Friday, June 29, 2007


Christian apologetics is the reasoned formulation and winsome presentation of a rational defense of the Christian world- and life-view. Classical apologetics includes defending the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus and the reliability of Scripture, presenting arguments for the existence of God (cosmological, ontological, teleological, moral), and answering objections associated with the existence of evil. But another common objection to Christianity--and one I haven't yet blogged about--is hypocrisy among those who call themselves Christians.

If you haven't come across a Christian or two whose life evidences inconsistency, foibles, or downright hypocrisy, then you haven't met many Christians. Most people know of someone who wears a saintly mask on Sundays and Wednesday nights but who, in unguarded moments or other venues, is anything but saintly. For many, it may be the Christian parents, whose demeanor in the community was admired by all but whose home life--known only to the immediate family--was marked by impatience, insensitivity, bitterness, anger, or worse. Not infrequently, the moral failure of a famous Christian is covered by national news media. For some (myself included), it's the personal recollection of a specific betrayal or hurt caused by a pastor or other church leader that most rankles. Or it might just be the recognition that church members have again and again proven to be the worst gossips around.

First of all, let's be clear about the fact that many who profess Christianity are not true followers of Christ. Jesus Himself drew an analogy between the church and a field in which both wheat and weeds grew up together. On another occasion, He explicitly said that many would call Him "Lord" whom He never knew--they were not redeemed children of God. Such undoubtedly account for some of the hypocrites in the church.

But not all. At the end of the day, we must acknowledge that even among true followers of Jesus there is all manner of sin, imperfection, and hypocrisy. Doesn't this fact inevitably argue against the validity of the claims of Christianity?

Well, no. Actually, it's quite the opposite. The Bible clearly declares that all men and women are sinful, even after being redeemed and given a new heart, even after receiving the Holy Spirit and experiencing God's grace and forgiveness. Certainly, those possessing this new life are expected to increasingly exhibit the "fruits of the Spirit"--love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, and such (see Galatians 5:22-23)--and to become more Christ-like (the theological term for this process is "sanctification") throughout their earthly lives. But--again according to Scripture--each of us will experience failure from time to time. (For the Apostle Paul's personal testimony on this count, read Romans chapter 7.)

As a Christian apologist, I deplore the high-visibility moral failures of church leaders, and could wish they didn't occur. As a leader of a local church, I take seriously the charge to be faithful and consistent, to avoid the temptations that become pitfalls, and I pray that I might not stumble myself nor cause others to stumble.

But in the final analysis, the truth of Christianity (or any other system) does not depend upon the success or failure of its adherents (much less its mere professors) in living out its principles perfectly. Indeed, to reject Christianity by appealing to the presence of hypocrisy among its adherents is intellectually dishonest, nothing more than a cop-out. If that's been your gig up until now, I'd like to challenge you to interact in a meaningful way with the evidence and reasons offered on behalf of the existence of God and of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

Which brings us right back to classical apologetics...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Creation Museum

To this point--and I'm nearing the century mark (in blog posts, not age)--I have not yet written any posts about Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis. This is despite the fact that his writings and speeches (the latter of which can be heard--much to my embarrassment--three times daily on the local Christian radio station) contain nearly as many misassumptions and logical fallacies (not to mention poor Biblical hermeneutics) as what Richard Dawkins writes. I believe Ham to be a brother in Christ, and so--even though I find the very central belief of his ministry to be dead wrong--I am hesitant to bring him up. To the extent that I do in future, rest assured that I will not attack the man himself (as he so often does his fellow-believers who happen to disagree with his particular interpretations), but will confine myself (as I hope I have, more-or-less, with Dawkins) to the arguments.

But for now, and since several folks have asked me to comment on the AiG Creation Museum that opened last month (across the river from where I grew up in Cincinnati), I thought I'd share a couple or three quotes. The first, from an essay by Michael Patrick Leahy titled The Trouble with Fred and Wilma, specifically addresses the new museum.
The trouble with the $27 million Creation Museum, which replaces the scientific method with word for word Christian Biblical literalist theology, is that it makes all Christians who don’t accept evolution look stupid. In doing so in such a publicly visible way it undermines the credibility of all Christians, especially those who are researching alternatives to Darwinian evolution using the tools of the scientific method. It also gives the growing movement of militant atheism, as exemplified by the works of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, an easy opportunity to misrepresent all Christians as “irrational”. The mainstream media, including the Los Angeles Times itself, are only too happy to lend assistance to this misrepresentation.

Owned by the “Young Earth Creationist” organization Answers in Genesis, the Creation Museum claims that the universe, earth, and man are only 6,000 years old, and that dinosaurs co-existed with man. The premise worked well for the Flintstones cartoon show, but has zero credibility within the scientific community in general and the Christian scientific community in particular.
The rest of the essay is well worth reading. Leahy is a theistic evolutionist, and I hope my regular readers will by now recognize that I find extremely little evidential support for that position. Nonetheless, I agree with most of what Leahy writes in this article.

