Saturday, September 07, 2013

“Behold, I make all things …”

Robert Farrar Capon, 1925-2013
Steven Wedgeworth has written a very fine obituary of the Episcopalian writer, Father Robert Farrar Capon. It doesn’t appear to have been a hard thing, given some of the subject matter:

Though he described himself as a “high churchman” and a “Thomist,” he was more simply a Protestant Episcopalian of the rather classic variety. His summation of the Reformation certainly showed it:

The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.

This made me laugh and cry at the same time.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The curse of Ham

Science is circular

When young-earth creationists question the constancy of nature, however, typically it is not because they have independent evidence to question it but because their belief in a young earth requires that nature behave inconstantly…Consider their response to ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, which appear to accumulate at a steady rate by forming annual layers (much as trees form annual rings). If one drills ice cores (sometimes one or two miles deep), present rates of accumulation suggest that the cores record more than one hundred thousand years of natural history (which, of course, exceeds the age of a young earth). Young-earth creationists therefore counter that as one goes down the core, compression of the ice destroys our ability to distinguish annual layers. W. Dembski, The End of Christianity (B&H 2009), 60-61. 

I'll revisit this issue shortly, but for now I'd point out that Dembski's example doesn't seem to prove his contention. If anything, it backfires. In his example, young-earth creationists aren't challenging the ages attributed to ice-core samples by denying the steady rate of deposition. To the contrary, they are challenging the inference by appeal to another natural process: compression. The sheer weight the further you go down blurs the lines between one annual layer and another. So that doesn't require young-earth creationists to question the constancy of nature. Just the opposite: they rely on the constancy of nature in reference to the cumulative force of compression to challenge the chronological inference. Now, perhaps there's a better example to illustrate Dembski's contention. 

In challenging the constancy of nature, young-earth creationists tacitly admit that the world, even if it is not actually old, appears to be old…Gosse argued that creation ex nihilo requires God to create  world that gives the appearance of age even at the instant of creation…Scientists holding to an older earth saw it as flying in the face of the scientific evidence. And theologians holding to a God of truth saw it as turning nature into a divine hoax. 
In its favor, this approach [mature creation] does not entail a flat contradiction. God in his omnipotence could presumably have done things that way. But absence of contradiction is about all that can be said in its favor. The shafts of light that God created independently of the stars (and that seemingly arise from them) project onto the earth a history of the cosmos that never in fact happen. For instance, if human astronomers see what appears to be a supernova exploding in a galaxy millions of light-years away, [Henry] Morris's approach means that no supernova ever exploded. Rather, God specifically created a beam of light six thousand years ago that has only now reached earth and that gives the appearance of a supernova exploding. In Morris's approach, astronomy is not about how actual stars looked in the distant past but about how fake stars might look in a 3-D animation made by God. It is difficult, in my view, to reconcile such a God with a God of truth (64,66-67).

i) There are several problems with Dembski's objection. One problem is that he can only lodge this objection consistently if he's a naive realist. For the moment he concedes a hiatus between appearance and reality, it's hard to see how he can draw the line. Take his own example. Due to the scale of the universe and the passage of time, the supernova we see in the telescope may no longer exist. It seems to exist. It seems to be a present-day reality. But because it took millions of years for the luminous image of the supernova to reach earth, the supernova may now be nonexistent. A thing of the past. Its present appearance is illusory. We must deny the evidence of our senses. Override our senses by making allowance for the time-lapse. 

Dembski may object that the present image of a now-nonexistent object is different from the image of a never-existent object. However, that's a difference of degree rather than kind. It still concedes an illusion. A discrepancy between appearance and reality.

Moreover, it would be deceptive to an observer who lacks the necessary background information to correct for his inference. So we can't interpret the object in isolation to a larger interpretive framework. 

Perhaps he'd say it's the difference between causal effects and causeless effects. Light from a fake supernova. The effect without the cause. But that isn't correct. For God created the light beam. At best, that would be a distinction between primary and secondary causality. 

Incidentlly, what is Dembski's position on natural camouflage? Some fauna and flora employ camouflage for offensive or defensive purposes. Isn't that inherently deceptive? 

ii) But, if anything, Dembski's objection suffers from a deeper problem. Because it conflicts with another one of his commitments. In the same book he also says:

"All things are created twice: There's a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things." Creation always starts with an idea and ends up with a thing. Anything achieved must first be conceived. Creation is thus a process bounded by conception at one end and realization at the other (107). 

But if we develop that principle, then it's misleading for Dembski to say:

God specifically created a beam of light six thousand years ago that has only now reached earth and that gives the appearance of a supernova exploding. In Morris's approach, astronomy is not about how actual stars looked in the distant past but about how fake stars might look in a 3-D animation made by God. It is difficult, in my view, to reconcile such a God with a God of truth.

For in God's mind, there are an infinite number of different world narratives. Various ways the world might have been. Unexemplified possibilities branching out in all directions. Narratives that extend backwards and forwards in God's imagination. Alternate futures and alternate pasts.

Creation involves God instantiating a divine preconception. God concretely exemplifies a preconceived idea in space and time. The supernova first exists in the mind of God, as a divine idea. And that supernova can belong to a number of different world scenarios. There's no particular world it has to go with. Although the supernova is part of a past that didn't take place in our world, it's a carryover from another world, representing the borderland between possible and actual worlds. The 6000-year-old light beam objectifies a timeless light beam in God's mind. A light beam in a story, a mental story, with alternate beginnings and endings. When God makes the world ex nihilo, he begins the story in media res. 

