Saturday, May 30, 2009

de Tocqueville

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.

(This is a repost from almost two years ago; I'm that busy these days that I'm having difficulty finding time to post something new. Sorry.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Great Gray Day

Yesterday, my family took our annual daytrip to the Winema National Forest, where we monitor several nests of Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa), banding babies when found. This year, 4 of the 7 nests we checked were active, and we banded 3 young (shown above) at the first and 2 at the second.

I didn't have to do any of the climbing this year, and it was Jasper who felt the wrath--and the talons--of the defensive female at the second nest. After we banded them, Nate volunteered to take them back up to the nest, but he was spared any bloodshed or bruises when I caught the big female (below).

The third nest had just a single nestling, too young to band yet. And at the last nest we checked, the female was still incubating her three eggs, one of which was hatching at the time! (see below) It was a great day (no one was carried off by the ubiquitous mosquitos), and we'll long remember this year's trip.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Couple of Thoughts on Moral Evil

[In this post, I share a response I made to a friend about the problem of evil...]

Dear S.

Obviously, I'm not going to satisfactorily address the whole problem of evil in a single email, but let me offer some suggestions that might further the discussion. It seems that you're asking a variation of the common question "Did God create evil?", and that you're specifically interested in the sin of pride with regard to Satan.

From at least the time of Augustine, an important part of the Christian answer to this question has been that evil is not a thing of itself. Rather, it is the privation or lack of good. Just as darkness is not a created stuff (but the absence of light), so, too, with evil, which is the absence of good.

The particular evil (or sin) of pride is likewise the absence (or twisting) of proper character or sentiment. For created beings (whether angels or humans), right character (righteousness) would be humility based on an accurate understanding of the glory, wisdom, and majesty of the Creator in relationship to the created. The lack of this proper humility and understanding is what we call pride, an elevating of self in one's own eyes. This sin came about as a result of a choice by Satan (and by Adam, as well as by each one of us). Thus pride (like other evil) was not created by God but came about as a result of the choices of created beings.

This leads naturally to the question of whether God couldn't/shouldn't have created a world in which creatures do not make sinful/evil choices. Today, philosophers of all stripes (that is, across the religious spectrum) acknowledge the credibility of the "free-will argument" offered by Alvin Plantinga (Dutch Reformed philosopher teaching at Notre Dame). He claimed that the existence of created beings with free will (and most agree that freedom of choice is a generally good thing, that a universe of puppets would be a dull one) necessarily entails the possibility that those free-will beings will make wrong choices (or "instantiate evil," as the philosophers would say).

So, God did not create pride or other evil, but He did create a universe in which pride and other sins would take place as a result of the choices of the sentient beings He made. For many, this still leaves God to be blamed for the pain and suffering of this world. And this complaint might be legitimate if this world were all there is. The other important part of the Christian answer is that there is another, better world waiting, one in which there will be no sin or evil. Passing through this world, then, is merely the necessary route to that eternal one. And Scripture repeatedly says that the suffering of this world will be as nothing compared to the joy, peace, and glory of that one.

Of course, another part of the Christian answer is that the only solution to the problem of evil that is both just and holy is the substitutionary suffering and death of Christ on the cross at Calvary. In a world of pain and suffering, God took his own medicine (as C.S. Lweis has it). What's more, the Bible makes clear that God had this solution planned from "before the foundation of the world," which I take to mean before the earth was created and before Adam sinned.

As a side note, there's seems to be a significant difference between angels and humans with regard to choosing sin. We sin, but God offers us redemption. For the angels who rebelled, there does not seem to be a possibility of redemption. Moreover, it seems that angels are all by now confirmed either in their obedience or their rebellion to God (there does not seem to be any more potential for good angels to choose evil). Thus, all of the angels (both good and fallen) are spectators to rather than participants in the events by which God has redeemed and is redeeming fallen humans.

I hope some of this moves the discussion along a bit. I'd be glad to continue the dialogue.


Sunday, May 17, 2009

Apologetics Lineup

The second weekend in July, I'll have the privilege of speaking at an Apologetics Conference in Bucharest. The topics list is nearing its final form, and I'm pretty excited about the way it's shaping up.

I'll begin by talking about why it is reasonable to believe in the miracles recorded in the Bible. (This one is first primarily because it sets up a talk--delivered by a Romanian apologist--about the particular miracle of the resurrection of Jesus.)

