Monday, May 26, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.2 General Revelation and Science

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1.2 General Revelation and Science

General Revelation is knowledge of God that is readily available to all mankind through creation and providence. We all know the “negative” perspective of general revelation: it leaves all men without excuse:
For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:20)
The flip side is this: if creation leaves men with no excuse for their dismissal of God, then it must, in fact, make a convincing though presumably incomplete case for God’s existence. Indeed, there are five major arguments for the existence of God based on General Revelation: 20
  1. Cosmological Argument (Cause and effect). The universe is the effect of a greater cause, an intelligent Creator. The universe cannot create itself or come from nothing, therefore must have come from something else. God then, is the single uncaused cause.

  2. Teleological Argument (Order/Intelligent Design). The universe displays an amazing amount of order in its chaos. But even more, it exhibits design which necessitates a Designer.

  3. Anthropological Argument (Humanity reflects deity) – Man’s extraordinary abilities, superiority over creation, and his “mannishness” (Schaeffer) reflect a greater personal Creator. Some stress man’s rational abilities, while others see the relationships with the Trinity as key to man’s personality.

  4. Moral Argument (Common Grace) – All men have some sense of right and wrong and some set of common behavioral code. Man’s sense of morality reflects the divine image of a moral God.

  5. Ontological Argument (God’s definition requires existence) – Anselm first set forth this powerful and difficult argument. It argues that the definition of God as the greatest of beings necessitates His existence. 1) The idea of a thing is greater if it exists in reality, rather than only in the mind. 2) Man conceives the greatest being – God. 3) For the idea to exist in the mind as “greatest” it must exist in reality or not be the greatest.
We will not comment on the validity of these proofs, as we will have no further need of them.

Some argue that the Fall has somewhat lessened the power of General Revelation. For example, B. B. Warfield writes:21
Only in Eden has general revelation been adequate to the needs of man. Not being a sinner, man in Eden had no need of that grace of God itself by which sinners are restored to communion with Him, or of the special revelation of this grace of God to sinners to enable them to live with God.
As we did with Special Revelation, we shall adopt a working definition:

General Revelation: information concerning God available to all men through observation of creation.

We quoted Rom 1:20 above. Another well-known and relevant passage is:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)

In reading just these two passages we get a sense of awe—that creation is a form of revelation substantive enough to declare God’s glory. We also get a sense of both responsibility and approval, that the study of creation is a godly endeavor that will be profitable to us and acceptable to God.

What we do not get is any sense whatsoever that the study of creation is a kind of intellectual trap—that it is a test of faith. There is no biblical support for the idea that we are to study creation just to overcome what we learn in some bizarre exercise designed to strengthen our faith in the unseen. It will be what we learn buy studying creation that is glorifying to God, not the denial what we learn.

Although General Revelation glorifies God, at this point things get a little murky. At this point science enters the arena. What is science? Later we will look at a more precise definition. For now, however, we will simplify its meaning to:

Science: A human intellectual activity that seeks to appreciate and understand the wonders of creation.

Science is the imperfect way that humans examine the handiwork of God. That science is imperfect almost as easy to demonstrate as the fact that theology is imperfect. The landscape is littered with discarded theories, and at any given moment there will be competing and incompatible theories attempting to explain the latest data. Scientists would argue that these imperfections are part of the process and that science, given time, is self-correcting, and that’s true. But nevertheless just like a group of intelligent, well-meaning theologians will look at the same book (the Bible) and reach vastly different conclusions, some intelligent and well-meaning scientists will look at the same data concerning the same aspect of creation and still produce opposing theories.

Our point, as we conclude this section, is that while we have a reliable laboratory (creation), we have a powerful demonstrably imperfect method of interpreting and understanding the data. We believe there is an important ramification of this. When we have a collision between one scientific theory and another, or between theology and science, we should be willing to examine the possibility our erroneous scientific theory is the source of or contributes to the conflict.

20 Taken from
21 Article "Revelation," from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,
James Orr, General Editor, v. 4, pp. 2573-2582. Pub. Chicago, 1915, by the Howard-Severance Co.

Friday, May 23, 2008

New Covenant Theology

I am reading and enjoying the book New Covenant Theology by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel.

(The title is meant to be read: New Covenant Theology, not New Covenant Theology.)

I won’t say I’m swooning, but Wells and Zaspel, and the NCT community in general, present some attractive arguments.

In a nutshell, NCT is an alternative to the big-two biblical frameworks: dispensationalism and covenant theology. (Here is Wikipedia's NCT nutshell.)

Dispensationalism, in its classic variety, is piecewise discontinuous, to use a mathematical term. The bible and redemptive history are subdivided into (typically) seven dispensations. (We are in the sixth, not the seventh and last—which is the so-called millennial kingdom.) During each dispensation, God deals with and tests His people in a certain, specific way.

Covenant theology stresses that there is just one overarching covenant, a covenant of grace. It has been in effect under two administrations (which to confuse matters, are also called dispensations), the Old Testament era and the New Testament era. While it is acknowledged that grace is more obvious for the NT era, nevertheless there is just one covenant.

