Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eagle Trapping Season

It's the time of year for trapping Golden Eagles, in this case for affixing a telemetry unit (which will use satellites to acquire information on the bird's hourly location). This adult male is one of many year-round residents in my area (there are at least 10 Golden Eagle territories within 10 miles of our home). The photo below shows a bit of the capture method and conditions.

It's tough work, but hey, someone's got to do it.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Let me just take this opportunity to wish a very blessed Christmas to all my readers. Here in Central Oregon, we did have a white Christmas, but purists might point out that no new snow fell. Rather, we're still cold enough to retain the 8 or so inches that fell last weekend.

It was a cozy, comfortable day here, with lots of wonderful homemade gifts. My youngest daughter, Willow, has made a tradition of writing poetry and including it in gifts, and a number of homemade bracelets, necklaces, and hair barrettes were also acquired. Books, of course, and music, were also among the presents.

I'm always fascinated by the number of stores and folks at this time of year that do the "Happy Holiday" thing, not expressing the word 'Christmas' for fear they might offend someone. Statistics show that something like 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas, with 91% of them explicitly acknowledging it as the birth of Jesus. Now, I'm not so naive as to think that all such folk actually stop to pray to Him or to give thanks for the gift of that life (and death) 2000 years ago.

Nonetheless, I take comfort in the undeniable fact (testified to, in part, by the uniquely worldwide celebration of Christmas) that that gift remains the central event of all human history, the one that most radically changed the world for good. I only hope that you, my reader, have experienced the joy that comes from personally knowing that Prince of Peace, and that--through His redeeming Resurrection power--you too are a vehicle of goodwill to all men. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Laryngeal Nerve in Giraffes

In the past couple of weeks, I received two requests to address Richard Dawkins' claim that the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the modern giraffe provides proof of evolution. To hear and see this claim, go to this YouTube video. The heart of Dawkins' argument is that the unnecessary length of the giraffe's recurrent laryngeal nerve is an example of an imperfection that is the sort of historical accident that one would expect if there is no intelligent Designer. Here's my response...

Since I don't know you, I can't simply respond to Dawkins' claim without first making sure that you understand the larger picture, which is the bankruptcy of Dawkins' overall view, neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE).

Twenty years from now, no one will seriously be defending the form of evolution in which Dawkins believes. His critics, whether theists or fellow-evolutionists, rightly accuse him of living still in the 19th century. Stephen Jay Gould (the leading paleontologist of the last several decades) said that "neo-Darwinism, as a theoretical paradigm, is effectively dead." Geneticist James Shapiro (like Gould, committed to some form of evolution) last year told a packed auditorium in Chicago that "Richard Dawkins is a man who lives in fantasy."

And the reason Dawkins' pet theory is dead is because there is no evidence supporting it. The fossil record was contrary to Darwin's theory when he proposed it, and years of looking for his predicted transitional intermediates have only made the situation worse (for evolution). The apparent heirarchical look of living things remains intact, despite efforts to turn it into a continuous tree. Every life form that has ever lived appeared in the fossil record fully formed, fully functional, and fully adapted to its time on earth and its role in the ecology into which it was created. Every life form has remained unchanged throughout its tenure in earth's history. The only ancestors of Dawkins' modern giraffe for which there is any evidence are modern parent giraffes.

The only other evidential argument for evolution--similarity among living things--suffers from a number of problems. For one thing, similarity among living things is equally well (or better) explained by the view that there is a single Creator (one who repeatedly uses efficient designs rather than make each living thing according to entirely new plans and with entirely different materials). Thus the evolutionist argument is viciously circular: its starting point--that similarity only arises from common ancestry--is the claim that is at issue, and cannot be assumed in order to prove itself.

There are numerous other modern discoveries that make evolution surpassingly implausible, but which are completely ignored by Dawkins. These include the discovery that the universe did indeed have a recent beginning (13.7 b.y., whereas Darwinism assumed an eternal universe, such that natural selection had a nearly infinite amount of time at its disposal), the vast complexity of even the simplest living cell (greatly increasing the gap between non-living chemistry and first life), the information content of DNA, the fine-tuning of the universe for life on this one planet, etc, etc.

It is therefore in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence that Dawkins offers the 'proof' of evolution in the form of the laryngeal nerve of the giraffe. Really?! Really?!?

This is an example of a class of arguments for evolution that involve identifying seemingly 'bad,' imperfect, or suboptimal designs. This line of reasoning is unconvincing--or even downright refuted--for several reasons.

1) It assumes a God-like understanding of the anatomy in question, an understanding that neither Dawkins nor anyone else possesses. Further research is likely to discover good reasons that the nerve in question does not take a more direct route between the brain and the larynx.

2) In all of the more well-known examples, this form of argumentation has indeed been seen to involve ignorance. For a long time, it was the inverted retina (in the human eye) that was lauded by evolutionists as poorly designed, until further research discovered the elegance of it. ("Oops, let's not use that example any more! Let's try the length of the giraffe's laryngeal nerve.")

3) There will never be empirical proof that such a design does not serve an elegant (albeit yet undiscovered) purpose. That is, this argument can never be more than a "seems-to-me" sort of argument. Good science is generally thought to be more rigorous and empirical than this.

4) Even if it could be proved that such a thing constituted a bad design, it is a non-sequitur to conclude that there was no design involved. There was a period during which the Ford Pinto had a rear-end fuel tank problem, which led to numerous explosions, lawsuits, and recalls. But no one concluded as a result that the Pinto arose naturally. The premise of poor design does not yield the conclusion of no design.

[As an aside, it is the obviously fallacious reasoning so frequently employed by Dawkins (as in this case) that causes even atheist philosophers to be embarrassed by him, his books, and his public appearances.]

5) At the outset, Dawkins begins with an statement that is oxymoronic. He says that evolution "would expect" or "would predict" such an arrangement. This involves a problematic mixing of tenses. Now if evolutionists had at a certain time predicted the discovery of such an arrangement, and that prediction was subsequently borne out, then there might be some scientific validity to such a claim. But that, of course, is not what happened. No, however Dawkins may try to spin it, he is not here documenting the predictive success of his theory but rather claiming after the fact (of discovery) that it was the sort of thing that evolution... what? "could have predicted?" "should have predicted?" "might have, but just never got around to predicting?" I trust you see the problem.

6) Again assuming for the sake of argument that the laryngeal nerve in the giraffe is either a poor design or even undesigned, the argument for evolution (and against a Creator) depends upon our believing that there is NO design in the universe. That is, if Dawkins is right, then not only the giraffe's laryngeal nerve but the giraffe, and not only that but all living things, life itself, Earth, the solar system, the universe, everything is undesigned. Indeed, on Dawkins' worldview, even the Ford Pinto was not truly designed because the engineers working on it were merely carrying out the completely deterministic programming of their evolutionarily-derived brains. And it is at this point that Dawkins' beliefs require far more faith than the contrary belief--the default belief of nearly everyone throughout Western history--that things appear so exquisitely designed because they are in fact designed. It is at this point that Dawkins' worldview is most readily seen as that of the Fool of Psalm 14:1.

I know that Dawkins' 'arguments' can seem well-packaged and present a superficial challenge when first encountered. But neither this nor any other of his alledged evidences for evolution can withstand even a little bit of serious scrutiny.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Atheist Pastors

So, a couple of weeks ago, there was an article (here) about a couple of pastors who, despite having become atheists, remain in ministry because they don't know how else to make a living. Here's a lengthy excerpt from the article, including quotes from the men themselves
..."I spent the majority of my life believing and pursuing this religious faith, Christianity," Jack said. "And to get to this point in my life, I just don't feel like I believe anymore."

"The more I read the Bible, the more questions I had," Jack said. "The more things didn't make sense to me -- what it said -- and the more things didn't add up."

Jack said that 10 years ago, he started to feel his faith slipping away. He grew bothered by inconsistencies regarding the last days of Jesus' life, what he described as the improbability of stories like "Noah's Ark" and by attitudes expressed in the Bible regarding women and their place in the world.

"Reading the Bible is what led me not to believe in God," he said.

He said it was difficult to continue to work in ministry. "I just look at it as a job and do what I'm supposed to do," he said. "I've done it for years."

Adam said his initial doubts about God came as he read the work of the so-called New Atheists -- popular authors like the prominent scientist Richard Dawkins. He said the research was intended to help him defend his faith.

"My thinking was that God is big enough to handle any questions that I can come up with," he said but that did not happen.

