09/19/17

Aversion to Holiness

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In chapter four of Indwelling Sin in Believers, John Owen began to unpack how indwelling sin is enmity against God. Here in chapter five, he described how this enmity manifests itself as aversation—turning from God and all things associated with God in disgust. Aversation is an older term, with a more intense sense of disgust than the similar modern term aversion. A Biblical example of aversation would be the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans.

The Samaritans believed they were the true descendents of Israel and the keepers of the Torah. During New Testament times, their main religious site was Mount Gerizim. They believed that the Jewish temple and priesthood were illegitimate. They took their name from the Hebrew phrase “keeper of the law.” They believed Mount Gerizim was where both the patriarchs and the Israelites (when they first arrived in Canaan) made sacrifices. The Samaritan version of the Pentateuch also said God’s people should worship him in Shechem, making worship in Jerusalem illegitimate. They also believed that their messiah would be a prophet like Moses.

Needless to say, this made the Jews and Samaritans religious, ethnic and cultural enemies with a strong aversation for one another. This context lays the foundation for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter four of the gospel of John. John Owen said there is an aversation in the law of sin against everything of God. All reluctance towards religious practices designed to attain communion with God, all carnality and religious formality springs from this root. “It will allow an outward, bodily presence unto the worship of God, wherein it is not concerned, but it keeps the heart quite away.”

Some people pretend they have no aversation towards the things of God. Rather, they believe they have liberty or freedom from these duties. Owen thought this pretended liberty came from “ignorance of the true state and condition of their own souls.” or through a lack of faith and interest in Christ. “It may be, whatever duties of worship or obedience such persons perform, they may, through want of faith and an interest in Christ, have no communion with them; and if so, sin will make but little opposition unto them therein.” It can often be found in the emotions, where there is a secret loathing about any “close or cordial dealing with God.”

Even when convictions, sense of duty, dear and real esteem of God and communion with him, have carried the soul into its closet, yet if there be not the vigour and power of a spiritual life constantly at work, there will be a secret loathness in them unto duty; yea, sometimes there will be a violent inclination to the contrary, so that the soul had rather do any thing, embrace any diversion, though it wound itself thereby, than vigorously apply itself unto that which in the inward man it breathes after. It is weary before it begins, and says, “When will the work be over?”

Aversation is also found in the mind. When we pray we should be able to  “fill our mouths with arguments” to God (Job 23:4). Our minds should be ready to plead for the considerations that prevail with God. What if it starts, but then wanders or fades—“all from this secret aversation unto communion with God, which proceeds from the law of indwelling sin.” Others are so occupied with family or public duties that they have little time for private prayer. This is the source of many foolish opinions and the beginning of many who fall away from God.

Finding this aversation in their minds and affections from closeness and constancy in private spiritual duties, not knowing how to conquer and prevail against these difficulties through Him who enables us, they have at first been subdued to a neglect of them, first partial, then total, until, having lost all conscience of them, they have had a door opened unto all sin and licentiousness, and so to a full and utter apostasy.

Owen said he was convinced that among believers, there were two common ways of backsliding. The first was from a great or notorious sin that bloodied their consciences, tainted their affections or and intercepted all delight of having anything more to do with God. The second was from weariness in contending against “the powerful aversation, which they found in themselves.” The reason for all of this is, that giving way to the law of sin in the least is giving strength to it. Leaving it alone lets it grow. Failure to conquer it, is to be conquered by it.

The best way to prevent the fruits and effects of this aversation is to stay in a universally holy frame of mind. It is impossible to keep the heart in a holy frame of mind for one duty, unless it is done for all of them. “A constant, even frame and temper in all duties, in all ways, is the only preservative for any one way.” Strive to prevent the beginnings of this aversation. Guard against temptations; oppose them. Strive to possess your mind with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, and so this cursed aversation of sin will be weakened.

As an aside, Owen suggested his readers develop a humble awareness of the presence of this aversation to spiritualness present in our nature. If someone were to recognize its efficacy, what consideration can, be more powerful, to bring them unto humbly walking with God?” Since God delights to dwell with individuals who are “of an humble and contrite spirit,” so it can be effective in weakening the remaining sin within us.

In closing the chapter, Owen urged that we labor to occupy our minds with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, so that “this cursed aversation of sin” can be weakened. “Let, then, the soul labour to acquaint itself with the spiritual beauty of obedience, of communion with God, and of all duties of immediate approach to him, that it may be filled with delight in them.”

09/5/17

Darwin’s Conversion: Not

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Surrounded by family members and in the arms of his loving wife Emma, Charles Darwin died on Wednesday, April 19, 1882. Among his last spoken words was a statement that he was not “the least afraid to die.” Darwin’s hope, and the family’s original intention, was for him to be buried in the family vault in St. Mary’s church at Downe. History intervened, and Charles Darwin was instead interred in Westminster Abbey on the morning of April 26, 1882—not far from the resting place of Sir Isaac Newton. Ironically, although Darwin indentified himself as an agnostic, and said he had rejected Christianity at the age of forty, within two weeks of his burial, there was a sermon preached in Wales saying that Darwin had, “in his last utterances confessed his true faith.” The problem is, it wasn’t true.

Dearman Birchall, his wife and their four children had taken a holiday at the southern Wales resort town of Tenby. On May 7th they head a minister named Huntingdon preach a sermon in which: “He spoke of Darwin one of the greatest thinkers who had in his last utterances confessed his true faith.” The quote was from a diary entry, and can be found in The Darwin Legend, by James Moore. There were other scattered rumors of a deathbed conversion by Darwin over the next three decades, including an 1887 sermon in Toronto by the Reverend John Mutch. This led a reporter for the Toronto Mail to write to Darwin’s close friend and supporter, Thomas Huxley to confirm the truth of Mutch’s statement. Huxley’s reply, on February 12, 1887 follows:

I have the best authority for informing you that the statement which you attribute to the Revd Mr. Mutch of Toronto that “Mr Darwin, when on his death bed, abjectly whined for a minister and renouncing Evolution, sought safety in the blood of the Saviour” is totally false and without any kind of foundation.

Huxley consulted Darwin’s son Francis, who gave Huxley permission to reply to the reporter, denying any deathbed conversion of his father. Yet the question is how such a rumor could have arisen and been repeated by a minister so far away from Darwin’s home in Downe. James Moore convincingly demonstrated the likely source was a British evangelist active in the temperance movement, named Elizabeth Cotton, who became Lady Hope in 1887 when she married Sir James Hope. She reported meeting Darwin in the autumn of 1881, about six months before his death.

However the story of their meeting did not appear in print for thirty-four years. Moore speculated that if this encounter was the origin of all the post-1882 deathbed stories of Darwin’s conversion, it was spread initially by word of mouth among English evangelicals and their American connections. John Mutch could then have heard the story from someone in those circles and repeated it in his 1887 sermon. “Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Lady Hope was making discreet comments about Darwin to her religious friends long before the story was published.”

