Monday, April 30, 2012

Billows His Will Obey

Hymn writer James Rowe (1865-1933) lived during the childhood and working years of our grandparents and great-grandparents--the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In response to the pressures of secularization many gospel song texts of that era addressed personal struggles and exhorted fellow human beings to turn to God from their lives of sin and sorrow. Elements of adoration and worship common today were not stressed back then.

Rowe’s most memorable hymn text, “Love Lifted Me,” was published in 1912. When I was young I sang this hymn dozens of times. This hymn still appears in some modern hymnals. Its spiritual exhortation to depart from the ravages of spiritual degradation and flee to Christ is timeless. But hidden away in the third verse is a phrase with more than a pure spiritual message, especially in this more sophisticated scientific age: “…He’s the Master of the sea, Billows His will obey…” The provider of our eternal salvation is also the Master of the sea in more than merely a poetic sense. Physical matter, including air and water, obeys His will. Christ is the Master of both spiritual and physical dimensions of our world. Christ’s mastery over the events of the physical world is not high on the list of fascinating topics for some of our parishioners.

Did James Rowe understand the precision forces governing the behavior of atomic particles composing the air and water molecules of the sea? Realistically, we could speculate, “Probably not.” Such precision forces govern not only atoms and molecules, but thousands of phenomena surrounding us each moment of our lives. Scientists tell us of hundreds of physical constants governing every event in our daily life, and each function of our body. If this were not true, chaos would govern the universe. Our understanding of these truths give new meaning to Rowe’s poetic and devotional statement, “He’s the Master of the Sea, Billows His will obey.”

The physical constants governing the universe originate in the creative heart, mind, and power of God just as certainly as the plan of salvation. Both spheres of God’s creative work are indicators of God’s love and care for His creation, for His created beings, and for humanity in particular. Even a rudimentary understanding of how our world works provides an expanded appreciation of the infinite love of God for the works of His creation. We speak of a complementary relationship between our understanding of special revelation (inspired scripture) and general revelation (the created physical order).

“Synergy” is a popular term expressing the idea that the effect of two or more combined agents could be greater than the sum of the same agents taken separately. Church ministries would do well to consider more deliberately the synergistic effect of theological instruction incorporating both special and general revelation--God’s authorship of both. Investigation of broadened subject matter would be well worth the efforts of our leaders. Christian educators may discover even greater apologetic value in presenting a more intentional two-front approach when communicating the gospel message.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Prayer Priority

When Peter and John healed the man crippled from birth (Acts 3:2), the early post-resurrection church was experiencing vibrant expansion an its first months of existence. Reactions from bewildered civil authorities in Jerusalem ranged from threats to temporary detainment of believers. On one occasion after being commanded not to speak any more in the name of Jesus, Peter and John returned to their own people to give them a report and to lift up their voices to God in prayer.

In the midst of great showers of spiritual blessing on the nascent church, the believers’ heartfelt prayer for deliverance and boldness began in an unusual and interesting way: “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them” (Acts 4:24-25). One may think the creation of heaven, earth, sea, and everything in them might not be positioned first on the list of prayer topics at this exhilarating time. But it was! The church leaders connected miraculous acts of creation, including heavens, earth, and its life forms with the miraculous events occurring in Jerusalem. There was no disconnect between mighty creation works in the natural realm and God’s mighty spiritual creation works unfolding before their eyes. The one true God was the author of miraculous works in both spheres.

Somewhat later the Apostle Paul appealed to the Athenians at the Areopagus with similar language. After observing their altars with the inscription “To an unknown God,” Paul presented an argument designed to persuade the Athenians to believe in the one true God and His Son, the resurrected Christ. He began his case, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else” (Acts -25 NIV). Once again, there was a strong connection between vibrant belief in God’s miraculous spiritual works and His miracles in the created physical order.

The 16th century reformed confession of faith known as the Belgic Confession (Article 2) highlights the relative importance of dual revelation:

We know him (God) by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly in his holy and divine word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.

General revelation may be considered the created works of God manifest in “heaven and earth and sea, and everything in them” referenced explicitly by Peter, John, and Paul. Special revelation consists of the canon of inspired scripture. Orthodox theologians acknowledge that special revelation (scripture) contains everything one needs to know in order to gain salvation and live the Christian life. This is the doctrine of sola scriptura.