"I realized that everything I'd been taught to believe was sort of sheltered," Adam said, "and never really looked at secular teaching or other philosophies. ... I thought, 'Oh my gosh. Am I believing the wrong things? Have I spent my entire life and my career promoting something that is not true?'
Where shall I begin? I guess with the last quote, "everything I'd been taught to believe..." I assume 'Adam' was taught what to believe both during his upbringing in the church and by his subsequent seminary education. It's pretty clear that he wasn't also taught (either at church or at seminary) how to think. Those 'new atheists' whose arguments he found so persuasive trade in logical fallacies, historical inaccuracies, and rhetoric that embarrasses real philosophers, even atheist ones. And it is very likely that Adam was taught a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with historic Christianity. ('Jack' referred specifically to the 'story of Noah's ark.' Yes, as told by many modern evangelicals, that story is quite absurd, involving as it does a global flood and pairs of every species of animal that has ever lived. But that, of course, is not what the Bible teaches, but only a modern, superficial interpretation of the passage.)

Yes, many of our churches and seminaries are failing us, both by teaching bad hermeneutics and bad theology and by failing to teach people how to think. But there's a more basic problem that surfaces in this article. And it has to do with the nature of Christian belief.

For these men, belief in God and Christianity seems to be a weighing of the evidence, which is (apparently) only slightly tipped either in favor of or against the Christian worldview. These men of the cloth seem to accept the idea that belief in God is a purely academic exercise. In truth, Christianity claims that the Creator has revealed Himself to us throughout the creation, through history, through Scripture and His Son come to Earth, and in personal experience. That is, true believers are not those who merely weigh all the available evidence to see if God's existence is the slightly likelier option. Those of us who are followers of Christ are such because we have encountered--and fallen in love with--our Creator and Redeemer.

To be sure, saving Christian faith is reasonable and based in evidence. The evidence of God's existence, design, and love are all around us, and it is the task of the apologist to point these out. But may God save us from pastors who have never had a personal encounter with the living Lord, and who moreover don't have the critical thinking skills to spot the absurdity of the arguments of the likes of Richard Dawkins.*

*I understand that true followers of Christ can go through periods of doubt, times at which God seems far from them and they question for a period the reality of His presence in their lives. But when such times come upon pastors who have truly experienced a relationship with God, the response is not to carry on in secret but to go on sabbatical, having first honestly shared with and asked for prayer from one's elders and mentors. The cases of 'Jack' and 'Adam' are like those referred to in I John 2:19, "They went out from us, because they were not of us" except that, for reasons purely of self-interest, 'Jack' and 'Adam' have not gone out from us but shamefully remained as leaders of their congregations.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Hawking's Self-Refutation

Regular readers will know by now that one of my favorite things is identifying when someone goes on record making a claim that is self-referentially absurd, or self-refuting. We have seen that scientism suffers from this fatal fallacy, we have had fun discussing the self-refuting claims of postmodernism, and we have dismissed the biblicism of young-earth creationism on the same grounds.

And now we find arguably the most brilliant mind of our lifetimes wallowing in self-refuting claims, and thereby making what may be his final book a testimony to the absurdity that results when one sets out to deny God.

I'm referring, of course, to Stephen Hawking, the iconic mathematician whose Brief History of Time was the best-selling science book of its era. His latest, coauthored by physicist Leonard Mlodinow, is titled The Grand Design, and was released in September. Its central claim--that the universe and its laws can be explained without reference to God--is indeed sweeping and grand, but the foundation required to buttress that claim is riddled with self-refuting arguments. Let's look at a couple of them.
Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.
I'm sure that some of you see the problem here (even though Hawking, his coauthor, and his editors must have missed it): these and all related claims are not scientific claims but philosophical ones. And I'm not cherry-picking an isolated logical mistake here; fully a third of the book (and arguably a whole lot more) is a rambling, philosophical discourse, one that will cause any good philosopher to wince, laugh, or cry, depending upon his mood while reading. We scientists are notoriously poor philosophers, and if it does nothing else, Hawking's book serves as a stark reminder of this fact.

But scientific naturalists have even more reason for dismay. For many who would deny God's existence, Hawking offered the best hope, as he years ago devoted his brilliant mind to discovering a 'theory of everything.' This book would seem to be the culmination of that search, and yet it winds up dissolving into postmodern nonsense.

Hawking and Mlodinow devote a chapter to the question "What Is Reality?" And the conclusion to which they arrive is that
there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality... our perception is not direct, but rather shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our human brains. [Therefore, no model of reality] can be said to be more real than any other.
What are we to do with such? If no view of reality can be said to be real, why bother interacting with Hawking's view of reality? If there is no theory-independent concept of reality, then this concept isn't. Like all self-refuting claims, these epistemological ones are necessarily false.

So where we expect to find piercing scientific argumentation, we are treated instead to sloppy, self-refuting philosophy (after first being told that philosophy is dead).

Others of the main claims of Hawking's new book likewise disqualify themselves, but perhaps I'll save those for another time. The bottom line is this... the Christian need not fear the fallacious arguments either of the scientific naturalist or the postmodernist (or, as in this case, someone who mixes both in bizarre ways). Even the most brilliant mind will end up stunningly in error, if he begins his search for truth with a denial of the Author of all truth.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Evolutionism vs Creationism

Here's another vimeo of the Redux session I sat in on a few weeks back. I received a number of good questions that day, including
How would you respond to the debate between evolutionism and creationism?

The Debate Between Creationism and Evolution from :redux on Vimeo.

Monday, November 15, 2010

AIG Addendum

As a follow-up to the last post, it needs to be said (since the situations are so parallel), that...

When Galileo used scientific evidence to correct the Roman Catholic church leadership's faulty interpretation of Scripture about the solar system, he wasn't attacking either the Word of God or the Son of God. We all recognize Galileo's interpretation to have been correct and the interpretation of the church (which, incidentally, was shared by both Luther and Calvin) to have been wrong.

In the same way, when William Lane Craig (or any of a host of other committed followers of Christ) uses the evidence from the creation to critique the hopelessly outdated Lightfoot/Ussher interpretation to which Ken Ham has anchored his ministry, he is not attacking the Word of God or the Son of God either.

I spend a good deal of my time discussing history and philosophy of science issues, showing how modern science uniquely arose from within the Christian worldview, and how science depends upon theistic assumptions for its logical grounding. Though it has been popular in the last 100 years to claim that Christianity and science have been opposed to one another, this claim could hardly be more false. In the history of the interaction between Christianity and modern science there has really only been that one case--the Galileo incident--in which church leadership seriously erred in their interpretation despite contrary scientific evidence. Unfortunately, the success of so-called Creation "Science" organizations in our day (like Answers in Genesis) has lent a great deal of credibility to those who would claim that Christianity opposes science. I can't wait for the day when we can look back on young-earth creationism as an amusing, aberrant, anti-intellectual interlude in recent church history.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Illogical Basis of AIG

A good deal of great material in the news lately, plenty of grist for an apologetics blogger (I just wish I knew one that had more time to respond to it all). A SETI anniversary experiment, pastors admitting that, despite their having become atheists, they stay in the ministry because they don't have any other way of making a living, and, of course, an aging Stephen Hawking lapsing into some of the silliest logic imaginable for arguably the most brilliant mind of our lifetimes. But let me start with Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis, who this week sunk to a new low as he articulated with unusual clarity the illogical basis of his entire ministry, career and life. Here's an excerpt:
When Christian leaders deliberately reinterpret God’s Word on the basis of man’s fallible ideas (taken from outside the Bible), not only are they undermining the Word of God, they are actually though unwittingly) conducting an attack on the Son of God! This is very serious. Yes, when you compromise the Word of God, it is also an attack on the Son of God, whose Word it is.
If you care to read more, the full article can be found here, but this quote gives us plenty to discuss.

Here's the first very basic fact that Ham seems completely unable to see... Everyone who interacts with God's Word is interpreting it, Ken Ham as well as William Lane Craig (the Christian leader against whom Ham's remarks are addressed). Thus, if Craig interprets God's Word differently than does Ham, it is Ham's interpretation that is being questioned, not the Word of God. It's just as simple as that. And the inability to grasp that, his blindness to the fact that his interpretation is not the "Word of God" but an interpretation of it, is foundational to the entire scheme of Ham's whole ministry.

Elsewhere, Ham (as well as others of his ilk, including the more well-respected Bible commentator, John MacArthur) insists that those who doubt [his interpretation of] the creation account, will invariably doubt the resurrection of Jesus.