The second and third quotes, by Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, respectively, were not written specifically about the Creation Museum (obviously), but I take Ham's ministry in general and the museum in particular to be perfect examples of what these church fathers had in mind. First, Aquinas...
The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Christian, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.
Now Augustine, from The Literal Meaning of Genesis...
Usually, even a new Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world...and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful 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. [Be prepared for a good deal of this in the months to come with regard to the Museum.] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More Dawkins Fallacies

I can't remember another author, attempting to write persuasive argument, who crams more muddled thinking--a greater number of logical fallacies--into a single page or chapter than Richard Dawkins does in The God Delusion. A quote I included in my last post gives me opportunity to discuss (at least) two logical fallacies. Here's the quote...
All [the Gospels] have the status of legends, as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
The first fallacy here is what's known as circular reasoning (also called 'begging the question'). This occurs whenever the conclusion of an argument is contained in one of the premises. An example would be
'The Bible is the Word of God.'
'How do you know that?'
'Well, the Bible says it is.'
'But why should I believe what the Bible says?'
'Because it's the Word of God.'
This is obviously a circular argument. But that is just what Dawkins is doing. His premise is that the historical accounts about the events of Jesus' life are mere legends. Why? Because they include miracles and claims to being a divine Being, and these things don't have a place in Dawkins' naturalistic worldview. But proving that naturalistic worldview is the point of arguing that Jesus isn't really God in the first place! In the form of a syllogism, it looks like this:
Premise 1: Miracles don't occur, and God does not exist, because we live in a world in which naturalism accurately describes reality.
Premise 2: The Gospels claim for Jesus the title of God, and credit him with miracles.
Conclusion: The Gospels must, therefore, be legend, and so provide no evidence contrary to naturalism.
It's nothing but a circular argument, and thus fallacious and a waste of ink. But in addition, it commits the fallacy of the Faulty Analogy. An analogy is faulty when the superficial similarities between the two things being compared are less important than their critical and relevant differences. And such is the case here.

Dawkins' claim is that the Gospels and the Arthurian tales share the characteristic of being legend. This, of course, is mere opinion--Dawkins doesn't attempt to support it and, as we saw in my last post, others who are better qualified to judge come to an opposite conclusion. But a more obvious problem is that there are glaring, significant differences that make this analogy break down.

For starters, the Arthurian tales make no claims to being actual history; rather, they are given to us as legends. By contrast, the Gospels present themselves as accurate accounts of events that actually took place in the space/time of this universe (see, e.g., Luke 1:1-4 and John 20:30-31).

A second significant difference is the effect of the two different sets of stories. There are (today) those people who love the tales of King Arthur. Some of them from time to time write a new fictional account of those halcyon days; most satisfy themselves with reading as many of the tales as can be found. Some will even dress up (generally once a year) and come together to feast, mock joust, and sing ballads and recite poetry. Even this extreme example of devotion to the Camelot theme is, however, limited to a very few people in recent times and select few areas of the world. By contrast, the Gospels changed the course of Western history. Devotion to Jesus is (and has been for the past 2000 years) central to the lives of individuals and nations throughout the world, and that without regard to socioeconomic status. Christianity has been the primary force in promoting literacy, establishing universties, hospitals, and orphanages. It was Christians who birthed modern science, abolished slavery, and founded democracy. Whereas encountering the fictional tales of Camelot may provide one with a few hours a year of comfortable entertainment, the disovery of the Gospels--and the One about whom they are written--has cured alcholics, saved marriages and families, changed careers, and led to life-long, comprehensive personal commitments that have included self-sacrifice and even martyrdom. This last aspect alone is sufficient for demonstrating the fallaciousness of Dawkins' analogy: no one has ever willingly died for the sake of defending the truth of Arthur's kingship.

It is clear that Richard Dawkins doesn't like the fact that the Christian message continues to have such a central role in the lives of individuals and nations; that, after all, is the reason for his book. But far from showing Christian theism to be an erroneous worldview, Dawkins' efforts toward this goal merely provide us with a veritable treasure store of errors in critical thinking.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Last Word

In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has a bad habit of arguing with people who are already dead, and thus can't answer back. Worse, he frequently reinterprets them so that--despite what they actually said and wrote--we might believe that they really meant to agree with Dawkins' beliefs. But in debate with C.S. Lewis, it is the dead apologist and author who has the last word.

Lewis gave us what's known affectionately as the "trilemma." From Mere Christianity,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
To this, Dawkins responds,
A common argument, attributed among others to C. S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: 'Mad, Bad or God'. Or, with artless alliteration, 'Lunatic, Liar or Lord'.
Dawkins spends the next several pages trying to convince us that the gospels are unreliable accounts of Jesus' life. (I have--in past posts--demonstrated how fallacious are the assertions made by Dawkins in this regard.) Toward the end of this argument, he comes back to the issue of who Jesus was, landing on a fourth (and currently popular) option: Jesus was legend.
All [the four Gospels, along with later false 'gospels'] have the status of [with equally artless alliteration?] legends, as factually dubious as the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
But here, because Dawkins hasn't read enough Lewis nor understood his expertise, Dawkins is directly refuted by the very words of his dead antagonist, an expert in the area of mythology and legend. This is from Lewis' "What are we to make of Jesus Christ?" in God in the Dock...
Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don't work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence.
Let this be a lesson to us... When in over your head in written arguments with an opponent long dead, read all of his stuff, lest that which you miss might directly refute your unfounded assertions.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Canon

I'll again use as a springboard for a defense of the New Testament Scriptures a quote from The God Delusion...
The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen.
For starters, it should be noted that the gospels were not 'chosen.' Rather, they were recognized or received by the church as inspired Scripture. And this recognition--and the complementary rejection of those not recognized as inspired--involved several very reasonable criteria.

The first such criterion is apostolic authority. If a gospel (or church history or letter or apocalypse) was written by an apostle or (as in the case of Mark and Luke) by a close associate of an apostle, then it was recognized as Scripture. This was the one sufficient criterion, meaning that if this was true of the writing, the other criteria were already satisfied. By contrast, if a written work were not believed to have been witten by an apostle or close associate, it was dismissed from consideration as canonical.

A second (related) criterion is antiquity. The gospels deemed inspired by God were each written within the first century (as, indeed, were all 27 books of the New Testament). By contrast, each of the other works listed by Dawkins (in the quote above) were written in the second century or later. (There are a few letters--as from early church fathers--that date to the late first century but are not included in the canon. These, while potentially edifying and worth reading in the early churches, were not recognized at the same level of inspiration as the canonical letters; they did not meet the other criteria.)

