Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Apologetics Conference

Less than two weeks now til the first Apologetics Conference here in Central Oregon, and I'm really looking forward to it. J.P. Moreland, one of the leading philosophers of our day and author of a number of books that have greatly influenced me, will be the keynote speaker. It will be my privilege to introduce Craig Hazen, head of the Apologetics Program at BIOLA, who will speak to us a couple of times. Scott Rae will also be there, and he'll be talking about ethics issues and how a Christian worldview should inform them. (I'll have the opportunity to speak on naturalism in science during one of the break-out sessions.)

This is all happening at New Hope Church (on Bend's south side) the evening of Friday, November 7th and all day Saturday the 8th. Cost for the whole thing is only $20, and you can go here to register. See you there!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Indoor Soccer

I thought some of my readers might be interested in this sports news from the Central Oregon Indoor Soccer League (Men's A) and the Antioch Church team for which I play goalkeeper and my sons Nathan and Jasper both play.

In the last game of the regular season Wednesday night, the Antioch team surprised the men of Chivas Bend with a strong all-around performance that resulted in a 10-4 drubbing. Chivas, who would go on to win the playoffs the following night, were never in this one, as they trailed 5-0 after a first half in which the Antioch defense played with clinical precision and the offense was firing on all cylinders.

Antioch, a young team beginning to gel at season's end, could do little wrong, and the visitors were reeling under an offensive onslaught. Nathan Gerhardt opened the scoring with a hammered right-footed shot from the left side. Gary Christensen made it 2-nil when he deftly converted a header from the top of the box. When Tyler Fetters slotted home a shot from no less than the midfield stripe, the Antioch fans (Courtney, Joelle, and Krea) went wild.

But the home side was not done. Awarded a free kick in the offensive zone, Nathan Gerhardt caught the Chivas napping (well, actually, busy arguing the call). He back-heeled the ball to his brother Jasper streaking down the right side, who fired it just inside the far post. Brandon Groza volleyed in a cross from Nathan to finish off an inspired first half.

Once the Chivas decided to return after the break, the men of Antioch found the play a bit more balanced, and time and again their defense was put to the test. "Gary played out of this world!" said awestruck keeper Rick Gerhardt. "He personally blocked more shots than I was called on to save." Jasper Gerhardt was also an immovable force in defense, calmly turning away every rebound before the Chivas forwards could reach them.

Nonetheless, the visitors managed to find the goal net three times in quick succession, before Emi Popa made a telling run down the right side and slammed in Antioch's 6th goal of the night. Nathan Gerhardt scored his second of the evening after dribbling through most of the opponent's men, and then a Jasper Gerhardt cross led to an own goal on the part of Chivas' beleagured defense. When Kip Jones notched home a header in the 35th minute (given a nifty pass from Popa), each of Antioch's field players had managed a goal. Chivas would score once more, but Nathan Gerhardt's goal on a breakaway completed his hat trick and the home side's rout. Another goal by Popa set a cap on the victory, despite its being ruled as having crossed the goal line subsequent to the game-ending buzzer.

With this convincing win at the end of the fall campaign, Antioch has shown a promise of even better things to come in the spring, and the team's fans (Courtney, Joelle, and Krea) have every reason to expect great things from future matches.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Crux of Cosmic History

Last night, the Antioch family had a wonderful time of fellowship and communion at Summers Wood Flooring. I had the privilege of making some remarks about the historical event we commemorate whenever we celebrate communion.

I first argued that the atoning death of Jesus on the Roman cross (together with the Incarnation that made it possible and the Resurrection that made it worthwhile) is the central event of all church history. Though Christ-followers today have disagreements about the number of sacraments they celebrate, and the details and frequency of those sacraments, all believers worldwide partake of communion and have been doing so ever since the resurrected Jesus ascended.