In utter contrast to dispensationalism, covenant theology stresses continuity. As such, it emphasizes as much as reasonably possible the “sameness” of the two administrations. The church is one entity: Israel in the OT, what we call the church in the NT. There are two manifestations of the sign of the covenant: circumcision (then) and infant baptism (now.)

Up to that point I have always been more or less comfortable with vanilla Presbyterian covenant theology.

But covenant theology’s emphasis on continuity has, in one area, always left me decidedly uncomfortable. That is the way they deal with Mosaic Law. Their position more or less demands they preserve as much as possible, usually making some nebulous distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. I don’t see this teaching made explicit anywhere in the New Testament. And abuses of this position lead to the abomination known as theonomy.

New Covenant Theology approaches scripture with an almost obvious hermeneutic, something in between dispensationalism and covenant theology, but considerably closer to the latter. NCT does have a single and substantive discontinuity: an Old Covenant for ancient Israel, and a New Covenant for the world. Mosaic law, including the Ten Commandments, was for the Old Covenant. The moral teachings of Jesus and the apostles are the regulations for the New Covenant. The church is not a continuation of Israel, but an entirely new (though not unforeseen) entity, instituted by Jesus.

It is important to note that NCT does not teach that the Old Testament is to be ignored. Indeed it acknowledges that 2 Tim 3:16 was in fact referring to the Old Testament, which remains profitable. What NCT teaches, however, is that logical priority be given to the New Testament.

For those who have read my posts on the law, you might recall that my position is aligned with that of NCT. I have written that Jesus’ two great commandments are the proper basis of the Christian’s moral law--along with additional teaching from the Jesus (Sermon on the Mount) and the apostles.

I’ll report more on NCT at a later date. I still have many questions about how the NCT theologians deal with references to Israel in the New Testament.

But, to say the least, I'm intrigued.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cell Phone Anxiety

Last Saturday I attended my university’s Honors Convocation. Upon arrival I was delayed in robing. As somewhat expected, my Ph.D. regalia (robe and hood) was not there. When you arrive in the middle of the academic year, (I returned to CNU in January after a six and a half year hiatus) you tend to fall through the cracks.

Well they fixed me up with a generic Ph.D. (three striped) robe and a CNU hood. Lexicographically, they were pretty darn close, since I graduated from CMU.

I dashed into the convocation in the nick of time as was directed to the first row. On stage the president of the university sat about ten feet away.

Almost immediately after I sat down the proceedings began. After the invocation and some greetings, a prominent faculty member stood up to give a speech. Just as she started, I experienced an unpleasant realization:
  1. My cell phone was in my pocket.
  2. I forgot to turn it off.
  3. I was in plain view and easy earshot of the president.
  4. My ringtone is the theme from Hawaii Five-O.
  5. I turn the volume up all the way because a) I don’t hear too well and b) I need to hear the phone over my car radio which I blast at runway level decibels. (Memo to self: consider the possibility that a) and b) are not independent.)
I had to decide whether I should immediately reach inside my robe and dig into my pocket for my phone and turn it off while the speech was rolling, or wait to the end. The latter risked the catastrophic incoming call. But that risk was traded against the prospect of being less of a spectacle. I could shut down the phone during the distraction of the applause and on-stage transition.

I decided to wait.

All ended well. The phone did not ring. But I was sweating some high caliber bullets.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Science and Faith at War?  1.1 Special Revelation and Theology

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1.1 Special Revelation and Theology

God has provided two broad modes by which He communicates His redemptive plan to us. The first we will look at is called Special Revelation. Consider this compact and straightforward definition from Tim Challies:9
Special Revelation has been unfolded through history. It began with God revealing Himself to just one man – the first man. Then he revealed Himself to a family, then to a tribe, a nation, a race and then finally to the whole world.

Special Revelation speaks about the same things as [General] Revelation (see § 1.2, General Revelation and Science.), but does so in more detail. It also speaks of things that [General] Revelation does not and cannot. We learn further details about God’s existence and power and we learn more about His wrath, including the reasons behind it.
Challies also lists ways in which God has revealed Himself through Special Revelation.10 With a few modifications:

  • God speaking directly. God has spoken directly and audibly to people.

  • God becoming man (Theophanies).11 Several times in history God revealed Himself in human form.

  • Prophecy. God spoke through the mouths of prophets. These men and women, when they prophesied, spoke God’s words with their voices.

  • Casting of lots.12 God made his will known through seemingly random events. If God controls everything in the world, this must include things as small as a roll of a dice or casting of a lot.

  • Urim and Thummin.13 These were ancient tools used by ancient Israel. We know very little about them, except that they communicated God’s revelation to Israelite priests.

  • Dreams and Visions.14 Dreams and visions have been used to reveal something about God or His will.

  • Jesus Christ. God’s primary means of Special Revelation is through the ministry of Jesus Christ. “Listen to Him” God told Peter (Matt. 17:5). Jesus said, “"My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” (John 7:16), and “For I have given them the words that you gave me,” (John 17:8).