Next I'll speak on Postmodernism, showing (among other things) that its epistemology (its view of truth and our ability to know it) is self-refuting, its moral relativism unliveable, and its religious pluralism logically absurd.

Then I'm asked to talk about worldview thinking, unpacking the important components and tests of any good worldview, and then comparing Christianity to other worldview systems.

The fourth talk I've been asked to give will be a critique of naturalism in science. I'll hope to show that there is no historical precedence for seeing science as constrained by a naturalistic worldview, that in fact naturalism cannot justify or account for the very assumptions that make science a worthwhile endeavor, and that with regard to the biggest questions for science the evidence leads verwhelmingly to theistic--not naturalistic--explanations. (I'm looking forward to this one.)

The subject for a fifth talk is still under consideration (and a professor from Moody will be tackling the Reliability of the Gospels), but my weekend will conclude with an entire hour (or a bit more) of Q & A.

It should be great stuff, and I'm really looking forward to it. I've a lot to get done, however, before I leave with the team from Antioch. I'd appreciate your prayers for this event, and you can start on that anytime now.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nate to State

Our son Nathan capped off his high school golf season with an impressive round yesterday that earned him the number two spot in the Intermountain Conference tournament and a trip next week to the Oregon state championships.

In the 36-hole tournament that began on Monday, Nathan spotted most of his competitors several strokes by shooting a 45 on the front nine. He rallied with a 2-under 34 on the back, and his 79 left him six strokes back of the leader but with several golfers ahead of him.

The weather was a big factor on Tuesday, with howling winds making the Meadow Lakes course much more difficult and causing scores to balloon. The eventual winner, Damien Telles of The Dalles, led all scorers with a 78. Nathan matched his first-day score, but this 79 was stellar given the conditions, and his 158 total left him 4 shots clear of the third-place finishers.

Nathan's qualifying was a popular outcome--he is well-liked within the area's high school golfing community--and he received a host of hive-fives, "atta-boy"s, and even hugs prior to and during the awards ceremony. Several of his fans were on hand, including his mom, sister Aurora, his brother (and constant golfing companion) Jasper, his youth pastor Kip Jones, and his current swing coach, Spud Miller. Said Nathan,
Golf's an individual sport, but you also hope for success for all those who have helped you along the way. I've been fortunate to have the support of alot of people--Dan Hiatt, Dean Ditmore, Mike Mitchell, and Spud Miller to name a few. My teammates, Nick and Kasey, have been fun to play with, and Jasper's been a brick.
The state tournament is next Monday and Tuesday at Emerald Valley in Creswell.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Christians and the News

I'm somewhat amused by the media's fascination with swine flu-related panic promotion. It's hard to see what gain there is to be had by journalists for blowing such concerns out of all proportion.

Chuck Colson offers the suggestion that the secular worldview, in which science protects us from disease and capitalism ensures our economic stability, has taken a double whammy in recent months. It's only natural, he says, that this leads to a form of real uncertainty and panic among those most committed to this view.

More generally, I used to wonder why the media tends to be so opposed to Christians and their worldview. I think the answer is a related one. It used to be (some time ago now) that news was that information that was potentially life-changing, knowledge necessary to rightly ordering one's life. Announcement of such news was infrequent and sporadic--it only occurred when real newsworthy events took place.

Today, of course, the news is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and its success depends upon convincing us that we need to tune in hourly, subscribe to the daily paper, check our internet news source at every opportunity.

And this premise, in turn, is contrary to consistent Christianity. That is, we Christians serve a Lord who transcends time, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is not surprised by swine flu, by financial down-turns, or even by horrendous terrorist attacks, much less by the sorts of things that fill the headlines most days. The God of Christianity is in sovereign control of all that goes on.

That being the case, we who follow Christ should be above the panic and the sensationalism that are used by journalists to sell their offerings. I'm not sure at what level of consciousness this understanding is held among jounalists. But I suspect that at some level, most journalists realize that if culture were filled with Christians who consistently lived with assurance of God's sovereignty over all things, it would be a whole lot tougher to find buyers for most of what passes for news these days.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Last Class

This week we put the wraps on a semester of discussing "Science and the Bible." It was a varied group of interested and enthusiastic folks, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. As a small sample of the great subjects we covered over the 14 weeks, here's the three (or so) topics with which we wrestled in the last 2-hour class...