Now, that Jesus rose from the dead in a glorified body is explicitly taught over and over again, in all four Gospels and in nearly all of the other New Testament books. But nowhere in Scripture is it explicitly taught that the Earth and universe are only 6,000 years old (as Ham believes) or that the 'days' of the creation in Genesis 1 are 24-hour days. Indeed, the more explicit Scripture passsages that deal with the age of creation state that the mountains are far, far older than human understanding. No, Ham's view about the age of creation is a complex theory that makes a number of interpretive decisions, each one of which is at best dubious and at worst demonstrably false. What's more, Ham's interpretation of Genesis is very recent in church history, as he could rightly be said to be following the interpretation that arose with Lightfoot and Ussher in the 17th century.

In his insightful book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Christian historian/philosopher Mark Noll refers to Ham's position this way:
...a fatally flawed interpretive scheme of the sort that no responsible Christian teacher in the history of the church ever endorsed before this century [that has come] to dominate the minds of American evangelicals on scientific questions
Perhaps an even bigger problem in the thinking of AIG's leader is that whenever he examines the interpretations of others, he finds them fallible, and clearly implies that by contrast his own thinking, ideas, and conclusions are infallible. Now, he doesn't say this right out, of course, because it sounds so silly. He again hides behind "the Word of God." when what is really being compared is the fallible interpretations of those with whom he disagrees over against the fallible interpretations of Ken Ham. Until he confronts this glaring aspect of personal pride and bad reasoning, I'm afraid Ham will continue to be an embarrassment to the name of Christ and a barrier to belief for those more willing to make the most of the minds that God has given them as they seek to understand His precious written Word.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Science and Theology Redux

I've decided to give you a break from reading my thoughts about how we know things are true, how we decide about things like the age of the creation. Instead, I'll let you listen to (and watch) me answer a couple of related questions. The forum is last Sunday's Redux (Q&A) service at my home church, Antioch. (I believe you can link to other Vimeo answers at the bottom.)

The Relationship of Science and Christianity from :redux on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Finding Truth

In the last post, I claimed that there is value in Christians seeking to know the truth about the age of creation. In particular, I suggested that those who would be teachers (or pastors, evangelists, or apologists) ought to teach only that which they know to be true. So the question comes up, how do we know how old the universe and Earth are?

Let me first frame my answer in very general terms, not having in mind the age of creation but any question about which there are two dissenting views. In such a case, and before one is qualified to teach on the subject, one ought to...

1) Study as much of the relevant evidence as is necessary to have a full grasp of every facet of the issue.

2) Read widely on both sides of the issue, not just proponents of the view to which you are already inclined.

3) Where you remain dependent on the arguments of others, ascertain the qualifications of those sources to weigh in on the issues.

4) Examine the arguments made by proponents of both views (for validity, truth of premises, cogency).

5) Interact with the strongest (not the weakest) arguments of each side, particularly of the view with which you disagree.

6) Never mischaracterize the view of either side, particularly the one with which you disagree.

7) Treat those with whom you end up disagreeing with the utmost respect.

These steps are easily understood, and amount to nothing more than common sense. Basic courtesy, let alone Christian charity, would seem to dictate that we follow them.

And so, if either you or the friend with whom you disagree cannot honestly say that you have followed each of these steps, then a level of uncertainty and humility should characterize whatever discussions you have, and those discussions should definitely remain intramural. That is, neither of you should teach on such an issue until you can say that you have done the necessary research.

All that said, there's an even more basic issue that may need to be settled regarding the specific issue of the age of the creation. The steps discussed above apply to any case where there are different views or interpretations. Among Christians, such disagreements often (as in the age issue) involve differing interpretations of Scripture. But on this particular issue, it is common for proponents of the young-earth interpretation to pretend as though they are defending Scripture itself, rather than an interpretation of Scripture.

If (and now I'm speaking directly to the reader who posed this question) your friend cannot first acknowledge that his view is an interpretation (if , instead, he believes it is "what God's Word says"), then I submit that you will never help him to reach truth on this issue.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Value of Discussing the Age Issue

A reader asked
A friend of mine (who is a follower of Christ) and I have been debating the old earth vs young earth positions. He holds to a young earth and I hold to an old earth (and universe). Neither of us are experts or even scientifically minded. In our debates we find ourselves simply pulling out arguments from others in our respective camps. We have agreed that this issue is NOT a salvation issue.

Do you think there is any value in these types of discussions?

Sometimes it feels like we are dealing with a 'recess' issue and we should get to work strategizing and carrying out how we can better serve those in need and share our faith. On these issues we agree.
Here's my response...

You're absolutely right, it is not a salvation issue. That is, God redeems people through Christ's atoning death on the Cross when they recognize their need of a Savior and accept God's provision of forgiveness. Nothing in there depends upon how old the universe is, much less on how old the sinner in question believes it to be. Many will enter eternity with misunderstandings about the age question (and about a whole lot of other tangential issues).

That said, let me give a few reasons why there is value in mature, teachable Christians discussing (examining) the issue of when God created the universe and Earth. (I'll make the points without taking the time to support each. That will allow the reader to question the validity of each and may allow me to post support for each as necessary.)

1) Scripture makes it clear that God cares a good deal about truth.

2) The two opposing views on the age of the universe (6-10 thousand years or 13.7 billion years) cannot both be true. There is a right answer.

3) Christian theology deals not only with God, but also with the world. Christianity claims to be the accurate understanding of the real world, the one in which we actually live.

4) Although acceptance of the central truth claim of Christianity does not depend upon rightly understanding the age of the world, proclaiming (as Christian belief) falsehood about the age of creation can create an artificial barrier to even considering the central Christian claim.

Taken together, these points suggest that those Christians who would answer the call (of II Cor. 5:18-21) to be ambassadors for God--and that would include, at a minimum, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and apologists--should seek to know the truth about the age of creation. And here, Scripture itself offers a very relevant caution...
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)
Of course, those who are called by God to teach--whether as preacher, evangelist, teacher, or apologist--should be all the more careful to teach only truth. And that realization raises the question, "how does one go about discovering truth about the age of the universe and Earth?"

Let's look at that question in the next post.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Knowledge of the Age of Creation

In the last post, I discussed biblicism among pastors in the church today. If you read the footnote, I shared that my pastor was an exception, a throwback to the days when pastors were not just knowledgeable about Scripture but also about philosophy, history, literature, and science.

In the video below, my pastor (Ken Wytsma at Antioch) answers a question, which itself involved an undertone of biblicism (and that with regard to a question near to my apologetic heart, the age of creation). Check it out!

Can we come at Truth on questions like the age of the earth? from :redux on Vimeo.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Biblicism, a Reprise

In the last post, I discussed the fact that biblicism--the claim that the Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge--is unbiblical, naive, and self-refuting (and thus illogical). And yet, the church in our day is filled with pastors and teachers who espouse this bizarre idea. Why?

Not all that long ago (say, 150 years), the pastor of the local church was often the best- and most widely-educated individual in the community. By this I mean not just the most knowledgeable about Scripture but also about history, great literature, philosophy, and the latest advances in science. Since that time, there has been an explosion of knowledge (especially in the sciences), and staying on the cutting edge in any discipline requires specializing. No modern pastor can be expected to be so versatile.

And yet, pastors are still looked up to by entire congregations as spiritual leaders and keepers of truth. In such a fix, the wise and humble servant of God would surround himself with committed Christian historians, philosophers, and scientists, counselors who could help him be "all things to all people." But how much easier it is to promote biblicism, to claim that one's own Bible knowledge trumps all these other sources of knowledge, that these others are, in fact, illegitimate ways to discover truth.

Now, I hope that sounds a bit silly to you, but that's what's been going on within many churches for the past 60 years or so. And I'm not saying that pastors are all self-important men giddy on the high esteem accorded them by their congregations and determined at all costs to keep that regard. Rather, in most cases they are simply a product of systems that we* have helped to create. We select our pastors from Bible schools and seminaries at some of which there is no learning offered apart from Bible, interpretation, and preaching methodology. Indeed, it is the church that has created such institutions, so fearful have we become of 'secular' knowledge or so unwilling to do the hard study necessary for responding to the challenges raised by secularists or by scientific materialists.

(Relevant to this discussion is the following fact... When Ronald Reagan was elected President, he asked advisers and Christian leaders for the names of Evangelical men and women who were top thinkers in the various fields of human endeavor, Christians that he could appoint to his cabinet. Only one man was deemed to fit that description, C. Everett Coop, who became Surgeon General.)

I'm not saying that Christian colleges are bad, but I will always strongly favor their offering a more well-rounded education than many do today. And I don't have a practical solution to the problem of biblicism among pastors and in the church. But I do know that biblicism does not serve the church well or further the Kingdom of God.