  • The Apostles. Jesus bestowed teaching authority upon the apostles. The New Testament is clear that the apostles, through the Holy Spirit, are supernaturally empowered as teachers. For example, they can, years later, reliably write the Gospels because their memory is provided by the Spirit.15 Furthermore, they are granted their authority to speak by Jesus Himself.16

  • The Bible. God’s practical means of Special Revelation is through The Bible. It can be thought of this way: Jesus was God the Father’s messenger.17 The apostles were the messengers of Jesus. Their message, which by the preceding chain is easily understood to be God’s message, maintained its integrity through the workings of the Holy Spirit and is provided to us through the New Testament.

This is an interesting list. God has, as the writer of Hebrews declares, has spoken “in many times and in many ways.” (Heb 1:1). However, for the purposes of this study we shall use a working definition:

Special Revelation: The detailed knowledge of God’s redemptive plan made known to us today through the Bible.

In the Bible, we have a perfect, sufficient, inerrant18 source of Special Revelation.

At that point, however, things get a bit murky. At that point, theology enters the arena. What is theology? Again, we will use a working definition.

Theology: A human intellectual activity that seeks to develop sound doctrine and practice based on Special Revelation, i.e., by interpreting scripture.

Theology is the imperfect way that humans wade through the perfect Bible, attempting to classify, clarify, and personalize the text.

We know from painful experience that this practice is greatly flawed. From one perfect source, the human practice of theology produces, among well meaning, God fearing, inerrancy affirming, scholarly men and women: Armininans and Calvinists; millennialists of at least four flavors and even more subtypes; dispensational and covenant systematics; old and new “perspectives” on Paul, old and young earth creationists; proponents of believers’ baptism and paedobatism; culture engagement game plans ranging from separation of church and state (invented, by the way, by the Baptists) to the culture warriors of the religious right, all the way up to the so-called reconstructionists or theonomists.

And that’s just a short list. The prima facie evidence that theology is, to put it mildly, an imprecise endeavor, is the very definition of overwhelming.

This is by no means an indictment against the practice of theology. On the contrary, it is biblically mandated as a profitable activity.19

To further drive this point home, consider the passage:
And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator." (Dan:9:27)
If your eschatology is amillennial, the “he” refers to the Messiah. On the other hand, for dispensational premillennialists, “he” is the antichrist. Somebody is going to be quite embarrassed.

Truly, theology might be the most error prone of all human intellectual activities. The disagreements are as vast as those in politics. That is all the more remarkable when you consider that in the theologies we are contrasting, all parties agree a priori to use the same textbook, and all agree that the instruction therein is perfect.

Our point, as we conclude the section, is that while we have a reliable text, we have a demonstrably imperfect method of interpreting and understanding that text. We believe there are two important ramifications of this:
  1. We should be very careful as to what we include in our circle of orthodoxy. That is, what we define as the minimal set of beliefs that must be held by a Christian should be exactly that: minimal.20

  2. When we have a collision between one theology and another, or between theology and science, we should be willing to examine the possibility that an erroneous theology is the source of or contributes to the conflict.
To reiterate the second point: we must never preclude the possibility of a theological error by mistaking it for a biblical error. Those are two very different beasts.

This will be clarified further after we examine the second great mode of God’s revelation.

9 See this Tim Challies post.
10 Ibid., with some modifications.
11 E.g., Jud. 13:22; Luke. 3:22
12 E.g., Jonah 1.7; Acts 1:16.
13 This little understood method of divination is mentioned several times in the Old Testament. For example: He is to stand before Eleazar the priest, who will obtain decisions for him by inquiring of the Urim before the LORD. At his command he and the entire community of the Israelites will go out, and at his command they will come in. (Num. 27:21) See also 1 Sam. 28:3-6. Many believe the terms actually refer to objects involved in the divination, such as the high priest’s breastplate. See the Jewish Encyclopedia article.
14 E.g., Gen. 31:24; Acts 9:10.
15 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26)
16 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20)
17 Speaking to the apostles, Jesus said: “And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (John 14:26)
18 The inerrancy is limited to the original autographs. We acknowledge the possibility of transcription errors, translation errors, and redactions. For the purposes of this work, we uphold the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
19 Now these [Berean] Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. (Acts 17:11).
20 Here the historic creeds of the church are helpful. For example the Nicene Creed. No eschatological wars there—it simply states what all Christians can agree with, that someday Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.
21 Article "Revelation," from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor, v. 4, pp. 2573-2582. Pub. Chicago, 1915, by the Howard-Severance Co.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Science and Faith at War?

Notes from a Sunday School that begins on May 25.

Comments, corrections, and routine editing: absolutely welcomed!

An index of all posts is on the right frame.

A blog with only the Sunday School Posts is here.

Location: Grace Baptist Chapel
805 Todd's Lane
Hampton, VA 23666
Time: 10:00-10:45 am

1. Introduction

Increasingly, it seems as if science and faith are at war. The bestseller lists include The God Delusion1 which celebrates atheistic rationalism and science, and denigrates religion as nothing less than child abuse.2 In the movie theaters, we find Ben Stein’s Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed3 arguing that atheist scientists control the academy and tolerate no dissent, and that the theory of evolution was a prerequisite for the Eugenics movement and the Holocaust.