A third criterion is orthodoxy. In order to be recognized as Scripture, the doctrine of a text had to cohere with that of the apostolic teachings. A book was rightly rejected if it contained an understanding of Jesus--his person, his work, or both--that differed from the teachings upon which the first generation church was founded and the teachings contained in those writings that were undoubtedly apostolic.

A fourth criterion is ubiquity. Those gospels (and letters and such) that were inspired were copied and memorized and subsequently shared throughout the known world of the time. Thus, the canonical writings were known from early on throughout Christendom. The corollary principle is that a text known only from a small region was unlikely to be recognized as Scripture.

The last criterion I want to mention does not make the lists of such criteria (at least that I have found), and this is because it is assumed. It generally goes without saying that a necessary attribute of inspired Scripture is authenticity. Thus, any writing--such as the "Gospels" of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalen--that made a false claim about its authorship was immediately disqualified, and rightly so.

Far from being "chosen, more or less arbitrarily," as Dawkins asserts, the true gospels can be separated from his other nominations by each and every one of these criteria.

The Gospel of Thomas, for example, dates to only the second century. It never enjoyed a widespread circulation, and that largely because of its departure from orthodox doctrine (it was Gnostic in its theology). It was not written by an apostle, and its claim to have been written by Thomas has always been recognized as false (which alone was enough to disqualify it from consideration in the canon).

Let me mention one other (even though Dawkins doesn't list it), since it was popularized within the last couple of years--the "lost Gospel of Judas." This work is an example of what a friend of mine refers to as "a corn nut." A corn nut is neither corn nor nut. In the same way, this particular text is neither lost nor by Judas nor gospel. It was known by the church (when the issue of the canon came to be important), and so its having been "lost" is merely a marketing ploy on the part of its modern proponents. It was not written by any Judas (let alone one of the two disciples of Jesus by that name), but by a member of the Gnostic sect of the late second century. On this same basis, it is not gospel, since gospels by definition are Jewish writings that accurately place Jesus within his first-century Jewish setting. The entire New Testament is written by Jews whose understanding of Jesus reflects the worldview unique to that generation and nationality. (Luke may be an exception with regard to his ethnicity, but he was living as a Jew among Jewish people and with a Jewish understanding of the events of which he wrote.)

Like virtually all of the assertions made by Dawkins in The God Delusion, this claim about the arbitrary nature of the New Testament canon is easily refuted by a look at the evidence. But (as I may have mentioned once or twice before) Dawkins' book is short on both logical reasoning and on examination of evidence. We have every reason to accept the four gospels handed down to as the inspired word of God and to reject the extrabiblical "gospels" as noncanonical.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Loggerhead Shrikes

We're wrapping up our twelfth season of studying a breeding population of Loggerhead Shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus) on the Crooked River National Grasslands here in central Oregon. These rather predatory songbirds are declining in many parts of their range, and most all other studies of which I am aware have dealt with populations that were failing (and some of which have since been extirpated). The real impetus, then, for our long-term study, has been to understand the demographics and attributes of a healthy, stable population. So we (my family, employees, and friends) have spent part of each spring and summer capturing and banding adult shrikes, locating and measuring nests, and following them through incubation, nestling period, and fledging. We've come to know quite a bit about them, some of which I may tell you from time to time--they're fascinating creatures.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Dating the Gospel Message

The other day, I refuted the charge that the Gospel accounts were written too late to be reliable. We learned that all were written within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses and that in this regard they far surpass other ancient documents deemed reliable.

But we can do much better than that. You see, the agenda behind this charge is to be able to say that the accounts about Jesus are legends--that the time interval between the events of his life (and death) and the written records of them is sufficient to have allowed legends to arise. Thus, all appeals to His divinity, to miracles in general, and to Jesus' bodily resurrection in particular are late inventions of the church. This view is belied by all of the information I discussed in the other post, but today I want to show that this central view of the early church--this understanding of Jesus as the sinless Savior, the miracle-working, dying-and-rising-again Son of God--can be traced all the way back to within two to five years after the crucifixion.

Even the higher critics--the guys like The Jesus Seminar who have bought into naturalism and whose goal is therefore to rid the Scriptures of anything supernatural--accept most of what I'm going to argue here. That is because--for them--while the Gospels are out, Paul is in. So we'll be dealing with a passage from I Corinthians, a letter whose Pauline authorship and date are acknowledged by scholars from across the theological spectrum. Chapter 15, verses 3-8 read...
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Scholars recognize this as an early Christian creed, a saying repeated by the faithful that encapsulated what it is they believed. So when did these beliefs arise, long after the alleged events, or from the beginning of the church?

I Corinthians dates to between A.D. 54 and 57, at most 27 years after the crucifixion. This is excellent attestation itself, all the moreso because Paul confidently writes (in effect) 'You don't have to take my word for it--go ask any of a number of eyewitnesses still alive!' But though he wrote these things in, say, A.D. 57, we learn that he had already told the Corinthians these things earlier ("For I delivered to you as of first importance..."). When was that? Luke tells us (in Acts 18:12) that Paul was in Corinth when Gallio was proconsul. We have an extrabiblical source that tells us that this was the case only in A.D. 51. So, now we're back to within 21 years of the crucifixion.