In August of 1915 Lady Hope was in East Northfield Massachusetts for the annual conference at Northfield Seminary, the girl’s preparatory school founded by D. L. Moody. She approached one of the speakers, A. T. Robertson, and told him her story of Darwin’s conversion. Robertson then repeated it when he next spoke. An editor from the Watchman-Examiner was there and insisted Lady Hope write the story out so he could publish it, giving it “the widest publicity.” Two weeks later, the Watchman-Examiner carried her story under the title, “Darwin and Christianity.”

In The Darwin Legend, Moore quoted the entire story, which can also be found in the Wikipedia entry for “Elizabeth Cotton, Lady Hope.” The story went “viral,” to use a modern idiom, with over fifty known texts identified by James Moore that repeated the Lady Hope legend through 1993, when he published his book. The story happened to take place in the midst of the anti-evolution crusade involving William Jennings Bryan and the “monkey trial” of 1925. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” for more on Bryan and the Scopes Trial. Bryan did not repeat the story even though he knew of it, saying that using it would only aid the other side in the fight against evolution. But that did not deter others.

Members of Darwin’s family repeatedly and vehemently denied Lady Hope’s story. Darwin’s son Francis, who edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter, in 1887, wrote Huxley in 1887 about the Toronto Mail reporter. He said: “By all means answer as you propose. You have my authority that the statement is false and without any kind of merit.” Francis wrote at least three letters after the Lady Hope story was published denying its veracity. In a letter to the secretary of the Protestant Press Bureau, on May 28, 1918, Francis said:

Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publically accused her of falsehood, but I have not see a reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my “Life and Letters of Charles Darwin,” Vol. I., pp. 304-317. You are at liberty to publish the above statement. Indeed, I shall be glad if you will do so.

Henrietta Darwin Litchfield, Darwin’s third daughter and the eldest daughter to reach adulthood, responded to an enquiry from the editors of The Christian, an interdenominational evangelical weekly, who asked her to confirm or deny the truth of a “highly-colored story . . . going the round of the American papers” about her father’s death-bed. If it was true, then many people would have been glad to learn that “some higher and deeper devotion claimed his soul.” If it wasn’t true, then “the facts should be known.” On February 23, 1922 in The Christian, Henrietta said:

I was present at his deathbed. Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any other illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case, she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in [the] U.S.A. In most of the versions hymn-singing comes in, and a summer-house where the servants and villagers sang to him. There is no such summer-house, and no servants or villagers ever sang hymns to him. The whole story has no foundation whatsoever.

Lady Hope died in Sydney Australia on March 9, 1922. She had traveled there for medical treatment for breast cancer. Eighteen years after her death, a professor of biology, S. James Bole, published an undated letter he had received from her in the early 1920s, having promised to keep it private during her lifetime. He had written to her, “asking for the story.” She said Darwin heard she was in his village, holding meetings to discuss the Gospel and Temperance and asked if she would call upon him. She said when she arrived, he had a large Bible open before him to the book of Hebrews, which he said was “the Royal Epistle.” The contents of the letter to Bole are quite similar to the account Lady Hope gave in the Watchman-Examiner.

Darwin is supposed to have commented on some of the great Gospel truths to her, and how Christ was the King, Savior and Intercessor. When Lady Hope asked him about certain doubts that were raised about Creation from what he wrote,

He seemed greatly distressed, his fingers twitched nervously, and a look of agony came over his face as he said: “I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything, and to my astonishment, the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.”

So she continued to tell her story until the day she died. But as Francis Darwin said, if his father had had an evangelical conversion experience in the last years of his life, surely that would have become known to his family. They have spoken and were quoted above as saying it never happened.

However, there is an outside chance that some kind of an encounter happened between Darwin and Lady Hope, but it would not have unfolded as she related in her story. Lady Hope was in Downe Village, near the Darwin estate, in September and possibly early October of 1881. Moore said: “The story, though imaginative, cannot be dismissed as pure invention. It contains striking elements of authenticity, to which Lady Hope added convincing new detail.”

For proprieties sake, she would not have met with him alone; and a likely third party would have been Darwin’s wife, Emma, who was well known for her own Unitarian faith. Before they married, his father, Robert Darwin, warned Charles that a husband should conceal his religious doubts from his wife so that she didn’t fear for his salvation. The younger Darwin ignored his father’s advice, revealing his doubts to Emma while they courted. When she was first pregnant, she wrote him that she didn’t feel she could say exactly what she wanted to him. What if she died in childbirth? Would he join her in heaven? It would be a nightmare “if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”

Emma’s silence on the possibility of a conversion experience by her husband in the final months of his life speaks loudly to the fact that it did not happen. After her husband’s death, the family debated over whether a section of his autobiography, a private narrative originally written only for family members, should be published. In a section on religious beliefs Darwin had wondered how anyone “ought to wish Christianity to be true,” given its doctrine of everlasting punishment for unbelievers. For in those numbers would be his father, his older brother Erasmus, and almost all his best friends. Emma wrote to Francis, who was editing the Life and Letters, wondering how Charles’s religious friends would react to the sometimes-raw honesty of his thoughts. If there had been any legitimate reversal in Darwin’s agnosticism at the end of his life I think Emma would have insisted on its inclusion.

The autobiography was dismembered, the section on religious belief was removed to a separate chapter in the Life and Letters, and only “extracts, somewhat abbreviated,” were printed.

The unedited version of Life and Letters with Darwin’s clear rejection of many basic Christian beliefs would not be published until 1958, almost 100 years after Origin of the Species. Darwin’s unvarnished religious convictions were apparently more of a concern than his scientific ones.

08/25/17

Enslaved by Freedom

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In the early 1980s, a Christian friend waxed eloquent about the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer to me. I was a young Christian then and respected this friend’s endorsement, but didn’t think I was up to tackling his five volume collected works which had just been published in 1982. So I bought the smallest book I could find by Schaeffer in the bookstore instead, Escape From Reason. It was so full of thoughtful theology, apologetics and philosophy that I have been reading, re-reading and referencing it since then.

In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer developed a helpful way of conceiving how the modern understanding of humanity came about. But unlike other modern thinkers, he went back to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, over three hundred years before Descartes. See “Not a Ghost in the Machine” for more on Descartes. Schaeffer thought the real birth of modern humanistic thought began with Aquinas’ distinction between nature and grace. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas thought grace was a higher level of existence that included God the Creator, heaven and heavenly things, the unseen and its influence on the earth and the human soul. The lower level of nature contained every thing created—all earthly things, all that is visible, and what nature and humans do on the earth, including the human body.

