Thursday, January 31, 2008

Problem of Evil (Reprise)

I had occasion again today to address an audience on the topic of the Problem of Evil. This time it was a group of Christian men in Cincinnati, Ohio. I treated this issue in several blog posts a couple of months ago, and don’t want to cover the same ground again here. But I thought it would be fun to list some of the historical and modern folks who have made what I take to be an important contribution to my thinking on this problem.

I’ll begin with some biblical authors, since ultimately I find the Bible to speak most significantly to this issue.

Moses (or the author of the first five books of the Bible) and Solomon (the author of most of the book of Proverbs) both present a generalized view that goes like this…
Do good—by obeying God and treating others well—and your life will be blessed. Conversely, if you disobey God and serve self, your life will be cursed.
(This can most clearly be seen in Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28.)

But the author of Job (which may actually have been written before the other books just mentioned) and “Kohaleth” (the author of Ecclesiastes) both present a contrasting (balancing) view. In these books, we see that there is not always a straightforward equating of goodness with blessing and of disobedience with cursing. Life is messy, and suffering is common to all humans—bad things happen to good people, and the wicked often seem to get away with murder.

Next (in my scan of history) comes Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo. He famously argued that evil is not a created thing of itself. Rather, it represents the lack or privation of perfect good. Just as darkness is not an actual entity but the absence of light, in the same way, evil is the absence of goodness.

The French mathematician, inventor, and founder of modern science Blaise Pascal put the “human enigma”—the fact that humans are capable both of amazing good (art, accomplishment, philanthropy) and of unspeakable depravity (wanton cruelty toward other creatures and fellow humans)—at the core of his search for truth. And he found in Christianity—with its dual doctrines of the Imago Dei and the Fall—the uniquely satisfying answer. The good of which we are capable is due to the fact that we are made in the image of God; the depths of depravity to which we tend are the result of our fallenness. Thus Pascal provided an important answer regarding at least this category of evil, so-called moral evil.

Although modern science was born and flourished within a Christian worldview, it has become dominated in our day by a view known as naturalism. Naturalism at least denies the intervention of God in the universe and at worse denies God’s existence altogether. But (as science historian Cornelius Hunter shows) it was not scientific evidence but theological considerations that led to the adoption of naturalism within science. In an effort to absolve God from any responsibility for perceived evil and suffering (including animal death, catastrophic weather, and such things as disease and parasites), believing scientists came to see God as (at most) only initiating the universe, and not involved in its subsequent history.

For Charles Darwin—whose 1859 publishing of The Origin of Species gave naturalism its biggest boost—it was the problem of suffering (in the specific instance of the death of a young daughter) that led him to seek a naturalistic explanation for the diversity of life (not evidence, which was and remains largely contrary to his theory).

Albert Einstein later showed that one of the basic assumptions on which Darwin’s theory was based—that the universe was eternal—is false, and his research led him to acknowledge God’s existence. But for Einstein, the problem of evil remained unresolved, and he received no good answers from the rabbi or the priest that he consulted. He never embraced Christianity, but apparently remained a deist because he could not reconcile the existence of suffering with a caring Creator.

The 20th-century atheist philosopher J.L. Mackey attempted a deductive proof that God doesn’t exist. He said (in essence) that if God were all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, He would be able, know how, and want to eliminate all evil, pain and suffering. Since these things still exist in this universe, there must not be a God.

There were a number of problems with Mackey’s reasoning, but the most important response to it came from Dutch Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Among other things, Plantinga argued that creating beings (humans) with free will is a generally good thing and yet that endowing them with free will may entail the possibility (or even the necessity) that some or all of those beings will choose to actualize evil. Modern philosophers almost universally concede that in his “free-will defense” Plantinga has satisfactorily demonstrated that the existence of God cannot be disproved using the existence of evil as a basis.

Philosopher G.D. Moore (among others) has pointed out that the argument from evil is only one of many that bear on the question of the existence of God. And so, even if we were to grant that the presence of suffering provides evidence that God might not exist, that evidence is overwhelmed by all sorts of evidence for His existence. This includes (as I have been at pains to establish in many of my blog posts) the latest research from a variety of scientific disciplines (cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, biochemistry, cellular biology, genomics, and origin-of-life research, to name a few). On the strength of such evidence, traditional arguments for God’s existence—like the Cosmological and Teleological (design) Arguments—are better-supported than ever.

In the next post, I’ll finish this historical look at the Problem of Evil. In the meantime, check out what my pastor, Ken Wytsma had to say on this difficult subject at the last meeting of the Bend (Oregon) Apologetics Guild.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Science's Blind Spot

Last week, I read (for the first time) Science's Blind Spot by Cornelius G. Hunter. Subtitled The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism, this book is a must for anyone interested in the debate about what science is or in the history of modern science.

