Monday, December 31, 2007

Dispensationalism: Part 1. The Last Days

Previous posts in this series: Dispensationalism: It's newer than Darwinism.


As we start our look into dispensationalism, a reasonable question is: is it fair to attack classical dispensationalism and opposed to newer, so-called progressive dispensationalism? The answer, I think, is yes, for the following reasons:

  1. As pointed out, Dispensationalism is not all that old—less than two hundred years—with the American variety only a bit more than one hundred years old. In criticizing classic dispensationalism, one is not critiquing a dinosaur.
  2. Along the same lines, progressive dispensationalism has not made it into the pews. Yes it is true that some dispensational academics have "softened" some of the more outrageous positions of classic dispensationalism. And yes, some of Scofield's sillier commentary has been vetted for the New Scofield Bible (1967.) But it is still true that the brand of dispensationalism one still hears from the "man in the street" is the classic variety, further popularized by the success of the Left Behind series.
  3. Regardless, the newer progressive dispensationalism is an adaptation of the classic. It may be slightly less radical, but it is itself susceptible to criticism of its precursor. If classic dispensationalism is "almost" right, then progressive dispensationalism can withstand assaults on its precursor. If, however, classic dispensationalism is grossly wrong, then progressive dispensationalism is a house built on shifting sand.

Before we really get into it, let's start with an interesting observation:

  • Dispensationalists think the end is near, but that we are not in the last days.
  • Non-dispensationalists believe we are in the last days, but generally have no opinion on whether the end is near (amillennialists) or whether it is probably way-off (postmillennialists.)

To see how this apparent contradiction is resolved, we must take our first peek at one of the details of dispensationalism. That detail is the fact that there are said to be seven dispensations, and we are in the sixth, not the seventh and last. The sixth dispensation is the dispensation of grace, the seventh is the future earthly kingdom of Christ, the famous millennium. About these we shall have much to say. For now we simply say that the dispensationalists teach "the end is near," meaning that Christ's return is imminent (a pillar of dispensationalism) and, after a seven year tribulation, we'll transition into the "last days" of the millennial kingdom. This is an important point, of which we'll provide more support later: "the last days" refereed to by the prophets are not (according to dispensationalists) now, because the present age, call it the church age, was, by dispensationalism's reckoning, unforeseen by the prophets. Thus, as I said, dispensationalists say then end is near (rapture in your lifetime) but we are not in the last days.

In non-dispensationalist theology, which from now own I will refer to simply if not totally accurately as reformed theology, says we are presently in the last days, and generally says nothing about the timing of the second advent.

Let us look at the concrete disagreement—whether we are in "the last days." Here we turn to scripture. In particular, to Pentecost, when Peter preached:

But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: "'And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. (Acts 2:16-17)

Here Peter clearly aserts that (1) we are in the last days, and (2) these are the very same "last days"—not as unforeseen by the prophet Joel, but as prophesied by Joel.

There are more, including from the writer of Hebrews:

 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you. (1 Peter 1:10)

To fully appreciate that we are in the last times (but that the end of time is unpredictable and may be many millennia in the future) will have to be postponed until we look into what is meant, precisely, by the kingdom in the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdom of God.

We must remember that the fact that we are in the last days does not mean that the end of history is near. No, it means that like the bible itself being split into two great testaments, redemptive history is split into the first days (or past days) and the last days, and the last days refer to that time after salvation was accomplished on the cross and the spirit was poured out to the church.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back to the classroom—the time draws nigh

It has been seven years since I last taught at Christopher Newport University. In a few weeks, I'll return to the classroom. A lot has changed. The campus has been radically transformed by a $500 million capital improvement plan, symbolized by the I. M. Pei designed Ferguson Center for the Arts, a facility so gorgeous it will knock your socks off. The student body has changed—adding a couple hundred points, more-or-less, to its freshman class average SAT score. And teaching has changed—for example I've been told—or perhaps forewarned—that lectures must include more multi-media content.