Similar to the Cartesian mind-body distinction, Aquinas did not see a complete separation between nature and grace—between the human body and soul. However, he had an incomplete view of the biblical Fall, according to Schaeffer. Aquinas thought human will was fallen, but human intellect was not. “From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties.” In Aquinas, one realm of human existence could potentially be independent of God. Human intellect wasn’t entirely non posse non peccare— not able not to sin—to use Augustine’s description of human nature after the Fall. According to Schaeffer, this meant there was a potential for us to act as if human reason could be autonomous from God.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore, philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to Scriptures. This does not mean this tendency was never previously apparent, but it appears in a more total way from this time on.

When nature was made autonomous by Aristotelian thought in Aquinas, it began to annex grace. Schaeffer stressed that when nature is conceived as autonomous from God, it becomes destructive and it will ‘eat up’ grace. “Nature gradually became more totally autonomous. . . . By the time the Renaissance reached its climax, nature had eaten up grace.” But the Reformation was a counter balance to this autonomy of intellect.

In the Scriptures, God spoke truly about the upper level and the lower level. He spoke truly about Himself and heavenly things, and He spoke truly about nature—the created order of the cosmos and humanity. This is known as the two-books theory of God’s revelation—special revelation in Scripture and general revelation in nature. This was incidentally the starting point for many of the first modern scientists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher and scientist, is generally seen as the father of empiricism. He said:

God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.

Scripture also says we are made in the image of God, but fallen because “at a space-time point of history,” humanity sinned. Although the people of the Reformation knew they were morally guilty before God, they were not nothing. “These people knew they were the very opposite of nothing because they were made in the image of God.” And when the Word of God was listened to, the Reformation had tremendous results—in culture and in people becoming Christians.

The Bible tells us God is “both a personal God and an infinite God.” This personal-infinite God is the Creator of all things. Therefore, everything else is finite; everything else is created. This Creator-creature distinction places a chasm between God and all created things—humanity, animals, plants, and the machine. Yet when you come to the side of humanity’s personhood (Descartes’ mind-body composite), we were made in the image of God—created to have a personal relationship with Him. So humanity’s relationship is upward with God and not merely downward with the rest of the created order. Schaeffer pictured this relationship as follows:

On the side of God’s infinity, humanity is as separated from God as the Cartesian sense of machine and the other aspects of the created order. This is the Creator-creation distinction. However biblically, there is a different story on the side of human personality. Being made in the image of God, we were created to have a personal relationship with Him. Here our relationship is upward and not just downward; and there is a difference between humans and the rest of the created order.

If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless, you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.

Schaeffer said there is nothing truly autonomous from God; not the human mind or reason. There can be nothing apart from the lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. God made the whole person and He is interested in the whole person. While the modern humanist may have been conceived during the Renaissance, the Reformation provided the corrective to his dilemma. Although dualism in Renaissance thought has contributed significantly to the modern world’s sorrows, there is still hope in Christ. In another of his works, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Francis Schaeffer said:

The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment—the infinite, personal God who is really there—then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time.

What happened is that rationalism evolved and became entrenched in science. The uniformity of natural causes in creation or nature was gradually closed to any intervention from outside, from God. Nature became a closed system devoid of any intervention from God. The distinction of nature and grace no longer made sense. “There was no idea of grace—the word did not fit any longer.” There was no room for revelation, so the problem was redefined in terms of freedom and nature. “Nature has totally devoured grace, and what is left in its place ‘upstairs’ is the word ‘freedom’.”

At this time we find that nature is now so totally autonomous that determinism begins to emerge. Previously determinism had almost always been confined to the area of physics; to the machine portion of the universe.

This autonomous freedom is one where the individual is at the center of the universe. It is a freedom without restraint; without limitations. Descartes’ conception of the mind as a thinking thing, the person as a fundamentally rational, mind-bound individual, fits well within this freedom. And here we can see the fulfillment of the promise of the serpent in the story of the Fall. Eating of the forbidden fruit opened human eyes and made us like God, with the freedom of knowing good and evil independent of Him. As Blaise Pascal observed: “Original sin is foolish to men” who seek to be autonomous beings.

If interested, you can watch Francis Schaeffer unfold more of his thinking in several YouTube videos. Here is a link to one on “The Flow of Materialism.”

08/15/17

Erasing the Providence of God

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“One cannot give thought to the Church’s confession of faith in Providence without very soon being impressed by the distance between this confession and modern thought.” With these words, the theologian G. C. Berkouwer opened his classic work, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God. He went on to note how modern scientific and philosophical thought—as well as that of the ordinary person—is engrossed in the question of the meaning of the world and its history and the purpose of human life. A series of revolutionary, catastrophic events have led many moderns to ask: Can life still be said to make sense or be meaningful? “This is now a pre-eminently existential question whose persistence we cannot avoid.”

One of the most eloquent expressions of human insignificance was expressed by the astronomer Carl Sagan in his book, A Pale Blue Dot. At Sagan’s suggestion to NASA, Voyager 1— at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth—turned and took one last photographic look at earth before it continued on its journey out of the solar system. Reflecting on the resulting photo, he said:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

You can watch and listen to a YouTube video with a section from the audio book containing the quote above from A Pale Blue Dot here.

Berkouwer said that when God’s hand presses hard upon life, the question becomes: WHY? Where is God? That question underlies everything happening in our time. It reverberates through the estrangement of humanity from the rest of creation; through our secularization and alienation from God. “God is estranged from man; and man becomes a stranger in His world.” He said the following three motifs play an important role in modern secularization.

The first is the influence of modern science on faith in God. When nature is repeatedly explained through natural causes, the premise of God’s preservation and rule is set aside. For the scientifically-minded person, the doctrine of Providence was “convenient for pre-scientific naivete.” But it is rendered irrelevant by the insights of the scientific method. The reality of God is a relic of the pre-scientific age.

Though many are beginning to talk again about the limitations of the scientific method and though one hears occasional murmurs against its imperialism, the inevitable conclusion of modern science is that it has no room left for God.

The second motif is seeing religion as nothing more than a projection or reflection of human thought. It appears in the writings of several influential thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and others. Religion is an opiate of the people (Marx); man’s god is man (Feuerbach); religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” (Freud); Christianity is “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche). When religion is a projection or reflection of human thought, it becomes expendable. Here, belief in Providence is dangerous, as it is only “a lust for safety and protection against the threats to our existence.”

The third motif is refuting God’s Providence through catastrophe: “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow …” The meaninglessness of a crisis seems to cut off any perspective that reveals purpose. “The Providence doctrine fails to give an explanation of the gruesome reality that holds life in its grip.” Faith affirms meaning and purpose in life. “But where can one point to purpose or reality in the radically ungarnished life of our times?”

Does not honesty tell us to limit ourselves realistically to what lies before our eyes, and without illusions face the order of the day? How can we overcome the catastrophic by a return to a confidence in the meaning of life, when the possibility of meaning itself is in question? Realism and a facing of facts have come to fetter the human heart. The beautiful story of Providence and the Hand of God, it is said, is a religious fancy, and belief in it an illusionary escape from reality.