Less well known is the doctrine of prima scriptura. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, prima scriptura allows for other revelations besides scripture only, while maintaining scripture as preeminent. Our Christian doctrine has its foundation in scripture, but God also reveals His truth by other means. The created order, for example, reveals the infinite power of God. It also provides us many other truths about the characteristics of God, such as His loving care for and sustenance of the created order, including above all, His deep love for humanity. Prima scriptura would provide for acceptance of truths provided by the correct, proven findings of science, such as the incredible complexity of living things demonstrated especially in the last few decades of discoveries about living cells. This doctrine would also allow for acceptance of scientific discoveries about the age of the earth and universe. Tragically, this issue divides many believers in the church.

Peter, John, and Paul in the Book of Acts, and numerous other scripture authors present general revelation (the book of nature) as support for acceptance of the character of God. Special revelation (inspired scripture) explicitly details the theological truths of God’s actions in response to man’s spiritual needs. Taken together, the two revelations present a powerful apologetic for belief in the reality of God. For some people believing the truths of special scripture revelation is not remotely problematic. For others an additional revelation from the physical world may help them cross the line from unbelief to belief. Still others may not believe even if someone should rise from the dead (Luke ). Belief acquisition is individually acquired.

Special revelation and general revelation are of equally important value, since both revelations originate from God. Knowledge gained from both revelations is an occasion for thankfulness to the God of creation. Beyond the apologetic value of general revelation to help us acquire belief in God based on physical evidence, there are many other benefits. This knowledge is appropriately the subject of sermon content, hymn lyrics during worship time, personal testimony and devotion, and prayers of intercession.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Simplicity or Complexity?

Marketing strategies in our day tout the importance of simplicity, ease of use, and effortless purchase of their products. Convenience stores are an invention of the 20th century. Their prevalence mirrors a general modern tendency to keep things uncomplicated and to desire simple solutions in a day when the demands of ordinary life seem overwhelming. The ability to buy a half-gallon of milk or a loaf of bread at a moment’s notice is deemed necessary for our continued happiness. Life has become simpler by the deliberate design of modern planners.

In an entirely different sphere of experience, discovering the heart of the argument for the reality of God’s creative actions in our physical world is not a simple matter. In a day when convenience is a byword and when the easy way out of a problem is perceived to be the best way, it would behoove truth seekers to diligently investigate the scientific basis of truth claims for design and creation. On a personal level, I am disappointed when friends dismiss science in general and in particular, physical evidence for design in the world of nature as unimportant or irrelevant. Physical evidence of the work of a designer is powerful affirmation of a caring creator whose designs reflect his great love for the welfare of man, summit of his created beings.

One example of how science has strengthened the case for design is provided by the proliferation of knowledge concerning the basic unit of life--the cell. Hundreds of years ago scientists observed cells through the first crude microscopes. They realized cells were the fundamental units of life. T. H. Huxley in 1868 described protoplasm, the living material of the cell, as “the physical basis of life,” a basic homogenous stuff made of protein. After a slow accumulation of knowledge for nearly one hundred years, in the last half-century discoveries about cell function have increased exponentially. One wonders how Huxley’s favorable view of evolution would have differed had he known even a small portion of what we have discovered about cell biochemistry in the last 50 years. Consider Michael Behe’s statement from an early chapter of Darwin’s Black Box:

Biochemistry has demonstrated that any biological apparatus involving more than one cell (such as an organ or a tissue) is necessarily an intricate web of many different, identifiable systems of horrendous complexity. The “simplest” self-sufficient, replicating cell has the capacity to produce thousands of different proteins and other molecules, at different times and under variable conditions. Synthesis, degradation, energy generation, replication, maintenance of cell architecture, mobility, regulation, repair, communication—all of these functions take place in virtually every cell, and each function itself requires the interaction of numerous parts.

Unexplained in the list of cell functions in the passage above are tens of thousands of cascading processes where the failure of a single step would sabotage the function of the entire system. Only after investigating those processes may we more fully grasp why Behe used the term irreducible in his complexity argument. The human body is a marvel of irreducibly complex processes which could not have been conceivably assembled by a simple sequence of natural events. Our search for discovery of origins truth is not as effortless as are visits to local convenience outlets.

