Saturday, January 29, 2011

Concordism's Challenge

The Interaction Between Science and Christianity is a subject of interest to many in our modern culture. The topic is more complex than commonly realized. When I inform people of my background in science education and my current interest in this interaction, many initially express enthusiasm. When they later discover the scope of the science/faith connection, many defer. Science is a discipline many find baffling. This deflects them from a serious investigation of the issues.

One topic many people find fascinating is concordism. Randy Isaac, executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a diverse group of Christians engaged in science professions, has posted a fair description of the term. Isaac says concordism is “a fancy term for identifying scientific fact or theory with a particular phrase or passage in the Bible.” He describes the emotional reaction some may experience when a scientific observation is thought to correspond with Scripture. “See? The Bible is right after all,” they may say.

Concordism is a spectrum of views, according to Isaac. On one end of the spectrum is the position “that any allusion to natural history in the Bible must correspond to actual physical events.” This is described as “a high degree of concordism.” On the other end of the spectrum we find people who hold “that the Bible does not intend to teach us about natural history and is only using the language of nature and natural history to aid our understanding of the spiritual truths,” a position possessing “a minimal degree of concordism.” There is some validity in each of these spectral extremes as well as qualified intermediate positions.

We may fall into the familiar trap of being defined by only one term with respect to our important belief frameworks. The general correspondence between the event sequence in Genesis 1 and the sequence of earth’s geological history seems easy for me to understand. I am a creationist who embraces the 13.7 billion year distant Big Bang concept as God’s initial creative act bringing the time, space, matter, and energy dimensions of this universe immediately into existence. The sudden appearance of bio-chemically complex life nearly four billion years ago, the Cambrian explosion of diverse multicellular life, and the physical creation of modern man several tens of thousands of years ago (the socio-cultural “big bang”) are several events which also seem to have the hallmarks of creation events described in Genesis. By this standard my creationist beliefs possess “a high degree of concordism.”

Bible passages penned by various authors refer to the stretching out of the heavens. Those passages could have reference to present scientific knowledge of a continually expanding universe. They could also refer metaphorically to the actions of the Creator, inspiring in us a feeling of worship and devotion. These scriptures are fascinating. Let the reader decide where these views fall within the spectrum of concordist beliefs.

The term concordism should not, therefore, define someone as an adherent of a rigid set of beliefs at one end of a belief spectrum. Rather, the term implies that scripture is held in high regard by the concordist and that scripture provides insights across a wide range of human beliefs and experience. Above all, whether Scripture refers to creation events or deep spiritual truths, we must humbly ask God to reveal what He intends for us to understand.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Natural Theology's Detractors

Natural theology does not garner widespread attention from the secular world as an apologetic for the existence of God or to describe His attributes. Some Christians also struggle with its value. The reasons are complex and difficult. Some Christian apologists loosely use the term proof in connection with scientific evidence pointing to a Creator. As that term is commonly understood, there is no such thing as proof for God’s existence even if the evidence seems persuasive. Evidence which proves God’s existence for one person may not even slightly budge a staunch atheist’s unbelief.

In ancient times natural theology was a philosophical statement of “divine purpose” based on reason. Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC) speculated on metaphysical principles such as an unmoved mover--a “first cause.” This unmoved mover was not a personal God who desired interaction with man and sought to impact man’s daily experience. Aristotle’s religion, therefore, did not resemble that of the ancient Hebrews. His “metaphysical principles” were not in the same league with the characteristics of the Hebrew Yahweh.

Today natural theology is seen as an instrument of human reason and therefore, supposedly accessible to all men. But it speaks to simpler and more straightforward questions: Does the natural world exhibit order, balance, and predictability, even intelligent design? Do such manifestations point to the God who authored the physical constants, the laws of nature based on those constants, and the apparent fine-tuning of our universe? In my view, the answer is “Yes.”

The truth discovery process of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas relied heavily on human reason as a pathway to faith, but not to the exclusion of divine scriptural revelation. In my discussions with fellow Christians, I encounter two very disparate groups of people for whom empirical evidence from the world of nature is not strongly persuasive. Believers in young earth place their personal interpretation of biblical revelation above all scientific evidence which points away from their own view of reality. On the other side of the belief spectrum, theistic evolutionists reject evidence of design and evidence of apparent interventional innovations among life forms in order to adhere to their presupposition of naturalism as the driving force of evolution and an unalterable feature of their philosophy of science.