Most of us know that some of today's biologists (especially) and other scientists are outspoken atheists, and it is easy to assume that atheism itself is at the heart of today's naturalism in science. But according to science historian Hunter, these atheists are Johhny-come-latelys; it was not scientific evidence but theological considerations that led scientists of the 17th through 19th centuries to restrict themselves to naturalistic explanations of the workings of the universe. Here's a sample...
What we need, to begin with, is a clear understanding of what naturalism is. Naturalism's adherents think it is a scientific discovery, and its detractors think it is atheism in disguise. In fact, it is a rationalist movement built on a foundation of religious thought and traditions that mandate a world that operates according to natural laws and processes. In this theological naturalism, religious justifications are freely used, but all explanations must be naturalistic. There are problems with many naturalistic explanations, but this is not why naturalism is ailing. It is ailing because it cannot contemplate the possibility that it might be wrong. It cannot evaluate these problems from a larger perspective...

This restriction of explanation leads to an unavoidable blind spot. Theological naturalism is ailing because it has no choice but to pursue all problems as equals... Theological naturalism lacks the resources to look at all sides of a problem. It lacks the wisdom to know its own limitations.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

God's Existence

Two posts ago, I wrote (among other things),
Even though many in our culture claim to believe in God, in practice we live and reason as though He were not our Creator and Sustainer.
A visitor to the blog (john) replied,
People live as if God doesn't exist... because he doesn't.
Here's my response to him...
Hi John:

I'm an empiricist (I follow the evidence where it leads). The scientific evidence in our day--and from all disciplines--overwhelmingly points to the transcendent Creator portrayed in the Bible. The traditional philosophical arguments for God's existence are stronger than ever, having been dramatically bolstered by the latest findings in cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.

In addition, I've encountered Him personally, and that more often and in more ways than I could begin to share. I hope you'll keep reading, and I hope you can eventually examine critically whatever poor or biased education you've been given.

God has blessed our skeptical generation with wonderful evidence for His existence and love. I'd hate to have you miss it. Keep your eyes and mind open.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Art Sunday

This coming Sunday will be the second Art Sunday at our church (in Bend, Oregon), Antioch. A large variety of art--by Antioch folks--will be displayed and available for purchase. And the proceeds will all go toward one or more of our missions endeavors, primarily our partnership in Uganda.

But Art Sunday is more than a fundraiser. It also represents an affirmation of artistry, aesthetics, creativity. Antioch is a church that stands on the truth of historic Christianity and of the biblical worldview. We also recognize, however, that most churches that have cared deeply about doctrinal truth have at the same time marginalized art (and artists). But the historical Christian understanding--upon which a liberal arts education used to be founded--is that there are three laws of the universe against which one cannot fight... goodness, truth, and beauty. At Antioch, we want to maintain the balance represented in that understanding, and so we take time periodically to celebrate the aesthetic and creative dimension of our humanity.

(My artistic contribution to Art Sunday will be one of the ducks pictured above. The larger is a Canvasback drake, and the smaller a Hood Merganser drake, both carved in butternut.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ezekiel 33

In the last post, I used the title of a Francis Schaeffer book, How Shall We Then Live? to springboard to some thoughts about Blaise Pascal, one of the historical figures mentioned by Schaeffer, and one who in my opinion lived well.

But to be truthful, this was a misuse of Schaeffer's book title.

Superficially, it would make sense to take Schaeffer's title this way... 'In light of the conclusions to which this history of philosophy has led, how ought we to live?' But Schaeffer tells us (in the concluding Note) that the title comes directly from Ezekiel 33:10...
If our transgresions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?
In its larger context, this verse is addressing the fact that the Israelites of Ezekiel's day had turned away from acknowledging, knowing, and obeying the one true God. Not only that, but they despised those like Ezekiel sent by God to warn them of the consequences of acting as though He weren't necessary to their existence. The conclusion "How should we then Live?" means "Why would God allow us to continue to live if we carry on without any reference to him?"

Schaeffer is drawing the analogy between our times and those of Ezekiel. We have come to the point where our culture (like that of Europe when Schaeffer was writing) is naturalistic, denying the existence of God, of immaterial minds, and souls, and of the immortality of the human spirit. Even though many in our culture claim to believe in God, in practice we live and reason as though He were not our Creator and Sustainer. Like the Israelites of old, we must either repent of these attitudes and behaviors or be willing to accept it if God reveals His wrath upon us or gives us over to our own passions (Rom. 1:18-32).