The Christian message, the biblical message, is one of hope for all people that applies to the real world in which we live. There is no knowledge--from science, history, philosophy, or any other discipline--that threatens the truth of Christianity. But attempting to insulate certain interpretations of Scripture by rejecting other valid sources of knowledge serves only to portray the gospel message as outdated and irrelevant.

*I'm using 'we' here simply as a way of identifying myself with the reader for empathy's sake. In actual fact, my own senior pastor is a throwback in this regard, having acquired a graduate degree in philosophy before his graduate degree in theology. He's as well-read as anyone I know, and an ardent student of history. Moreover, in areas in which he might feel a bit weak or unprepared, he is willing to seek wise counsel from individuals more knowledgeable than himself. I don't know how to ensure that church leadership is like this, but I'm sure that the solution includes not settling for biblicists who lack the humility and wisdom to surround themselves with competent, committed Christians who can provide the knowledge sets they themselves lack.

Friday, September 24, 2010


A couple of posts ago ("Church Fathers and the Age of Creation"), I mentioned three problematic approaches used by modern proponents of a young Earth and universe to insulate their interpretation of Scripture from critique. At that time I alluded to the possibility of dissecting each of the three (fideism, biblicism, and creation with the false appearance of age) in future posts. So let me take a look today at biblicism.

Biblicism is the view that Scripture is the only reliable source of knowledge. It is often expressed as a rejection of other sources of knowledge, as here, by Henry Morris,
the direct [written] testimony from the Creator [is] the only way to know the age of the earth.
Morris, one of the fathers of "creation science" and young-earth creationism (as co-author of The Genesis Flood, released in 1961), seems blissfully unaware that science has historically helped to correct the church's misinterpretations of Scripture. It was the knowledge provided by astronomy that eventually led to acceptance of heliocentrism (though I understand there are still a few biblicist holdouts even on that one). And, of course, Christians used to believe that Scripture taught a flat Earth, and it was knowledge outside the Bible that helped correct that wrong interpretation as well. So there are clear historical examples that serve to refute such biblicism.

But more fundamentally, biblicism is self-refuting, or self-referentially absurd. I've addressed this problem before, generally as regards other flawed theories about knowledge, such as scientism, empiricism, or postmodern epistemological claims. A self-refuting statement is one that disqualifies itself, a truth claim that, when applied to itself, renders itself false. So, for example, scientism,
The only reliable knowledge is that which results from scientific testing
is self-refuting because there is no scientific test or set of tests that could be performed to yield that knowledge (the knowledge that only scientifically-derived knowledge is reliable).

Likewise, the postmodern claim that
There are no universal truths
presents itself as a universal truth. If I believed it, that would be reason to reject all universal truths, including that one.

Biblicism suffers the same problem. It has this in common with scientism and empiricism: each is a self-serving attempt to limit the range of knowledge to exclude other sources. All such artificial epistemologies will be self-refuting.

The biblicism of Morris, Ken Ham, and others is self-refuting in at least two ways.

First, the Bible itself never makes this claim. Rather, Scripture appeals throughout to other sources of knowledge, calling people to observe the created order for knowledge about God. In fact, according to Romans 1:18-21, all men have knowledge of God that comes from the creation (not Scripture) and it is rejection of this knowledge that is sufficient to condemn them.

Second, one simply must bring an entire set of knowledge to the task of understanding Scripture. The Bible does not teach the meaning of the words and grammar it uses (in Hebrew, Greek, or even English); instead, we must have such knowledge beforehand. Likewise, Scripture does not itself teach the laws of logic; rather it assumes them on every page. It is because we understand--by knowledge derived outside of Scripture--the law of non-contradiction that we are able to affirm that when Jesus said "No one comes to the Father but by me" He did not simultaneously mean "Many people come to the Father through other means."

The biblicist claim is thus seen to be almost incredibly naive and simplistic.

To the question, "How do we know there is a God?" the historical Christian answer has been "Because God has revealed Himself to us, and that both through the creation itself and through divinely-inspired Scripture." This historical Christian doctrine of dual revelation was especially important to several of the early church fathers (see the Augustine quote in the post mentioned at the outset) and to the Protestant reformers. But young-earth creationists (like Answers in Genesis) reject this historical doctrine* because evidence from astronomy, geology, physics, and such overwhelmingly refutes their superficial interpretation of Genesis.

*In addition to rejecting the historical doctrine of dual revelation, biblicists grossly distort another doctrine important to the Reformers, that of Sola Scriptura. This doctrine did not distinguish between Scripture and other God-given sources of knowledge. Instead, it elevated Scripture over church tradition, where the latter was (and is) seen as equally important by Roman Catholicism. Despite attempts by young-earth creationists to link their biblicism to Sola Scriptura, the Protestant Reformers would have found biblicism as unbiblical and illogical as I do.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Argument from Similarity

I frequently get asked about the argument for evolution from the similarities observed in the genetic makeup of living things. Recently, the specific question was what to make of Richard Dawkins' claim that the heirarchies of similarities in the genetic record of living things provide 'undeniable proof of evolution.' Below, in part, is my answer.

The heirarchy of similarity among living things is a neutral fact and not in any way supportive of evolution or common ancestry. The understanding that Darwin sought to replace was a view known as typology. Typology said that the heirarchies of similarities we see among living things (extant and extinct) are grounded in necessity. Bats and rodents (on one level) share a suite of (mammalian) characteristics that sets them apart from all birds. On another level, bats share a smaller suite of characteristics that sets them apart from rodents. And these distinctions are adaptive and holistic. What we expect to see when we look at each part of a bat (and not just anatomically but also physiologically, behaviorally, and such) is that each contributes to bat-hood, that the membranous wings, the echolocation ability, the reproductive strategy, and such are all part and parcel of what it means to be a bat. The creature is well-designed for its role and niche. Moreover (on this view--which still remains the most reasonable view), the reason we don't see creatures that are half bat and half rodent (Darwin's predicted but yet undiscovered transitional forms) is because such a creature is non-functional and nonsensical.

This typological (and design-oriented) view did (and does) a very good job of accounting for the various levels (heirarchies) of similarity among living things. Before Darwin, biologists recognized that all living things were made of the same elements. In fact, Scripture clealy claims this, indicating that humans (in Gen. 2:7) and other animals (in Gen. 2:19) are alike made of "the dust of the Earth." This would simply be the best way of conveying to the ancient Hebrew mind that the physical components (the elements) of which all living things are made are the same elements as are found in the abiotic portions of the Earth. So the discovery (since Darwin's time) of the further similarities among living things at the level of proteins and (more basically) DNA does not in any way distinguish between the competing alternatives of theistic design (typology) and naturalistic evolution. In this regard, it is (at best) disingenuous of modern evolutionists to appeal to similarities among living things as evidence for their view. And this is especially true since what evolution was meant to explain--but has singularly failed to explain--was not the similarities but the differences.

We now know, for example, that there is more similarity in the DNA of humans and chimps than even evolutionists expected. What does this tell us? It tells us that relatively minor differences in DNA do not explain why chimpanzees are (like every other species of life on Earth) naked animals surviving from day to day in loose extended family groups while humans are civilized, uber-intelligent animals able to exploit every aspect of the Earth and to explore even the distant reaches of the universe. In fact, these deep DNA similarities should lead us to recognize that no strictly materialist explanation will ever satisfactorally account for the vast differences between chimps and humans, that there is something non-material going on here, and that scientific naturalism is false.

But perhaps I should be more to the point. Richard Dawkins finds in the DNA heirarchies common ancestry and evolution. But he finds these things not in the fact of the heirarchies but in the interpretive assumptions that he brings to them. In this way, his argument is (as all arguments from similarity are) circular. He begins by (wrongly) assuming that any similarities can be construed as evidence for common ancestry, and then when he perceives similarities, he's proved his assumptions. This, as any logician could tell you, is a fallacious way of reasoning. Simply put, taken at face value (that is, without beginning with biased assumptions), the discovery that living things exhibit a heirarchy of DNA similarities is just as (or more) amenable to a common-design inference as to a common-ancestry conclusion.

This was (inadvertently) illustrated many years ago by evolutionist Tim Berry. Frustrated by creationists' inability to understand evolution's dogma of "descent with modification," he asked his readers to picture a series of Corvettes. We see that the '56 Corvette is slightly different than the '55, and that the '57 is slightly modified from the '56, and so on. Unfortunately (for him and other evolutionists) the illustration shows just the opposite of what he wanted it to show, because we all know that each of those Corvettes was separately designed and manufactured, that the differences between them did not arise through their passing on, one to the other, slight variations.