But whereas Paul delivered to the Corinthians in A.D. 51 this understanding about who Jesus is and what He accomplished, he himself received it earlier still. When might that have been? A majority of critics will say that Paul received this teaching in A.D. 35 from Peter and James in Jerusalem. Most date Paul's conversion (on the Damascus Road) to two years after the crucifixion. After spending some time in Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem to check with the disciples to make sure that they were preaching the same thing that Jesus had directly revealed to him. And this same thing was that Jesus was Messiah, who alone through His sinless life, substitutionary death, and vindicating bodily resurrection was qualified and willing to redeem us from our separation from our Creator.

Paul's Christology--his understanding of Jesus' person and work--was every bit as high as that of the gospel writers. And that view of Jesus--far from being a late invention of the church--was the common understanding from the earliest years of the Christ-followers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Common Ancestry Merely a Theory

A second problem (for the first, please see yesterday's post) common among evolutionists is confusing the observable data--the evidence that needs to be explained--with the theory advanced to explain it. In a blog titled "Berra's Blunder" (6 May 2007), I gave an example of this. In that case, it was the fossil record that evolutionists tend to confuse with their theory that is meant to explain it. Despite the fact that the fossil record presents huge evidential problems for Darwinian gradualism, many evolutionists continue in this confusion.

But today I want to talk about another set of observable data that is commonly confused with a particular explanation for it. And that is the well-accepted fact that all living things share the same genetic code. Ask many folks why they believe the macro-evolutionary theory that all life shares a common ancestry, and they'll likely appeal to the shared genetic code, the fact (for instance) that genome mapping tells us that chimps and humans share something like 96% of their coding DNA.

Now, almost daily one can read about findings of new functions of the vast non-coding DNA (which was dubbed "junk DNA" when it was believed completely non-functional). And that finding of purpose for the "junk" should tend to undermine the evolutionist's confidence. (Of course, to a naturalist, the word "purpose" is taboo; nothing has a purpose, but rather just happens to serve a function. Purpose is a concept that has no place in the naturalistic paradigm.) But there's a bigger problem here.

And that is that the observable data--the universal genetic code--is accomodated nicely (indeed, even predicted within) the other reasonable theories about the diversity of life. The shared genetic code is the data set that needs explaining, and descent with modification (or common ancestry) is just one theory seeking to explain the data. Other theories that easily account for the shared genetic code include intelligent design, old-earth creationism (Christian monotheism), and typology, the view that Darwin sought to supplant with his theory.

Let me put it another way. Darwin's theory was never an attempt to account for the similarity among living things; it was meant to explain the differences. Ever since people have studied living things, they have recognized similarities, and grouped organisms with respect to their relative degrees of similarities. Since long before Darwin, biologists recognized chimpanzees as the most similar extant species to human beings. That being the case, the fact that genomics has allowed us to assign to this similarity a percentage (of the coding DNA shared) is at best (from the evolutionist perspective) neutral evidence. Indeed, it presents a further problem for Darwin's program, in that it shows how very, very similar we are in another physical measure, but gets us no further to understanding (on physicalist terms) why we're nonetheless such very different animals. In regard to this particular fact, the biblical account fares much better. It says that we are formed of the same matter as other animals, but are specially given an immaterial spirit that no other species possess. The Hebrew verbs involved are asah (formed from existing material) and bara (which denotes to create something new).

The point of this post is simply this... that all living things display similar biochemical elements and the same genetic code is a well-accepted fact. But that all living things have a common ancestry is merely one of several theories that attempt to account for this fact. To confuse the fact itself with the explanatory theory represents an error (albeit a common one) in critical thinking.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Wimsey on Theories

According to Dorothy Sayers' fictional detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, it is "most damnably dangerous to have a theory." Here's a bit of dialogue (between Wimsey and his valet Bunter) from the short story "The Vindictive Story of the Footsteps That Ran"...
'Bunter,' said Lord Peter, as the kitchen door closed behind them, 'do you know why I am doubtful about the success of those rat experiments?'
'Meaning Dr. Hartman's, my lord?'
'Yes. Dr. Hartman has a theory. In any investigations, my Bunter, it is most damnably dangerous to have a theory.'
'I have heard you say so, my lord.'
'Confound you--you know it as well as I do! What is wrong with the doctor's theories, Bunter?'
'You wish me to reply, my lord, that he only sees the facts which fit in with the theory.'
'Thought-reader!' exclaimed Lord Peter bitterly.
Of course, Sherlock Holmes felt the same way, and sought to ascertain all the facts in need of explaining before attempting that explanation. This problem--of only seeing the facts that seem to fit the theory--is certainly one common to many evolutionists. But today and tomorrow I want to identify two related problems.

The first is this...appealing to the theory when it is irrelevant to the issue at hand. An example of this comes from a front-page article in today's Bend (Oregon) Bulletin, titled "Why do we love tanning? Evolution, researchers say." The by-line is John Fauber (of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and, in his defense, I need to make clear that the article proper doesn't make any mention of evolution. The thinking error here can be traced most clearly to the headline writer, whoever that was. In addition, though, the sidebar to the article asks the question, "why would people evolve to produce endorphins when they were exposed to sunlight?" Some of my readers might recognize this as an example of the logical fallacy known as the complex question. It really is two questions in one, and these two should both be expressed (rather than the one--"did this trait evolve?"--being assumed and implicitly answered in the affirmative). But I'm already ahead of the story...

The article summarizes several research studies that together lead to the following conclusions. Some people seem to be addicted to tanning. This addiction seems to have a physiological basis, in that exposure to sunlight produces endorphins that make a person feel better. Some of the researchers postulate that in past human history--before there were nutritional and pharmaceutical alternatives--this physiological mechanism may have been important in motivating people to get more sunlight in order to ensure adequate intake of vitamin D.