Schaeffer's note ends,
This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from the greatest of wickednesses, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Living Well

As I shared in the last post, in his book How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer recounts the history of the West, identifying key individuals whose contributions in philosophy, art, science, and theology affected the worldviews of their own and subsequent generations. Schaeffer did all this without speaking directly to how well these historical figures lived. While reading, though, I couldn’t help musing about which of these individuals from the past can themselves be judged to have lived well.

To be adjudged as having lived well, one’s contribution to the “great conversation” of Western thought (whether an artist, scientist, philosopher, or theologian) should be recognized as a positive one. One’s worldview should be deemed—even from our vantage point—accurate, or at least competitive in the marketplace of ideas. Additionally, one’s life and worldview should cohere, which in turn should mean that one’s life had both purpose and peace (i.e., inner peace, not freedom from turmoil exterior to oneself). On these few criteria, most of the shapers of Western history cannot be deemed to have lived well. Moreover, those that do seem to have lived well shared a Christian worldview.

Of these, I could pick several to contemplate more closely, including Johann Sebastian Bach or William Wilberforce. As a scientist, however, I like to think of Blaise Pascal as one who lived well. Pascal laid the foundations for calculus, and contributed to our understanding of geometry and probability. He invented the adding machine/calculator (which is probably the contribution for which he now has a computer language named after him), the hydraulic press, and the vacuum cleaner. He performed experiments on air pressure and vacuums, and made the first barometer. He also designed the first rapid transit system. Pascal is recognized as one of the founders of modern science; he diligently practiced the scientific method, and was the first to recognize that scientific theories could be falsified but never fully verified. He recognized the power of science but also its inability to make us wise or happy or good. For this reason, he spent most of the later years of his short life reflecting on theology and writing as a Christian apologist.

His quality of life was a direct result of the clarity of Pascal’s understanding of “the human enigma.” For him, an adequate worldview required a satisfactory explanation for both mankind’s unspeakable wickedness and his nearly inexplicable goodness. He found the only reasonable answer in Christianity, with its twin doctrines of the Imago Dei and Original Sin. Man was created in the image of God; hence his possibilities for greatness and virtue. But mankind is fallen; hence his propensity for depravity. This worldview provided the meaning and consistency that enabled Blaise Pascal to live well.

Friday, January 18, 2008

How Should We Then Live?

I had occasion last year to reread one of Francis Schaeffer's classic books, How Should We Then Live? In it, Schaeffer traces the history of Western philosophy (and its embodiment in the arts) up to the present. It includes, naturally enough, a sobering (but accurate) portrayal of modernity and of our present postmodern culture, both of which have lost the historical Christian worldview. (To paraphrase Pastor Ken last week paraphrasing Schaeffer, 'Whereas Christianity used to be the big dog in American culture, we followers of Jesus are now the fleas on the dog.')

Nonetheless, this book of Schaeffer's was one of hope. This hope was born of a certainty that the Christian worldview is the only rational one, the one that best explains reality, is most logically consistent, best promotes practical consequences, and alone provides meaning and purpose. His book, then, was (on one level) a somewhat dispassionate account of how this uniquely rational worldview has come to be lost (in the culture at large). In the concluding Note, he wrote,
Christians do not need to be in the majority to influence society
(that is, to bring to bear on society this forgotten worldview). Schaeffer’s life proved this, and served as a shining example of how clear worldview thinking and love of fellow humans can make a follower of Christ salt and light even in this postmodern generation.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Francis Schaeffer

At Antioch (my church in Bend, Oregon),* Pastor Ken Wytsma is in the middle of his annual two-week sermon biography series. This year, he's doing Francis Schaeffer, one of my favorite Christian apologists.

For Schaeffer, the ultimate apologetic for Christianity was loving others. Oh, he could reason with the best of folks--he recognized Christianity as the uniquely coherent and explanatory worldview and spent the latter part of his life defending it to seekers and skeptics alike.

But he also recognized that without the love of Jesus evident in one's life no amount or quality of argument was sufficient. This led him--with his wife Edith--to open L'Abri, their chalet home in the Swiss Alps, to strangers of all sorts, especially young, disillusioned intellectuals looking for meaning in life. Through their hospitality and concern, the Schaeffers earned the right to speak truth into the lives of uncounted folks who found in the L'Abri community the answers--and the love--for which they were searching.