Here is just an example of the degree of belligerence in the rhetoric. On the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Ben Stein said in an interview with Paul Crouch, Jr.4
Stein: When we just saw that man, I think it was Mr. Myers [biologist P.Z. Myers], talking about how great scientists were, I was thinking to myself the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that was horrifying beyond words, and that’s where science — in my opinion, this is just an opinion — that’s where science leads you.

Crouch: That’s right.

Stein: Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.
Of course, verbal assaults of this type (and worse) are found on both sides of the aisle.

As Christians we can approach this war, if there is a war, only one way. We must ask: is our participation in this conflict justified? Is science the enemy of our faith? And why stop there—is archeology an enemy? Is history? Are atheists our enemies? Do we have any external enemies at all? Do we not affirm that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world? Is this all really an example of the aphorism: we have met the enemy, and he is us?

These are difficult questions. When we narrow the focus to science, however, we reduce the question to this: does the detailed and systematic study of creation (science) glorify God? If so, then science is a godly activity, and Christians dare not call that which is good, evil.5

This study will attempt to demonstrate that such is indeed the case. The Bible has not only sanctioned science, but has mandated its practice. The world might declare that there is a war between science and faith6, but Christians should show up as peacemakers, not combatants.

We must also ask a deeper, more painful question. The issue is not limited to whether or not we are well-intentioned but misguided combatants. We must also ask: are we the agitators? Was the truce between scientists in the academy and Christianity broken by our side? Did an army of atheist scientists launch a Tet Offensive against Christianity and we are merely responding defensively? Or, under the guise of the culture wars, did we lob the first grenade?

When asking such introspective questions, we will be well advised to consider the words of Augustine:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn...7
Augustine is not telling us that we should accept uncritically all that science teaches. He is stating, as I read it, a) a tacit approval of science and b) a forceful warning that if we (Christians) are to engage debate on scientific matters, we should do so from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance.

While this is not a traditional bible study Sunday School, we nevertheless will do our best to support our positions from scripture. The attitudes of Christians toward science and the politicization of science as a front in the larger culture wars should be measured against scripture. Speaking of which, this study will take the position that scripture, in the original autographs, is inspired and inerrant.

We will not, however, take the position that either any individual Christian or even a majority opinion of renowned Christian theologians is infallible.

That especially goes for the author of this study. It is your responsibility as a Christian reader to provide correction.

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptural references are from the ESV.8

Finally, during this study if it appears that we are tougher on ourselves (Christians) than on the world, that is purely by intent.

1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, First Mariners Book Edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 2008.
2 For example, Dawkins writes that labeling children by their parent’s believes, e.g., “a Catholic boy,” is a form of abuse: “Isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label children as possessors of beliefs that they are too young to have thought out?” The God Delusion, p. 354.
4 As reported by John Derbyshire, National Review Online, The Corner blog, April 30, 2008. A search on youtube for “Stein science killing” should lead you to a video clip.
5 See Is. 5:20. Also, the “Unpardonable Sin” is the ultimate “calling good, evil” violation, when Jesus’ miracles were attributed to Satan.
6 Although we will actually attempt to show that it is only a radical though vocal minority of atheist scientists who declare war. The overwhelming majority are unconcerned about the personal beliefs of their colleagues.
7 Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translation by J. H. Taylor, Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, 1982, V41.
8 The English Standard Version Bible, Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

EDIT 1: slight word mods, and a fixed typo.
EDIT 2: Inserted Stein's comment about science leads to killing.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Response to Dave L

This is a response to some of Dave L's criticism of my recent post on Dawkins. His criticisms are in the comments.

I hope I represent his position correctly, but if not I'm sure he'll correct me.

Dave L charges that I did not bother to remind readers that elsewhere Dawkins discusses an evolutionary explanation for morality. Dave L wrote:
I'd say you did pretend that that is Dawkins' only argument that he put in his book; your post's title is, 'Is that all there is?' for Chrissakes. If you are referring to three specific pages of his book, and you ignore even the other pages in the very same section, then duh, yea, that's all there is, but it's very deceptive and again close to a quote-mine to do so.

You said, "The counter theory is that morality evolved. Dawkins did not refer to any of the actual theories...,". Are you trying to imply that your second sentence does not refer in any way to the former? It must not, since he specifically talks about morality evolving.
There is some truth in that, but it is a technical admission only. At the start of my post, I wrote "let's zero in on this section." I don't know how I could be clearer. And contrary to what Dave L asserts I did not ignore anything in that section (pp. 259-267) that pertains to a different argument. (More about what I did ignore in that section, anon.)

Dawkins created a subdivision of his own text, and I found it to be a particularly odious subsection, and so I went after it. I am under no obligation to remind people of the obvious, that elsewhere Dawkins supports evolutionary explanations, which is tantamount to the absurd requirement that I remind readers that Dawkins supports evolution. But true, to be more precise, I could have written: "The counter theory is that morality evolved. Dawkins did not refer to this theory in this section.".

Furthermore, this criticism is diversionary. I think it is clear that the gist of my post was not a desire to claim the manifestly untrue: "Gee, Dawkins doesn't even know that his camp claims morality evolved! What a bozo!" but rather to attack the simpleminded argument he attributed to Christianity.