That's analogous to how humans begin stories. If a director makes a Western, the story doesn't begin with the origin of the universe. He jumps right into the 19C, as if those hills had always been there, or popped into existence a moment before. 

Suppose God creates a beach ex nihilo. Normally, beaches are the end-result of a long, gradual, cyclical process. If God made a beach ex nihilo, would that be a "divine hoax"? Does Dembski think it's unethical for God to make a beach ex nihilo? Does that involve fake erosion? 

I think the universe is to God what a snow globe is to us. Living within the snow globe, it all seems very real to us. That's our only frame of reference. The snow doesn't seem to be fake snow. The laws of the snow globe seem ultimate to someone inside the snow globe. When the snow globe is shaken by an outside force, an unseen hand, the interior fills with flakes, that slowly settle. 

And it isn't an illusion. The snow globe is real. The miniature landscape is physical. Internal events are real. Snowflakes really fall. 

Yet, if we take a God's-eye view of the snow globe, that perspective is quite limited and limiting. In his objection to mature creation, Dembski is like a fist-shaking inhabitant of the snow globe. He takes it a bit too seriously. 

iii) Finally, Dembski overlooks the fact that science is circular. Science has axiomatic givens. So the question is how or where to break into the circle. Where's the right place to break into the circle? Where do we start? How do we start?

For instance, science takes time for granted. But what is time? What's the correct theory of time? The A theory? The B theory? Likewise, is our temporal metric intrinsic or extrinsic to time? 

Science takes space for granted. But what's the correct geometry of space?

Moreover, we can't prove the existence of real space. The external world seems to be real. And that has explanatory simplicity. But we lack direct access to space. 

We depend on our perception of time and space. We can never get behind appearances. Peel back one appearance, and there's another appearance underneath. Layers of appearances all the way down. 

Yes, there's something objective that generates the appearances. But perception digs down to bedrock.  

Does our mental representation of the external world match up? How could you tell if you can never compare them directly? 

In science, there's a dialectical tension between change and continuity. Without change, you can't have natural processes. Yet you can't have too much change and still have the stability and predictability necessary for science. 

Science wants a law-like universe. But what are natural laws? There are radically different models. Take the view that natural laws have no inherent causal efficacy. God confers causal efficacy on natural laws, but because that's superimposed from the outside by the ultimate agent, God can bypass these natural agencies at will. A scientist may prefer a closed-system model, but he has no independent evidence for that preference, for his interpretation of natural evidence presupposes his model of natural laws–and other givens. 

That's why science is ultimately dependent on theology. On theological presuppositions. That supplies the key. The proper starting-point. Otherwise, anywhere you break into the circle will be arbitrary. 

Chronology and historical apologetics

To see the importance of nature's constancy to historical apologetics, however, one need not look only to such dramatic events as the Resurrection. Historiographical, archeological, and anthropological methods that presuppose the constancy of nature have been enormously helpful in confirming events, places, and persons recorded in Scripture. Using such methods, F. F. Bruce argues for the  authenticity of Acts as  a first-century document. Thus he infers that "the historical, geographical and political atmosphere of Luke-Acts as a whole, and of Acts in particular, is unmistakably that of the first century and not the second." 
Young-earth creationists accept these research methods when they confirm events going back to Abraham as described in Genesis 12. Yet, when these same methods get pushed back before Genesis 12, they balk. The reason is that these methods give evidence of human activity that should not have survived a universal flood (which young-earth creationists place around 2500 BC, or 4,500 years ago). Accordingly, archeologists claim to find evidence of human writing at Uruk going back 5,000 years, well before Noah's flood on face-value reading of Genesis 6-8. Moreover, they claim to find evidence of artifacts, such as dolls, going back 7,000 years, well before the creation of Adam on a face-value reading of Genesis 1 and 2 (young-earth creationists place the creation of Adam around 4000 BC, or 6,000 years ago). W. Dembski, The End of Christianity (B&H 2009), 62-63.

i) It's possible that young-earth creationists are inconsistent in this respect. If so, does that mean young-earth creationism is essentially and internally inconsistent, or does that mean some young-earth creationists haven't thought through their position, and filled in all the gaps? 

ii) From what I've read, young-earth creationists are divided on whether the genealogies are open or closed. Some young-earth creationists continue to defend closed genealogies. As such, they continue to defend a 6000-year-old universe. However, other young-earth creationists concede that the genealogies are open, so they are prepared to extend the age of the universe to around 10,000 years. Hence, Dembski's characterization is inaccurate. 

iii) A "face-value" reading of Gen 1-11 doesn't indicate that writing at Uruk antedates Noah's flood. Rather, that involves an effort to synchronize Genesis with extrabiblical data. With archeological findings outside the Bible. By itself, Genesis doesn't date writing at Uruk. Dembski is sneaking assumptions into the text that simply aren't there. That's not internal to a face-value reading of Gen 1-11. Rather, that involves a putative relationship between Gen 1-11 and extrabiblical evidence which archaeologists attempt to date and correlate with events or notices in Gen 1-11. It's not like Gen 1-11 has a calendar which places writing at Uruk before the flood. 

iv) Moreover, the examples that Dembski gives involve relative chronology rather than absolute chronology. Suppose historians decided that our timeline for ancient history is off by 100 years. 1C events are really 2nd events. However, that would shift the entire timeline up and down the line. If 1C events are really 2C events, then 2C events are really 3C events. 