An oft-quoted verse, 2 Tim. 2:15, encourages study to achieve God’s approval. The usual meaning assigned to that passage is study of scripture. Pastors and laypeople alike need to apply the principles of study and continuing education to broader subject matter, including the intricately designed complexity manifest in all living body systems. Physical systems are creations of God and manifest his glory as certainly as the plan of salvation. In both spheres God is the author. Scripture deals primarily with the spiritual needs of man. God has gifted man with ability to discover truth concerning divine design in the physical realm by the methods of science. These methods are encouraged in scripture in passages such as 1 Thes. which encourages us to test, prove, and explore all things, and hold onto what is good.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Subject to Ridicule

Michael Behe, famous for his proposal of irreducible complexity (IC), has endured plentiful cynical ridicule. IC proposes, that in a complex functional system such as the blood clotting cascade, or even in a simpler, non-living functional analog like the mousetrap, removal of one key component of the system effectively derails the functionality of the entire system. Behe’s thesis suggests that complex living systems could not have been produced by a successive accumulation of small evolutionary changes driven by random mutation in concert with natural selection. These systems were intelligently designed, Behe suggests.

Secular writers, for the most part, describe the complexity proposals of Michael Behe and William Dembski accurately. But their writings are heavily laced with negative commentary borne of their naturalistic worldview, such as this Wikipedia article: “The (IC) argument is central to intelligent design, and is rejected by the scientific community at large, which overwhelmingly regards intelligent design as pseudoscience.” Another Wikipedia entry on Dembski’s specified complexity (SC) proposal includes this caveat: “A study…states that ‘Dembski’s work is riddled with inconsistencies, equivocation, flawed use of mathematics, poor scholarship, and misrepresentations of others’ results.’”

Objectivity is often in short supply among secular science journalists. The naturalistic tilt of a substantial majority of scientists is evident among those who write on science topics. Authors of biology textbooks commonly sprinkle their writings with the terms “evolution, evolved, and evolutionary,” even when the use of those terms serves no instructional purpose. Evolutionary terminology creeps into most secular science literature as if the very use of the term is self-proving. The astonishing beauty, complexity, and incredible functional achievements of living things at the cellular and system level are most often explicitly credited to evolutionary processes in these texts.

Most mainstream bio-scientists are dedicated to naturalism and anti-supernaturalism. This dedication is tantamount to a religious commitment. Powerful evidence of the work of an intelligent mind and creative events are brusquely dismissed, fortified by the claim that the great majority of scientists think in terms of evolution. Of course, that statement is true. A significant minority of scientists thinks theistically, but they are required to keep their theistic beliefs under wraps when they “do science.” Theistic evolutionists often cite the disconnect between thinking theologically and thinking scientifically. This disconnect permits naturalistic thinking to gain a strong foothold.

Stephen C. Meyer in Signature in the Cell develops a forceful case for detection of intelligent design and carefully develops the scientific foundations for belief in ID. Meyer establishes the basis for his argument by carefully describing how intelligent design uses “a distinctive method of historical scientific reasoning and investigation.” He summarizes the scientific methods scientists use in this key quote: “Historical scientists have a distinctive objective (to identify the causes of past events); they formulate distinctive types of explanation (in which they cite past events as causes); and they make inferences with a distinctive (abductive) logical form.” I recommend Meyer’s 600-page Signature in the Cell as a brilliantly developed case for the scientific basis of design proposals, particularly the origin of the DNA code.

If an intelligent mind, the mind of God, really acted to produce features of our physical world by supernatural acts at definite points along earth’s timeline, the arguments over whether ID is really science, and whether belief in creation is really religion fade to insignificance. The real questions of importance are, “What is true?” and “What really happened?” The correct answers to these questions help us ground our belief system in truth and reality. For believers in design and creation it is easy to acknowledge an infinitely intelligent, creative deity, the God of the Bible, for the wonders we observe in nature. Our expressions of praise and worship are the logical sequel.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

ID and Descent Dissent

Michael Behe is one of the original scientists to popularize the concept of intelligent design in the last two decades. Darwin’s Black Box (1996) introduced the idea of irreducible complexity in living systems. Behe describes irreducible complexity as follows: “…a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning." He posits that an irreducibly complex system cannot be produced by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system because a missing part in a precursor system would make it nonfunctional. Full-throated, gradualistic Darwinian evolution is thereby called into question.

A large segment of the scientific community has attempted to nullify Behe’s argument. For example, in the Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District case in 2005 which overturned the school board decision to recommend optional student readings promoting the concept of intelligent design, the ruling judge stated “Professor Behe’s claim for irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community at large.” A search of literature produced by naturalistic scientists reveals many similar refutations of Behe’s irreducible complexity proposal, as well as many loud denunciations of the general concept of intelligent design at any level. Such refutations are staunchly anchored in a naturalistic philosophical commitment.

Many well known theistic evolutionists echo the same sentiments. In The Language of God (2006) Francis Collins, self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, states near the end of chapter 9 that “…this ship (intelligent design) is not headed to the promised land; it is headed instead to the bottom of the ocean.”  Collins, along with many other theistic and naturalistic evolutionists, criticizes intelligent design as a “god-of-the-gaps” solution, that is to say, anything we can’t explain naturalistically must be credited to a supernatural action. Most ID advocates would characterize this view as seriously oversimplified.