A question for Dave L. May I assume that when people criticize God's cruelty in the Old Testament, when they take a section from the conquest of Canaan to demonstrate how "nasty" God is, that you are consistent in your moral outrage? That is, do you insist that they remind their readers of other places in scripture where God appears to be nice?

Actually I did leave some things out of my criticism of that section, but it would have just resulted in pointing out more of Dawkins's poor argumentation. There is nothing in that section that rescues him.

For example, to bolster his argument that Christians behave under fear of punishment or hope of reward, Dawkins quotes Einstein: "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."

Indeed, Einstein is correct though not as Dawkins intends. Christian theology affirms the point over and over. One nearly universal claim across denominations is that salvation is by grace, not by works. Another is that God sanctifies believers, believers do not sanctify themselves by good deeds. Another is that the Holy Spirit guides us, he does not tag along to watch where we go.

Dawkins wrote his question, placed it in the mouth of a virtual patsy Christian, and provides his fatal response. Well, good scholarship demands that he should at least let his imaginary fall guy say: wait a minute Professor, that's not Christian doctrine, there is actual Christian doctrine known as Common Grace. That is our real response, not the canard you invoked.

And then Dawkins could try to address what is wrong with the doctrine of Common Grace. But he couldn't be bothered. Cue the Courtier's Reply.

[Aside: the Wikipedia explanation of Common Grace is pretty good. One excerpt:
In man's conscience - The apostle Paul says that when unbelieving Gentiles "who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, . . . They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Rom. 2:14-15, ESV). By God's common grace fallen mankind retains a conscience indicating the differences between right and wrong. This may be based on the fact that human beings, though fallen in sin, retain a semblance of the "image of God" with which they were originally created (Gen. 9:6: 1 Cor. 11:7).
(end aside)]

Dawkins also quotes Shermer, who writes "If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder', you reveal yourself as an immoral person, 'and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you'. If, on the other hand, you would admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good."

Same bad argument; same boat missed, same caricature of Christian theology. As a Christian I do not say that in the absence of God I would commit heinous crimes, but rather everyone would. Christianity does not teach that Christians behave because they are under surveillance, but rather that Dawkins behaves because God has given him a moral compass.

Dawkins also repeats his own argument, writing (p. 259):
It seems to me that to require quite a low self-regard to think that, should belief in God suddenly vanish from the world, we would all become callous and selfish hedonists, with no kindness, no charity, no charity, no generosity,…
In fact, I should have led with this quote because it is surpassingly stupid. If God vanished from the world, then yes. If belief in God vanished, then no, because the answer, again, is not that baseline morality comes from being under surveillance, but from Common Grace.

If Dawkins is correct, then a Christian mantra should be: look at the repulsive atheists. They never do charitable acts! They don't love their children! They cheat at every opportunity! They would steal the possessions of a beggar without giving it a second thought! In fact, what you are more likely to hear in Christian discussions is a lamenting and embarrassment that in many cases regarding charity and behavior we often don't measure up to the atheists.

Now a little later in the section (p. 264), Dawkins admits, more or less, that his imaginary Christian was perhaps a wee bit too dumb. He ramps up the argument to the ever popular "only religion can provide absolute standards of morality." But this argument, which is Dawkins's way of bending over backwards to make sure he addresses a "sophisticated" religious response, is equally bad and subject to the same criticism: it does not resemble actual Christian theology.

Dave L wrote:
Again, you don't seem to dispute that there are many theists (and face it, there are many theists who are not even close to being as intellectual about their theism as you are) who mean this question in the 'policeman' sense, and Dawkins makes it clear that that is the version he is answering to in the section you zeroed in on.
Then why didn't he use that question as his section header?

I can only speak from my experience. I have ready many books and attended many sermons and Sunday Schools and have, most importantly, read the bible. While there is no question that God is watching, while there is no question that it behooves us to remember that God is watching, the unambiguous teaching is that of grace, not merit. I have never read anywhere nor heard in any sermon state: "behave because God is watching!" but rather "strive to be an imitator of Christ." No doubt such literature exists, but if so it does not reflect mainstream teaching, and mainstream teaching is what Dawkins should address. All those bracelets remind people to ask themselves What Would Jesus Do? not Be verrryyy careful, I'm watching your every move!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Really Smart Scientists don’t Believe in God

It is often reported that, in general, scientists don't much believe in God. And that better scientists believe even less, and that crème de la crème NAS members disbelieve almost uniformly, at somewhere around the 93% level. I certainly am no exception, being on the bottom of the food chain among academic scientists, where the belief rate among us “lesser” scientists hovers around 40%.

This is contrasted with rates among the general public who, in this country, profess belief with almost opposite regularity.

I have no theory about the cause. I just I’d point out some factors that may contribute:
  1. Maybe it's true. Maybe smart people really are less likely to believe. Perhaps (I don’t buy it, but perhaps) this is an example of foolish things putting the wise to shame.

  2. Christian higher education devalues and in many cases demonizes science, redirecting bright Christians into seminary. Among Christians there is a brain drain from science to theology and ministry.

  3. Academia is not the only employer of Ph.D. scientists, or even of exceptionally gifted Ph.D. scientists. Industry takes its share. Perhaps the percentages are quite different there, indicating a bias where talented believing scientists are more comfortable taking that path. (I have no data—just speculating.)