So that wouldn't fundamentally change the arguments of F. F. Bruce. You'd still have a 100 interval between the historical, geopolitical atmosphere of Acts and literature a century later. 

v) Young-earth creationism can logically distinguish between naturally datable events which are datable because chronometric processes are already operating, and naturally undatable initial conditions which are undatable because they took place before the system as a whole was up and running. Natural artifacts which are the result of creation ex nihilo would be undatable by chronometric processes because these weren't the result of a normal cyclical process. 

vi) Although the global event of the flood is part of the young-earth creationist package, the extent of the flood is logically separable from young-earth creationist chronology. That really concerns space rather than time. 

What Should Christians Make Of Non-Christian Miracles?

Somebody with the screen name Hassan Abdillah recently posted some comments about non-Christian miracles in an old thread. He said something to the effect that if Christians attribute non-Christian miracles to demons, couldn't the same explanation be applied to Christian miracles?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Life in the fishbowl

What Will Obamacare Cost You?


Who needs Spider-Man when you've got Spider-Trans?


An evaluation of the NIV11

This looks informative:

"An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version" by Rodney Decker.

Speaking for myself, I usually read and quote from the ESV. I consider the ESV my primary English translation. But I read the NIV11 as well. Among others.

I try to read the Bible in other languages besides English when I can too. Although that's admittedly infrequent.

As Steve wrote, it's good to complement reading the Word of God with hearing it. I have a couple of different English audio Bibles I listen to from time to time.

Given this, perhaps it comes as no surprise to say I don't really have a terribly strong conviction over recommending a particular English translation. So long as it's not something like the NWT.

I do think, if possible, it'd probably be a good idea to try to tailor a translation to a particular person. Although this assumes, among other things, that we know the person well enough to say and that we ourselves are competent enough to do so.

For example, I have relatives and friends whose first and native language isn't English, although English is their primary language, if that makes sense. Similarly, I know people who are basically bilingual but seem to have average to maybe above average but far from great reading and listening comprehension, not to mention traces of accents, in both languages. In any case, some of these people have a difficult time grasping much if not most of how the ESV reads. (Forget the KJV!) So the NIV11 is actually helpful to them in ways that, say, the ESV ain't (e.g. the NIV11 reads a lot more clearly to them).

Anyway, just some of my random thoughts.

Matthew's Authorship In Light Of That Gospel's Early Prominence

In previous posts, I've addressed objections to Matthew's authorship of the gospel attributed to him, and I've discussed some of the evidence for his authorship. See, for example, here, here, here, and here. What I want to do in this post is add a further consideration that's seldom discussed.

Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1

"Christian Interpretations of Genesis 1" by Vern Poythress.

Mystery of life's origin

The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories by Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olson is currently available to download for free (pdf).

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Sorting out genealogies

Differences between the Lukan and Matthean genealogies of Christ have always puzzled scholars. The liberal solution is to consider one or both to be fabricated. Of course, that "solution" is not available to Christians who take the inspiration of Scripture seriously.

As is often the case, we perceive problems because we suffer from tunnel visions. We make simplistic assumptions. Although the article I'm linking to is about OT genealogies, I think it's germane to Matthew and Luke. The scholar draws some useful distinctions, viz., overlapping generations, telescoping, persons who are descended from a common ancestor through two different family lines:

Evolutionary automechanics


"His solution seems to be the development of a more general approach that seeks to put yourself into the shoes of the historical everyman."
No, not  the "historical everyman." Rather, the unique, concrete experience of someone who lived at that particular time and place.

"My question is what does he mean by 'understand the OT?' It seems to me that he is making the mistake of conflating understanding with relating. I'll try to explain. He is focusing on the way of life of the characters in Genesis 1–11, but the book was not written by or to people who were familiar with this way of life. The original author likely found the idea of a 950 year old man to be every bit as foreign as we do."

i) That's a very selective example. That's not representative of everything in Gen 1-11. 
ii) And even on its own level, living for 950 years isn't categorically different from living for 95 years. The prediluvians were still mortals. Although their lifespans were extraordinary, their lifespans were an extension of ordinary biological existence. They were conceived through procreation. Gestated in the womb. Passed through the usual stages of maturation (i.e. infancy, childhood, adolescence). They married. Fathered children. They ate, slept, aged, and died. The abnormal prolongation of the normal lifecycle in a fallen world.
iii) But many other things in Gen 1-11 are not that foreign to the original audience. A river valley isn't foreign to the original audience. An orchard isn't foreign to the original audience. Rainfall and flooding aren't alien to the experience of the original audience. The scale is out of the ordinary, but it's not a different kind of event. 
"My point is that the ultimate goal in reading is not to know what life was like for Noah, rather it is to decipher the purpose for which Moses is recounting the story of Noah."
Before you can identify the purpose or "ultimate goal," you need to know what it means.