I was talking to some students at an alumnae party. One of them had this story. He was taking an exam that was open book, and also open laptop (in itself a new concept for me.) To find a relevant entry in his textbook, he searched on Google books and found the desired page. This was faster, he claimed, than the old way: using the book's index. It's a new world.

I have also learned that one of the more serious problems facing universities is excessive game-playing, over the internet, in the dorms. The problem is especially acute for male students. A very difficult problem to solve, because students want to make sure there is open internet access in the dorms before they sign on the dotted line. It's Pandora's Box.

And here is something else that I didn't have to deal with before.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dispensationalism: It’s newer than Darwinism!

When I first became a Christian, as an adult, after I was already a scientist, I received my first remedial education via Christian radio, namely the Bible Broadcasting Network (BBN.)† The BBN is a fine organization, but its programming is biased toward dispensationalists—people like David Jeremiah and John MacArthur. Not knowing what dispensationalism was, or that I was being instructed therein, I simply accepted the teachings at face value. There is a certain Adrian-Monk-like neatness about dispensationaism that is very appealing. Happenstance would reinforce my early leanings toward "properly dividing" the Word, I bought a Bible—and it turned out that it was a Scofield bible, the footnotes of which are the veritable textbook of classic dispensationalism. I bought it because it was a NASB translation, which someone told me was the best (I think they were right) and just assumed the footnotes represented "standard" noncontroversial biblical commentary.

So I bought it all—the dispensations, the view that God would turn his attention back to his chosen people (the Jews), the fact that this necessitated the rapture of the church, and whole "Left-Behind" eschatology. It made sense to me that the church was not the new Israel. It all made sense.

And then I read a really old book: The Gospel of the Kingdom, (1927) by Philip Mauro. You can find it dead-tree with some effort, and you can find it online here. It was probably the second serious theology book I read, after R.C. Sproul's Chosen by God, and to this day, having read at least a hundred books on theology, none has influenced me as much as either of these.

The Gospel of the Kingdom is a very concise and very intelligently written unmerciful attack on Dispensationalism from a former practitioner and teacher (Mauro.)

Now, an anti-dispensational book written in 1927 has a serious hurdle to overcome for a modern reader—for it predates dispensationalism's greatest success: the formation of the state of Israel in 1947. Unlike ID, dispensationalism actually predicted something, something substantive, and it happened! The creation of Israel, seen a prophetic fulfillment, made dispensationaism and its "Left Behind" end-times view the powerful force it is today: the majority view of American Protestant evangelicals. When reading Mauro discussing how the recreation of Israel is not prophesied—with the knowledge that it had in fact happened—well needless to say Mauro has to be extremely convincing. He is.

By the way, the title to this post comes straight from The Gospel of the Kingdom:

Finally it is appropriate in these introductory remarks to call attention (as I shall have occasion to do once and again in the pages that follow) to the striking and immensely significant fact that the entire system of "dispensational teaching" is modernistic in the strictest sense; for it first came into existence within the memory of persons now living; and was altogether unknown even in their younger days. It is more recent than Darwinism. (Kingdom, Introduction, p. 9.)

(Emphasis in original.) I love it so! If you buy the Left Behind theology, but not evolution, you are accepting the more modern of the two ideas! On a serious side, this is not a trivial point: anything as new and as radical as Dispensationalism needs to address the question of how it escaped the notice of twenty centuries of Christian scholarship. Being new doesn't make it wrong, but it should make us suspicious.

Anyway, I have been struggling with finding something to write about, theologically speaking. In organizing my books in our new house, I came across my dog-eared copy of The Gospel of the Kingdom and decided to read it again. I will be posting summaries of what I read.

†I was attending a Presbyterian PCA church at the time. The problem is, and I think this is being fair to the PCA, a denomination I really love, is that PCA sermons, reflecting the level of the typical PCA member, are at an advanced level. For a while I was completely lost and relied on the BBN for instruction.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Matrix, ruffling ID Inc.’s feathers

The ID world never ceases to amaze.