The spectrum of beliefs within and between the groups described above is very broad. My discussion has not described the diversity of viewpoints adequately. Christian theists must humbly acknowledge that the process of acquiring truth about present and past reality is indeed challenging. We must have faith that the most important truths about theological, physical, and historical realities are accessible. God enables us to make progress in our quest for truth.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Three-dimensional Theism

Natural theology has possessed various shades of meaning over the centuries. Under one of its contemporary definitions, apologists offer evidence for God’s existence, describe God’s attributes, or even derive doctrine based on reason and grounded in observations of the natural world. Many object to the embrace of natural theology to achieve these goals. For others, natural theology supports their Christian belief structure.

Some who promote natural theology mistakenly use it in place of God’s revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture. The special revelation of God given to us in the Bible, taken together with plentiful evidence from the natural world, amounts to a strong dual framework of evidence which points to the reality of God’s existence and highlights God’s attributes. To that dual evidence we may add the inner witness of divine reality present in every human being created in the Image of God. Each man and woman has an intuitive sense of divine reality to support our reasoned conclusions that the world around us manifests the existence of the Creator and communicates His character.

William Lane Craig, gifted theologian, Christian apologist, and philosopher, defends the Christian belief system in his writings and in frequent debates with atheists. He endorses the tenets of natural theology, offering plentiful evidence from scientific facts concerning the origin and fine-tuning of the universe. Craig uses other effective evidences for the reality of God, including the existence of objective moral values and the rational reality of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

In addition, Craig is a strong advocate of “properly basic beliefs.” He presents the argument that God can be immediately known and experienced directly, quite apart from evidence of the natural world. Properly basic beliefs are not contingent on empirical, physical evidence. In his debates, Craig touts such beliefs as entirely rational and reliable.

The combination of evidence from (1) natural theology (general revelation), (2) inspired scripture (special revelation), and (3) properly basic beliefs is a potent trio for establishing a viable belief in God. Some people rely exclusively on only one of the three, or perhaps two. It is significant that the Scriptures present all three as a three-pronged support structure for our belief system and Christian worldview. Psalm 19:1-2, II Tim. 3:16, and Hebrews 11:1-3 are not offered here as mere proof texts, but as a means to encourage readers to sustain a deeper study to reaffirm our belief in the reality of God.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Supermarket Science

The science-minded parent looks for opportunities to pique the curiosity and stimulate appreciation for science in his children. This goal may not be as difficult to achieve as some would imagine, but thought and effort are needed. Age-appropriate discoveries in everyday activities could become a science object lesson for reinforcing knowledge of God and how He set up the rules of operation for the physical processes governing our daily lives.

A visit to the supermarket could be an enjoyable introduction to Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. Shopping carts are usually a source of delight for children if not for their parents. Of course the parent should exercise firm control of this activity. The upside is that all three of Newton’s laws of motion may be taught with a shopping cart.

As the cart fills to the brim with a heavy load of groceries, the child may notice that it becomes more difficult to get it rolling from a dead stop. More force must be applied. In the first aisle the child, with only a few items in the basket, was able to set the cart in motion with only a gentle push. Newton’s formula for the shopping cart phenomenon, a = F/m, is a turnoff, but pushing the full or empty cart may be fun. The child has begun to understand Newton’s second law of motion.

Once the loaded shopping cart is rolling down the aisle, it wants to keep rolling without any further pushing. In addition, it wants to keep going straight even after we release the handle--not right, not left. And we must apply a force to stop it. When it comes to a halt by the candy shelves, it wants to stay there. It needs a substantial push to get it going again. Welcome to Newton’s first law of motion, sometimes called the law of inertia.

When the shoppers arrive at their car in the parking lot, the child is asked to return the cart to the cart return station after the groceries are emptied. The child rolls the basket into the row of carts and pushes it forward one last time after it has been lodged. The child pushes forward, but that action results in his own body being “pushed” backward. “When one object exerts a force upon a second object, the second object exerts an equal and opposite force upon the first object.” The child could be challenged to identify Newton’s third law of motion as it operates dozens of times each day.

The Laws of Motion of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) are elegant examples of regularity, balance, order, and symmetry in nature. These laws, and hundreds of others, speak of the predictability and changelessness of our God who created the laws of the universe in which we live, and the universe itself. The Apostle Paul reasoned with the Athenians, who had an inscription among their objects of worship: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Paul proclaimed their UNKNOWN GOD was “the God who made the world and everything in it.” He further stated “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 18:28 NIV).