"I am concerned that this approach emphasizes the historical setting and diminishes communicative act. It produces a Discovery channel documentary rather than a sermon."

i) Communication takes a lot for granted. A shared cultural heritage. You talk about literary conventions, but those involve a common preunderstanding between communicator and his audience. Take a movie about werewolves, zombies, or vampires. The director may skip the exposition because the audience is expected to know what those critters are. But for a viewer who lacks that background, the movie might be incomprehensible. 
ii) Properly done, application ("the sermon") involves drawing analogies between the situation of the original audience and the situation of the congregation. What circumstances in the life of his target audience occasioned the Bible writer to say what he did? How is their experience, how are their challenges, comparable to our own?
"But, what would make these things significant? Why would a familiarity with a day in the life of an Egyptian fisherman in the 2nd millennium BC help me understand a book written by and to people who were also probably not very familiar with a day in the life of an Egyptian fisherman?"
i) Actually, I think freed slave who lived on the Nile Delta for 400 years would be intimately acquainted with that scenario. This illustrates the problem. You're not trying to think your way into the text.
ii) Take Dante. I can grasp the basic storyline of the Divine Comedy without having a detailed knowledge of the Thomism, Forentine factions, papal politics, Medieval Italy, the Medieval synthesis, Beatrice Portinari, &c., but there will be a lot I miss if I lack specific topical knowledge of his life and times. Dante wasn't writing with me in mind. I can't expect him to enter my world. I must enter his world. 

"I think this analysis does not sufficiently treat the Bible as communication. To claim that the Bible is communication means that it has an author and the author is writing to an audience to accomplish a purpose. The context that is most important is not the context of the people in the story, but the context of the people telling and hearing the story."

That collapses two audiences into one. Take the Bread of Life Discourse (Jn 6). There are two audiences. There's the narrative audience. The audience for the speech. The characters in the account. The Jews that Jesus was speaking to at the time of the event.
Then there's the narrator's audience. John's audience. The audience for the Gospel. Outside the event. 
Our understanding of what Jesus meant needs to be anchored in historical setting of the discourse, and not the reception history of the text. That's part of the communicative act, too. Jesus communicating to the crowd on the shores of Lake Gennesaret–and later in the synagogue.
"In my opinion, issues like genre and rhetorical convention are far more helpful for determining the rules that govern communication than things like flora and fauna."
i) How do you identify genre? Sometimes that involves purely literary or linguistic features. Parallelism indicates poetry while the waw-consecutive indicates narrative. "Genre" may also refer to categories like type-scenes and hero stories.
ii) Often, though, commentators classify genre based on their preconception of the world. They will classify Gen 1-11 as legendary, mythological, or fictitious because they don't think those chapters are realistic. That's a metaphysical assessment rather than a literary assessment.
iii) You're also focusing on the "rules of communication" to the detriment of content: what is communicated. The representational dimension of the text. The external referent. To what real-world setting or event does the textual description correspond? Knowing more about the world of Gen 1-11 helps you understand the text. Communication doesn't take place in a vacuum. 

Pinto's Pickle

Fossils and suchlike

Hi Jim Pemberton,

As always, thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate them.

I'd like to please respond to what you said:

Given the diverse range of morphologies in life on Earth, since observed morphology is the basis for genetic relatedness between fossil remains

I'm not sure "observed morphology" is always necessarily the sole or main "basis for genetic relatedness between fossil remains" if that's what you're suggesting.

1. For one thing, if there's "genetic relatedness," then wouldn't this be based primarily on genetics?

At least as I understand it, though, the vast majority of fossils won't have enough genetic material to determine its "relatedness" to other fossils or beyond (e.g. where it fits in a phylogenetic tree).

2. I'm not sure if you're referring to the "observed morphology" of the fossil? Or, say, to the "observed morphology" of a living plant or animal or other organism, and somehow attempting to relate it back to the fossil?

3. More to the point, I would think other aspects could at times be equally relevant in determining a fossil's "relatedness" to other fossils. A few possibilities come to mind:

a. Where the fossil was found. Not just geographic location, but other aspects like sedimentary layer or if it was found in rock or under water.

b. The state or condition in which the fossil was found. The degree to which the fossil has fossilized. Or mineralized. Or the like.

c. If the fossil contained any "living" or non-fossilized parts.

d. If the fossil was found with other fossils.

e. If the fossil was found with other variables like sets of footprints (e.g. dinosaur trackways).

f. If the fossil made an imprint or impression that might have preserved other features of the fossil especially if the fossil itself was found less intact than its imprint.

g. And so forth.

4. "Observed morphology" may not always help determine "relatedness." Take convergent evolution. Say if we discovered fossils of a flying squirrel and a sugar glider. The fossils might share very similar morphological features. But neither is considered closely related to the other (e.g. one is a marsupial).

most scientists believe in common ancestry precisely because they recognize that spontaneous genesis of reproducible DNA isn't likely.

1. It might be pertinent to the topic if I start by saying I don't agree with neo-Darwinism. I've criticized it in the past.

2. Also, my original post didn't have reference to common ancestry as such. Rather I was referring to the origin of life. The first self-replicating molecule, as many scientists construe it, especially secular scientists.

3. There's a distinction between common ancestry or descent and universal common descent. All dog breeds share common ancestry since they're descended from wolves.

Generally speaking, I don't think most creationists would disagree with common descent, per se. However, they would (rightly in my view) take issue with universal common descent.

