RESPONDblogs: The Case for a Personal First Cause

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I find myself scratching my head when someone asks, “What caused the universe to exist?” What confuses me is that – often people will lead with a scientific answer to that question. Why is this an odd thing to do? Science is about using natural law to explain effects in nature. Yet before the universe, there were no natural laws…they started at the beginning of the universe. Surely science isn’t the appropriate tool to answer this origin question?

 

Perhaps philosophy is a safer starting point when exploring these issues. And using philosophical argument, you can mount a case for a personal First Cause…

 

First – the First Cause is wholly other than the Universe.

We’ve got to try to understand what CAUSED the universe in terms that are unbound BY the universe. Why? Because a cause is always greater than an effect. For example, we may love the characters and the plot of a novel or a movie. But that first cause of that “world” is of another order than that fictional world. The story is fictional – but its cause is real and has thoughts, abilities and a history that goes far beyond the bounds of the fictional world they wrote about.

 

The First Cause of the universe has caused space and time to exist. So, it transcends both. What does this mean?

Changeless – if it is timeless, then it does not react to the passage of time. We change over time. Things change over time. The First Cause is outside of time, and so does not change.

Immaterial – the universe is composed of matter. The First Cause is of another order to that and is not bound by the constraints of matter. It is therefore immaterial. This might sound tricky to accept…but those story characters I mentioned earlier are also immaterial. So are the thoughts about the thoughts that led to the story! So is truth, beauty and Justice. We are quite used to dealing with immaterial realities in our lives.

Uncaused – everything in the universe is caused. The First Cause is other than the universe and so is uncaused. What does this mean? It means that, unlike our experience of nature, there is no antecedent cause for the First Cause. The buck stops with the First Cause. Otherwise, we find ourselves asking…so who caused the First Cause? And that question can go on back and back for ever. No – the First Cause is uncaused. Again – this is very reasonable.  Ocam’s razor isn’t a shaving implement – it’s a problem-solving principle that states something like, “Among competing hypotheses, the simplest one is best.” There’s only one First Cause. Simples.

Powerful – the First Cause is pretty powerful to create a universe that looks beautifully infinite out of nothing…right?

 

Second – the First Cause is a person.

This is where things get tricky for many people. Perhaps we don’t like the thought of natural laws being the result of some super intelligence like God. Certainly, if we are opposed to the idea of God, then I get why we wouldn’t like that. But, I think the proposition that the First Cause is a person…makes a lot of sense quite apart from religious views. Why? Here are two reasons why.

First – the Personal explanation type gives a fuller explanation.

William Lane Craig points out that there are typically two types of explanation of an event. A scientific explanation, talking about the laws and initial conditions for the event, and a personal explanation, dealing with agents and their wills and choices. Both of these are good explanations.

He asks us to imagine a boiling kettle on the stove in the kitchen. And he asks, why’s the kettle on the boil?

The scientific explanation would say, “The heat…increases the kinetic energy of the water molecules…and are thrown off…[as] steam.”[1]

The personal explanation would be something like, “My wife’s making a cup of tea. Would you like some?”

Which explanation do we turn to when explaining the origin of the universe? We cannot use the scientific explanation because the laws and initial conditions that science deals with were caused when the universe began. There was nothing before the universe. That only leaves the personal explanation – an agent willed it. And only persons have wills. So, the First Cause of the universe is a Person.

 

Second – the Personal explanation solves the Temporal Effect and Timeless Cause Dilemma.

This one was tricky for me to grasp. But the dilemma is this. If a timeless cause has caused the effect of the Universe, then why isn’t the universe timeless…or eternal as well as the cause?

Again, Craig invites you to consider two different ways that events are caused:

1 – a brick shattering a window – in this case, one event (a kid throwing a brick) causes another event (the shattering of a window). You can call this EVENT / EVENT causation because it involves related events.

2 – a log floating on the water – this case is different. Here, one state of affairs causes another. Because the water has a certain surface tension, the log floats on it. This could be called STATE / STATE causation. In this causal relation, the effect need not have a cause. The log could have been floating there eternally. If someone threw it into the lake…then that’s EVENT / EVENT causation instead.