All arguments from similarity are fallacious because they involve arguing in a vicious circle. And yet, this is really all that can be offered as support for evolution, whether of the atheistic form of Richard Dawkins or the theistic version of Francis Collins and others,

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Church Fathers and Age of Creation

I received a question this week about whether any of the church fathers held that the Earth and universe were very old.

In some cases, where particular passages or topics of Scripture are interpreted in different ways, there may be value in assessing how other believers throughout church history dealt with that passage or topic. Often of special interest is how the early church fathers understood things (in part because these men were largely free from the religious traditions that arose within the next generations).

And so, it is not unnatural that the question would arise regarding the beliefs of the church fathers on a controversial issue in some Christian quarters today... Is the creation young (on the order of 6 to 10 thousand years) or old (13.7 billion years)?

Let me first give three reasons why what the church fathers thought on this issue is irrelevant to the issue of how old creation is. Then, let me give their answer to a more interesting and relevant question.

First, though some of the church fathers did speculate or even hold certain beliefs about how old the creation was, they did not appeal to Scripture as teaching clearly about this. (The first Christians to claim that Scripture does teach about the age of creation were James Ussher and John Lightfoot, and this was not until the 17th century. The impetus for this unprecedented claim was the translation of the Bible into the King James English. These two men made a number of assumptions and interpretive decisions, each of which is at best dubious and at worst demonstrably false, to arrive at a date for creation of 4004 BC.)

Second, the evidence for a very ancient Earth and universe--or more precisely the ability to measure the relevant evidence--did not become available until the 19th and 20th centuries.

These two facts are why a particular view on the age of creation is not a part of historic Christianity and cannot be found in any of the church's creeds.

Third, the church fathers were (along with virtually all of their contemporaries, Christian or otherwise) wrong about a number of scientific things. Some of them believed that the Earth was flat, and most or all of them believed that the Earth was the center of the universe. (Unlike the age issue, in both of these other cases Christians appealed to evidence from both the world around them and the Scriptures to maintain these wrong views.) Today, we recognize that the Earth is more or less spherical and that it is not the center of our solar system, let alone of the entire universe. And it was science that changed our understanding and science that caused us to revise our interpretation of Scripture on these issues.

For all these reasons, what the church fathers believed about the age of the creation is both uninteresting and irrelevant. What is interesting and relevant, however, is what they believed about the reliability of God's revelations to us.

You see, for most scientists today--Christian or otherwise--it would be easier to believe in a flat Earth than one that is only thousands of years old, so varied and powerful is the evidence. And so those Christians who still follow Lightfoot and Ussher's interpretation of Scripture invariably appeal to one (or more) of three unbiblical (and unhistorical) doctrines: 1) appearance of age (that God created everything with a false appearance of age), 2) fideism (that Christian faith is a blind leap, and somehow divorced from reason and evidence), and 3) biblicism (that the Bible is the only reliable source of knowledge).

In future posts, I may examine each of these wrong views in more depth. For now, however, let me close this post (by coming full circle) with a quote from arguably the most important church father, Augustine, in which he affirms the value of science in a way that directly attacks (albeit anticipating it by 16 centuries) the biblicism and fideism (as well as the dogmatism) of modern young-earth creationists...
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world... and his knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. 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? (from The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Flyin' South

Well, it's that time of year again. Birds are starting to fly south, and that means I get to trap a few raptors as they migrate down the ridge near Mt. Hood. Our catch today included Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, a Red-tailed Hawk, and an American Kestrel. Each gets a uniquely-numbered leg band (which will identify it if ever captured or found dead in the future), and is measured and weighed before being released to continue its journey. It is through projects like this that we have come to know so much about the migration of these raptors.

Watching and handling these beautiful predators is part of what helps me to lean into fall and the coming cold.

Here, my daughter Aurora holds a hatch-year female Cooper's Hawk.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Back from Managua

Well, it seemed like a whirlwind trip, but we're back in Central Oregon after a week in Nicaragua. We learned a great deal, and saw some amazing things that God is doing, transforming people and communities through the local churches and some compassionate long-term missionaries.

As far as service, what we mostly did was help with a powerful ministry to girls being rescued out of prostitution, loved through the healing process, and taught to provide for themselves and their families. Many of these girls have been raped and betrayed into sex slavery at a very young age, and don't know love until they encounter the love of Christ through the women who run and volunteer at House of Hope.

But rather than duplicate effort unnecessarily, let me link you to the blog of my teammate Amanda Wingers, where you will find pictures of these young women and girls, and bit more of the story.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Genealogy Redux

A couple of Sundays ago, I was the guest speaker at Redux, Antioch's Q&A service. Any question is fair game, but since I'm a scientist (as well as an elder at a Bible-believing church), the questions posed to me often deal with reconciling God's Word with God's work in creation. The first question that day had to do with whether the Hebrew genealogies recorded in Genesis 5 and 11 can be used to date the origin of the human race. Here's my answer..

The Genealogies In Genesis from :redux on Vimeo.

Monday, August 23, 2010


With my son, Jasper, and a team of nine from Antioch, I woke up this morning in Managua. It rained a good bit during the night (and has been raining every day). It is the rainy season, but I guess the current frequency of rain is unusual for this, the western and drier part of the country (weather comes mostly east-to-west in Nicaragua).

I woke up early to the sound of bird calls, some familiar and some new. Great-tailed Grackles are common here, and obvious, and the next bird I identified was a Social Flycatcher. Parrots, parakeets, doves, and pigeons are numerous, but I haven’t had time to identify any to species yet. There’s a smallish hummingbird just outside the window, and a family of what I take to be ant-wrens foraging under the garden trees.

The goal of our week is to learn about how God is working here in Nicaragua. We'll hope to serve a bit, with a ministry called House of Hope, which rescues girls from the prostitution that's ubiquitous in this country. We've already learned quite a bit about the Nehemiah Center, which promotes transformational development, a holistic, community-healing approach to missiology.

It's a great team I'm here with, and a privilege to be getting to know them. And our host family, the Loftsgards, are really special, and have made us feel like we're long-time members. In some respects, it's just a week carved out from the normal hum of my life, but in others it promises to be life-changing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


A week from today, my son Jasper and I will be on our way to Nicaragua with a team from our home church, Antioch. There'll be just 9 of us, and our destination is Managua and a consortium of ministries together at the Nehemiah Center. These include House of Hope, which rescues women and young girls from a life of forced prostitution.

We'll have opportunities to serve the House of Hope and some of the other ministries there. But more importantly, we'll simply get to meet and hang out with Christians in Central America, and to observe firsthand what God is doing in this, the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

A big bonus for Jasper and me will be the chance to meet a little Nicaraguan girl that our family sponsors through Compassion International. I'm really looking forward to the trip, and will try to let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Well, it's August, which means that my son Nathan and I are deep into our annual head-to-head snake-capturing competition. We do this based on the calendar year, though the first points aren't usually scored until March. (This year, I caught my first snake--a Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer)--on the 2nd of that month.) Each snake caught scores 1 point, regardless of species, but they have to be caught and handled, not just seen.

We do have a couple of special rules, however. Baby rattlesnakes need only be touched, not actually picked up (but all other rattlesnakes must be captured to count). Garter snakes (of all sizes) need only be touched as well. In their case, this rule is due to their propensity to excude a nasty-smelling musk that stays with you for some time. Nathan is rather sensitive to smells, so we could call the garter snake rule the 'Nathan Rule.'

We have two competitions, really. One is total snakes caught for the year, and the other is number of different species caught. The last couple of years, I've won the total individuals category, while Nate's taken the species crown. Oregon doesn't have a wealth of snake species, so his mark of 8 each of the last couple of years has been pretty impressive.

As for this year's contest, we haven't compared notes lately, so I'm not sure how we stand. I've been leading in total snakes most of the season, and I suspect that I'm still ahead by a half dozen or so. My total is currently at 71. All of mine are captured in the course of my daily field work, but Nathan is not above going road-hunting at night just to find snakes and try to keep up with the old man. Should he read this post and discover my total, he's liable to head for a favorite snake road yet tonight.

I'm pretty sure we're tied at the moment in the species count, with the same 7 each. Those would be Gopher Snakes, Racers (Coluber constrictor), Western Rattlesnakes (Crotalus viridis), Rubber Boas (Charina bottae), Western Terrestrial Garters (Thamnophis elegans), Common Garters (Thamnophis sirtalis), and Night Snakes (Hypsiglena torquata). We've each seen one other species, the swift and elusive Striped Whipsnake (Masticophis taeniatus), and it could be that catching one of these could decide the species contest.