Evolutionists, however, are guilty of many egregious “chance of the gaps” explanations. Evolutionist George Wald (1906-1997) said “When it comes to the origin of life there are only two possibilities: creation or spontaneous generation. There is no third way. Spontaneous generation was disproved one hundred years ago, but that leads to only one other conclusion, that of supernatural creation. We cannot accept that on philosophical grounds; therefore, we choose to believe the impossible: that life arose spontaneously by chance.”

If we cannot believe that living systems were intelligently designed and produced by a supernatural agent acting by fiat creation (divine decree) at some point in time, the alternative is to embrace naturalism. Such an embrace of naturalism generally denies miraculous intervention at any point in the history of our world’s living things. Some theistic evolutionists claim God, in some mysterious, unknown way, frontloads chance or random events to achieve a certain result down the road. Consequently, they appropriate the term theistic to describe their belief system, claiming their belief deserves to be held in equal esteem with belief in sudden, fiat acts of creation. They often deny their views amount to an embrace of naturalism. One might ask, however, how the two views substantially differ, especially with respect to living systems.

One of the liveliest issues of the day involves how the concepts of intelligent design and common descent are related. Michael Behe believes the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) is “fairly convincing” and he has “no particular reason to doubt it.” And yet, Behe investigates “several fascinating molecular machines” of the body, and asks “whether they can ever be explained by random mutation/natural selection.” Therefore, his concept of intelligent design may not have the same meaning as the concept of fiat creationism.

My view is that the common descent concept comes dangerously close to naturalistic evolution. Biochemist Fuzale Rana, Reasons to Believe scholar, who shared conference time with Michael Behe and others at the recent Wheaton College Science Symposium, frequently describes genetic commonality among earth species as evidence of a divine, common genetic template present in varying degrees across all species. Other scientists, such as Behe and many other theistic scientists interpret shared genetic elements as evidence of common ancestry. Rana’s interpretation is in keeping with the analogy of a building designer repeatedly utilizing identical blueprint features across a variety of his architectural productions.

Scripture uses Hebrew terms such as bara in Genesis 1-2 to signal the sudden creation of life that did not exist previously, including man. The fossil record reveals a number of “radiations,” geologically sudden appearances of new life forms which did not formerly exist. Accordingly, fiat creation events seem to provide a better explanation for our observations of the history of life than do proposals of common ancestry.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Properly Basic Cycles

The title of this post is a play on words. Philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig make the proposal that for many, belief in God is a properly basic belief. That is to say, belief in the existence of God is innate in human experience and does not need to be inferred from other truths in order to be reasonable.

Recently a conversation with three friends turned toward the topic of intelligent design. Immediately I thought of the exquisite machinery of the cell as an example of design. I was prepared to propose that a designer, the God of the Bible, was the author and creator of the complex organization and order we observe at the level of the cell in all living things. To use the vernacular, I was “loaded for bear.” With one of my conversation partners, my preparation proved unnecessary. He announced he sees design when he observes the beautiful countryside in our area.

Another of my friends seemed ready to receive more detailed evidence of design features. Whether or not my evidentialist presentation in possible future conversations will be effective remains to be seen. It seems clear there is no single path leading to human apprehension of deeper truth. Some prefer to establish their beliefs based primarily on physical evidence. For others the highway toward belief has no rough pavement, for their beliefs are properly basic. John Calvin credited an innate human presence he termed the sensus divinitatis.

My study of cycles in nature triggers in me a personal sense of wonder. The simplicity of the concept that our bodies are composed primarily of just a few simple elements recycled repeatedly over long ages is intriguing, as is the fact that along this path each of the elements repeatedly combines and separates from other elements according to basic laws of nature. Exactly why each element possesses its unique properties is not completely within human grasp, and is another cause for personal fascination.

Sometimes scripture presents the recycling concept in a reverential context. On March 28, 2012, the message in the daily devotional guide Our Daily Bread highlighted an experience of worship by author Julie Ackerman Link. Exulting over the beauty of light-reflective waves on Lake Michigan, she develops her idea: “Using water and air, (God) makes extravagant beauty out of seemingly mundane things…..He makes wondrous works of art. We enjoy His gallery in skies above and on earth and sea below…..God uses another gallery  to display His glory—humans. We too are made of something ordinary—dust (Gen 2:7). But to us He added an extraordinary ingredient—His very own breath (v. 7). Like waves of the sea and flowers of the field (Isa. 40:7) our lives are brief and seen by few.”