Mike Gene as a new book out called The Design Matrix. I have received a review copy, and am looking forward to reading it.

On UD, Bill Dembski has posted some quotes from the The Design Matrix, including this:

"The vast majority of scientists do not view Intelligent Design as science and I happen to agree with them." (pg. xi)

and this:

"I should make it explicitly clear from the start that I did not write this book to help those seeking to change the way we teach science to our kids. I do not argue that design deserves to be known as science. At best, Intelligent Design may only be a nascent proto-science and thus does not belong in the public school curriculum. Nor does this book argue that evolution is false and deserves to be criticized in the public school curriculum. If the truth is to be told, I oppose such actions." (pg. xi)

Anyone who knows me knows that, as far as these two quotes are concerned, I agree with Mike Gene.

Now, the significance of Mike Gene's statements is not the revelation that "The vast majority of scientists do not view Intelligent Design as science." That goes without saying. (I have no data but I'd bet dollars to donuts that the statement "The vast majority of Christian small-s-scientists do not view Intelligent Design as science" is also true. I can only say that in my experience, anecdotally, it is. ) The significance is that he is yet another scientist sympathetic to ID (and so, I'm guessing, a theist of some form or another) who acknowledges that ID is not science.

It was interesting to read the comments on UD.

Someone named NoChange wrote:

proto-science? That's a slap in the face. People have been doing work on intelligent design for nearly 2 decades, right? It's gone well past being a proto-science, and well into being an established (if controversial) science.

I think it's time to move into the next phase, and do some applied intelligent design work!

The problem here is that UD, unfortunately, is populated with sock-puppets, no doubt due in large part to the fact that the UD moderators routinely banish commenters they don't like. NoChange might be a sock-puppet. If not, one wonders what planet he lives on. ID is not science. It publishes nothing, predicts nothing that is testable, and researches nothing, although it does boast many websites.

Granville Sewell, well known for writing incorrectly about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is fairly insulting:

Interesting. Gene says he does not view ID theory as science, but the quotations you produced seem to suggest he views ID theory as correct. Probably he feels he had to include some anti-ID statements to get the book to be taken more seriously in academic circles.

He accuses Mike of pandering. He is also wrong, logically speaking. ID might be correct (in fact, I certainly think that life was intelligently designed) but that doesn't make it a science. In fact, its correctness has nothing, or little, to do with whether it is a science. In physics we have many conflicting bleeding edge theories—some or all of them are wrong. But they all are science, if they make testable predictions.

But the strangest comment comes from Dembski himself, who wrote, responding to another commenter's claim that German ID supporters are Mike-Gene-esque, that is they do not claim ID is science:

Although I like much about Mike Gene's book, he is an amateur at the philosophy of science. Thus I find those who like Mike try to argue that ID is valuable but not science as engaged in misconceived philosophy of science. I'll probably write a paper on this sometime — when I get time off from my scientific research with Bob Marks's Evolutionary Informatics Lab ( Forgive me for slipping this in, but where is the outcry from your colleagues about the suppression of this work?

Based on publications, Dembski is also an amateur at the philosophy of science, mathematics, and especially biology—but that does not prevent him from arguing about the philosophy of science, mathematics, and biology. He seems unwilling to extend the same courtesy to Mike Gene (whose credentials, as far as I know, are unknown.) One cannot help but to suspect that Dembski's problem with Mike Gene is not based on Mike Gene's lack of multiple Ph.Ds, but with the fact that he has taken the unpardonable ID-isn't-science stand. Furthermore, if Dembski actually cared about such matters, he should be berating most of the commenters on UD, for there is, as far as I can tell, nary a scientific expert among them. Hey Graville, Dembski should shout, stop talking about thermodynamics. You're no physicist.

Ironically, in the UD post just two entries prior (chronologically) to the one in which Dembski chastises Mike Gene for daring to venture into a field for which he is not credentialed, UD contributor GilDodgen argues just the opposite—that formal training is not required to make a contribution to a specialized research area.