There is a fundamental flaw embedded in each of these motifs, namely that understanding the world around us—including the meaning of our lives within it—must have a human starting point. This seems to be what Berkouwer meant by secularization; what we see is what we get. Science explains, or will explain, what was previously unexplainable. As the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said when Napoleon asked him where God fit into his mathematical work, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Belief in God then becomes a projection of human thought. Christian faith is mistakenly interpreted as a Christian version of fate or determinism.

When this happens, it means that an abstract concept of sovereignty has replaced the God of revelation. God is construed as a “super power,” a potentia absoluta, which is another God than He of Scripture. Sovereignty “in itself” is a compassionateless concept quite as inspiring of dread as is blind fate. Biblical thinking is always directed to the sovereignty of God, that is, to the real, the true, and living God, the God of revelation.

Berkouwer encouraged his readers to turn to the Scriptures to overcome the modern crisis with the doctrine of Providence. He said as the Scriptures rule our thinking and speaking, as they fill the preaching of the Church, “so the Word of God will speak to the distressed and disordered life of our times.”

J. I. Packer said in the New Bible Dictionary that providence is normally seen in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator God. In Scripture, it is presented as a function of the sovereignty of God. “God is king over all, doing just what he wills (Psalms 103:19; 135:6; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11).” Packer said this conviction is throughout the Bible and must be distinguished from the following: pantheism, deism, dualism, indeterminism, determinism, chance, and fate.

Pantheism absorbs the world into God, while deism cuts creation off from him. Dualism divides control of creation between God and another power, where indeterminism denies there is any control at all. On the other hand, determinism imagines a control that obliterates human moral responsibility. Chance denies that the controlling power is rational, while fate denies that it is benevolent. Whenever these views creep into our understanding of God and his interaction with creation, they dilute a biblical sense of God’s providence. Packer said by God’s providence:

He upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psalm 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Genesis 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Ephesians 1:9–12).

When humans deny the continued work of God in his creation through secular views of science and philosophy, they are trying to erase what God has written across creation with indelible ink. As the apostle Paul said in Acts 17: 28: “In him we live and move and haves our being.” What can be known about God is plainly revealed in the creation. Since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived in the things that were made. “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:19-21).

08/4/17

Not a Ghost in the Machine

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There is a story told about René Descartes, that he traveled with a life-sized mechanical doll he named Francine, after his illegitimate daughter. Francine died tragically when she was five. The doll was supposed to be so lifelike, that it was virtually indistinguishable from a real person. One source said he constructed it “to show that animals are only machines and have no souls.” His biographer, Stephen Gaukroger, said Descartes kept the doll in trunk beside him while he slept. Supposedly, on a voyage over the Holland Sea, the captain of the ship quietly stole into Descartes’ cabin one night and opened the trunk. Horrified to see the mechanical monstrosity, he dragged the doll from the trunk and threw her overboard.

In Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Gaukroger said there is no truth to the tale; that it was likely a piece of propaganda in the eighteenth-century struggle against the materialism that grew out of Descartes’ philosophy. In his essay on Descartes for Galileo Goes to Jail, Peter Harrison said Descartes could be the most maligned and misunderstood philosopher who ever lived. “Indeed, there seems to be something about Descartes’ person and his philosophy that invites slander and simplistic mischaracterization.” Both Gaukroger and Harrison pointed to another misconception, that Descartes initiated the radical separation of mind and body, which then had disastrous consequences on Western philosophy.

Descartes did make a mind-body distinction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy said one of the most lasting legacies of his philosophy is what is now called mind-body dualism.  He argued that the nature or substance of the mind (a thinking non-extended thing) was completely different from that of the body (an extended, non-thinking thing). Harrison noted where the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively referred to this Cartesian doctrine of mind and body as “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” Such dualism, according to Ryle, was “fundamentally antiscientific.”

But there is a technical point missing in this portrayal of Descartes’ thinking. He considered the body and mind to be distinct substances. “A substance is something that does not require any other creature to exist—it can exist with only the help of God’s concurrence.” As a consequence, each could exist without the other. “However, this does not mean that these substances do exist separately.” Harrison said Descartes carefully rejected the kind of separation implied by Ryle and others.

In fact, Descartes took pains to deny such a separation, asserting that mind and body are “intermingled” so as to form a “unitary whole.” Mind and body, he insists, form a “substantial union.” He also unambiguously states (pace Dennett) that the mind is not in the body “as a pilot in his ship.” . . . In fact, the doctrine of a radical separation of mind and body is one that should more properly be laid at the feet of Aristotle or Plotonius, rather than Descartes.

Some commentators have suggested the interaction of mind and body was so central a concern for Descartes that it is misleading, to a certain extent, to refer to him as a dualist. He sought to understand the world in terms of three basic kinds of entity—matter (extended material things), minds (thinking things) and persons (mind-body composites). Correlations between mental events and bodily movements are merely natural properties of this body-mind complex. “The relations of mind and body, on this account, are explained in terms of psychophysical laws that constitute our very nature as embodied beings.” Harrison then gave this summation.

In sum, Descartes’ views about mind, body, and their relation are subtle, sophisticated, and complex. They bear little resemblance to the simplistic caricatures that often pose as authoritative accounts of his work. Descartes gave a central place to the emotions in his psychology, and he took very seriously the embodied nature of human beings. Because of Descartes’ insistence that the mind-body amalgam was a real entity, some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that he no longer be numbered in the ranks of the dualists.

Writing for BioLogos, philosophy professor Edward Fesler said to the extent that this separation and conception is seen as “an abstraction from concrete material reality, and not the whole of material reality,” there is nothing wrong with it. However, there must be a clear acknowledgement of its limitations. “It captures only those aspects [of reality] that are susceptible both of mathematical modeling and of detection vie experimental techniques by which the models may be tested. But anything else falls short.” Unlike Harrison, Fesler does see Descartes as responsible for many of the philosophical problems that came after his conception of mind and matter.

This bizarre re-conception of human nature—man as a “ghost in a machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously parodied it—opened up a host of philosophical problems which persist to this day. The materialist “solution” to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature. Unsurprisingly, this has led to theories of the relationship of mind to body which seem implicitly to deny, rather than to explain, the existence of mind, consciousness, meaning, and free choice.

The materialist resolution of the mind-body problem raised by Cartesian philosophy, subsuming the mind as an extension of bodily neurological functions, raises a problem for a biblical understanding of human nature. While there is a clear sense of a kind of dualism in Scripture, Christians cannot assume such a materialist position. Biblically speaking, humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. Fesler’s suggestion is to reject Descartes’s abstractions and rediscover the human being “as an irreducible psychophysical whole,” with our mental and physical as two aspects of one thing. There is both unity and distinction—what theologian Anthony Hoekema referred to as a psychosomatic unity of body (soma) and soul (psyche). See “We Are But Thinking Reeds” for a more in depth discussion of this idea.