Julie Ackerman Link’s experience is partially founded on evidence from the natural world. Flowers, and even our bodies live and die and the elements of which they are composed are recycled. Likewise, the water and air are recycled as God makes wondrous works of art from them in phenomena such as snowflakes and clouds. For those most impacted by the effect of properly basic beliefs, verses such as Isa. 66:1-2 hold deep meaning: “…And the earth is my footstool…All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord.” Some people have no trouble inspecting the artistic beauty surrounding us, crediting God as its creator, and believing in His existence. Others have need for the evidence of exquisite design in the cell and the coding properties of the cell’s DNA molecule to tilt them toward belief.

Evidence of the reality of God and His authorship of design features does not significantly impact the scientific community in our modern times. This community has been slanted toward a worldview of naturalism. Stephen C. Meyer, philosopher of science and director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, labors to present identification of intelligently designed features in the world of nature as fully scientific. Here is a quote from Dr. Meyer:

“If we go back to the period of Newton and Kepler and Boyle and Galileo and Copernicus, the period that historians of science call the Scientific Revolution, the concept of Intelligent Design was actually part of the foundation of the whole scientific enterprise. The scientists at the time had a watchword or a kind of motto and it was the idea of intelligibility. They believed that they could study nature and make sense of it because it was intelligible to the human mind. Why? Because it had been designed by a rational intellect, namely in their view, the Judeo-Christian God.”

 Acquiring the sense of divine reality is a solemn undertaking. For some the task consumes virtually no personal effort. For others, some standard of proof or evidence seems necessary. When both properly basic belief and the force of evidence work in harmony, the path to belief may be even smoother. For such individuals there is a complementary relationship between properly basic beliefs and evidence.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dust of the Ground

Bible commentators have contributed several interpretations of the term dust in Genesis 2:7, Genesis 3:19, Psalm 103:14, and Ecclesiastes 3:20. These passages speak of man being created of the dust of the ground, our bodies returning to the dust when we die, and the Lord remembering that we are dust. The term is translated from the Hebrew afar. In English, the translation is fine grained particles in some renderings. The term also connotes many other common, lowly substances.

No matter how the Hebrew term afar is used, it is certain that the material referred to is an ordinary, earthy substance. When we consider the substances of which the human body is composed, it is clear they are mostly ordinary chemical elements--oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen. In the sense that these four elements compose the vast majority of the chemical elements in the crust of the earth, we may say man is made of the dust of the ground, interpretational nuances aside.

Many people complain that the Bible contains scientific errors. Instead, what is exceedingly remarkable is the absence of scientific errors, given that the Bible was written long before the so-called Scientific Revolution beginning about four centuries ago. The dust of the ground concept provides evidence for the uniqueness of ordinary matter. But it does not provide formal proof of anything, in an age when many people demand proof. Proof is reserved for a different category of persuasion, such as mathematics.

These four elements are indeed ordinary, in the sense that they have been around for countless centuries. Oxygen, nitrogen, and the basis for life, carbon, were formed long after hydrogen, according to the credible scenario of the history of our universe provided by scientists. In the biblical proposal that our bodies are made of the dust of the earth, and that our physical bodies will return to dust, who could object?

The atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen are simple almost beyond comprehension. Hydrogen nuclei possess one proton, surrounded by one electron. Carbon nuclei have six protons, six neutrons, and six electrons; nitrogen nuclei have seven protons, seven neutrons, and seven electrons; oxygen nuclei have eight protons, eight neutrons, and eight electrons. But the physical characteristics of each of these elements differ greatly from one another. We may wonder, “Why is this so?” And why does each of these elements command attention for its own vital cycle in the natural world?

The Creator is also able to make a code for assembling living things out of the simple elements in the DNA molecule. In that double-helix molecule incredibly simple sequences of elements and compounds, mostly the big four elements, are able to provide the code of instructions for synthesizing thousands of different proteins and assembling them to produce specimens of each unique species on Planet Earth. Each human DNA molecule has three billion bits of information for assembling a living human. There are millions of different species of living things on Earth. Therefore, there are millions of sets of instructions for assembling each living species on our planet. Codes such as the DNA code are always produced by a mind.

What capabilities lie within the “dust of the ground?” Our answer depends on the capabilities assigned by our Creator to the matter within that dust. God endowed ordinary matter with unique capabilities. “Dust of the ground” takes on new and unique meaning.