I trust you'll all be rooting for me... we wouldn't want Nate to get a big head.

Here's a photo he took of a Western Rattlesnake eating an Ord's Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Confusing Legality and Justice

One of the characteristics of the postmodern age in which we live is a great deal of confusion on the issues of morality, justice, right and wrong. This confusion has infiltrated the church, which is not surprising. And one facet of that larger confusion is a tendency to equate legality with justice (or right) and illegality with unjust (or wrong). It came up the other day--among Christians--in this way...

The issue was immigration reform, and the pastor was bringing our attention to the fact that God--in both the Old and New Testaments--seems to care about the alien, the stranger, the foreigner, the displaced person. The pastor shared several passages--and could have shared many more--in which God called/calls His people to speak up for and have compassion upon this group of people. The response by more than one Christian listener was, in effect,
But don't you see, these people are illegal aliens--they are breaking the law.
Now, there are a number of problems with this naive, insensitive, simplistic response, but my point in this post is to point out only one. And that one is that it is a mistake to equate legality with right (moral, or just) and likewise a mistake to equate illegality with wrong (immoral, or unjust).

With a Christian, my response to such a question might be to say, "Oh, so you are in favor of abortions, huh?" Now, most followers of Christ who rightly understand that issue find it morally reprehensible to kill human persons just because they are still in the womb and we're bigger than they are. So I would hope that the Christian to whom I am talking would be taken aback by my assuming that he favors abortion. But my assuming that is my way of granting him consistency in his approach to morality. Because if he deals with the issue of immigration simply by asking himself "What does the law say?" then why wouldn't he do the same with other moral issues, like abortion? In the latter case, the law says that abortion is okay.

No, the reason we think abortion is wrong is because morality, righteousness, and justice are grounded in a higher standard--an absolute standard residing in the mind of the Creator of the universe. As Christians, we speak out against Roe v. Wade because we believe that the resulting human law is at odds with God's law regarding the sanctity of every human life.

And whether one believes in a Creator or not, the fact is that the entire legislative process seems to assume that the law as now written may be inadequate, may be in need of tweaking or improving. The reason we elect legislators is because we believe that there need to be changes made to reflect more closely still what is really right. (Of course, this is one of those areas in which street-level postmodernism is most clearly seen to be absurd. If there is no transcendent standard--no absolute morality found in God or elsewhere--then one cannot carry out legal or moral reform. One can claim to have changed the law, but one cannot claim to have improved the law.)

Immigration is an extremely complex issue, and most Americans recognize that comprehensive reform is much-needed. What bothers me is that the "Christian" voices heard most loudly on this issue seem to be simplistic and unthinking, and not at all in line with the teachings of Christ and the Bible. If there is a uniquely Judeo-Christian perspective that needs to be insinuated into this discussion, it likely has little to do with a sort of political party-line of tightening the laws, and much to do with the image of God found in every human being, including the alien about whom God so clearly reveals His concern in His Word to us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Memoriam

Last week, my mom (Ruth Moak Gerhardt) cast off her earthly body and began to live life more fully than ever before. I had the privilege of addressing nearly 400 of her family and friends, giving them a glimpse at the perspective of her son. On behalf of my two brothers, I shared a few stories and some of her bits of wisdom, just a fraction of the things that have served to mold us into the men we have become.

The three of us boys were blessed in that Mom and Dad adopted a model--common in that day but since fallen into disfavor--in which he worked (in service to other young families as a pediatrician), while she made a home. And in that homemaking, she saw it as job 1 to raise the next generation to be men of character. As I examine my brothers, I see that her hard work was well-rewarded.

I shared three specific things about Mom that made a lasting impression on me. The first was a love of God's creation, the stars, the Earth, the plants and animals. It was through her (and her father) that my brothers and I learned a love of the outdoors, of birds and insects, mammals, and snakes, of mountains and rivers and forests and deserts. (I shared the story of the summer garden party that was interrupted by the discovery that one of the snakes she had allowed me to bring home had given birth, as evidenced by the more than 60 3-inch-long snakelings making their way across the patio and yard.)

Secondly, her love of reading. She modeled reading for pleasure and reading for instruction, and counted among her treasury both a veritable library of P.G. Wodehouse books and a collection of classic (and deep) theological works. The latter she read over and over, underlining, highlighting, and parsing arguments, and indicating on the end pages the dates of each reading and the new insights gained. (As part of the college course that I teach on critical thinking, I share principles from Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. These principles for getting the most out of reading were modeled in my own life by my mother.)

The third thing about which I shared--needlessly perhaps, since it was obvious to anyone who knew her at all--was the centrality to her life of a very real and vibrant personal relationship with her Lord and Savior. This, too, provided a model that has become a fundamental part of who I am. And in deciding to invest in her spiritual life, Mom did the right thing. Now, the earthly body that had so betrayed her in recent years has been discarded, and she--the soul in which her eternal person resides--is no longer encumbered by a body and brain that no longer served her well.

I know that it has become sophisticated to deny the existence of the soul. This is because many modern scientists adopt--without logical or scientific justification--the reductionist metaphysical view known as scientific materialism. Nonetheless, evidence and reason overwhelmingly support the view (also laid out in Scripture) that we are souls who have (during our tenure on Earth) bodies. The existence of the human soul as an entity that transcends our bodies and brains is supported by common sense (and the total human experience), by a variety of logical/philosophical arguments, and by the relevant evidence from science. The strongest of the latter comes from experiments and anecdotal evidence in the field of neurophysiology and from near-death experiences. Near-death experiences include numerous well-documented cases in which a person's heart and brain have ceased working (and they are declared clinically dead), they have been brought back to life, and can accurately describe in great detail independently verifiable events (elsewhere than the hospital room) that their soul witnessed during the interval in which their body and brain were dead.

In latter years, my mother's body no longer enabled her to get around and do things, and the strokes that had ravaged her brain kept her from focussing to read, from communicating or even thinking as clearly as she had in the past. When her earthly body breathed its last, Mom--the soul that is most truly her--was suddenly freed from the debilitations associated with that body and brain, and she is more truly living than she has ever lived before.

And so her friends and family celebrated her earthly life, but those of us who understand this life aright have even more cause to celebrate--the firm knowledge that her release from this life was to a better and an eternal life, purchased for her by her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Goodness of God

It seems as though everywhere I turn, I find people either arguing against the existence of an all-loving God or trying to defend the goodness of God in bizarre ways. Darwin's theory was esentially a theodicy, an attempt to distance God the Creator from those things in nature that Darwin saw as bad or evil. Modern atheists likewise use bad theological arguments--appeals to 'bad design' or to suffering and death in nature--in attempts to deny the existence of the God of the Bible. Some Christian evolutionists (like Kenneth Miller and Francis Ayala) believe that by postulating God as having designed the evolutionary process--but then allowing it to work without His subsequent intervention--they are absolving God of having created things like parasitism and predatory behavior, and of creatures whose design they consider suboptimal. On the other end of the spectrum, many young-earth creationists deny the vast majority of scientific findings because they, too, cannot reconcile millions of years of animal death and suffering with an all-loving God.

Recently, the issue came up as a discussion thread on a list of which I'm a member. And this is a group of science-minded Christian apologists, men and women who recognize that the Earth and universe are billions of years old and who also largely or entirely reject macroevolutionary theory, recognizing it as based not on evidence but upon philosophical preference. Even some of these (otherwise clear-thinking) folks seem to feel the need to defend God from responsibility for creating 'bad' things.

It began, apparently, with a YouTube video arguing against the existence of a good God, in which the the author appealed to one of the Intelligent Design camp's main evidences for a Designer:
If God created the bacterial flagellum then he cannot be a good God. Why? The flagellum of many types of bacteria allows them to wreak havoc upon the human body. These bacteria cause, among other things, typhoid, cholera, and stomach cancer.
In response to this argument, my apologist friends offered a number of good scientific points in rebuttal. These included the facts that...

Microbes, including bacteria, play and have played key roles in the ecosystem. Given the physics of this creation, it required billions of years of bacterial activity to transform the Earth's atmosphere and oceans to make human life possible, as well as to convert toxic metals into ore deposits that are accessible and useful to humans.

Bacteria play key roles in maintaining human health. As just one example, it is now known that lack of exposure to certain microbes early in life may lead to an increased risk of both autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular disease.

Pathogenic bacteria comprise an extremely small percentage of all known species, the vast majority of which are beneficial or necessary.

Some of the human pathogenic microbes have resulted from host-jumping (e.g., HIV) or from micro-evolutionary changes.