At Antioch, we, too, are taking seriously Jesus' love for the "least of these." It was fitting (on a Sunday on which the sermon was about Francis schaeffer) that our Director of Compassion and Advocacy, Courtney Christenson, shared with us a very tangible example of this. As part of our three-week Human Rights Series (back in November), we began supporting Ransom Wear, an organization that helps Nepalese women escape sex slavery (in India) and rebuild their lives. An integral part of their program is houses at strategic border crossings where Ransom Wear personnel help prevent young girls (often sold by a male family member) from crossing into India where an unspeakable life of sex slavery would otherwise await them. What Courtney shared with us was that this aspect of the ministry would have had to have been shut down, but for the support that Antioch folks have provided.

This is just one of the ways in which we, as a community of Christians, are attempting to follow Jesus. Like the great apologist Francis Schaeffer, we can all recognize what an effective apologetic this sort of compassion is.

*Antioch is moving this Sunday from the Regal Cinemas (where we've been since our birth in October 2006) to Summit High School (with a single service at 10:00).

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Founder Effect

Someone asked me recently to explain the "founder effect," an idea presented to him as somehow explaining how life evolves following a bottleneck (population decrease).

The founder effect generally is used to describe a situation in which a small population of a given species becomes isolated from the much larger portion of it. (It could also occur if the majority of a population were wiped out, leaving only a small portion remaining.) Evolutionists believe that in such cases, the genetics in this "founding" population may be a subset different enough from that of the overall population (from which it came) that a new species might result. This assumes that this small population is able to survive and reproduce despite their low numbers.

This is primarily a theoretical idea, although there have been those who claim to have seen this in action (in one or more species of plants).

Although the founder effect may be a legitimate concept, and new species might arise through this phenomenon, this would do nothing to support the grand claims of neo-Darwinism. For the resulting new species represents a significant loss of genetic variability. This means (among other things) that it is likely less able to cope with change (natural selection) and more likely to go extinct. But even if this new species survives, it has not undergone mutational advance (the sort of thing evolutionists require for the making of new body plans, for macroevolution); rather, the new species represents a step backwards.

The founder effect--if a valid biological concept--provides no evidence that macroevolution is an accurate portrayal of the history of life on Earth.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Great Black Hawks

My last year in Tikal, we found two nests of a rather elusive forest raptor, the Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga). Since no one had done a systematic survey of their diets, we built a blind (in another tree) near each and did all-day observations of what the adults brought in to feed the young.

These are big hawks (larger than the Red-tailed Hawks common in North America), and they built big nests. But they laid only a single egg (and raised only a single young) at each breeding attempt, and fledged young remained near their parents for extended periods. (A successful nest one year might even preclude nesting the following year by that pair of adults.)

Of all the birds of prey we studied at Tikal, this species had the most diverse diet. Birds, small mammals, toads, bats, lizards, and snakes were brought to feed Junior, but especially lizards and snakes (including Boa constrictors, one of which is pictured below).

One day, I even saw an Eyelash Viper (Bothriecus schlegelli) captured by the male and delivered to the female. She perched on it for a couple of hours before carrying it the rest of the way to the nest and young, so I had some good looks at the snake. It was not unexpected here, but was nonetheless the first documentation of this snake species for Tikal National Park (which takes up a good portion of the northern part of Guatemala). In fact, the journal articles we published on Great Black Hawks have been more frequently cited than any of the others we wrote, and that because a couple of books came out soon after on the reptiles of the Yucatan and of Central America. Those citations had little to do with the birds that held our interest, and everything to do with some of the lizards and snakes upon which they were feeding.

On one day's observation, sitting up in the blind, I killed over 100 tabanos (deer flies) that landed on me.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Lewis on War

I have a little book of essays (transcripts, actually, of oral addresses) by C.S. Lewis. One is titled "Why I am Not a Pacifist," and is a talk he gave to a pacifist society in Oxford sometime in 1940.

In this essay, Lewis makes a very compelling case for his conclusion that he cannot endorse pacifism, either through rational argument or appeal to the Bible. Without quoting the whole essay here, I cannot hope to do it justice, so that's not my purpose. I encourage you to read it yourself.*