4. I don't think the predominant reason "most scientists believe in common ancestry" is "precisely because they recognize that spontaneous genesis of reproducible DNA isn't likely."

In fact, many scientists argue for some self-replicating molecule for the origin of life. I would think most secular scientists would argue for this or something akin to it.

Many if not most secular scientists seem to hold to some sort of primordial soup model which would involve certain preconditions as well as one or more molecules gaining the ability to self-replicate. They may not argue specifically for DNA as that molecule. Although the usual suspects do seem to be proteins or nucleic acids (e.g. RNA).

Of course, there are many other disparate theories. But if we had to pick one, then something like this would probably be it.

5. That said, not every scientist's opinion on the matter is equally relevant. A quantum physicist could be a poor person to adjudicate the question, whereas a biochemist might be better, for example. It depends on what we're talking about exactly.

6. Besides, if it were true most scientists "recognize that spontaneous genesis of reproducible DNA [if by this you mean a self-replicating molecule as the origin of life] isn't likely," then I would think this would be a reason to doubt universal common descent.

Otherwise, they would entertain the idea that spontaneous genesis of reproducible DNA happened multiple times on Earth and evolved into different unrelated types of organisms.

1. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see how this follows from your previous statement.

2. Nevertheless, it's an interesting idea.

3. However, I suspect the average secular scientist wouldn't necessarily have a problem entertaining this idea. Various self-replicating molecules rather than a single self-replicating molecule acted upon by natural selection along with genetic mutations leading to all the diversity that is life wouldn't seem to entail too many significant changes to the modern evolutionary synthesis, I don't think.

They might even say, if it unfolded as you describe, the "different unrelated types of organisms" may each eventually become extinct until one was left such that it became our last universal ancestor. Or perhaps they each eventually evolved and became able to interbreed.

Again I don't necessarily think a secular scientist would be too bothered by a theory which incorporates multiple ancestors. For example, there are at present two main theories for the origin of modern humans: the Out of Africa theory and the Multi-regional theory. In the Multi-regional theory, modern humans would have genetic material originating from Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis (aka Neanderthals), and Homo sapiens. Some secular scientists advocate this sort of stuff, and I think most would probably be perfectly fine if it turned out the Multi-regional theory was true. (Although the majority favor the Out of Africa theory.)

Christian universalism

But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die..." (Gen 3:4).

The first universalist?

“Contend earnestly for the faith…”

Handing the Gospel from one person to the next
Greg Koukl has another excellent newsletter out that steps back and looks at the larger picture of how, precisely, to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Guard the Gospel:

Sadly, in spite of the plethora of materials available to believers, there is still a profound biblical illiteracy in Christian circles….

So, how do we guard the Gospel? Two ways. First, we continue in the things already delivered to us. Second, we pass the baton. Those are the rules….

The key to contending for the faith—to surviving the spiritual onslaught of the 21st century—is to guard the Gospel. The key to that is found in two simple phrases. One, “Continue in the things you have learned.” Back to the basics. Back to the Word as it has been entrusted to us. And two, entrust it to faithful disciples who will be able to teach others also.

That’s it. Guard the Gospel by continuing in the truth already revealed, then pass the baton. Proclaim the truth faithfully, guard it diligently, and pass it on carefully. That is how we contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That is how we guard the Gospel Paul entrusted to Timothy, now entrusted to us….

"Darwinian evolution is impossible"

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Making the cut

An atheist on human worth:

There is no magic objective standard to say when an organism is a person. We rely entirely on cultural perspectives to define when we grant that organism the rights and privileges of a full member of the culture. This does not imply that I personally approve of societies that treat a newborn as expendable, only that it’s clear that there is no objective or scientific boundary. We always rely on an arbitrary definition.

Although abortion is his immediate point of reference is abortion, notice that his position on abortion is just a special case of a general principle. Who makes the cut applies to anyone, in any condition, at any time of life. 

Correlating the flood

I'm going to list a few considerations regarding Noah's flood:

i) At the risk of stating the obvious, the Bible commits us to the historicity of the flood. I realize that there are hipster churchgoers (a la Rob Bell) who don't think the Bible commits us to anything we don't want to believe. 

ii) If the Bible teaches a global flood, then that's what we're obligated to believe in. I also think the global flood interpretation is worth exploring and defending. 

iii) Assessing the nature of the flood is an interdisciplinary task. On the one hand, a Christian geologist has no particular expertise when it comes to exegeting an ancient text. On the other hand, an OT scholar has no particular expertise on flooding.

iv) To some extent, these are mutually interpretive. There's the meaning of the text. Then there's the historical event outside the text. The real-world referent. On the one hand the text gives us some pointers on what to look for. On the other hand, we need to know something about the world to identify references in the text. Correlating the word with the world is a two-way street. To some degree, we can't know the answer to one without knowing the answer to the other, and vice versa. 

v) If young-earth creationism is true, then there's a tight timeframe into which to shoehorn the flood. If old-earth creationism is true, then there's more play in terms of when it might of happened, and what historical or prehistorical events might trigger or match up with the flood account.

vi) Noah's flood is sometimes dated by reference to Mesopotamian flood traditions. One problem with that inference is that ancient people tend to depict the past in terms of their present. They didn't know much about the past. So they update the past, using their own time and place to pencile in the details. 