Now, I might quibble with some of the minor problems with aspects of one or more of the studies. One study, for example, tested people who were already addicted to tanning. To draw broad conclusions (about humans in general) from such a biased sample is problematic. Nonetheless, I am willing to accept the conclusions outlined above.

So what's the problem? Just this... The research has everything to do with physiology and nothing to do with evolution. The finding that humans are physiologically adapted in a way that encourages them to obtain adequate vitamin D through sunlight neither provides any support for evolutionary theory nor depends upon evolution being true. Other ideas about human origins (special creation, intelligent design) accomodate this finding equally (or, indeed, better).

This problem in thinking is far worse, of course, when it is published in college or graduate textbooks. In his book, Darwin's Black Box, Michael Behe relates that many graduate level biochemistry textbooks pay lip servive to evolution in the introduction. But then evolution doesn't appear anywhere else in the book, and that for two reasons: 1) the relatively new field of biochemistry provides absolutely no evidential support for the theory of evolution (quite the opposite is the case, and that's the thesis of Behe's book), and 2) evolutionary theory doesn't offer any help in understanding biochemistry--one can understand graduate level biochemistry without any foundation in evolutionary theory.

We live in a culture and age where making an appeal (no matter how irrelevant) to "evolution" lends one (whether reporter, headline writer, or academician) a superficial veneer of sophistication or credibility that simply telling the facts would not. The situation would seem to be an eerie parallel to that of the folks in "The Emperor's New Clothes" who praised the monarch's suit even though he hadn't anything on.

So next time you read of an appeal to evolution, check closely. You're likely to find that the appeal is mere rhetoric, and that the evidence being discussed neither depends upon evolution's being true nor provides any unambiguous support for this uncritically popular theory.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dating the Gospels

One of the unsupported assertions Richard Dawkins makes with regard to the accounts of Jesus' life is this...
All (four gospels) were written long after the death of Jesus and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life.
First, let me put this charge in a proper perspective, by looking at some other ancient biographies/histories that are accepted as reliable. Virtually all that we know about Alexander the Great (a pretty important person) comes from Plutarch, who wrote his biography some 450 years after Alexander died. Likewise, Livy wrote about the founding of Rome and its subsequent history 450 years later. A good example--because he was contemporary to Jesus--is Tiberius, the Caesar on the throne from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. There exist four sources of material about Tiberius. One was written near the time of his death, but this one provides us with very little information about Tiberius. The next earliest--by Tacitus and Suetonius--were each written 100 years later, and the fourth is later still.

By comparison, all four gospels were written much closer (in time) to the events they record. John's gospel was probably the latest; most scholars believe that it was written toward the end of John's life in about A.D. 90 (though some argue for a date as early as A.D. 70).* A.D. 90 is only 60 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, and within the lifetimes of many people (besides John) who remembered the events.

Earlier this month was the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, arguably the most important event of the past century, when the storming of the Normandy beaches led to the eventual conquest of the Nazis and the liberation of France and other occupied countries. Our local paper interviewed a man who participated in those events, and we readily accept his testimony as reliable. We don't accuse him of making it up, saying "no one can remember events from that long ago!"

But each of the other gospels was written even closer to the crucixion--generally dated at A.D. 30--and the events of Jesus' life. The Gospel of Mark was written between A.D. 55 and A.D. 60, within 25-30 years of the crucifixion. This represents wonderful attestation relative to other ancient historical accounts.

Dawkins is right about one thing--some or most of Paul's letters were written even earlier than the gospels. But I'm not sure how this fact helps his argument. True, Paul doesn't offer the same sorts of details about Jesus' life that the gospels do. This is, quite simply, because Paul was writing neither history nor biography but rather practical letters of encouragement and commentary on the theological implications of those well-known events that the gospel writers eventually recorded. But it is important to note that Paul's Christology is every bit as high as that of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While he may not have recorded many specific details of Christ's life, central to his program was his understanding and portrayal of Jesus as the dying-and-rising sinless incarnate Son of God. In another post, I'll share how this view of Jesus can be traced all the way back to within 2 to 5 years of the crucifixion.

* Because of its explicitly high view of Jesus, higher critics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries rejected John's authorship and argued that his gospel was written as late as the middle of the second century. This view was refuted by the discoveries of the Rylands papyrus--which dates to A.D. 125 and contains a portion of John 18--and the Dead Sea Scrolls (which augmented our understanding of first-century Palestine).

Friday, June 15, 2007


It was reported in the journal Nature a couple of days ago that Chinese scientists had uncovered the fossil of a giant birdlike dinosaur dating to the late Cretaceous. The article I read about this (by John Noble Wilford of the New York Times) was a veritable goldmine of apologetic material and unintended humor. I’ll probably interact with it in three or four posts during the coming weeks.

The scientists who made the discovery—in a classic use of understatement—admitted that it presented problems for the established evolutionary theory. Specifically, this find refutes “widely-held theories that carnivorous dinosaurs got smaller as they evolved more birdlike characteristics.” No kidding.

Were evolutionary science the objective endeavor that we are supposed to believe, scientists would be content to view this awesome new discovery simply as evidence for a greater diversity of dinosaurs than was previously known. But the majority of paleontologists are not even close to objective. Rather, they have a very specific bias—naturalism—and agenda—to discover fossils for which they can claim the label “transitional.” And there’s no more important gap to fill with “transitions” (in order to bolster evolutionary theory) than that between dinosaurs and birds. This bias and agenda continue to lead evolutionists to say and write some pretty silly things. For now, let me offer you just one example from this most recent article. According to Peter Dodson, paleontologist at the University of Pennsylvania (and a dinosaur authority)...
This [Gigantoraptor] was on the line leading toward birds, though not itself the closest relative to birds by any means.
An unbiased observer could point out a couple of pretty significant facts that would seem to undermine this conclusion. Gigantoraptor dates to 70 million years ago. Birds (the real thing, feathers and all) predated this large dinosaur by nearly 90 million years! So how could the dinosaur be “on the line leading to birds”? Moreover, as almost everyone (and certainly any dinosaur authority worth his salt) now acknowledges, it was shortly after this—at 65 million years ago—that all the dinosaurs (and other higher organisms of the time) were wiped out (by conditions resulting from the impact on the Yucatan Peninsula of a huge meteor). That being the case, just how did this dinosaur “line leading toward birds” manage to pass their genes across this formidable extinction event? Written wills? Sheer will power? Cryonics?