But there is a third kind of Cartesian entity to consider—the mind-body composite of personhood. It is an essential aspect of human existence as it makes possible the relationship between individual humans, between embodied thinking things. An it makes possible a relationship with God. So it cannot be easily dismissed as merely a ghost in the machine.

Abeba Birhane offered a revision of Descartes for Aeon that adds a community aspect to Carteasian thought. Drawing upon Ubuntu philosophy, she said selfhood is acquired over time. She illustrated this concept by quoting the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Note the rephrasing of Descartes’ famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” Birhane said we know from everyday experience that personhood is partly formed in community. Who we are depends upon many others—family, friends, culture, etc. She quoted a Zulu phrase, saying it was a better and richer account of personhood than Descartes cogito argument: “A person is a person through other persons.”

Biblically speaking, human personhood is also the result of being created in the image of God. Humanity, “being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with him.” In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer said that when speaking of God to modern humans, it is important to emphasize that the Bible speaks of God as both a personal God and an infinite God. This is the kind of God who is there; who actually exists. And He is no ghost in the machine.

07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

© Eugene Sergeev | 123rf.com

The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

07/14/17

Myth of Newton’s Clockwork Universe

photo from Wikipedia: “The Clockwork Universe” by Tim Wetherell

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins turned the watchmaker analogy, used by William Paley to argue for the existence of God, on its head. Paley said if we were to find a watch in a field, even if we didn’t know how it came into existence, the “intricacy of design” in the watch would force us to conclude that it had a maker. Since the natural world shows even more evidence of design than a watch, its existence implies an even greater intelligent Designer or God. However, Dawkins asserted that we now know that natural selection, “the blind, unconscious, automatic process … is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life.” Since it has no mind, vision or foresight, “If it can be said to play the role of the watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Dawkins placed his finger on the necessary assumption in Paley’s argument: there must be a cause for the observed order in nature. Deny this, as Norman Geisler pointed out in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and the teleological argument failed, “for the alleged design (if uncaused) would be merely gratuitous.” Despite his affirmation of natural selection and rejection of a causal agent for the evidence of design in nature, Dawkins still recognized the persuasiveness of an argument from design.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

Rather like the ball in a tennis match, the notion of a clockwork universe has been batted back-and-forth to both support and undermine the belief in a Creator and/or Sustainer of the universe. Outside of Christian apologetics circles, where Paley’s watchmaker is a favored form of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the clockwork universe analogy is used to deny the belief in a sustaining Creator God. It has even been woven into a myth referred to by Edward (Ted) Davis as the “Newtonian Worldview.” Examples of this Newtonian myth of a clockwork universe are plentiful.

In an article celebrating the 150-year anniversary of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Johnjoe MaFaddon said while Darwin had destroyed the strongest evidence for the existence of a deity, “Two centuries earlier, Newton had banished God from the clockwork heavens.” In his essay on the myth of Newton’s mechanistic cosmology for Galileo Goes to Jail, Davis quoted from Sylvan Schweber’s 1989 essay, “John Herschel and Charles Darwin.” “The metaphor of the mechanical clock in Newton’s construction of the heavens and its legacy illustrate the power of metaphors in the development of scientific thought.” In an earlier essay, Davis quoted the following from the fourth edition of Thomas Greer’s A Brief History of the Western World:

With Aristotle’s laws of motion overthrown, no role remained for a Prime mover, or for Moving Spirits. The hand of God, which once kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits, had been replaced by universal gravitation. Miracles had no place in a system whose workings were automatic and unvarying. Governed by precise mathematical and mechanical laws, Newton’s universe seemed capable of running itself.

But as Stephen Snobelen pointed out in “The Myth of the Clockwork Universe,” the metaphor of a mechanistic, clockwork universe originated with medieval monks. “The myth of Newton’s clockwork universe is one of the most persistent and pervasive myths in the history of science.”  The idea of a “world machine” can be found in the astronomical works of Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Johannes de Sacrobosco (1230), and Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64). Copernicus used it in his seminal work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. But it was Nicole Oresema (1325-82) who compared the idea of a world machine to the clockwork universe.

In these early theological contexts, the clockwork analogy has two essential features: God as creator of the clockwork and God as sustainer of the clockwork. Thus it differs from eighteenth- century, nonprovidentialist deism that is committed only to the first element.

Both Davis and Snobelen convincingly demonstrated how Newton himself did not hold to what has been portrayed as a mechanistic, Newtonian worldview. The early advocates of the clockwork universe were “pious, believing Christians;” and if Newton had used the clockwork metaphor, he would have likely used it like the “Christian natural philosophers who went before him.” Snobelen said not a single unambiguous example of Newton referring to the universe as a clockwork system has been identified. Davis noted where Newton’s belief and understanding of God’s dominion “shaped the metaphysical perspective in which he placed his science.”

Deistic, “nonprovidentialist” thinkers like Gottfried Leibniz and Rene Descartes refused to allow God to exercise dominion over creation. According to Davis, Newton saw the Cartesian concept of matter as a path to atheism. Descartes believed matter and extension (space) were necessarily indistinguishable. He thought all motion took place in closed loops; all changes in motion were caused by direct contact, and not by forces acting at a distance (i.e., God’s sustained actions in nature). “Newton claimed that matter ‘does not exist necessarily, but by divine will.’” Snobelen quoted Leibniz, who like Dawkins, turned the clockwork analogy on its head to refute the sustaining acts of God:

Sir Isaac Newton, and his Followers, have also a very odd Opinion concerning the Work of God. According to their Doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his Watch from Time to Time: Otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient Foresight to make it a perpetual Motion. Nay, the Machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these Gentlemen; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse, and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work; Who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a Workman, as he is oftner obliged to mend his Work and to set it right.

Snobelen said Leibinz’z idea of a perpetual motion machine implied an idealized Platonic clock, which he contrasted with an unreliable clock that needed frequent rewinding, “the kind of clock that would have been familiar to the original readers of this debate.” Because of the reliability of modern timepieces, we miss the slur Leibniz made here in his use of the clockwork analogy. Before the introduction of the balance spring or pendulum in the late 1600s, watches were very unreliable—sometimes losing minutes or hours of time in a day. It was only after the invention of the balance spring that minute and second hands became standard issue with all watches. So God’s sustaining work in creation was like a clockmaker winding, cleaning and mending his clock.

Newton has been co-opted by some as a “proto-deist” or the person who set the stage for a new rationalism that “set the stage for Enlightenment philosophies to remove God” from the ordering of things. But Snobelen said no deist would accept biblical prophecy as a revelation from God that has been and will be fulfilled in history. But Newton did. Davis said if we ignored the vast theological gulf between Newton and the philosophers who reinterpreted his physics, “we encourage the very opinion the Enlightenment deists wanted us to share: that theology and modern science are fundamentally at odds.”