vii) Noah's flood is sometimes dated to the Bronze Age or thereabouts by synchronizing Gen 4:17-22 with ancient Near Eastern archeological periods. One problem with that inference is that Gen 4:17-22 might be quite localized. 

viii) Underlying the question of how to synchronize that pericope with ancient Near Eastern chronology is the deeper question of how secure that framework is. As Noel Weeks recently observed:

The earliest historical records that we have, and here I mean written texts, go back to around 3400BC. (This is on conventional dating. There are huge problems in ancient chronology and we cannot be certain about dates that far back.) This earliest evidence comes from southern Iraq. Incidentally, we can’t read the text but it looks like writing. It’s not until about 3000BC or later that we can get anything that we can read, either from Iraq or Egypt. If you want to base evidence on things other than written texts, it gets rather difficult.

ix) How many commentators on Genesis have extensive firsthand experience of Mideast geography? When they comment on Ararat, how many of them have actually spent much time poking around hills and valleys in Armenia?

Seems to me that only an archeologist or geologist who's done fieldwork in the area is really qualified to comment on that. Otherwise, it's just a textual abstraction.

x) And, of course, we must also make allowances for changes in the regional topography. Indeed, the flood itself might have altered the terrain. So historical reconstruction is a bit circular. 

"The case for Adam and Eve"


[Noel Weeks] The prominent alternative explanation is that the text is referring to a local flood in the Tigris/Euphrates’ valley. However, in both the Mesopotamian flood accounts and the biblical narrative the ark ends up in the north. The problem is that floods always take things downstream. Floods never take objects upstream. If this was a normal flood in the Tigris/Euphrates’ region, the ark would have gone downstream. The fact that it landed in the north in a mountain range goes against any local flood theory.

I have the greatest respect for Weeks. And his statement sounds very logical. Water seeks its own level, right? Due to gravity, water travels downstream, right? Seems obvious.

Now, I'm no expert, but I don't think it's that simple. I've lived around rivers. I've lived in two different areas of the country that are prone to flooding.

i) Unless I'm mistaken, current depends, to some extent, on the gradient. If the gradient is fairly steep, then nothing will stop river water from hurtling downstream. Mountain streams comes to mind.

ii) But what about a river on a coastal plain? That's far more level.

iii) Moreover, some rivers are tidal rivers. Although it sounds counterintuitive, the current will reverse, go upstream, during a rising tide. From what I've read, this used to happen in the Nile Delta. (That may have changed after the Nile was damed) 

iv) Furthermore, tides vary. You can have positive high tides and super tides. Those, in turn, will affect both the water level and the direction of the current (vis-a-vis a tidal river). 

v) Finally, a tidal river is also subject to a storm surge via coastal flooding. 

vi) Let's take a different example. Where I was raised, we got heavy rain in winter. We had three streams close to where I lived, as well as a nearby a river. 

Streams are swollen after heavy rains. In addition to water flow, they carry debris. Streams and rivers can become clogged by cumulative debris. When that happens, they back up. They generate eddies and countercurrents. Debris moves upstream as the stream pools and backs up behind the logjam.

Moreover, flow resistance from large woody debris would also slow the drainage rate. 

vii) I'm no expert on Ararat, but from what I've read and seen, it's a mountainous country with many mesas, valleys, and foothills. It's not hard to me to imagine an object being caught in a mountain cove. Swirling around. Bottoming out on a ledge as the water finally receded. 

BTW, I've been to Cappadocia, which isn't far from Ararat. There I walked along the ledge of a dry river valley. 

Now, this may not be an accurate model of Noah's flood. I'm just saying, these are the kinds of questions I ask myself when I try to visualize the account. I read scholars make armchair statements about what would or wouldn't happen in a flood, and from what I can tell, this isn't based on close observation or experience. It's just a gut reaction. 

It seems to me that we need far more detailed information the topography. We also have to make allowance for changes in topography over the millennia. 

Likewise, topography can vary dramatically within, say, 50 miles upstream or downstream. So you'd have to imagine the ark in different locations, at different elevations, up and down the river. Consider the physical ramifications of each hypothetical scenario. 

Theistic explanations

Jeff Lowder commented on a post by Wintery Knight. 
I'm going to comment on some of Jeff's comments:
Cambrian animal forms are the result of an unknown, theistic (directed) mechanism, designed for an unknown purpose. 
I don't know why Jeff assumes that a theistic explanation must involve a "mechanism." What about God directly effecting a result, absent an intervening mechanism?
In light of all the unknowns in these theistic “explanations,” one can hardly be blamed for concluding that “creation” and “design” are simply explanation names, not actual explanations. Compare to a naturalist saying, “X is the result an unknown, naturalistic (undirected) mechanism operating without a purpose.” It’s unclear why any of these unknown theistic explanations are supposed to be better than their unknown naturalistic counterparts.

Let's take some comparisons:

1) Consider the famous stone statues (Moai) on Easter Island. From what I've read, scientists still don't know how the statues were transported and erected. In addition, we don't know their purpose. In principle, we could postulate two different explanations:

i) The statues weren't designed. Their humanoid facial appearance is the result of natural weathering. Likewise, natural forces somehow transported them to their present location and raised them to a vertical position, in rows, facing the same direction. 

ii) The status were carved by human agents. Human agents positioned them.