But more than that, we can see that the Cross is also the most decisive event in all of human history. Not only do we who came after it look back upon it, but for more than a millenium and a half the people of God (the Israelites) looked forward to it. They did this whenever they celebrated the Passover, which was a type of the Messiah's lamb-like offering (Isaiah 53:7). They also did this whenever they offered atoning sacrifices for their corporate and individual sins. Such sacrifices did not of themselves forgive sins, but acknowledged Messiah's future, once-for-all sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) that would effectively deal with humanity's ultimate problem--separation from our Creator due to our sin and rebellion.

But even to say that the Cross is the focal point of all human history is to understate the case. The fact is that Christ's redeeming act of obedience on the Cross transcends cosmic history, and that both as to eternity future and eternity past. Revelation 5 contains a vision of Heaven, of a time and place outside of our universe. And even there, we (in our own glorified, resurrected bodies) and the angels will be focussing on the Cross and crying "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!" And we are told (in several Scripture passages, including Titus 1:2 and Ephesians 1:4) that our redemption in Christ was promised before the creation of the universe. II Timothy 1:9 says that God
saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.
The Greek here means "before times eternal."

Throughout this discussion of the Cross, I used words like 'central,' 'decisive,' 'important,' and 'critical.' But there were a couple of words I didn't use, and that for good reason. In stressing the centrality or importance of a particular moment or event, we sometimes use the words 'crux' or 'crucial.' Crux means 'a pivotal or essential point requiring resolution or resolving an outcome.' Crucial means 'important or essential as decisive or as resolving a crisis.' (Again, the crisis resolved by the Crucifixion is our eternal separation from God by our own sinfulness.) But had I referred to the Crucifixion as the crux of human history or the crucial moment in cosmic history, I would have been guilty of redundancy. That's because both of these words have as their root the Latin word meaning 'cross' or 'torture.'

In short, whenever we employ the words 'crucial' or 'crux,' we are tacitly acknowledging that the standard of centrality, importance, and decisiveness against which all other things must be measured is the substitutionary death upon a Roman cross of the eternal Son of God outside Jerusalem in AD 30.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Prevalence of Carnivory

I've been discussing the issue of animal death and carnivory, and how it is perceived by many moderns as a problem difficult to reconcile with the goodness of God. For Christians with this perception, the issue leads to strange interpretations of the Bible, and ones that do serious damage to the doctrine of God's sovereignty.

As an apologist, one who spends his time defending the truth claims of the Christian world- and life-view, it is frustrating (to say the least) to read and hear other Christians airing truth claims that are not biblical and that are contrary to both evidence and reason. Prominent among such views is this notion that predatory animals were not created by God because they are somehow evil.

Several years ago now, my oldest son was asked (along with the other students in his Sunday school class) to think of something created by God for each letter of the alphabet. Being a snake enthusiast, when he came to 'V,' my son wrote down 'venom.' The teacher asked him to think of something else, since she wasn't sure that God had created venom (she apparently perceived of all such things as rattlesnakes, scorpions, and bees and wasps as evil or fallen). Many Christians today likewise see predatory animals--those that eat other animals--as bad, and therefore not directly created by God.

Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that this were true, and see what the implications of that view include. By way of comparison (with those implications), we'll keep in mind that what the Bible actually claims (in many different books written by various human authors) is that God alone is the Creator of all living things. As just one example, here's Psalm 104:24-25...
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great.
What I want to do is to delineate for you the types of animals that are carnivorous--those that, on the view I'm critiquing, must be viewed as NOT created by God. For simplicity's sake, I'll confine the discussion to extant animals and those living in North America.

There are seven orders of mammals alive in North America (not including humans, whose order, primates, is primarily omnivorous, eating both palnts and animals). Of the seven, three orders consist entirely or primarily of herbivorous animals. These orders are the lagomorphs (rabbits, hares, and pikas), the rodents (some of which are not above eating eggs and young birds), and the even-toed ungulates (deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, and sheep).