A biographer of Newton said few things would have angered him more than the belief that “the Principia contained the framework of a universe in which God was no longer vital, or even necessary.” Correspondence between Leibniz and a friend and disciple of Newton’s named Samuel Clarke, which occurred during the last year of Leibniz’a life (1715-1716), explicitly rejected his caricature of God having to wind up His watch from time to time:

The notion of the world being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; in the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends (under pretence of making God a Supra-mundane Intelligence) to exclude Providence and God’s government in reality out of the world.

Nevertheless, modern biblical Christians cannot follow Newton into all his theological beliefs. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; Davis thought he was an Arian. He also rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons. But confusingly, when concluding his above linked essay, Snobelen said:

A careful reading of Newton’s massive corpus, both published and unpublished, reveals that he was, without question, committed to biblical Christianity—even if not always orthodox—and understood his own work, particularly his physics, in providentialist terms, reflective of his theistic and prophetic understanding of the cosmos.

Newton’s anti-trinitarianism is not disputed, and that alone would have him seen as heretical by most of Christianity. So it is unclear why Snobelen would say Newton was “committed to biblical Christianity.” In another essay, he clearly said: “Isaac Newton was a heretic.” He observed that Newton never made a public declaration of his beliefs, knowing that if he did, he had a lot to lose. Newton was aware he had enemies who would pounce upon any revelation of “doctrinal waywardness” to discredit him; he realized how the charge of heresy could damage his reformation of natural philosophy. “Fear of this sort of public relations disaster must have been one of Newton’s greatest deterrents to open preaching.”

07/4/17

Balancing Act with Human Origins

© arinahabich | 123rf.com

A recent Gallup poll found the percentage of U.S. adults who believe God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, what Gallup called the strict creationist view, has reached a new low. They are now tied with those who believe God guided humans development over millions of years at 38%. “This is the first time since 1982 — when Gallup began asking this question using this wording — that belief in God’s direct creation of man has not been the outright most-common response.” The “secular” view—that humans evolved from lower life forms without any divine intervention—has doubled since 1982, from 9% to 19%.

Reflecting on the Gallup poll results, Deborah Haarsma said that while polls are not infallible, BioLogos was encouraged to see these trends took place during the years in which BioLogos has been at work. “Anecdotally, we are seeing more openness to discussing the scientific evidence for human origins in the context of biblical faith . . . While loud voices continue to push extreme positions on origins, either anti-science or anti-God, this study shows that many everyday Americans are open to a conversation that brings science and God together.” These results are illustrated in the following graph found in the Gallup poll, which was conducted at the beginning of May in 2017. The results suggested to her that those who changed their views from a strict creationist position adopted the “God guided” position on evolution.

Gallup concluded that higher education levels effected creation/evolution belief in a strict (young earth) creationist position. Among those with postgraduate education, 21% said they believed in a strict creationist view versus 48% among individuals with no more than a high school education. “Agreement with evolution without God’s involvement is 31% among postgrads versus 12% among Americans with a high school education or less.” See the Gallup poll link for a table containing these results.

Nevertheless, among individuals with a college degree or above, more believed God had a role in evolution than who said evolution occurred without God. Haarsma pointed out that sociologist Jonathan Hill concluded from his research (the National Study of Religion & Human Origins, NSRHO) that education level was not the primary influence on views of human origins. Rather than education, differences in positions on human origins are better attributed to the religious beliefs of groups the individual belongs to.

When we track the beliefs of close friends and family, creationists are substantially more likely to belong to networks who agree with them about human origins. They are also more likely to expect increased disagreements with family and friends if they were to change their beliefs. Likewise, creationists are more likely to belong to congregations who have settled positions that reject human evolution and to perceive disagreements with religious leaders and other congregants if they were to change their beliefs. Moreover, creationists are more likely to spend their schooling in science classrooms that did not endorse evolution. Even if this is restricted to public high schools and universities, their science classroom experience is different from others. Put simply, creationists are embedded in networks and institutions that are more effective than the other groups in reinforcing the content and importance of their beliefs.

The bottom line for the Gallup poll was that most Americans believe God had a role in creating human beings. “But fewer Americans today hold strict creationist views of the origins of humans than at any point in Gallup’s trend on the question, and it is no longer the single most popular of the three explanations.” However, strict (young earth) creationism is still tied for the leading view at 38% of the population.

But Jonathan Hill found when you tease out individual beliefs for strict creationists, only 8% affirm all six beliefs, namely: (a) humans did not evolve from other species, (b) that God was involved in the creation of humans, (c) that God created directly and miraculously, (d) that Adam and Eve were historical figures, (e) that the days of creation were literal twenty-four hour days, and (f) that humans came into existence within the last 10,000 years.

Additionally, when deconstructing respondents who hold to a theistic evolution perspective in the Gallup poll (38% said humans developed over millions of years with God guiding the process), Hill found that only 16% of respondents (a) believed in human evolution and (b) God or an intelligent force were somehow involved. Only half of this group was very or absolutely confident of both of these beliefs. When applying a stricter definition to this group, only 5% of the population (a) believed God was involved in human evolution, (b) the days of creation were not literal, and (c) humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago. Requiring certainty dropped the percentage to 2%. “It is clear that the theistic evolution position does not come with a high degree of confidence for much of the population.”

When asking how social factors influence beliefs in young earth or evolutionary creation beliefs, certain factors become important in predicting firm, certain belief. The factors having the largest influence on predicting who is a certain (young earth) creationist included: (a) belonging to an evangelical denomination, (b) reporting faith is important in day-to-day life, (c) frequent prayer, (d) believing the Bible is literal (with no symbolism) or the inspired Word of God (symbolism but no errors), (e) family members with the same belief about origins, (f) friends have the same beliefs about origins, (g) changing beliefs would cause disagreement with other congregants and religious leaders, (h) their congregation has a settled position that rejects evolution.

Important factors predicting confident, certain evolutionary creation beliefs included: (a) belonging to a mainline (versus an evangelical) Protestant church, (b) being Catholic versus evangelical Protestant), and (c) not believing the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God without errors.

Hill concluded that the social context of these beliefs is just as important as individual factors such as religious identity, practice and belief. “Social networks of family and friends, congregations, and schools all play a role.” Most important for strict creationists is the combination of certain religious beliefs, particularly beliefs about the Bible, and social contexts such as those related to a religious congregation. For individuals who believe human evolution is compatible with orthodox Christian faith, persuasion has to move beyond a purely intellectual level. Ideas consistent with evolutionary creation are only persuasive “when individuals are in a social position that allows them to seriously consider what is before them.”