But what really struck me about the comment was the "vintage Dembski" expertly packed into a few short blurbs. There is the ubiquitous threat made with bravado—my computer simulation will demolish the competition; my testimony will win the day; I'll bet a bottle of single malt scotch; My science will supplant evolution in just a few years. Here we have: Thus I find those who like Mike try to argue that ID is valuable but not science as engaged in misconceived philosophy of science.
I'll probably write a paper on this sometime.

Don't hold your breath.

In this case, Dembski lived up to his "Isaac Newton of Information Theory" honorific. For he was able to compress all the ID-victimhood meme into his comment. What about the suppression of his research? Why, how can serious research proceed when a scientist is told to move his website to another server? Thank goodness Newton, Maxwell, or Einstein never had to host their websites on another machine—think of the consequences!

Now, I don't always disagree with Dembski. When he's right, he's right. As when he stated:

I believe God created the world for a purpose. The Designer of intelligent design is, ultimately, the Christian God.

Well said.

Again, I am looking forward to reading Mike's book. I have always enjoyed his blog, Telic Thoughts. I know that Mike favors the front-loaded variant of ID, something I know little about. Also, Mike, like most IDers, argues that you do not have to know something about the designer to infer design. I have never been prepared to agree with that statement, so it will be interesting to see if he convinces me.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Robert Marks review of Expelled

Sorry, Robert Marks has withdrawn his permission to post the review. I'll only say that it didn't make me want to see the movie.

New Review of Here, Eyeball This!

The December 2007 issue of the American Scientific Affiliation's Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith contains this review of my novel Here, Eyeball This!

HERE, EYEBALL THIS! by David Heddle. Saga Books, 2005. 295 pages. Paperback. ISBN 1-894936-37-X.

Reviewed by George L. Murphy, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, OH

David Heddle, who received his Ph.D. in physics from Carnegie Mellon, has written this novel about the first two years of the graduate program in physics at that institution. In the acknowledgements he states that the work is entirely fictional, but his familiarity with Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Mellon campus give it a very real air.

How realistic is the picture of graduate study in physics? A lot has changed since I was in the position of Heddle’s main character, Aaron Dern, at a different university over forty years ago. The hot topics in physics are of course different and there are a lot more foreign students in American graduate programs in the field than there were back then. But some things don’t change. The picture of a student who at first is somewhat intimidated by the fact that all his fellow first year students seem to have much better preparation than he does, only to find out where he stands after the first exams, was very familiar to me.

There is a current of religious discussion running through the book. It doesn’t dominate the story but does play an important role in subtle ways. Not surprisingly, much of this discussion has to do with the anthropic coincidences and the possible implications of them for design arguments. The setting of those discussions within the story allows the author to present them as more than purely scientific, or meta-scientific, deductions. The comment of one professor that “everything matters” could be simply an abstract statement about a holistic view of the world, but it takes on added force for Aaron when he is confronted with an ethical decision on the eve of the qualifying exam.

Aaron’s encounter with a couple of fundamentalists bent on converting him and the way another student calls the bluff of an anti-Christian professor in a comparative religions class broadens the religious picture. It might have been helpful, however, if those chapters could have been connected a bit more with the scientific themes of the book.

The title of the book is eye-catching but it’s natural to wonder what in the world it has to do with physics. Suffice it to say that it has to do with some crude humor of one of the students. Heddle’s characters generally talk the way real people talk and not in the prissy way that characterizes some “Christian fiction.”

Some readers may wonder if the religious arguments in the novel are leading them to a kind of altar call in the last chapter. If so, they will be surprised and sobered to find themselves confronted instead by an event that, in light of those arguments, poses the question of theodicy in a stark fashion. There is a great deal in the novel besides physics and religion – grad student parties, personal relationships, visits to the families of other students, and other aspects of real life. At times it may seem to meander. But when one finishes the book and looks back at the whole story, one sees a narrative that poses some tough basic questions and isn’t content with easy answers. It’s an interesting and helpful complement to the more familiar types of non-fictional work on religion and