To Lewis, the evidence against pacifism is--once he has undertaken the exercise of looking into it--so overwhelming that he wonders why he even questioned it in the first place. He suspects, in retrospect, that there was a strong ulterior motive for wishing his researches might have led to an opposite conclusion. And in discussing this aspect of the issue, he details the misery of the soldier's life in a very insightful passage. This, I guess, is what I particularly wanted to share, as many of us currently have friends, family, or neighbors going through the adversity of a soldier's life that Lewis so well identifies. Remember, Lewis was speaking to a group of pacifists in the early years of WWII.
It remains to inquire whether, if I still remain a Pacifist, I ought to suspect the secret influence of any passion. I hope you will not misunderstand me. I do not intend to join in any of the jibes to which those of your persuasion are exposed in the popular press. Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself. But let me also say that there is no man alive so virtuous that he need feel himself insulted at being asked to consider the possibility of a warping passion when the choice is one between so much happiness and so much misery. For let us make no mistake. All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service. Like sickness, it threatens pain and death. Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger. Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule. Like exile, it seperates you from all you love. Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions. It threatens every temporal evil--every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it. On the other side, though it may not be your fault, it is certainly a fact that Pacifism threatens you with almost nothing. Some public opprobrium, yes, from people whose opinion you discount and whose society you do not frequent, soon recompensed by the warm mutual approval which exists, inevitably, in any minority group. For the rest it offers you a continuance of the life you know and love, among the people and in the surroundings you know and love. It offers you time to lay the foundations of a career; for whether you will or no, you can hardly help getting the jobs for which the discharged soldiers will one day look in vain. You do not even have to fear, as Pacifists may have had to fear in the last war, that public opinion will punish you when the peace comes. For we have learned now that though the world is slow to forgive, it is quick to forget.

*I have this seldom-published piece in a little book called The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Trinitarian Bias

Before sharing a number of New Testament passages where an anti-Trinitarian bias (including prejudice against the view that Jesus is one with God the Father) can be seen in the New World Translation, let me share one clear instance of a modern English translation that demonstrates a bias the other way--a Trinitarian bias.

I'm referring to I John 5:7-8 in the King James and New King James versions. In a NKJV, these verses read...
For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
This passage is explicitly Trinitarian, and represents a powerful declaration of the triune nature of the Godhead. The problem is that the central part of this passage (the Trinitarian part) is not found in any non-suspect Greek manuscript, and so was very likely not in the autograph (the original Greek). The disputed words are " heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness on earth..." If one deletes these disputed words (as most all other modern English translations do), the passage reads thus...
For there are three that bear witness: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree as one.
As can be seen, the passage thus rendered loses much of its power as a proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity. This shouldn't bother us, of course, because the Trinity can be found throughout the books of the New Testament in passage after passage in which all of the ancient Greek manuscripts agree. Nonetheless, I wish the editors of the KJV and NKJV would do the right thing and omit (or relegate to the margins) these disputed words, since I think the evidence overwhelmingly leads to the conclusion that they were not in the original letter. (The NKJV Study Bible at which I'm looking does, however, note that these words are not found in most--including all of the oldest--Greek manuscripts.)

This passage that represents a Trinitarian bias (on the part of the editors of the KJV and NKJV) is arguably the unique counterexample to the many passages that in the NWT come as the result of an anti-Trinitarian bias. But I should also point out this difference. Whereas the bias in the NWT is in translation (and can be seen even by the modern student of Greek), the I John 5 passage represents a problem in the choice of ancient texts. That is, the disputed passage is accurately translated, but the problem is that the manuscripts from which it was translated were suspect. Here's the skinny...

The first Greek New Testament to be published (following the invention of the printing press) was by Erasmus (of Rotterdam) in 1516. He had acces primarily to about six largely Byzantine Greek copies, and since none of them contained the disputed words of the "heavenly witness" passage, he did not include them in his first edition. These disputed words trace back to ancient times, but only in translations (primarily Latin translations, but perhaps Coptic or Syriac as well--I forget, if I ever knew) and in quotations by church fathers.

Well, the Roman Catholic Church had been using this passage for a long time, and so some were incensed by Erasmus' omission of it. In response, he vowed that if a Greek manuscript containing the words in question could be shown him, he would include it in his next edition. His second edition came and went, but prior to his producing his third edition, someone presented him with a Greek manuscript containing the disputed words. True to his pledge, he included them in his third edition.

It was subsequently discovered that the Greek manuscript containing these words dated to 1522--it was a (then) modern forgery made with the lone purpose of getting Erasmus to include these words in his New Testament. Erasmus discovered this, and again omitted these words from subsequent editions. The reason they are foundd in the KJV and the NKJV is that when the KJV was originally produced it was Erasmus' third edition that was used as its textual basis. As far as I know, to this day there are no non-suspect Greek manuscripts preceding Erasmus' day that include these words.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Why Christianity First

(The following is the summary of a talk I composed a couple of years ago. I'm indebted to Craig Hazen for most of the content.)