  4. Perhaps extremely talented people are simply more secure and confident. Thus while your average Joe might, from peer pressure, be reluctant to profess his atheism, you average scientist with his Ph.D. sized ego is not. In other words, the percentage of sincere God believers may be way, way less than polls indicated, reducing the disparity between scientists and non-scientists. (In this model, the 7% of NAS believers must be stalwart paragons of sincerity. A doff O’ the cap to ‘em.)
There are probably more factors one should consider before concluding that the smarter you are the less likely it is you’ll believe in God. These are but a few. But the bottom line is: it wouldn’t bother me one bit if it turned out that the hypothesis survived all challenges to the statistics gathering and analysis methodologies.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Calvin on Science

In another forum, one dedicated to Christianity and science, I got into a debate over biblical inerrancy. In case you don’t know, I affirm inerrancy in the original manuscripts, and am in agreement with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Those with whom I was arguing are pro-science Christians, who take a more relaxed view of scripture, namely that it is reliable in matters of faith but not inerrant in the sense that modern evangelicals use.

That’s fine. I understand there are different views.

A question arose as to what the Reformers believed. John Calvin was mentioned, and it was claimed that he corrected Moses’ errant cosmology. This was offered as proof that Calvin did not hold to a Chicago style view of scriptural inerrancy.

The conclusion may be correct, but the argument is wrong.

It is useful to look at Calvin’s so-called correction for two reasons. One is to demonstrate that it has no bearing on the question of biblical inerrancy. The other is to show that Calvin had a marvelous attitude toward science.

The verse in question is a familiar one from the Genesis creation account:
And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. (Gen. 1:16)
Now it is interesting that a Christian should set this up as a scientific error that Calvin will then correct. When I discuss scientific error in the bible with non-believers, they will bring up cud-chewing rabbits, bad values for π, misclassified bats and a few more well-known “errors” (all of which have satisfactory explanations.) Not one has ever brought up Gen 1:16. Why not? Because I think that even atheistic biblical critics sense that there is no error here. Moses is not claiming that the actual dimensions of the moon are greater than that of the stars. He is saying that as light sources in the night sky, the moon is by far the dominant.

Yet to make his case that Calvin did not view scripture as inerrant, a Christian in this debate wants to claim either (a) this verse is in error and Calvin corrected it or (2) at least Calvin thought it was in error and was willing to correct it.

The second possibility is the more charitable. So we turn to Calvin and ask, what exactly did he write about this passage? The answer is readily available in his commentary on Genesis 1.

Calvin opens his discussion of the sixteenth verse with:
I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.
Let me paraphrase and you can decide if you read Calvin as I do.

Calvin is writing that Moses is not performing the detailed work of a scientist, but rather writing in ordinary language. At no point does he argue that Moses is wrong, but rather that Moses is simply describing what you see when you gaze upon the sky.

What is interesting, of course, is that Calvin had some new information. Astronomers had deduced that Saturn was in fact bigger than the moon. But Calvin (good man) doesn’t use this to demonstrate biblical error, but to argue for the compatibility of science and the bible.

Calvin did not take a fundamentalist approach: Pointy headed scientists be damned, Genesis 1:16 says the moon is bigger, and that’s good enough for me! Nor did he take an AIG or ICR approach: the apparent bigness of Saturn is an illusion due to the fact that the speed of light and the Gravitational constant G have changed over time for the purposes of testing those who would trust modern science and to provide income for those who would write niche-industry pseudo-science books.

No, Calvin treats the science with respect. In this first blurb he has pointed out their discovery and accepts unquestioningly: astronomy has now demonstrated that Saturn is bigger than the moon.

Things get even better in the next section:
Nevertheless, this study [Astronomy] is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.
Bravo! Calvin is quite clear that science is a noble activity that brings glory to God. Christians that view science as an enemy would do well to ponder Calvin’s words.

From this reading, I see no indication that Calvin believed Moses was in error. I see only the explanation that what Moses wrote correct in the sense he meant it and we are to take it. But if there is any lingering question, Calvin puts it to rest:
There is therefore no reason why janglers (harsh critics) should deride the unskillfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.
Calvin rocks.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is that all there is?

In re-reading Dawkins’s The God Delusion, in preparation for a Sunday School, I am again amazed at the poor quality of his arguments. I have written many times about the substandard abilities of today’s intellectual atheists, and a second reading of Dawkins’s magnum opus has reaffirmed that view. He reasoning doesn’t get any better with age.

For example, let’s taker a gander at Chapter 6 of The God Delusion, which Dawkins entitled “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?” In particular, let’s zero in on a section labeled “If there is no God, Why be good?”

Dawkins tells us he often hears this question from bumpkin believers. Then he attempts to point out how bad this argument really is. But instead of making his case, he hoists himself with his own petard.

To address the alleged speciousness of this simpleton’s argument, Dawkins writes that only charity prevents him from humiliating the purveyor with a crushing retort:

my [Dawkins’s] immediate temptation is to issue the following challenge: ‘Do you really mean to tell me the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up, apple polishing [etc.]’ (The God Delusion, p. 259.)