Is one explanation superior to another? Both involve unknowns. 

Even so, postulating human agency has far more explanatory power than postulating natural forces. That's because, even though we don't know why they were carved or how they were transported, we know that human agents are able to do things that natural forces are not. Humans can be very ingenuous. Indeed, the very flexibility of that postulate is part of its explanatory power. The fact that human agents may have more than one way of solving a problem or performing a task. That opens up many possibilities. 

By contrast, it's not just that we don't know how natural processes could sculpt the stones, transport them, and erect them. Rather, it's what we do know about natural processes. From what we know about natural forces, they would be utterly incapable of accounting for the statues on Easter Island.

Stonehenge raises similar issues. So does Incan masonry. 

2) Likewise, take petroglyphs and cave paintings. We may not know how these were executed. We may not know what methods were used. We may not know their purpose. 

But even if the mechanism is unknown, even if the purpose is unknown, postulating human agency has more explanatory power to account for cave paintings and petroglyphs than postulating natural processes.

3) Or take a poker player who consistently beats the odds. The casino may not know how he's cheating. But the casino may be right to suspect cheating. Which has more explanatory power: dumb luck or human cunning? 

Should Christians Love Their Country?

In Romans 13:7-8, toward the end of the classic New Testament text on Christians' obligations toward governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes,

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

We often stop reading at verse 7 and don't read verse 8 because many of our Bibles place a subtitle there, as if a new section is beginning. But given Paul's repeated and intentional use of the verb 'to owe' it is obvious that this [separating the verses] is a mistake. What Paul is telling us is that we owe taxes, revenue, respect, honor, and obedience precisely because this is what love demands. Indeed, if love did not call us to fulfill these obligations, we would not owe them at all. Paul is teaching us to view our obligations toward government and (as Holst seems willing to extend the scope of the passage) country as the expression of Christian love appropriate to this context. Even as we serve our country, in other words, we demonstrate the love of Christ.

Why does this matter? Insofar as America is turning increasingly away from the heritage of Christendom, and insofar as we do experience moral decline, our temptation as Christians will be to withhold our love for our country. One sees this all the time in the bitter reactions of some conservative Christians to President Obama. Because we have often confused our nationalistic patriotism for Christian love, then, when we believe we have lost the reason for our nationalistic patriotism, it will fall away with nothing but bitterness to replace it. The appropriate response here is not to jettison love, however, but to form our love according to the commandment of Christ.

AP interviews


Interviews with Noel Weeks here and here.

Interviews with J.P. Moreland here and here.

Interviews with Paul Helm here, here, and here.

An interview with Paul Barnett here.

An interview with Peter O'Brien here.

An interview with Tom Schreiner here.

Interviews with D.A. Carson here and here.

An interview with John Lennox here and an article by the same here.

An interview with Jonathan Sarfati here.

An interview with William Lane Craig here.

I also noticed interviews with Carl Trueman, Al Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Gerald Bray, Jerry Bridges, Sinclair Ferguson, Iain Murray, David Powlison, Mark Dever, among others.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Amateur Hour at the Scriptorium

Frame these pamphlets

"Learning at Jesus' feet: A Case for Seminary Training" by Prof. John Frame.

"Studying Theology as a Servant of Jesus" by Prof. John Frame.

Reppert on theological voluntarism

I'll make a brief comment on Reppert's post:

He's committing a rather elementary philosophical blunder by confounding moral ontology with moral epistemology. Assuming for the sake of argument that Calvinism is morally counterintuitive, that hardly entails the further claim this reduces the distinction between right and wrong to an arbitrary divine fiat.

Indeed, Reppert's objection is ironic considering the fact that, in the past, he's appealed to skeptical theism as a part of his theodicy. He takes the position that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting horrendous evils, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. So Reppert himself finds it necessary to distance moral ontology from moral epistemology.

Journey through Genesis

i) It's natural for us to think of days as units of time. And that's true as far as it goes. But in biblical usage, days have more than one function or connotation. Before the age of cars, trains, planes, and ocean liners, a day was a unit of space as well as time. Travelers measured distance, not in miles or kilometers, but by how far they could walk in a day. To take some examples from the Pentateuch: 
And he set a distance of three days' journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban's flock (Gen 30:36). 
He took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead (Gen 31:23). 
And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God’ (Exod 3:18). 
 So they set out from the mount of the Lord three days' journey. And the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting place for them (Num 10:33). 
Then a wind from the Lord sprang up, and it brought quail from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, around the camp, and about two cubits above the ground (Num 11:31). 
And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days' journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah (Num 33:8).
ii) Days were units of distance because they were units of light: daylight. To travel, you needed enough light to see by. To see where you were going. At most, a day's journey was from first light until a little after dusk. 
iii) We normally think about the creation account in Gen 1 in terms of temporal sequence, but suppose we think about it in terms of spatial sequence. A seven-day journey. A journey through space. A journey from creation to consummation. A journey from God to God. Each day is a day's journey. It takes a week to arrive at the destination from the starting-point. 
In Gen 1-2, the Sabbath is God's Sabbath. Yet that lays the foundation for the human analogue (Exod 20:8-11). 
iv) The Sabbath has many functions in Scripture:
a) A day of rest and recreation.
b) There's more to life than work.
c) Time belongs to God. Our time is on loan from God.
v) But Scripture also develops the Sabbath as an eschatological ideal or expectation. A spiritual journey. 
We see this in Ps 95:7-11. "Today" is a perennial day for each succeeding generation. "Today" is both an invitation and an admonition. An opportunity to either be seized or missed. 
Every generation recapitulates the wilderness wandering. Every generation is summoned to enter God's rest. God's rest both antedates the Conquest and postdates the Conquest. Entering the promised land is already a type of something greater to come.  
vi) In Heb 3-4, the Sabbath is the "better country" (11:10,16), and the "new Jerusalem" (12:22-24). The final destination of the Christian pilgrimage. Something we enter, either at death or the Parousia–whichever comes first. We are getting there. We are on the way. The walk of faith. But we haven't arrived, until we die in faith, or Christ returns. 