In summary, I have shared tonight five reasons to check out Christianity first among the world’s religions. I have assumed, for the sake of this discussion, that the person to whom I am speaking is reasonable--who is searching, that is, for a religion that is coherent and cohesive, one that attempts to satisfactorily explain all of reality and experience. I have not attempted to make a case for the truth of Christianity, nor have I shared, as I could have, the testimonies of a host of reasonable people of all nationalities and situations who, having tried Christianity, have experienced life-changing power, joy, peace, and fulfillment. Rather, I have simply argued that these five characteristics should compel a reasonable person to examine Christianity first.

First, I argued that Christianity is evidential--that it begs to be verified. The Bible is replete with historical and geographical references, and even directs its readers to examine its claims in a logical manner. The same cannot be said of other holy books, and one can expect little verification or logical feedback when practicing some of the other major religions. If, on the other hand, Christianity fails the evidential test, then one can move on quickly. With other religions (like Hinduism and Buddhism), there is no expectation of being able to verify or falsify them in a short time (or even in a single lifetime).

I argued that Christianity uses the same set of logical principles that everyone uses every day. Whereas Buddhists (for example) must suspend the use of logical analysis while practicing their religion, Christianity offers a system that flows from and is consistent with the rules of rational thought.

Similarly, I argued that Christianity claims to address all of reality. It offers a comprehensive worldview that tackles the tough issues (like evil and suffering). Other religions provide unsatisfactory answers, or go so far as to deny the existence of such things as evil. A reasonable seeker would look for a religion that provides satisfactory answers for the entire breadth of human experience. Again, Christianity offers such answers.

I pointed out that most religions deal, at least to some degree, with Jesus (giving him a place in history or even status as a great prophet). I argued that this fact is quite interesting, and strongly suggested that it should induce one to examine first the religion whose central figure is this fascinating person who crops up in all of these other religions.

As regards these four characteristics--its testability, its rationality, its comprehensive nature, and its focus on Jesus--I have argued that Christianity is superior to all of the other religions one could examine. With the fifth characteristic, I argued for the utter uniqueness of Christianity. Whereas in all other religions, it is up to man to strive for salvation--for heaven, nirvana, or whatever--in Christianity salvation is a free gift. No other religion is based upon the unmerited favor of God--grace--but Christianity alone. Were the other religions equal to Christianity in all other aspects--in their logical cohesion, in the comprehensiveness of their worldview, in their verifiability--this last characteristic by itself would make the reasonable person try Christianity first. The central claim of Christianity involves the understanding that God himself accomplished all that is necessary for our obtaining salvation, forgiveness of sin, peace with our creator, and eternal life. If there is a religion that boldly promises such wonderful gifts, the reasonable person would receive those free gifts rather than work and strive for the lesser rewards vaguely offered by the other religions.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

NWT and Bias

A couple of posts ago, I shared that the charge that our modern English New Testaments resulted from biased translation is a non-issue among scholars. I also argued that this is because there are many Greek experts with no theological axe to grind who can assess the English translation in question. In passing, I mentioned that there is one exception, one version that fails the bias test--the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

This mention generated a number of comments from at least three defenders of the NWT. I have enjoyed the interaction with them, and have found them generally courteous and gracious. In that regard, our discussion has been much better than some I've had with evangelicals with whom I have had differences of opinion.

While I'm at it, I might also mention that I find among Jehovah's Witnesses some very bright folks and some thoughtful writings. Two issues of their AWAKE! magazine come particularly to mind, one (September 2007) whose lead article was "Is God Responsible for Natural Disasters?" and another (from a few months earlier) on creation. Each of these articles was quite well-written and the difficult issues in question were addressed with intelligence, insight, and scriptural integrity that far surpassed much of the evangelical writing I have seen on these same subjects.

Nonetheless, I and the Jehovah's Witnesses will always have significant disagreements, areas in which clear reasoning seems impotent in moving them from the beliefs they have been taught by the Watchtower Society. The central such issue is, of course, the question of Christ's deity or divinity. And it is on this very issue that their NWT can be seen to be biased.

So when I say that the NWT is recognized as biased by Greek experts from across the theological spectrum, I am not suggesting that the entire translation is flawed or even that its anonymous editors made more mistakes (wrong choices) in translation than did the editors of other English versions. Rather, what I am claiming is that it is easily seen that its editors systematically mistranslated many of the passages that in the Greek most clearly proclaim Jesus' deity.

It might be worthwhile to note here that the JW denial of Jesus' divinity does not come from, but precedes the NWT. For years, they promulgated that denial from door to door even when carrying the King James Version as their Bible. But far too many folks were conversant enough with the Bible to point out any number of passages that (in the KJV or other modern English version) explicitly claim divinity for Jesus. So the NWT, produced first in 1951, translated many (though not all) of such passages in ways that changed, hid, or softened the very high Christology of the Greek. This, of course, is why the charge of biased translation has always stuck like glue to the NWT. (I'll share some of those passages in an upcoming post.)