There has been a tendency in evangelical Christian circles to see only two views with regards to human origins—creation or evolution. Data from the latest Gallup poll and the earlier NSRHO survey by Jonathan Hill suggests this rigid, and false dichotomy of views is changing. Consistent with these views on origins has been a parallel conflict thesis between science and religion, which also seems to be weakening.

In another article on a Pew study into religion and science, Hill pointed out the difficulty of holding onto a belief in the ultimate compatibility between science and faith, when you are not exactly sure how that compatibility should be realized. For now, it’s like balancing on a tightrope. But the decline in evangelicals who see an inherent conflict between their faith and science is an encouraging trend. But there is still a ways to go. See the NSRHO or “Did God Make You?” for more information and discussion on this topic. Also see the links for “Genesis & Creation” and “Religion & Science” on this website.

06/23/17

Total War Against Sin

Christian fighting against Apollyon; Wiki image of stained glass in Robin Chapel

The sense of total war, and the carnage it generates, was graphically portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. And yet the movie’s hero was a man who did not fire a shot against his enemy. He trusted in God to deliver him. Puritan writers regularly used the imagery of warfare to describe our battle against the indwelling sin of our flesh. But John Owen intensified that imagery in his work Indwelling Sin, when he clearly portrayed our fight against sin as total war against the indwelling sin of our flesh.

In chapter four of Indwelling Sin, Owen said he would limit his reflections on the nature of indwelling sin to what Paul said in Romans 8:7, namely that the carnal mind (or the mind that is set on the flesh, as in the ESV) is hostile to God. After quoting the Greek phrase for “carnal mind”, Owen said this fleshly wisdom was the same as “the law of sin.”  More than just an enemy of God, this mindset is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, because it cannot.  Owen said this enmity signifies there is no possibility for reconciliation.

There can be reconciliation with an enemy of God, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:10: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But where there is enmity, there can be no reconciliation. As Owen said: “There is no way to deal with any enmity whatever but by its abolition or destruction.” The only way to reconcile enemies is to first destroy the enmity that exists between them, which Christ did by his death (Ephesians 2:15).  And if even the smallest amount remains, it is still enmity; it is still poison.

Every spark of fire is still fire, and it will burn. The apostle Paul, who may have made as great a progress in subduing his flesh as any one on earth, still cried out for deliverance: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Mortification of the flesh will abate its force, but cannot change its nature. While grace changes the nature of a person, nothing can change the nature of sin. “Whatever effect be wrought upon it, there is no effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still.”

God is love (1 John 4:8) and against this God we carry enmity all out days—an enmity that is incapable of cure or reconciliation. “Destroyed it may be, it shall be, but cured it cannot be.” When it is enmity against which a person struggles, nothing can be expected but continual fighting until one or the other is destroyed. “If it be not overcome and destroyed, it will overcome and destroy the soul.”

Here lies its power: there is never a truce or true peace. “It is never quiet, conquering nor conquered.” Some people try to quiet their corruptions by trying to satisfy them—to make provisions for their flesh by gratifying its desires (Romans 13:14). Yet this is but adding fuel to the fire. All the fuel in the world, everything that is combustible will not satisfy it, but will only increase it. So it is with trying to satisfy sin by sinning. You cannot bargain with a fire to only burn so much; you have to quench it.

It is so with this indwelling sin: whether it violently tumultuate [create great emotional or mental agitation], as it will do on provocations and temptations, it will be outrageous in the soul; or whether it seem to be pleased and contented, to be satisfied, all is one, there is no peace, no rest to be had with it or by it. Had it, then, been of any other nature, some other way might have been fixed on; but seeing it consists in enmity, all the relief the soul hath must lie in its ruin.

Although Scripture variously portrays this enmity as our enemy, it is ultimately “enmity against God.” Peter urged us to abstain from the passions of the flesh that war against our soul (1 Peter 2:11). Paul said the desires of the flesh and Spirit are opposed to one another to keep us from doing what we want to do in the flesh (Galatians 5:17). “It fights against the Spirit, or the spiritual principle that is in us, to conquer it; it fights against our souls, to destroy them.” Its nature and ultimate aim is to oppose God.

This is our state and condition: All the opposition that ariseth in us unto any thing that is spiritually good, whether it be from darkness in the mind, or aversation in the will, or sloth in the affections, all the secret arguings and reasonings that are in the soul in pursuit of them, the direct object of them is God himself. The enmity lies against him; which consideration surely should influence us to a perpetual, constant watchfulness over ourselves.

Every sin is opposition to God—an attempt to cast off His yoke. It is an attempt to break off the dependence the creature should have on the Creator. So here we may reflect back on the Genesis account of the Fall, where humankind sought to be like God, independently knowing what was good and what was evil (Genesis 3:5). The carnal mind is hostile to God because it will not subject itself to the will of God. “The soul wherein it is may be subject to the law of God; but this law of sin sets up in contrariety unto it, and will not be in subjection.” It is absolute and universal to all of God and all of the soul.

If there were anything of God that sin was not in enmity against, the soul could have a shelter and retreat there. But enmity lies against God himself. It is against everything that is of God—his nature, properties, mind or will, his law or gospel. The nearer anything is to God, the greater is enmity against it. “That which hath most of God hath most of its opposition.” The more spirituality and holiness is in a thing, the greater is the enmity against it.

Enmity is also universally against the soul. If this law of sin had been content to subdue one faculty of the soul, but leave another at liberty, “it might possibly have been with more ease opposed or subdued.” But when Christ comes with his spiritual power to the soul, he can find no quiet landing place. “He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer.”

Everything is secured against him—the mind, the will and emotions. And when grace had made it’s landing, yet sin is entrenched from coast to coast. Had there been anything in the soul at perfect freedom and liberty, perhaps a stand to drive enmity out could be made. But it is universal and makes war throughout the soul.

The mind hath its own darkness and vanity to wrestle with,—the will its own stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness; every affection its own frowardness and aversation from God, and its sensuality, to deal withal: so that one cannot yield relief unto another as they ought; they have, as it were, their hands full at home. Hence it is that our knowledge is imperfect, our obedience weak, love not unmixed, fear not pure, delight not free and noble.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there is a battle between the pilgrim Christian and Apollyon that captured this sense of total war described by Owen. The narrator, who “dreamed the dream” of Christian’s journey had this to say:

In this combat no man can imagine, unless he had seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight—he spake life a dragon; and on the other side, what sighs and groans burst from Christian’s heart. I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then, indeed, he did smile, and look upward; but it was the dreadfullest sight that ever I saw.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

06/13/17

What Does God Look Like?

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A neuroimaging study published in the journal Nature demonstrated that when a well-recognized face was shown to an individual, a single neuron in the person’s brain would fire. The researchers were able to show that a single unit in the left posterior hippocampus would fire “to all pictures of the actress Jennifer Aniston.” But the neuron did not respond to pictures of Jennifer Aniston together with Brad Pitt. In a previous study, the researchers found that individual neurons would fire selectively to various images—like animals or buildings. So it is possible that some people could have a single neuron that would fire when they see a familiar picture of Jesus—or Buddha. “That neuron could represent the cornerstone of their religious training and belief.” This adds a whole new way of looking at God as you understand Him.