The other four orders of mammals are entirely or primarily carnivorous (or, in the case of the opossums, carrion feeders). Chiroptera (bats) are primarily animal-eaters, though some species (especially outside North America) are fruit-eaters. The Insectivora (moles and shrews) are exclusive in their diets, eating only other animals. Then, of course, the Carnivora are flesh-eaters, with a very few species departing from the strict rule and occasionally eating berries or carrion. The Carnivora are a varied group, represented (in North America) by eight different families; they include, the dogs, the cats, the weasels, the skunks, the bears, the raccoon family, the eared seals, and the hair seals. On the "predators are evil" view, we must disqualify the vast majority of these diverse, unique (and well-adapted) species as not intended or created by God.

Among birds, the situation is much more weighted in favor of herbivores, with many passerines (perching birds) thriving on seeds and fruit. Nonetheless, many other passerines eat invertebrate animals. Moreover, whole groups--including hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, gulls (and similar species), most other seabirds and shorebirds, shrikes, crows and jays, and others--eat animal prey exclusively. Are we--without any scriptural warrant--to claim that God made finches, but that the origin of eagles, killdeer, penguins, and all these others must be explained some other way?

Among the reptiles, the vast majority are exclusively meat-eaters. This includes all of the snakes, all of the crocodiles, and nearly all of the turtles. (A few turtles supplement their diets with fruit and vegetables, but even these species are not strictly vegetarian.) Lizards are a bit more of a mixed bag, but those that eat plant material exclusively are the clear minority.

Amphibians (frogs, toads, and salamanders) are likewise an entire class of animals that prey mainly or exclusively on other animals. The same is true of the bony fishes (Osteicthyes) and, of course, of the sharks and rays (the cartilaginous fishes).

According to this cursory glance at just the vertebrates, we can see that four of the six classes (cartilaginous fishes, bony fishes, amphibians, and reptiles) are comprised mostly of animal-eaters. Of the remaining two classes (birds and mammals), entire groups are meat-eaters. In other words, the clear implication of the view that I am critiquing is that most of the animal species inhabiting North America today were not part of God's plan, and that He is not to be praised for the creation of eagles, flamingoes, bobcats, raccoons, dolphins, or sailfish. I find this a really strange position for any Christian to take.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Night

We interrupt this series on the "problem" of animal death to bring you (in response to public demand) another poem by my youngest daughter, Willow. This one she wrote a year ago (as a 9-year-old), and the last line is telling.
The evening is cool, the moonlight is bright.
The owls are calling all through the night.

While children are sleeping, each snug in her bed,
here come the stars, marching ahead.

Some creatures are moving all through the night,
while others are sleeping, waiting for light.

Down goes the moon, up comes the sun.
Here come the children, ready to run.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Pains of Animals

By way of review (if only for my sake), we've been discussing the supposed problem of animal death and suffering. I have suggested that this is a very modern concern, and one that involves a naivete about ecology (though I haven't yet fleshed out the latter claim). We have also seen that efforts by Christians (especially those who hold to a "young earth creationist" view) to use Scripture to explain animal death as not a part of God's intent in creation are demonstrably flawed. In each case, the Scripture passage appealed to does not say what these believers try to make it say. Moreover, other Bible passages are explicit in claiming for God the responsibility for creating and sustaining those animals that prey upon other animals. Today, I want to look at an interesting section from the writings of C.S. Lewis, which will set the stage for later posts on the subject.

The essay I have in mind comes from God in the Dock, and is titled "The Pains of Animals." It is actually more than an essay; it presents an 'inquiry'--from C.E.M. Joad--regarding chapter nine of Lewis' The Problem of Pain followed by the latter's reply.

I find a couple of Lewis' quotes worth sharing. In attempting to clarify his earlier claims, he summarizes the least speculative part of his original treatment...
The data that God has given us enable us in some degree to understand human pain. We lack such data about beasts. We know neither what they are nor why they are. All that we can say for certain is that if God is good (and I think that we have grounds for saying that He is) then the appearance of divine cruelty in the animal world must be a false appearance. What the reality behind the false appearance may be we can only guess.
As an ecologist (and as I have perhaps hinted already), I take issue with the widespread perception that the animal world is "cruel." That is, I would heartily affirm that the appearance of cruelty is a false one, or (better yet) a subjective perspective. But my main point here is to affirm Lewis in his willingness to remain agnostic about the issue, to give God the benefit of the doubt where his (Lewis') knowledge remains imperfect.