For the Christian, living, moving, and having our being in God is true not only in a spiritual sense, but in a physical sense as well.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

All Things to Enjoy

“God richly gives us all things to enjoy.” This quotation from I Tim. 6:17 applies to possession of knowledge as well as enjoyment of material things. The verse relates to a broad spectrum of human activity. It is possible to pinpoint everyday physical occurrences in the kitchen, garage, or yard, or on our neighborhood athletic field and explain those events from a scientific perspective. Our personal enjoyment is heightened when we understand why things work the way they do. Demonstrations, visual object lessons, and use of analogies are helpful in getting the point across. “Scientific” explanations of what occurs around us may increase our enjoyment of those activities. Perhaps we will receive “Ho-hums” from some individuals.

Recently a neighbor called to question a report she had just heard: January 4 was the date of Earth’s “perihelion” when we are closest to the sun in our elliptical orbit around the sun. On July 4, at “aphelion” we are farthest from the sun. Over coffee that morning, she and her husband wondered why January temperatures, therefore, are so cold in light of being closest to the sun.

I replied that in the arena of cause and effect, there is a much more important factor than the 3.4% closer wintertime distance. In winter, earth’s tilted axis causes the northern hemisphere to tilt away from the sun. The tilt is 23½ degrees. Six months later, in summer, the same tilt causes northern hemisphere residents to be facing the sun. The result is that wintertime sun rays are slanted and must spread over a much larger area. Why are slanted rays cooler? My neighbor remembered that a flashlight shining perpendicular to a surface forms a small spot of light, while slanted rays create a large spot of light. The same amount of energy is shared over a larger area. When Grandma brings ten candy bars to a family of two children, each child receives more than when Grandma brings ten candy bars to a family of five children. With the sun/earth system, the slant factor is by far more important than the distance factor in determining winter temperature.

After exchanging a few laughs, I commended my neighbor for her interest in an issue many people might not even care to discuss. The inquiry process proved enjoyable as did the social interaction. God enables man to inquire and to discover. This is a gift from Him. He intends that the knowledge we gain should enrich us. Ultimately we may give God the glory for a universe operating according to orderly rules.

Matthew Henry wrote a lengthy commentary on the Bible 300 years ago. It is still in use by many students of the Bible. He offered commentary on virtually every passage of scripture verse by verse. Several times he paraphrased the truth of I Tim. 6:17. In one instance he stated, in the flowery, poetic language of that day, “He (God) gives us all things to enjoy, not only for necessity, but plenty, dainties, and varieties, for ornament and delight. How much are we indebted!” Surely, after reading Henry’s detailed commentary, we conclude that for him, the spirit of inquiry was equally as important as seeking after material satisfaction.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The More Things Change...

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” A French journalist, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr penned this epigram in 1849. It has become a well-known proverb, speaking of realities in theology and science as well as many other human endeavors.

In science there are many examples of apparent change which are not really changes in an ultimate sense. An everyday example is the burning of fuel for heating our homes. We may burn eight gallons of liquefied gas at home on a winter day, or our wilderness cabin may consume a half-cord of firewood during a ski weekend getaway. In each case the fuel seems to disappear, but it really does not. It still exists in the air as a gas such as carbon dioxide. Likewise, the heat energy generated by the burning fuels does not cease to exist. Rather, it becomes widely dispersed over the landscape, causing the air in the neighborhood to become perhaps a thousandth of a degree warmer.

The previous examples illustrate the laws of conservation of mass and energy. In the big picture, mass and energy are conserved even though they are not useful to us any longer. Other examples of conservation laws involve momentum and electric charge, as some may recall from their physics courses. These situations are more generally described as “symmetries” in nature. Symmetries are illustrated mathematically by transformations in nature which leave some related quantity unchanged. One author has termed the phenomenon “sameness under altered scrutiny.” For example, the total heat energy in a pot of boiling water is identical to the total heat energy distributed throughout the entire room after the water boils away. The mass of the water is also unchanged.

Symmetry is commonly perceived in simpler visual terms such as nature’s mirror images—a butterfly’s bilateral wing structure or a snowflake’s mathematical balance. In broader terms, however, laws of nature are full of symmetry--“sameness under altered scrutiny.”

Many creationist Christian authors promote reality of the many design features in our universe as evidence for the existence of the Designer. But the idea of nature’s symmetry, or “sameness,” may also promote awareness of the reality of the cosmic Designer and His characteristics. On a deeper level, nature’s symmetry points to God’s immutability, or changelessness. If God is changeless, it stands to reason that His created order would mirror a similar trait.

God’s immutability is an important Christian doctrine expressed in Scripture implicitly and explicitly: “I the Lord do not change…” (Mal. 3:6); “…the Father…does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17 NIV). The concept that the creation mirrors the traits of the Creator is a spiritually satisfying truth, but is rationally affirmed as well. You may access our previous post on “Nature’s Symmetry” with this link: