in my orange Honda Element, listening to demonic classic rock, when I heard a strange ka-thunk. Looking in the mirror, I saw a sickening sight: a fawn struggling to get up, and then pitifully limping into the woods, accompanied by its mother.

I’m not sure what happened—the best I can tell is that the poor animal ran into the back of my car and probably got its foot caught under the wheel.

I’m just heart-broken. The life-long rural types that I meet with dismissed it as a routine life-in-the-country occurrence. But to this guy who grew up in the inner-city—it nearly brought me to tears—thinking about that wounded fawn and with virtually no chance of survival.

And of course it made me ask that impertinent question: Why God?

Or is it impertinent? Certainly it can be—when asked from the premise that you know better than God. But when asked out of unadulterated sorrow about how the things which God ordains somehow and necessarily involve suffering—well then I think “Why God?” can be a purely honest and very human question—one for which I hope God is sympathetic.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Cessationism: A Key Figure

And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:28)
There is no question that there were prophets in the early church. It would appear, in fact, that there were many, and that from time to time these prophets would rise at church meetings and make divine pronouncements about the future. It would also appear, from the scripture quoted above and other passages, that the offices of apostle and prophet were distinct.

One of these prophets, a man by the name of Agabus, may be the most important person inthe recurring debate over cessationism. That is: does the position of prophet continue, or did it cease with the formation of the canon of scripture?

In his magnificent church history book, The Spreading Flame, F. F. Bruce wrote:
One of these prophets, a visitor from Jerusalem, Agabus by name, suddenly declared in a meeting of the church at Antioch that famine conditions were to prevail in all lands. (See Acts 11:28.) We know, in fact, from the Roman historian Suetonius that the reign of the Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) was marked by a succession of bad harvests1; and so far as Palestine is concerned, Josephus wrote that it was beset by famine about AD 46, and that the Jewish queen-mother of the kingdom of Adiabene on the Tigris bought corn in Egypt and figs in Cyprus to relieve the wants of the Jews in Palestine.2
So why is Agabus such an important figure?

The answer may be counterintuitive. If Agabus was a true prophet, able, through divine power and revelation, to predict the future, just as the Old Testament prophets did, then it strengthens the cessationist argument and weakens the position of those who believe that prophecy continues today. Conversely, an Agabus who is not in the same league as the Old Testament prophets lends support to the anti-cessationists.

Here is the reasoning: Cessationists argue that a prophet is a prophet is a prophet—the office as described in the New Testament is the same as the office described in the Old Testament. At they same time, they claim the position of apostle is an entirely new and short-lived office of a higher rank than that of prophet, and reserved for those who met Christ face-to-face.

So the cessationist position is: Apostles were different from prophets, and New Testament prophets were of the same caliber as their Old Testament counterparts. Of course, they then argue that there has been no such person since the reception of the canon, but that question is for a later time. The main point here is: if anyone is a prophet today, then he should not be a watered-down version of the prophets of old, but comparable in his ability, through God’s power, to foretell the future.

The anti-cessationist viewpoint is quite different. They would argue that the office of apostle is in fact the true continuation of the line of Old Testament prophets. After all, Old Testament prophets had the charge and authority to write divinely inspired scripture, as did the apostles. The New Testament prophet, they would argue, is an altogether new animal; a much weaker (though potentially more ubiquitous) version of the Old Testament prophet. His utterings do not, they readily admit, carry the imprimatur "Thus saith the Lord."

So we come back to the question of Agabus. We have to look at this seemingly incidental character more closely—especially his second recorded prophecy, found in Acts 21:10-11.

Was Agabus a true prophet, in the Old Testament sense? A great deal rides on the answer to that question.

(Aside--is there a term preferred over anti-cessationist? It seems so clumsy.)


1 Suetonius, Life of Claudius, XVIII, 2.
2 Josephus, Antiquities, XX 2:5.

Pittsburgh

"The three most beautiful cities in the world are Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Pittsburgh. If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it." (Brendan Gill, architecture writer for The New Yorker)
I grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh, on a hill overlooking the city's downtown. If you have an image of Pittsburgh as an ugly, dirty city, well you couldn't be more wrong. Checkout these pictures. If you search for the word "fineview" you’ll find a picture that was taken a hundred yards or so from my childhood house. And the reason our neighborhood was named Fineview will be apparent.

Not to mention that we are the reigning super-bowl champs, and that makes five of ‘em.

Friday, August 11, 2006

What passes for science...

From New Scientist, we have the top 10 weirdest cosmologies:
  1. Clashing branes

    Could our universe be a membrane floating in higher dimensional space, repeatedly smashing into a neighbouring universe? According to an offshoot of string theory called braneworld, there are large extra dimensions of space, and while gravity can reach out into them, we are confined to our own "brane" universe with only three dimensions. Neil Turok of Cambridge University in the UK and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University in New Jersey, US, have worked out how the big bang could have been sparked when our universe clashed violently with another. These clashes repeat, producing a new big bang every now and then - so if the cyclic universe model is right, the cosmos could be immortal.

  2. Evolving universes

    When matter is compressed to extreme densities at the centre of a black hole, it might bounce back and create a new baby universe. The laws of physics in the offspring might differ slightly, and at random, from the parent - so universes might evolve, suggests Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada. Universes that make a lot of black holes have a lot of children, so eventually they come to dominate the population of the multiverse. If we live in a typical universe, then it ought to have physical laws and constants that optimise the production of black holes. It is not yet known whether our universe fits the bill.

  3. Superfluid space-time

    One of the most outlandish new theories of cosmology is that space-time is actually a superfluid substance, flowing with zero friction. Then if the universe is rotating, superfluid spacetime would be scattered with vortices, according to physicists Pawel Mazur of the University of South Carolina and George Chapline at Lawrence Livermore lab in California – and those vortices might have seeded structures such as galaxies. Mazur suggests that our universe might have been born in a collapsing star, where the combination of stellar matter and superfluid space could spawn dark energy, the repulsive force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

  4. Goldilocks universe

    Why does the universe have properties that are "just right" to permit the emergence of life? Tinker with a few physical constants and we would end up with no stars, or no matter, or a universe that lasts only for the blink of an eye. One answer is the anthropic principle: the universe we see has to be hospitable, or we would not be here to observe it. Recently the idea has gained some strength, because the theory of inflation suggests that there may be an infinity of universes out there, and string theory hints that they might have an almost infinite range of different properties and physical laws. But many cosmologists dismiss the anthropic principle as being non-science, because it makes no testable predictions.

  5. Gravity reaches out

    Dark matter might not really be "stuff" – it could just be a misleading name for the odd behaviour of gravity. The theory called MOND (modified Newtonian dynamics), suggests that gravity does not fade away as quickly as current theories predict. This stronger gravity can fill the role of dark matter, holding together galaxies and clusters that would otherwise fly apart. A new formulation of MOND, consistent with relativity, has rekindled interest in the idea, although it may not fit the pattern of spots in the cosmic microwave background.

  6. Cosmic ghost

    Three mysteries of modern cosmology could be wrapped up in one ghostly presence. After making an adjustment to Einstein's general theory of relativity, a team of physicists found a strange substance popping out of their new theory, the "ghost condensate". It can produce repulsive gravity to drive cosmic inflation in the big bang, while later on it could generate the more sedate acceleration that is ascribed to dark energy. Moreover, if this slippery substance clumps together, it could form dark matter.

  7. It's a small universe

    The pattern of spots in the cosmic microwave background has a suspicious deficiency: there are surprisingly few big spots. One possible explanation is that the universe is small - so small that, back when the microwave background was being produced, it just could not hold those big blobs. If so, space would have to wrap around on itself somehow. Possibly the oddest suggestion is that the universe is funnel-shaped, with one narrow end and one flared end like the bell of a trumpet. The bent-back curvature of space in this model would also stretch out any smaller microwave spots from round blobs into the little ellipses that are indeed observed.

  8. Fast light

    Why do opposite sides of the universe look the same? It's a puzzle because the extremes of today's visible universe should never have been in touch. Even back in the early moments of the big bang, when these areas were much closer together, there wasn't enough time for light - or anything else - to travel from one to another. There was no time for temperature and density to get evened out; and yet they are even. One solution: light used to move much faster. But to make that work could mean a radical overhaul of Einstein's theory of relativity.

  9. Sterile neutrinos

    Dark matter might be made of the most elusive particles ever imagined - sterile neutrinos. They are hypothetical heavier cousins of ordinary neutrinos and would interact with other matter only through the force of gravity - making them essentially impossible to detect. But they might have the right properties to be "warm" dark matter, buzzing about at speeds of a few kilometres per second, forming the largish dark matter clumps mapped by recent observations. Sterile neutrinos could also help stars and black holes to form in the early universe, and give the kicks that send neutron stars speeding around our galaxy.

  10. In the Matrix

    Maybe our universe isn't real. Yale Philosopher Nick Bostrum has claimed that we are probably living inside a computer simulation. Assuming it ever becomes possible to simulate consciousness, then presumably future civilisations would try it, probably many times over. Most perceived universes would be simulated ones - so chances are we are in one of them. In that case, perhaps all those cosmological oddities such as dark matter and dark energy are simply patches, stuck on to cover up early inconsistencies in our simulation.
It appears that all manner of (often untestable--or when they are tested against gross cosmological observations, found to be wanting) cosmologies are worthy of serious discussion—with the notable exception of Cosmological Intelligent Design. You will note that in the "Goldilocks Universe" the (correct) fact of our universe's fine-tuning is accepted and with it the implicit assumption is made that there must be an inifinite or nearly infinite number of universes. The discussion is only in the (untestable) details of this or that multiverse. In other words:
  • The indisputable fact of fine-tuning is tantamount to a proof that multiple universes exists because

  • the alternative of a single, fine-tuned universe, with its attendant theological implications, is unthinkable.
As I understand them (and I might be wrong) "theories" 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 can be trashed for offering no explanation of our universe's razor's-edge hospitability for any kind of life. An explanation for the miracle of the mere existence of galaxies, metallic stars, and rocky planets is requirement-one for any cosmology.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

My absence is partially explained by...

  1. My wife is out of town, leaving me with those pesky kids to feed and amuse.
  2. My laptop died--leading to much weeping and gnashing of teeth, mostly as a result of two painful hours with www.dell.customer.abuse.columbus.original.destination. At the conclusion of my help-desk experience, it was determined, after extensive and meaningful tests--such as trying a third ac/dc adaptor (just in case the first two had simultaneously failed) that which was obvious in the first place: that the mother board sleeps with the fishes.
I hope to be up-and-running in something resembling a normal state in the very near future.