You see, for neo-Darwinian macroevolution to be true, dinosaurs must have evolved into birds. The only problem is that the dino-to-bird evolution theory faces problems at every turn, including from the fossil evidence. Perhaps this is in part why ornithologist Alan Feduccia predicts that the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs will prove to be “the greatest embarrassment of paleontology of the 20th century."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lorquin's Admiral

On another recent peregrination to Wheeler County, I found a group of Lorquin's Admirals (Limenitis lorquini). These beautiful butterflies are found almost throughout Oregon and Washington, and adults can be encountered from February through October.

The definitive book for identifying butterflies in the Northwest is The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Michael Pyle. Besides wonderful photographs, good range maps, and a good deal of information about the insects themselves, this book provides interesting details about natural history and those who study it. From the section on Lorquin's Admiral, I quote here regarding the man for whom it was named...
Pierre Joseph Michel Lorquin (ca. 1800-1877) was a French lawyer, gold-hunter, and naturalist who roamed goldrush-era California by stage and foot. I imagine him walking into rough, Roaring Forties saloons with his butterfly net, and shake my head. He obtained much new and important material, most of which he dispatched to his family doctor, the great Parisian lepidopterist Jean Baptiste Boisduval. His contribution is recognized not only by this handsome insect in his name, but also by the oldest entomological club on the West Coast, the Lorquin Society of Los Angeles.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Variant Readings

A couple of days ago, I shared that there is overwhelming reason to conclude that the New Testament was reliably transmitted from the original writings to the copies (the Greek manuscripts) that still exist. We need to acknowledge, nonetheless, that the thousands of manuscripts available to us do contain variants, places where they disagree with one another. Indeed, there are literally tens of thousands of such variants among these copies. That being the case, isn't the charge of tainted transmission a valid one?

No, not at all. For one thing, the vast majority of these variants are completely insignificant. They amount to nothing more than an alternate spelling or the fact that a single place or person was known by two different names. So the issue of the reliability of the copying comes down to approximately 2,000 places where variant readings that are not insignificant can be found among the manuscripts. Most of these will be identified (by footnotes or marginal notes) in any good study Bible.

Let me share two examples of significant variants, one accidental and one likely intentional. In Romans 5:1, the Greek word εχομεν or εχωμεν appears in the different ancient copies. The difference is the third letter--did the original contain an omega or an omicron (the two different Greek 'o's)? In English, the verse reads
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Is Paul telling us that peace is an accomplished fact or something that we should be striving to appropriate? In this case we have a very minor alteration that leads to a rather significant difference in meaning. The incorrect insertion of the wrong 'o' would have been an easy mistake to make, especially if the scribe were listening to someone else dictate the letter.

There's an example of an intentional error in the second verse of Mark's gospel. Some copies read, "As it is written in Isaiah the prophet..." This is followed by an Old Testament quote, a quote which can be found not only in Isaiah but also in Malachi. So other copies read, "As it is written in the prophets..." It would seem that some first or second century scribe, in copying Mark's written account of the events of Jesus' life, decided that Mark hadn't been on his game when he wrote "in Isaiah the prophet." The scribe 'improved' the text by changing it to "the prophets." Both variants, of course, are correct, but the first is likely what Mark actually wrote.

There is an entire field of scholarship called New Testament textual criticism that seeks to recover the autographs by careful scrutiny of the wealth of copies in existence. Scholars in this field examine external evidence (including the dates and locations of the variants in the Greek manuscripts, in the early Latin, Coptic, and Syriac translations, and in the citations from the early church fathers) and internal evidence (such as 'which variant best explains how the other arose?'). The result is a level of certainty about the originals that exceeds 99% accuracy.

It is important to note that no Christian doctrine is undermined by any of the variant readings. If we were to ignore all of the passages in which variants are found--and use only those passages in which all the relevant copies agree completely--what would be the result? We would have the very same picture of Jesus--a miracle-working, divine Son of God who died by crucifixion and three days later was raised in a glorified physical body.

The existence of errors in copying--some of them significant--should cause us no concern with regard to the reliability of the New Testament. We do need to recognize, though, that the referent of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (and of the implied doctrine of inerrancy) is not a particular set of copies--much less a particular English translation--but the autographs. These we don't have, but--through the reasoned application of New Testament textual criticism--we have a great deal of certainty about what these originals contained.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Calliope Hummer Nest

I was over in Wheeler County (Oregon) today, doing some bird point counts, and found these baby Calliope Hummingbirds (Stellula calliope) in their nest. The nest itself, which is made largely of lichens, bits of bark, and spider silk, is only an inch and a half across (and about as high), a mere bump on the branch of the Juniper. The Calliope is North America's smallest hummer.

The smallest hummingbird--indeed the smallest bird--in the world is the Bee Hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), which I had to go to Cuba to see. In case you go looking for it, the locals will know it by the name zunzun.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Tainted Transmission?