But it seems to me that all of this misses a more important point, which is that the argument itself fails. That is, the argument does not establish a logical link between the existence of disease-causing bacteria and the existence of an all-loving God. Indeed, it seems that the person making this argument has to first assume God-like knowledge of the entire issue, and can thus assert the missing premise, that "there is no possible reason for an all-loving Creator to have included pathogenic bacteria in His creation."

What is really going on here is captured in a passage by C.S. Lewis in his essay "God in the Dock"...
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.
To put it a slightly different way, the God who has revealed Himself in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (and in His creation) is far bigger than our petty likes and dislikes. He declares Himself to be the Creator of all things, and unapologetically claims responsibility for predatory behavior in the animal kingdom (as in Ps. 104:21, 27-30; Job 38:39-41; 39:26-30) and for diseases, famines, and calamities (e.g., Is. 45:7).

The existence of the all-powerful, all-loving God of Christianity is supported by overwhelming evidence wherever we look, and that God calls us to seek a deeper understanding of Him and His ways. But complete understanding by our finite, contingent minds of His infinite, necessary one is not to be expected (Is. 55:8-9). It is human pride that seeks to reverse the roles and make the infinite Creator of the universe answerable to the relatively ignorant rantings of the dependent creature. Those rantings seem reasonable only to those who begin by denying or remaining largely ignorant of most of what Scripture and the creation reveal about the nature and majesty of God.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

World Cup Favorites

Regular readers visit this blog expecting to find thoughtful apologetics, evidence and reason demonstrating that the world we live in really is the one most accurately described by the Christian worldview. But the World Cup is currently taking place, and so what you'll get today is another (likewise thoughtful) post about soccer.

I've followed a good deal of the coverage (mostly on the radio, but some on the telly), and listened to a variety of wags discussing the favorites. Many named European teams like England, Spain, the Dutch and the Portuguese, Germany, and even France and Italy. Brazil and Argentina have been in the conversation, of course, but not usually given the nod as the favorites.

Nearing the end of the first stage (group play), France and Italy are headed home, Spain is still on the bubble, and Germany and England have barely made it to the next round. Of the European teams, only the Netherlands have won all three of their games, while Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have impressed, and Chile and Paraguay are also undefeated. So the talk has turned to the unexpected bad play of European nations and the unlooked-for success of teams from South America.

In all of this coverage, I have not heard a single expert mention the one historical fact with which I began my understanding of this year's World Cup...

The World Cup has been held 18 times previously, half of them in Europe and half of them outside of Europe. No European team has ever won the World Cup when it has been held outside of Europe. If held in South America, the Cup has invariably been won by a South American nation. If held in Mexico, the United States, Japan/South Korea, it has been a South American team and not one of the European powerhouses that has lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy*. And in my lifetime, or (let's put it this way instead) in the past five decades, the nation winning the Cup when held outside of Europe has been either Brazil or Argentina.

So, regardless of what kind of squad Spain or the Netherlands or Germany can put on the field in South Africa this year, it seems that history dictates that the conversation about the front-runner to win the Cup begin with Brazil and Argentina. And so far, the person picking these two as the favorites is looking pretty good.

Now, I realize that this situation will not last forever, that some year (perhaps even this) a European team will break through for the win on a foreign continent. After all, four teams will make it to the semifinals, and it is highly unlikely that Europe will be shut out of the final four. And anyone who follows the world's most popular sport will know that in a given game, anything can happen.

Nonetheless, what we can say at this point is that up until now, European nations have not travelled well, at least not well enough to lift the Cup. Add to that the strength of this year's teams from Brazil, Argentina, and even Uruguay--and the weaknesses of the best European teams (Spain's history of under-achieving, Germany's relative inexperience, the aging of England's stars)--and one should not be surprised to find a South American team celebrating the victory on July 11.

* What they're actually playing for now is called the FIFA World Cup Trophy. When, in 1970, Brazil became the first 3-time winners, they got to take the original trophy, the Jules Rimet, home for good. It was, however, stolen in 1983, and has never been recovered.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Barriers to U.S. Soccer Prowess

Today at the World Cup, the nation with the smallest population of those who qualified for the tournament is playing against the nation with the largest population. And yet the Slovenian team will undoubtedly give the United States a tough battle, and could win. What's more, more American kids play soccer than play any other sport. So why is it that the U.S. men's national team is not more competitive, or even dominant, in international soccer?

There are, of course, more answers to this question than I have time or space to enumerate, so I'll limit this post to mentioning a few that I find either interesting or under-appreciated. The approach I'll take is to consider the talent pool--those millions of American kids playing the sport--and how it dwindles, eventually to become no better than that of a small eastern European country.

1) The best American athletes, those with the athleticism that suggests the potential to play sport at the professional level, are (usually by the time they reach high school) shunted away from soccer and into football, basketball, or baseball, sports that not only receive more attention at the high school but which are much more lucrative at the professional level.

2) Ironically, while soccer is less lucrative at the American professional level, it has become primarily a rich-kid's sport at the youth level. Playing competitively with a club team requires that a child's family invest a good deal of money each season (and there are seasons year-round) for state and league costs, team fees, uniforms, coaching, and travel and hotel costs. One result of this is that many of those kids whose families care about no other sport (in my part of the country this would include especially second-generation Mexican immigrants) are closed out from that part of the talent pool that has the best chance of improving (through good coaching and good competition).

3) So the total potential talent pool has dwindled by the time it gets to college, having excluded most poor kids (including many for whom soccer is the only sport they want to play) and having lost many of the most athletic to the three more American sports. Nonetheless, there is still a good deal of excellent soccer being played at the college level. But at this point, the best college players have a decision to make. Do they opt to play in the MLS, the only domestic league, and one in which only the few elite players make the sort of money usually associated with professional sport? Or do they commit to spending their twenties and thirties in Europe, either playing in England or in a country on the continent where they speak a different language? Many of the best American college soccer players at this point decide instead to go to medical school or law school or to start a business or otherwise establish a career with the training they have obtained in college. This, of course, further dilutes the pool of talent available to the National Team.

4) At the professional level, the American men playing soccer are now spread over the world, some playing (or riding the bench) for first-division European clubs, others starring (or at least playing) for MLS teams. It is extremely difficult to assess the relative merits of players in these diverse situations. Everyone recognizes that the MLS is an inferior league, but is it comparable to the English second-tier league or their third? Does playing part-time for a first-division European team signify a better player than one who starts and even excels in the MLS? How one answers these questions has had a huge role in determining the make-up of the National Team, and whether the powers that be have generally answered them correctly is quite debatable.

5) And this is because assessing the best players in soccer is much more speculative and subjective than in most (if not all) other sports. In baseball, every individual can be assessed rather equally based on the percentage of times they have gotten a hit or been walked in a large volume of at-bats. Football try-outs involve extensive tests of speed, strength, and specific skills. Basketball, too, involves a whole set of skills and performance histories that can be assessed rather objectively, with little room for substituting subjective opinion. By contrast, the value of a given soccer player often has very little to do with easily-assessed parameters, and only a few players (like the goalkeeper and strikers) can be adequately assessed by their staistics (goals allowed or goals scored). So the final selection of the National Team involves very subjective decisions, and deserving players are invariably left off the team and players that are truly unable to compete at that high level end up playing key roles in the most important international tournament.

Again, there are many other things that could be discussed, but those are a few of the reasons that Slovenia can give the United States a game in the World Cup.

Final score: 2-2

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bad Theology, Too

I guess I feel the need for one more post before leaving the issue of Noah's flood and modern misunderstandings about it. We have seen that belief in a global flood a few thousand years ago involves bad hermeneutics. That is, the dating of the flood as occurring approximately 5,000 years ago is based upon imposing a false modern understanding of the role of genealogies upon Hebrew genealogies in Scripture that were never meant to play such a role. Likewise, understanding the flood as covering the entire planet is also anachronistic, and depends upon prefering a superficial reading of the text to one that does justice to the intent and context of the passage.

But there's perhaps a more basic problem at the back of 'flood geology' and modern attempts to insist that a recent global flood can account for all the geology, paleontology, and biology of Earth's history. This position begins and ends with bad theology, a view of God that is both unbiblical and unsupportable.

Let me, before quoting some folks who ascribe to this bad theology, first paraphrase it...
An all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God would not have created a universe in which animal suffering and death occurred for millions of years. God could have no place or purpose for such suffering.
Now here's the really interesting thing about this view of God. Those who hold or have held this view include not only young-earth creationists but also Darwin and his modern defenders. That is, both Darwin (and Darwinists) and global-flood advocates cannot in their minds reconcile their view of God with millions of years of animal suffering. Of course, the two groups explain the problem away differently: Darwinists acknowledge the millions of years of animal death attested to in the record of nature, and choose to deny the existence of God, whereas young-earth creationists acknowledge God's existence but deny the millions of years.