But here we find ourselves at an impasse. Christians--those who accept the deity of Christ and acknowledge the Trinitarian view of God found throughout the New Testament--ridicule the NWT as biased. Jehovah's Witnesses, for their part, claim that the bias is the other way around--that the editors of all the other English versions (and the critics of the NWT) have had a Trinitarian and Christological bias that prevents them from seeing what the Scriptures actually say about God and Christ. As one of those commenting on a previous post wrote,
As for the scholars who condemn the NWT, they are almost, if not entirely, Trinitarian in their own outlook, presupposition, and bias, and the verses they find fault with are mostly the ones that bear on the Trinity. So, how really objective are such scholars?
But this argument misses the very specific point of my original claim and ignores a good deal of available evidence. So my original point again was this...

There is one very good reason that we can be confident that almost all modern English translations are unbiased and that the NWT of the JWs is, in fact, biased. And that is because objective Greek scholars from across the theological spectrum--including especially those who have no particular stake or interest in the theological debates about Jesus' divinty--recognize in the NWT (and in no other modern English version) a sytematic misrendering of the Greek into English in the passages most clearly addressing the identity of Jesus.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

More on the NWT

Yesterday, in a post demonstrating the reliability of the various English translations of the Bible, I made the parenthetic comment that the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses is indeed a biased and inaccurate rendering of the original Greek of the New Testament. A reader directed me here to a website dedicated to defending the NWT as reliable and unbiased. I encourage my readers to check it out (if they want) before reading my take on what is there offered in such defense.

In addressing the arguments made at this website, my goal is not to "win an argument." The authors of the site hope that anyone taking "issue with the renderings as found in the New World Translation or any other translation" would "do so in a manner that is an effort to seek out the truth and in a way that is scholarly, honest, and fair." I agree wholeheartedly, and so my goal (in interacting with the arguments put forth at this site) is to seek truth and to do so with love for these fellow beings who call themselves Jehovah's Witnesses, men and women for whom Christ laid down His life.

Having said that, I find the site's introductory arguments unpersuasive, and that because they represent fallacious reasoning.

The first argument seems to be that the NWT can't be all that bad, since by 1998 it had sold 100 million copies. This is an example of the argumentum ad populum or "popular appeal" fallacy. Whether or not a large number--or even a majority--of people believe something is irrelevant to the question of whether it is true. Arch-Darwinist Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, made it to the top of the Bestsellers' List and enjoyed great popularity. But this popularity is irrelevant to the question of whether or not his main thesis (that religion of all varieties is both delusional and dangerous) is true. In the same way, the fact that the NWT has sold so many copies is irrelevant to the question of whether it accurately translates the Greek of the New Testament.

The second argument is that, just as the NWT has received a great deal of criticism, so too did Martin Luther's translation of the Bible into German. Since most scholars now consider Luther to have produced a trustworthy translation, we should extend the same appraisal to the NWT. To complete this analogy, the authors of the site argue that in both cases the reason for the criticism was that the new translations (Luther's and the NWT) served to expose the shortcomings of the traditional religion of their respective days.

This argument is an example of a faulty analogy. To be sure, the two characteristics mentioned (each received criticism and each upset the traditional religion of the time) represent similarities between Luther's translation and the NWT. But with regard to the question of whether either is biased, there are significant differences that make the analogy break down. The most important difference, of course, is at the heart of my original claim. And that is this... Today, a host of experts in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek who come from a wide diversity of theological positions have access to each of these translations and to the abundant copies in the original languages. And they, while finding specific points at which Luther likely erred, find his translation to be free of bias and that of the JWs to display a very clear (non-Trinitarian) bias. (I'll be glad to provide specific examples in another post.)

Another analogy used by the site's authors is more obviously faulty...
Criticisms of the New World Translation should not be surprising. In Jesus' day, he and his followers were the object of criticism, ridicule, and abuse. This was more often than not from religious leaders and men. Those who were 'looked up to' and respected as being learned men (Jn. 7:45-49). Likewise today Jehovah's Witnesses are sometimes the object of criticism, ridicule, and abuse. Not least their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, if we don't condone the Pharisees' criticism of Jesus then we shouldn't condone criticism of the NWT. I trust that my readers immediately recognize the illegitimacy of this equation.