How did Dawkins hoist himself? Because he labeled the section with the believers’ “foolish question” If there is no God, why be good? The answer to Dawkins’s errant critique is simple: Professor Dawkins, you have missed the boat. No, it has nothing to do with seeking to obtain reward or avoid punishment. No, it has nothing to do, as your counter-argument assumes, with the fact that we are under 24/7 surveillance from a lidless-eyed God. It has everything to do with the fact that the source of my moral compass and the source of your moral compass is God. The question is not, as you conveniently assume, “If you think God is not watching you, why should you, as an atheist, do anything good?” The question is “If there is no God, then why should any of us doing anything good?” It has to do with something we are born with, a congenital morality of right and wrong provided by God, not a trivial reaction to being watched from above.

Dawkins’s should have labeled his strawman argument If you don’t believe in God, why be good? Then, at least, his in-his-own-mind slam-dunk retort would have been a bit more apropos. However, as he posed the question, his answer is incredibly weak. Now it would be one thing for Dawkins to answer a random question in a way that was less than satisfactory. Not everyone is quick on their feet. However it is quite another matter for him to construct the question, place it in the mouths of make-believe believers, set his inescapable trap, only to provide such a silly reply.

With the Atheist Of Our Age we always expect more, but we always come away disappointed.

Friday, May 09, 2008

God's Operating System

That would be UNIX, of course. Any Calvinist knows that Windows is hard-core Satanism and the Mac OS is gender-challenged, New Age Gnosticism.

Anyway, a colleague sent this: The Unix-Koans of Master Foo.

Hilarious. Just a sample:

Master Foo and the Ten Thousand Lines

Master Foo once said to a visiting programmer: “There is more Unix-nature in one line of shell script than there is in ten thousand lines of C.”

The programmer, who was very proud of his mastery of C, said: “How can this be? C is the language in which the very kernel of Unix is implemented!”

Master Foo replied: “That is so. Nevertheless, there is more Unix-nature in one line of shell script than there is in ten thousand lines of C.”

The programmer grew distressed. “But through the C language we experience the enlightenment of the Patriarch Ritchie! We become as one with the operating system and the machine, reaping matchless performance!”

Master Foo replied: “All that you say is true. But there is still more Unix-nature in one line of shell script than there is in ten thousand lines of C.”

The programmer scoffed at Master Foo and rose to depart. But Master Foo nodded to his student Nubi, who wrote a line of shell script on a nearby whiteboard, and said: “Master programmer, consider this pipeline. Implemented in pure C, would it not span ten thousand lines?”

The programmer muttered through his beard, contemplating what Nubi had written. Finally he agreed that it was so.

“And how many hours would you require to implement and debug that C program?” asked Nubi.

“Many,” admitted the visiting programmer. “But only a fool would spend the time to do that when so many more worthy tasks await him.”

“And who better understands the Unix-nature?” Master Foo asked. “Is it he who writes the ten thousand lines, or he who, perceiving the emptiness of the task, gains merit by not coding?”

Upon hearing this, the programmer was enlightened.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Sunday School on Science and Faith

I haven't taught Sunday School since moving to Virginia. That's about to change. I will teach on a familiar topic, and will post the notes here. Much of the notes will be taken from previous blogs posts--which were take from previous Sunday School Notes, so I am no longer sure which came first. At any rate, they may look familiar. Below the line is the tentative outline.

Science and Faith

This Sunday School series will deal with the tension between science and faith. It is important to remember that I am not an elder in this church—my views on these matters are strictly my own and in no way endorsed by Grace Baptist Chapel. I certainly hope that we can enjoy an iron-sharpens-iron civil discourse on the topics—some of which are likely to be a bit controversial.

The outline for the series is:

  1. Introduction
    1. Special Revelation and Theology.
    2. General Revelation and Science.
    3. God is not a god of confusion.
    4. Christians v. Scientists. What's the score?

  2. What is science? What is not science?
    1. Philosophical Naturalism: The cosmos is all there is.
    2. Methodological Naturalism: Let's operate as if the cosmos is all there is.
    3. Show me the experiment!

  3. Blind Faith—Does the Bible present it as a virtue?
    1. Hebrews 11 seems to say yes, until, oddly enough…
    2. Hebrews 11 seems to prove otherwise.

  4. The Genesis Days
    1. What does yom mean?
    2. Can we literally take this literally?
    3. Rabbit Trail: the Tree of Life.

  5. The Church Fathers
    1. Oops: it seems that on that day, Adam surely did not die.
    2. There's Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and finally…
    3. St. Augustine: the most radical non-literalist.

  6. Intelligent Design
    1. Good: Intelligent Design as an apologetic.
    2. Bad: The Intelligent Design Movement and the culture wars.
    3. Ugly: The poor witness and the proclamation of victimhood.

  7. The cosmological fine tunings—the Multiverse or Multiple Verses?
    1. The universe on a razor's edge.
    2. Don't touch that constant!
    3. Is it luck, multiple universes, or God in the details?

  8. Who can be a Christian? Is theistic evolution incompatible with Christianity?
    1. Remember, we are Protestants.
    2. Remember, we are Calvinists.
    3. Think of the Children!

  9. Summary

UPDATE: The posts for this Sunday School, which begins May 25, will also be availaible on this site.