Here's the assertion made by Richard Dawkins (in chapter 3 of The God Delusion) with which we dealt this morning in our Adult Education class (which meets at 8:15 in Theater #1) at Antioch...
All [the gospels] were copied and recopied, through many different 'Chinese Whispers generations' by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.
As is characteristic of Dawkins' entire book, he doesn't even attempt to support this assertion, or even to clarify what it is he's charging. Nonetheless, what he seems to want to convince his readers of is the idea that the copies of the gospels that are available to us are so tainted in the transmission that we have no idea what the originals--what is known as the autographs--really said. And Dawkins attributes the alleged great difference between the autographs and the copies to fallible scribes and religious agendas.

It is true that none of the autographs of the New Testament books have survived to today. This is not surprising. The papyri (or even parchments) on which they would have been written could not be expected to last long, especially as these particular texts would have been passed around and read with great regularity. The fact is that we don't have the autograph of any such ancient text, biblical or otherwise.

So, the issue with regard to the reliability of any ancient document is not whether or not we have the autographs. The questions are 'How many copies do we have?' and 'How close are they to the date of the original?' So how do the books of the New testament compare (on these criteria) with other ancient manuscripts accepted as reliable?

Caesar wrote Gallic Wars between 100-44 B.C. Ten copies exist today, with the earliest dating to A.D. 900, about 1,000 years after the original.

The Athenian general Thucydides wrote his History of the series of wars between Athens and Sparta between 460 and 400 B.C. There are only 8 extant manuscripts, the earliest dating to A.D. 900, 1,300 years after the autograph.

Tacitus wrote his Annals in about A.D. 100 (at about the same time as the last NT book). Twenty copies have survived to today, with the earliest coming from A.D. 1100, 1,000 years after the autograph.

The New Testament books were written between A.D. 50 and A.D. 100. An astounding 5,366 copies (in the Greek) survive to today. The earliest (a fragment) dates to A.D. 125; whole books are found as early as A.D. 200; most of the New Testament is represented in copies from A.D. 250, and copies containing the entire new Testament date to A.D. 325, only 225 years after the last autograph! The conclusion of scholars in this field is expressed by F.F. Bruce...
There is no body of ancient literature in the world which enjoys such a wealth of good textual attestation as the New Testament.
Dawkins' charge that the gospel accounts are the result of tainted transmission is--like so many of his bald assertions--easily refuted by appealing to the actual evidence.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Stanley Miller

I recently learned that scientist Stanley Miller passed away last month. Does the name sound familiar? In the early 1950's, it was Miller--and his graduate advisor Harold Urey--who caused euphoria among naturalistic scientists by demonstrating that amino acids (critical building blocks of living things) could be produced in the lab from the sorts of molecules that were believed to have existed on the early Earth. This success launched Miller to instant notoriety and guaranteed him a place of some prominence in the history of science. Indeed, even today many biology textbooks present the Miller-Urey experiments as evidence for a naturalistic origin of life on Earth.

Miller was a very good scientist, and one whose innovative research did a great deal to advance our understanding of life and its origin. But 50 years after those initial experiments, just what is that understanding? Is Miller's lasting legacy the providing of the first steps in a completely naturalistic scenario for how life came to exist?

Well, actually, no. Origins-of-life researchers are unanimous in recognizing that the hypothesized early Earth conditions that the experiments simulated were incorrect, and thus that the results are irrelevant to the origins problem. Open-minded scientists will also acknowledge that every step of the experiments required intelligent input (from the researchers themselves) to prevent contamination by unwanted molecules and to stop the reactions as soon as the desired amino acids were produced (knowing that they would immediately dissolve back into inorganic molecules otherwise). Indeed, Miller's ultimate legacy may well be that he initiated the research that led to the conclusion that the origin of life through strictly natural processes is an intractable problem. According to Hubert Yockey (information theorist/molecular biologist), the consistent failure of all attempts to solve the origin-of-life problem arises from the fact that "there is no solution."

Miller operated--as have most subsequent origin-of-life researchers--within a naturalistic paradigm. And it is this artificial constraint--this arbitrary limiting of the possible answers--that has doomed such research to failure.

Cell biologist Fazale Rana and astronomer Hugh Ross--in their book Origins of Life--contrast the predictions shared by naturalistic models and those of their biblical model. In each case, the evidence available to us today supports the biblical model and refutes predictions made by naturalists. Naturalistic models predict that life arose once, late in Earth's history, gradually, over a long period of time, and that the simplest life was just that--simple. But the evidence, in agreement with the biblical model, is that life's minimum complexity is far above what used to be believed, and that life arose suddenly, early, and numerous times. Again, whereas all naturalistic models (except those that include panspermia, the idea that life arose elsewhere and was subsequently seeded to Earth) involve a prebiotic soup (a rich terrestrial, aquatic, or atmospheric concentration of the proper elements for building life molecules), the evidence indicates that such a soup never existed.

Of course, Miller's research will continue to be taught uncritically as an important piece of the puzzle. This is because metaphysical naturalists still have a stranglehold on how science is taught. But when and where evidence again becomes admissible in such scientific questions, Miller's important research will be rightly recognized as contributing to the conclusion that life did not and could not arise through strictly natural processes.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Truth with Love

We're reading Truth with Love, The Apologetics of Francis Schaeffer by Bryan Follis. It's the History Book Club selection, which a group of us from Antioch will get together to discuss one night soon at the Eastside (Bend, Oregon) Starbucks.