Lewis himself arrives (a bit further on) at the recognition of the subjectivity involved here. This, too, is perceptive, and constitutes an important counterpoint to the argument against God made by appealing to animal death.
If I regard this pity and indignation [at the suffering in the insect world] simply as subjective experiences of my own with no validity beyond their strength at the moment (which next moment will change), I can hardly use them as standards whereby to arraign the creation. On the contrary, they become strong as arguments against God just in so far as I take them to be transcendent illumination to which creation must conform or be condemned. They are arguments against God only if they are themselves the voice of God... That the mere contingent Joad or Lewis, born in an era of secure and liberal civilization and imbibing from it certain humanitarian sentiments, should happen to be offended by suffering--what is that to the purpose? How will one base an argument for or against God on such an historical accident?
In other words, one very reasonable response to the perceived problem of animal suffering is that God's workings in the planet's ecology are not what some modern people perceive them to be. That is, perhaps God has good reasons for creating a world that involves animal death, and our perception of such death as bad or evil is wrong. As I see it, the types of evidence that lead to this conclusion include historical, Scriptural, and ecological. That being so, both those who appeal to animal death in arguing against God and those who build strange Bible interpretations around a felt need to absolve God of responsibility for animal death are sadly misguided.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Genesis 1:29-30

Another Scripture verse often cited by those who see the prelapsarian (i.e., pre-Fall) world as devoid of predators is Genesis 1:29-30. Ralph D. Winter, for example, has this to write,
Yet in the very first chapter of the Bible both the animal life and humans mentioned there are clearly described as non-carnivorous, meaning that they did not kill each other {Genesis 1:29}.
But the verses in question simply do not characterize the animals at all. Rather, they make a positive statement about God's being the One who provides for man and all the animals. In Genesis 1:29-30, there is absolutely no prohibition made, and only a modern desire to absolve God of the creation of predatory animals could lead to anyone's inferring such a prohibition. Here are the verses (from the ESV)...
And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.
The context here is what is known as the dominion mandate. God is here telling man that he has both the privilege and responsibility of caring for the rest of the created order. It is likely that God is emphasizing the fact that green plants form the basis for the food chains of all land life. It may also be that God is emphasizing that all such plants are meant to be useful as food. (Genesis 1 is, of course, the most abbreviated of creation accounts; in the longer version that appears in chapter 2, there is a prohibition made--one not mentioned in chapter 1--when God says that Adam is not to eat of the fruit of one particular tree.)

Whatever God's revelatory intentions in Genesis 1:29-30, they do not include saying that carnivory was not a part of life up until that time. Such an understanding requires eisegesis--reading into the passage something that is not there.

Perhaps a similar example will clarify this. Let's say my family is going on a two-week vacation that happens to coincide with the week during which you will have moved out of your old home but are unable yet to move into your new one. We arrange that you willl stay at our house while we're gone. As we are leaving, my wife says, "We stocked the refrigerator for your sakes--make sure the kids know to help themselves." Do you take that as a prohibition against your eating the fruit in the basket on the kitchen table? Will you deliberately avoid the fresh-baked bread on the counter or the goodies stacked in the pantry? Of course not!

Using the Genesis 1 passage to build a doctrine denying animal death (at that stage of creation) is likewise logically untenable. And the motivation for doing such hermeneutical gymnastics is a modern misunderstanding about the beauty of the ecologies with which God has filled the land and seas ever since He first created life.

As serious students of God's revelation to us, we should at all costs avoid building doctrines around what amount to mere inferences on our part. This is especially true when the rest of His revelation to us--the remainder of Scripture and the evidence from nature--strongly asserts a contrary conclusion. God is indeed the Creator and Sustainer of all life--including the lion and the eagle--and He calls all that creation "very good." (So do I.)