Finals Week

The reason people become professors is to be on the other side of those dreaded final exams.

Not really. They are a huge pain in the derriere for us, too, although the students are not sympathetic to our plight.

When students ask me for help on a homework, my first response (which I try to keep to once per student, lest I be viewed as senile) is "If I knew how to do it, then I wouldn't be asking you." Then I help.

Inevitably, as I am passing out a test, some student will ask "How is it?" I will always reply with a deadpan "Man, I'm glad I don't have to take it."

Strangely this always breaks the ice. I am reminded that Johnny Cash always claimed that the songs his legions of incarcerated fans enjoyed most were not the songs of freedom, songbirds, and blue skies. No, they liked the songs telling of the prison inmate's gloom and despair.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Baylor and Gomorrah

Denyse O'Leary has a real problem with Baylor University. and she views Baylor President John Lilley as a minion of the antichrist. Baylor and Lilley have committed several unpardonable sins, viz., 1) they unceremoniously showed O'Leary's friend and guru Bill Dembski the door, at least twice. 2) By refusing to require the Baylor Board of Regents to wear scarlet M's (for Materialist) they forced Dembski to publish, as a public service to the many sane commenters on his blog, the board members' addresses and home phone numbers, and 3) They made Robert Marks move his virtual lab to a private web server. To recover his lab, and this makes the mind reel, it required two, yes two invocations of ftp.

On a recent Uncommon Descent post, Denyese reports on a letter that Lilley addressed, it would seem, to those who have complained (I'm sure without any inciting from from that bastion of graciousness and decency, Uncommon Descent) that Baylor is BINO.

O'Leary complains that Lilley's letter says nothing. Actually I think it says "stop being ignorant asses" without actually saying "stop being ignorant asses."

Along the way, O'Leary manages to dis Francis Collins (again), which is a bit like Paula Abdul dissing The New York Times entertainment writers.

But I bring all this up because in complaining about Lilley's letter, O'Leary, wittingly or not, but in any case with impressive conciseness, summarizes the wrongheadedness of the thinking on Uncommon Descent in particular and the Intelligent Design Movement in general. She writes that Lilley said nothing at all,
Unless, that is, you believe faith and science are in conflict, in which case he [Lilley] reassures you that they aren’t.

But if you do believe that, why would you want to attend or fund Baylor - or any religiously affiliated university?
That is Uncommon-Descent-Think in a nutshell: Faith and science are in conflict; God is a god of confusion. Why would you support any Christian university that teaches the blasphemous doctrine of the harmony of faith and science?

She nailed it.

(Well, faith and science in conflict is their material cause. Their final cause is that they are being unmercifully persecuted out of existence.)

Baptist In Name Only. See this comment. This is reminiscent of Liberty University, whose faculty and administration, in my experience, customarily refer to other Christian schools that don't require an affirmation of YECism and premillennial dispensationalism as “CINO,” or Christian In Name Only.

Weirdest Amazon Order, Evah

This has to be the strangest Amazon order I ever placed. Three Items:
  1. The paperback version of The God Delusion, which will be used as a gift. (Yes, to someone I like.)
  2. A copy of the hardcover version of Feynman’s classic three volume set of introductory physics lectures—a gift to myself. My well-used paperback version is falling apart.
  3. A copy of John Hagee's Jerusalem Countdown. (Revised and updated!). Hagee is, to put it politely, a bat-shit crazy apocalypse cultist/svengali useful-idiot. I can hardly stomach reading anything he writes, but I know some Christians who are referring to him favorably so I want to remind myself of the awfulness of his false-prophetic arguments.
If this order doesn't crash Amazon's "recommendation” algorithm" I don’t know what will. I hope, although there is little chance, that on the page for The God Delusion it says, at least for a while, that "People who bought this book also bought Jerusalem Countdown."

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Learn Nuclear Physics in One Easy Sentence!

That one sentence is: When nuclei get bigger, they get bigger, but when atoms get bigger, they get smaller.

What is meant is this: As you move up the periodic table, you get more protons and more electrons. This means the attraction between the protons and electrons grows, and the electrons are pulled closer to the nucleus. (There are exceptions—we are talking trends.) Thus the paradoxical statement: when atoms get bigger (more charge) they get smaller (electrons pulled closer.)

Nuclei, on the other hand just get bigger when they get bigger.

This means the nuclear force that binds nuclei is fundamentally different than the electromagnetic force that binds atoms. Long range forces like the attraction between charges (which is of infinite range--though only weakly, a proton on one side of the solar system will feel the force of an electron on the other) cause the behavior we see in atoms. Short range forces, that are very strong only at short distances and zero at larger distances, cause the behavior we see in nuclei (bigger means bigger.) Why? Because the nuclear force has a short range, something like the size of a proton, neutrons and protons in a nucleus see only their nearest neighbors. Adding more neutrons or protons doesn't increase the attraction--because they don't even "see" most of their colleagues.

Thus this simple observation teaches us that the nuclear force is short ranged, which is the beginning point of all nuclear physics.

UPDATE: I've been a bloggin' too long and I'm getting too long in the tooth--I forgot that I had already blogged about this--only much better.