I really enjoyed chapter 2, "Arguments and Approach." Schaeffer was always ready and able to meet rational objections to Christianity, but considered compassion, hospitality, and love to have a place of primacy in any apologetic endeavor. Follis writes,
Indeed Schaeffer went as far as to say that the love of Christians "must have a form that the world may observe; it must be visible," for it is "the final apologetic." Drawing upon John 13 and 17, Schaeffer noted that "Jesus gives the world the right to judge whether the Father has sent the Son on the basis of whether the world sees observable love among all true Christians." Living in an age that did not believe truth existed, Schaeffer asked Christians whether they expected young people to take seriously the truth-claims of the gospel if Christians did not practice truth. Although he did not minimize the need to give honest answers to honest questions, Schaeffer also believed that "unless Christians love one another, the world cannot be expected to listen, even when we give totally sufficient answers."
I recommend Truth with Love and, hey, if you're in Bend on the evening of July 5th, come to Starbucks and chat about it with us.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Dawkins and the Steamroller

In our Adult Education class at Antioch, we're working through the section of The God Delusion where Dawkins seeks to cast doubt on the reliability of Scripture. In a few short pages (92-97), he makes several bald assertions--that Jesus never claimed divinity, that the gospels were written long after the events they claim to record, that the gospels we have were chosen arbitrarily from some dozen others, and on and on. What Dawkins is doing here is an example of what Greg Koukl (of Stand To Reason) has called the "steamroller tactic."
A steamroller is someone who is really not interested in dialogue or having questions answered, but instead seeks to monopolize the conversation and overwhelm the discussion. It's not unusual to encounter a steamroller in debates or conversations. It is rare, however, to encounter a steamroller in writing. Most authors--especially those making a grandiose claim like Dawkins'--would attempt to support each claim with facts, citations, solid premises, or other evidence. But Dawkins does not. Each of his assertions is easily answered, and I suspect that he knows this. It's as if he's thinking, "Here's a claim that might cause someone to think the Bible is untrustworthy, but in case not, here's something else they might fall for..."

This coming Sunday, we'll examine Dawkins' version of the charge that the gospels are the result of tainted transmission--that fallible scribes with their own religious agendas so altered each copy they produced that we have no way of knowing what the original gospels contained. We'll look at evidence from the robust field of New Testament textual criticism and find just the opposite, that we can be very confident in our ability to ascertain with greater than 99% certainty what was originally written by the biographers of Jesus.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Ferruginous Hawks

I had the opportunity today to band the nestlings at two different nests of Ferruginous Hawks (Buteo regalis). Dawn did her Masters' research on these big, beautiful birds (in the desert south of Boise). But we live just west of their breeding range, and so it's been awhile since I've had the chance to get up close and personal with any. I was asked to band these as part of a monitoring project in Gilliam County. The parents were gorgeous (though, as defenders of their young they were pretty wimpy), and the five young all seemed to be healthy and growing. They're certainly one of my favorite hawks, and it was a real pleasure to see some today.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

de Tocqueville on America

I again came across a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville, written in the 1850's. This Frenchman was arguably the most objective observer of America and its experiment in democracy, and so his conclusions are well worth considering and remembering...
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.
...but you won't hear this sort of history taught in our government schools today.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Revering the Universe

Richard Dawkins begins The God Delusion with a personal story of his own sense of wonder at the universe. We are expected to find his sense of awe deserving of respect and to question any respect we might hold for those who revere an immaterial Being transcendent to that universe. Throughout the book, Dawkins displays his inability to understand the idea that the God of Christian theism is so much more awesome and glorious than His creation. This inability ensures that Dawkins' entire project is nothing more than a straw-man argument, dealing with mischaracterizations of Christianity rather than the real thing.

Early on, Dawkins quotes favorably the late astronomer Carl Sagan (writing in Pale Blue Dot):
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
There's a great deal with which to take issue here, but I'll confine myself to a few quick observations.

As an encapsulization of Sagan's and Dawkins' religious affinities, this is a good one. Each worships the universe itself and reveres science as the only way of knowing things. This religious position is variously known as naturalism, naturalistic materialism, and pantheism, and includes the (self-refuting) views known as scientism and physicalism. Sagan and (more particularly) Dawkins would like us all to share their religious view, to worship the universe (which, for Sagan at least, should be capitalized). That's fine.

But Dawkins' book purports to show that Christianity is false. That being the case, the Sagan quote about major religions in general and Dawkins' use of it seem irrelevant at best and self-defeating at worst. You see, Christianity is the "major religion" that gave birth to science and the only worldview that provides the logical grounding for continuing science (see my blog posts of 3 Feb and 6 Feb of this year). The founders of science recognized their explorations of the universe as attempts to "think God's thoughts after Him." To the extent that science reveals even more grandeur, subtlety, and elegance in the universe, the logical Christian response is to feel and express ever greater wonder at and reverence for the Creator of it.

Moreover, the Christian (and Jewish) Scriptures are replete with admonitions to study and marvel at the universe, the Earth, and its inhabitants, and even to learn more about the Creator through such study. Of course (and this is perfectly reasonable), those same Scriptures are careful to warn people against worshipping the creation rather than the Creator, a problem common to Sagan and Dawkins.

Now I recognize that many who profess Christianity are guilty of what Sagan laments--putting God in a box and denying evidence about the vastness and grandeur of creation because it is at odds with their interpretation of certain Scriptures. But the validity of Christianity is not ascertained by examining how some of its aherents (or professors) behave as much as by what its Scriptures teach. Quite simply, the Bible portrays the universe as marvelous beyond our comprehension and yet the Creator as far exceeding even it in glory.

As an aside, I frankly much prefer to worship God with others who share the sort of wonder at creation that Scripture affirms. I think I've found a local church full of such folks. Central Oregon, with its high desert, magnificent mountains, and wealth of rivers and forests, somehow seems to bring out an appreciation of nature and (for those willing to acknowledge Him) reverence for its Creator. It's a shame that Sagan never experienced the sort of reverence and awe regularly expressed at Antioch.