Digital minders

Totalitarian regimes are infamous for minders who tail you. Here's the digital version

The setting of Scripture

i) Writers like John Walton, Peter Enns, Paul Seely, Bruce Waltke, and Tremper Longman are lobbying to redefine inerrancy. Trying to shift how we view the Bible. Yet they also claim that, in a fundamental respect, they are not saying anything new. They are simply attempting to make evangelicals more consistent with hermeneutical presuppositions that conservative scholarship has accepted for some time now.  
We ought to understand the OT in its ancient Near Eastern context or setting. That's part and parcel of the grammatico-historical method. Who could object to that? 
There's something  right in what they are saying, but there's something wrong in what they are saying. And that makes it initially difficult to identify the source of the problem. I've seen their critics struggle to formulate the problem.
ii) One aspect of the problem is easy to identify. Although they talk about the original setting, their real frame of reference isn't the ancient Near East but the HMS Beagle. They think science has decisively refuted Gen 1-11. There's no going back from that. 
So in that respect, all their talk about the ancient Near Eastern context of OT scripture is an exercise in misdirection. Mock pious window-dressing. The scientific establishment is their real standard of comparison. That's what they measure the Bible by.
iii) But there's another aspect to the problem that's less overt. What do they mean by the ancient Near Eastern "setting" or "context"? What do they mean by "background information"?
Briefly put, they lay myopic emphasis on comparative literature. Walton, for one, talks about the "cognitive environment," or "world of ideas" which OT writers held in common with their neighbors and contemporaries. If you stop to think about it, that's a very revealing and very narrow way to frame the issue. That's a seriously deficient definition of background information.
Notice what is implicitly missing in his comparison. He accentuates the literary setting rather than the geographical setting. The cognitive environment rather than the physical environment. The world of ideas rather than the world of nature.
Writers like Walton, Enns, et al. focus on ancient Near Eastern literature rather than the actual world which informed or produced ancient Near Eastern literature. They focus on the effect rather than the underlying cause.
Now, there's some value in comparative literary approach. That can help us to identify the genre of an OT book, or rhetorical conventions. That helps us to interpret the book.
But consider all of the background information which comparative literary analysis ignores. Climate. Terrain. Fauna. Flora. Diet. Natural resources. Technology. Transportation. Architecture. Politics. Economic systems. Social structures. Urban life. Rural life.
For me, that kind of background information is far more useful to reentering the world of the OT than comparative literature. That helps a modern reader reconstruct what it was like to live back then. A day in the life of an Egyptian fisherman in the 2nd millennium BC. 
If we could step into the time machine, and go back to prediluvian times, what would we see? What's an average day in the life of Noah? 
When, for instance, commentators talk about Eden, they focus on intertextual allusions to the tabernacle, or alleged parallels to other ancient Near Eastern literature. They spend little if any time trying to realistically envision a day in the life of Adam and Eve. The climate. The terrain. They stay outside the text rather than projecting themselves into the world the text describes. 
Likewise, when they talk about the flood, they focus on Mesopotamian flood traditions. They spend little if any time on the technicalities of flooding. They fail to discuss various types of flooding (areal, riverine, estuarine, coastal), and which type of flooding matches the Genesis account. They don't discuss whether the water table would affect the duration of the flood. They don't make the same effort to situate the event in a real-world setting outside the text. 
This deficiency is due in part to the limitations of their training. Their specialization lies in the language and literature of the ancient Near East.
This deficiency is due in part to their lifestyle. Most OT scholars have a lifestyle that doesn't bear any resemblance to the lifestyle of an ancient Near Easterner. They aren't primitive hunters or farmers or fisherman. They don't live off the land. 
As a result, commentators talk about what they know about. But what they don't know about may be far more germane to understanding Gen 1-11 than comparative literature.
iv) Bill Arnold is another good example. Two things stand out in his commentary on Genesis:
a) He views the stories in Gen 1-11 as redacted traditions or redacted legends. Literature interacting with other literature. They don't go back to real world events. 
b) His viewpoint is methodologically naturalistic. And that's because, I daresay, his personal experience is effectively secular. Angelic apparitions are alien to his experience. Things like that never happen to him, so they have an air of unreality. Same thing with other liberal commentators (Alter, Brueggemann, Childs, Driver, Fretheim, Gunkel, Sarna, Skinner, Speiser, von Rad, Westermann). For them, Gen 1-11 is obviously mythological. It radically conflicts with their plausibility structures.  
Far from attempting to view the world from within the outlook of the narrator, they keep that at a studied distance.