The origin of human beings--We compared the evolutionary and biblical ideas about how to explain humanity, and assessed each idea with regard to the paleontological, archaeological, and genetic evidence.

Hebrew genealogies, with special attention to those in Genesis 5 and 11 and whether they can be used to arrive at a date for the creation of Adam.

The origin of consciousness and the mind/body problem--We looked at the materialist and the dualist understandings of consciousness, and examined the evidence for the existence of an immaterial mind and the existence and immortality of human souls.

Just a typical class, and the students hung with me all the way. I can't wait to teach this course again in a year or two.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Hebrew New Testament?

I've blogged quite a bit about the reliability of the New Testament, answering a variety of claims meant to undermine confidence in our ability to know the truth about Jesus. But I was recently asked to address a claim about which I have not previously blogged, the claim that the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, and thus that much is lost in the alleged translation to the Greek.

The run-up to this argument involves a good deal of truth. The first premise is that the authors of the New Testament were Jewish, that they thought and conversed in Hebrew, and that the Greek New Testament reflects this.

I (in agreement with all New Testament scholars of whom I am aware) am perfectly willing to grant this. In fact, all of the authors of the New Testament were Jewish. The possible exception is Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles. But if Luke was a Gentile by birth, he nonetheless had affiliatd himself with Judaism, had become a Jew, as it were. Moreover, the vast majority of the sayings, teachings, and conversations recorded in the gospels were originally uttered in Hebrew (or Aramaic).

So the point--and it's an extremely important one--that we cannot understand the New Testament aright without an appreciation of its Jewishness, is perfectly true. This is not, however, a terribly new or original idea. While there have been times in church history when the Jewishness of Christianity's founders has been forgotten, ignored, or downplayed, this is not the case today. Theologians and lay Christians alike are embracing the need to understand the New Testament Scriptures in their 1st-century Jewish context.

The second premise involved in the claim at issue is that Hebrew was not--as used to be believed--a dead (or at least unwritten) language in the 1st century AD. The claimant points to the Dead Sea scrolls and to recently-discovered coins that verify the use of written Hebrew from this time period. I don't really know how to respond to this. Never having believed the contrary, I guess I fail to see what significance establishment of this premise carries.

In the claim to which my attention was called, the leap is made from these premises to the conclusion that the New Testament books were originally written in Hebrew. I say 'leap' because this conclusion simply does not follow from the premises.

First of all, the claim would seem not even to apply to the epistles of Paul. Paul was among the best-educated of Jews of his day, and was fluent in Greek. Since most of his letters were written to churches of mixed ethnicity or primarily Gentile believers, it is beyond dispute that they were originally in Greek. Thus it would appear to be the gospels themselves that are the focus of the written-in-Hebrew claim.

What is overlooked in this claim is the oral nature of the Jewish culture of Jesus' day. For the early church, it was the telling and retelling of them that served to pass on the sayings of Jesus and the stories of the events of His life, of His death and resurrection. At first, this recounting likely took place almost exclusively in Hebrew, the native tongue of the majority of believers. But as Gentiles began to convert to Christianity--and as Jesus Himself called Paul and others to carry the message to non-Jews, these events were increasingly communicated in Greek, the lengua franca of the region. It was only when the eyewitnesses to these events began to grow old, or to face imprisonment or execution, that they recognized the need to record them for posterity. By this time, the epistles of Paul (and others) were already circulating among the churches--and they had been written in Greek. Under these circumstances, it was only natural that the gospels were also written in the language accessible to people throughout the known world.

This is the traditional understanding of the writing of the New Testament, and the historical and manuscript evidence overwhelmingly supports it. Were there any evidence of manuscripts in Hebrew that predate the Greek manuscripts, then this traditional understanding might be called into question. But there is not. The existence in the texts of Hebraisms, of Hebrew idioms and thought patterns, is perfectly consistent with the traditional understanding (since it acknowledges the Jewishness of the NT authors).

In short, there is abundant evidence to support the well-recognized fact that the authors of the New Testament were Jewish in their thought, and that Hebrew was their primary language. It is imperative that we who would correctly interpret and understand their writings attend to the cultural and historical context of 1st-century Judaism. But the evidences that yield that conclusion are wholly insufficient to warrant the additional conclusion that the New Testament was first written in Hebrew.