The study mentioned above was “Invariant Visual Representation by Single Neurons in the Human Brain.” Here are links to the abstract and the full article. The above speculation of the possibility of a “God neuron” in your brain was by Andrew Newberg in his book, How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg wondered if it was possible that people could have a neuron or specific set of neurons that fired when they were asked to envision God. “As brain-scan technology becomes more refined, I suspect we will see that each human being has a unique neural fingerprint that represents his or her image of God.”

Newberg described how we are born with a neurological mechanism to identify objects. The first objects an infant learned to identify were family members and caretakers. We see this when a stranger looks at an infant and gets a frowned response. The child’s brain labels each new object it learns to recognize; the first of many steps that turn an image into a concept or a word. The simplest kind of word for a child to learn is a concrete noun, “because it refers to something the child can see, touch, or taste.” The neurological capacity of young children to comprehend abstract objects won’t fully develop until adolescence, so they can only readily understand the simplest concepts.

A young child’s brain has no choice but to visualize God as a face that is located somewhere in the seeable physical world, and that is what we find when we analyze the pictures drawn by children younger than ten.

Brain-scan studies show that nouns are linked to visual-object-processing regions of the brain. Each time a novel idea is introduced, there is increased activity in specific areas of the right hemisphere of the brain—“the same areas that construct our visual representations of reality.” So when a child is introduced to a spiritual concept, their brain will automatically give it a sense of realness and personal meaning. The brains of children who continue in religious education will modify their “spiritual map” as they are introduced to new ways of conceptualizing God. “So its not surprising to see children’s pictures becoming more complex as they mature.”

A German professor of religious education, Helmut Hanisch, did a study where he compared drawings of God from West German children, who attended Christian-oriented schools, to those of children who attended school in East Germany, where an official antireligious doctrine had been in place.

In the religious group, children between the ages of seven and nine represented God as a face or a person around 90% of the time. By the time they reached the age of sixteen, only 20% drew pictures of faces or people. Instead, they preferred symbolic representations of God. But this did not happen with the East German, nonreligious students. By sixteen, “80% of the nonreligious children still used people to symbolize God.” The following chart illustrates the findings of Hanisch, as they were shown in Greenberg’s book. The vertical axis reflects the percentage of images that were abstract. The horizontal axis reflects the age of the children.

There were also differences in their comments about God. The older religious children described a loving sense of God, while the nonreligious children saw God as powerless and weak. They often referred to war, misery, suffering and poverty. One 12-year old girl said: “I don’t understand why God is allowing all this. Therefore I don’t believe in God.”

Young people do not have the cognitive skills to articulate abstract concepts of God, but they can use their visual imagination to comprehend spiritual realms. Even in the adult brain, ideas appear to be associated with internal visual processes, and mathematicians often think in pictures when they describe the invisible forces of the universe. Even when we imagine the distant past or future events, we activate the visual-spatial circuits of the brain. In fact, if you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell something, the brain’s first impulse is to assume that it doesn’t exist. Thus, for anyone, the brain’s first response is to assign an image to the concept of God.

Newberg said without this capacity for visual imagination, we would be barely able to think. Even when we sleep and dream, this capacity for visual imagination remains active. But children do not have the neural capacity to easily separate fantasy from fact, so they form beliefs that blur the boundaries of reality. Think here of the child who insists there are monsters under their bed. Children readily believe their nightmares are real, “while adults have advanced neural processes to help them analyze perceptual discrepancies.”

© Bill Watterson

If you tell a child that God can see you, or listen to your prayers, then the child’s imagination will associate those qualities with the eyes and ears of a face. If you tell the same child that God gets angry, the brain will generate images of frowns, gritted teeth, or perhaps fists banging against a wall—visual constructions that represent how a child perceives anger in other human beings. If you tell your child that God performs miracles, then the internal imagery takes on superhuman traits. For example, one boy drew God with a cape and a large S on his chest.

Newberg said that based upon his research, he thought the more a person examined their spiritual beliefs, the more their experience of God would change. And if you could not or would not change your image of God, you might have problems tolerating people who held to different images of God. He said if you clung to your childhood image of God, you limited your perception of truth. He thought this was a drawback for any religion that insisted upon a literal, biblical image of God. “If you limit your vision, you might feel threatened by those who are driven to explore new [or different] spiritual values and truths.”

For both the secular individual and the biblical Christian, there is validity in what Newberg says. The reality of radical Islamists and Westerners who reflexively oppose all Islamists as a result, clearly illustrates Newberg’s observation. The growing criticism of conservative Christian beliefs with regard to changing social and political mores is another example. Even within Christianity we find infighting and disputes over how to interpret the first 11 chapters of Genesis, the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the form of church government, what happens during the sacrament of communion, and so on.

However for the biblical Christian, there is a potential confusion, and perhaps a danger of slipping into postmodern or theological relativism, in what Newberg said as well. In order to avoid this, clearly make a distinction between God and how you image (view) God. What remains the same yesterday, today and tomorrow is God, and not how you imagine Him to be. Greenberg used the sense of the “image of God” because he was describing how children and adults visualize complex abstractions like God.

But when applied theologically to human beings, the term “image of God” has the sense that they were created (not visualized) in the image of God. Here “image” is used metaphysically and not visually. All humans are images of God in a metaphysical sense. So regardless of the differences in how they understand or view God (how they imagine Him), all people should be given the same toleration and respect as human beings created in the image of God.

Secondly, be aware that as a Bible-believing Christian, authority and power lies with God and His revealed Word, not your understanding (your image) of Him. Regularly Christians impute onto their views (images) of God the authority and power properly owed only to Him and his Word. And if there is any questioning of that personal image, they react as if the person questioned God, and not just their understanding of Him. I’d suggest such a Christian has implicitly violated the second commandment (found in Exodus 20), which forbids making an image of God. We see this more explicitly stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism, where it says the second commandment forbids the making of any kind of image of God, “either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image of likeness.”

So what does God look like to you? If you want, you can replicate an experiment Newberg has done with different groups of religious and nonreligious people—get a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and draw a picture of God. He suggested that you be spontaneous and draw whatever comes to your mind. Don’t worry about the quality of your art, but complete the drawing in two minutes. When you finish, write a brief description of its meaning below the picture.

Nearly everyone pauses for a long time—even longer than when we asked, “What does God feel like?”—which tells us there is increased activity occurring in many parts of the brain, especially in the visual, motor, association, cognitive, and emotional centers. Indeed, the question appears to be so neurologically challenging and psychological provocative that some people simply refuse to draw anything. Children, however, have no difficulty with the request, and delight in drawing their impressions of God.