So these are the arguments meant to defend the NWT against the charge of bias. In that attempt, they fail. Moreover, though Jehovah's Witnesses like to claim that this translation was produced in a scholarly manner, the evidence doesn't support this claim. Unlike almost every other English translation, this one was done so anonymously. There is no way to assess the qualifications of its translators because they were unwilling to attach their names and reputations to it.* All we can address is the translation itself, and non-JW experts are unanimous in recognizing it as a distorted rendering of the original languages, one designed to support the doctrines and practices unique to this modern group.

*JWs will respond that the translators chose to remain anonymous for fear that pride would otherwise overtake them. One need not be praised by others, however, to be consumed by pride. Moreover, being numbered with a host of other editors (as is typical of all of our other modern English translations) is hardly a guarantee of fame and stardom in our culture.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Biased Translation?

Back in October, I blogged about the reliability of the transmission of the Gospels (and other New Testament books), and shared that the quality, number, and dates of the copies of these books far surpasses what we have for any other ancient writing. But I recently had a different question come across my screen, and that had to do with the translation of the Bible.

In particular, my friend was having difficulty with the use of the word 'version' in referring to some English translations (King James Version, New International Version, and such). Today, the word 'version' may carry the connotation of subjectivity ("Now let's hear your version of the story"). But the word does not necessarily mean or imply subjectivity, or the various Bible translations wouldn't have used them.

But lurking behind this semantic issue is a fair question: do the English translations of the Bible that we have available to us do a good and unbiased job of reproducing accurately the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek (of the Old and New Testaments, respectively)?

This question may be provocative for the person on the street, but (as I shared with my friend) it is a complete non-issue among scholars. Here's why. There is no shortage of Greek and Hebrew experts of every religious (and irreligious) persuasion, and the evidence is readily available to them. If a Bible translation were in fact biased in the way it rendered the original into English, it would be easily exposed as such. In other words, one could take any English translation to a couple of Greek (or Hebrew) scholars (ones that hold quite divergent theological views) and ask "Is this a faithful rendering?" Invariably (unless the translation in question happens to be the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses, which is indeed biased and inaccurate), the answer will be "Yes."

There are more than 100 (modern) English translations of the Bible. They differ in word choice, and style, in the set of manuscripts (in the original languages) on which they are based, and in whether they choose to translate word-for-word or thought-for-thought. But all (with the exception of the New World Translation) are produced with integrity by experts seeking to do the best job possible. And--because they are available for critique by every other Greek or Hebrew expert--all are recognized as reliable and trustworthy renderings of the original languages.

The charge that our English Bibles are the result of biased translation is a non-starter.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Abusing Amazon

(Happy New Year to all of my readers, and I trust that one of your resolutions for 2008 is to read more.)

In yesterday's post, I shared my review of Dembski and Wells' new book, The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems. That review enjoyed a brief stay on Amazon's review pages for this book, but you can't find it there now. And here's why...

As most of you know, Amazon publishes reviews of the books available through them. They also have in place a system whereby readers of those reviews can vote on whether or not each review was helpful. Apparently, that voting then determines the order of appearance--and even whether or not a review continues to appear there at all.

Soon after The Design of Life came out, there were about a dozen reviews that appeared there (mine included). All were 5-star reviews, and each was thoughtful, well-written, and informative. Each interacted in a meaningful way with the content of the book (as is required by Amazon's rules governing this review process), and it was clear that each of the authors had read the book in question.

Well, this was too much for the fundamentalist Darwinists. Once they realized what was happening, they began a sabotage campaign, flooding the review page with negative (1-star) reviews and voting down the 5-star reviews and up the 1-star reviews. It wasn't long before few of those thoughtful reviews by people who had actually read the book remained, and the review page displayed mostly 1-star reviews like the following (by E. Duran of San Jose, CA)...
I just finished reading this book without vomiting. I had to go back and read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” again to remove the bad taste out of my mouth.
Helpful and informative, right? That's the entire review, just as it appeared. And yet at one point (on 20 December 2007), 44 of 50 people had found this review helpful. As a result, some of the reviews by those of us who actually read the book were bumped from the list of those available.

As you might guess, other 1-star reviews trotted out ad hominem attacks, called the book fallacious without being able to identify any specific fallacies, and generally failed to interact with any of the actual content of the book. For anyone following this process on Amazon, it was yet another example of the vast differences (in intellectual integrity, among other things) between those seeking truth on these scientific issues (of the origins of life and of information in biological systems) and the idealogues who somehow feel called to defend Darwinism at all costs.

Such desperate tactics by Darwinists (which are not, of course, limited to the Amazon review process) represent one of the (apparently necessary) stages in a major paradigm shift as predicted by philosophers of science. At the highest levels, neo-Darwinism is being seen for the bankrupt system it really is, and many can't stand the idea of allowing God back into the debate.