Darwin's theory was, in essence, a theodicy, an attempt to deal with the so-called problem of evil and suffering.* In On the Origin of Species, he offered a great deal of very speculative theorizing, almost nothing in the way of evidential support, and a good smattering of bad theological arguments. The following comes from his autobiography:
Suffering is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species, in wonderfully complex and changing circumstances.

That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain it in reference to human beings, imagining that it serves their moral improvement. But the number of people in the world is nothing compared with the numbers of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient. It revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause seems to me a strong one; and the abundant presence of suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.
As you see here--and throughout Darwin's writings, the appeal is made not to evidence supporting his theory but to his how his particular view of God argues against that God existing. Now here's a sample from Henry Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood and late president of The Institute for Creation Research:
What conceivable purpose could God have had in interposing a billion years of suffering and death in the animal kingdom prior to implementing His great plan of salvation for lost men and women? He is neither cruel nor capricious, and would never be guilty of such pointless sadism.
James Stambaugh, also of the Institute for Creation Research, echoes Morris' theology:
If God created a world in which the creatures that inhabit it must suffer from evil (at least physical and emotional), then this evil has been present from the very beginning. This means that God is either powerless to do away with this kind of world or that He enjoys seeing His creatures suffer. A god who could create the world "subjected to vanity and corruption" is exactly like all the other gods of the ancient world--cruel, vicious, and capricious. In short, this god is not the God of the Bible.
Morris again:
One of the hardest things to understand is how anyone who claims to believe in a God of love can also believe in the geological ages, with their supposed record of billions of years of suffering and death before sin came into the world. This seems clearly to make God a God of waste and cruelty rather than a God of wisdom and power and love.
There's a great deal that could be said against this view, and a host of Scriptures that argue against it. And then the Darwin quote above has enough misunderstandings, mischaracterizations, and bad reasoning to take up a couple of blog posts. Indeed, I could take several posts answering the question Darwin (and Morris) asked, 'What reasons could there be for God's allowing billions of years of death?'

But for now let me just drive home what these men have in common... They have placed themselves in judgment over God, rather than allow Him the sovereignty He claims in Scripture.

Wherever animal death and predatory behavior are mentioned in Scripture (as in God's dialogue with Job and in Psalm 104), God unapologetically claims responsibility for it. Likewise, throughout the Bible, God claims responsibility for the natural disasters that cause so much human and animal calamity, floods, earthquakes, and tornadoes. And nowhere does Scripture suggest that this is a response on God's part to Adam's sin, a sort of cosmic Plan B. Instead, the God of Scripture claims to be unwavering in His purpose:
I am God, and there is no other, I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.' (Is. 46:9-11)
In the final analysis, the inaccurate theology of Morris and other young-earth creationists begins with the declaration that 'the God whom I worship could have no place for such suffering!' But this is exactly the claim for which the Lord Himself rebuked Peter (in Matthew 16). Peter had rightly acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, and for this affirmation had received the Lord's blessing. But immediately after this, Jesus reveals that He will go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Peter's response to this is "Far be it from you, Lord!" In other words, "My understanding of God cannot be reconciled with the suffering you (Lord) just described."

Whether we like it or not, whether we understand it completely or not, the God of the Bible has purposes for allowing suffering in this creation (though He promises another, better one in which suffering will have no part). Indeed, the central event in all of cosmic history is at the same time the quintessential example of suffering, that of God Himself upon a Roman cross.

Young-earth creationism and global flood geology begin with a distortion of God's revelation to us with regard to His perfect purposes in allowing suffering in this creation. We would do better to conform our theology to Scripture than to interpret Scripture in ways that conform to our pet theologies.**

*The works of Cornelius Hunter (Darwin's God and Darwin's Proof) explore in depth the theological nature of the original arguments of Darwin and of the arguments made by his modern admirers.

**An outstanding treatment of the theology behind young-earth creationism is Mark Whorton's Peril in Paradise. It's a great read!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Scope of the Flood (Part 3)

We've seen that the hermeneutic principle used by some today to conclude that the flood described in Genesis 6-8 must be understood as covering the entire planet is too subjective to be useful. We have further seen that a number of absurd ideas are offered as necessary support for such a belief. We have traced the history of the global flood idea to its recent source, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism in the late 1800's. Finally, we have discussed more foundational and well-accepted interpretive principles, including the one that says that
The context establishes limits on the scope of a passage.
What's left is to look at how this principle is applied to a number of Scripture passages, including the flood account. In fact, let's begin with the flood account, to remind us how the all-encompassing verbiage can tempt a modern, globally-oriented person to wrongly attribute to the passage a planet-wide scope.
The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. (Gen. 7:17-23)
It's pretty easy to see that the language in this passage can--when read superficially--lead to understanding the flood as global. But no ancient would have understood it that way, and to read it aright we must allow the context--all humanity--to establish limits on the scope. We do this very naturally with a host of other Scripture passages that have similar all-encompassing language. Here are a few examples.

Right after greeting the Christians at Rome, Paul writes (in Rom. 1:8),
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world.
No scholar or commentator interprets Paul here as including far-flung people groups such as the Maoris of New Zealand or the Inuits of North America. Instead, they (and we) unconciously recognize the context of Paul's letter as constraining the scope to the known world of Paul and his readers, the Roman Empire. As another example, here's what we read in I Kings 10:24,
And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.
In reading this, do you envision pilgrims coming from Machu Pichu to check out Solomon's kingdom and question him? Of course not. You recognize that the context establishes the scope to be the region surrounding the Israel of Solomon's day.

How about an example from the same book of the Bible in which the flood account is recorded? In Genesis 41:57, we find,
Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.
Note that this is the exact same language that in Genesis 7 causes modern readers to see the flood as global. But no one that I know would spend any time trying to defend the interpretation that the famine of Joseph's day was planet-wide. What's the difference? With regard to the famine, we rightly allow the context to establish the scope. And we must do the same with the flood if we are to avoid the absurdities that arise out of a global flood view.

Many of us, of course, bring to the flood account other issues. We retain in our mind visual images of the ark containing pairs of animals of all kinds, including kangaroos and penguins, elephants and aardvarks, animals that most certainly would not have been a part of Noah's scope. Moreover, the people who taught us the story of Noah's ark when we were children were probably some of the nicest, most well-meaning Christians we have known. None of this changes the fact that if we are to take the Bible seriously we must give up childish ways and apply to it the common sense and well-established interpretive principles that will prevent us from coming to inaccurate conclusions.

If you're still struggling with understanding the flood as encompassing all humanity but nonetheless inundating only the Mesopotamian Plain, here're a few tips...

1) Where the word 'earth' appears (in the Gen. 7 passage at the start of the post), substitute the word 'land' or 'ground.' Each is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew word erets. Part of the problem is that when we today read the word 'earth,' we tend to think of the 'third planet in our solar system' whereas that picture of a planet would never have occurred to any ancient hearers/readers. Erets is interchangeably translated as 'ground,' 'land,' or 'earth' (and can also be used to refer to a plot of ground or even to the soil), but translating it here as 'earth' unnecessarily conjures up (for us) images of a planet.

2) In reading the passage, keep in mind not God's (omnipresent) perspective but that of Noah and all of the humanity experiencing the deluge. For them--as the passage very graphically portrays--there was water everywhere, with no ground in sight (not even the highest mountains of that inhabited region), and no creature remaining alive in all the affected region. In this context, so sudden and widespread was that flood judgment that there was no escape for man nor beast.

One more Scripture passage may suffice to drive the point home, as it comes from the flood account itself. In Genesis 8, we read the same descriptive words, but now applying not to water but to lack of water:
So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth... In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. ...and behold, the face of the earth was dry. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. (Gen. 8:11-14)
It is illegitimate to insist upon a global interpretation of the flood waters in chapter 7 and then not to apply the same hermeneutic to the lack of water in chapter 8. Yet is it not obvious that the 'the earth had dried out' cannot intend to convey that the entire planet was now dry? The correct understanding, and the one that covers both the flood and the subsequent subsiding of the waters, is that a particular area is in view, the area inhabited by humanity at the time of the flood judgment.

The flood of Noah's day was universal--applying to all humanity. But understanding it as also being global involves logical absurdities and bad hermeneutics. Insisting upon a global flood interpretation is to place artificial barriers between educated people and the actual claims of true, historic Christianity.