 

So – what about the causation of the universe? Here we seem to have a confusing situation – STATE / EVENT causation. The cause of the universe is timeless, but the effect isn’t timeless because it occurred at a specific point in time (around 14 billion years ago). Usually, the state has the same type of effect. But not in this situation.

 

This is a philosophical dilemma. And the way out proposed by Craig is a personal First Cause who “freely chooses to create a universe in time.”[2] This isn’t EVENT / EVENT causation. And it’s not STATE/STATE causation. Philosophers call it agent causation. And we are very familiar with this concept. Whenever I raise my hand in class to ask a question, my hand goes up as the result of agent causation.

 

 

So – where does this leave me?

The First Cause of the universe cannot be described using scientific means (the laws of physics). And the First Cause isn’t bound by the same constraints we ourselves experience within the universe. The First Cause is an eternal, immaterial, powerful Person. And that…sounds a lot like most people’s description of GOD. And if He’s really there…maybe the Bible’s been right all along. We can get to know who He really is?

 

Image courtesy of Pexels.

[1] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd ed, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2008), 152.

[2] Ibid.

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RESPONDblog: Why Does God Hide?

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“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him?”

I know many people who just do not understand why my life features a God element to it. “Why do you spend so much time in churches, Stuart? I just don’t see the point…I just don’t see any evidence that God’s there.”

 

But sometimes they will go a step further. Not only doesn’t there seem to be any evidence for God…it seems to them that if He is there…God hides himself. And that just doesn’t make any sense. That’s just stupid.

“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him? To do the right thing? To worship Him?” Why would God hide himself from us? Unless the hiddenness of God is yet another reason to say that…actually God’s not hidden…he’s just not there at all?

 

What is interesting is that in the Bible, we see evidence that God does consciously hide himself. He doesn’t make his appearance too obvious to us.

 

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

 

In his book, “Why Does God Allow Evil”, Clay Jones makes an important observation about this seemingly counter intuitive truth about the Christian God. He’s not hidden because He’s not there…He’s hidden because He chooses to be.

 

Why?

 

Clay offers three reasons:

 

1 – Because if He was too obvious, then everyone would be compelled to call themselves Christians.

Often the sceptic thinks this is what Christians want. Well – it shouldn’t be – because it’s not what God wants. God honours our free will.

He doesn’t want to compel anyone to follow Jesus. Why? Because God intends each of us to exercise our God given freedom to choose.

Another way of putting this is – “if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakeable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge.”[2] If we are compelled to do the right thing because we are under constant supervision, then what does this mean? It means we aren’t free to do what we want to do. If there’s a fiery sword in the sky that comes down on anyone who breaks the rules – what will happen? We will have a human population that works hard NOT to get cut in half! People will feign loyalty to God as a survival strategy.

This isn’t what God wants. He wants people to choose willingly to follow Him.

 

2 – Because He gives enough evidence for those who want to know Him.

There are various instances in the Gospels where Jesus could have done more miracles to compel the people in a town to follow him. In one particular town, it was the religious people who demanded more of his credentials. Yet he refused. Why? Didn’t Jesus want to build up a crowd of followers…like the other rabble rousers in first century Jerusalem? No.

Jesus didn’t want to compel anyone. Rather, He gave enough to justify the belief of those who willingly chose to follow. But he didn’t give too much, and so force everyone else to feign loyalty….to pretend to follow on the outside, while growing in resentment on the inside.

Have you ever gone to a party unwillingly? Perhaps you didn’t know the host, or you knew them and were too polite…or dishonest…to say no to the invitation! How does that feel? Well – probably along the lines of, “When will this ordeal end?”

God gives enough evidence to nurture obedience and relationship…and nothing more. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out, but in the end he only wants people at the party who actually want to be there.

 

3 – Because if He was too obvious, people would be rendered spectators rather than obedient followers.

If God constantly intervened in the affairs of life, this would disempower us…not empower us.

Imagine you start a new job, and the boss is there to welcome you into your new position. But then – after your induction – he sits across the office and stares at you. Every email you write, every meeting you attend, every visit to the bathroom has to go through him…and he has to be there while you are doing it. What would you do?

I know what I would do – I wouldn’t stay in that job very long. Why? Because I’d start to second guess every email, every meeting…and possibly every toilet break! I’d start to say – tell you what – why don’t you write this email and run this meeting for me? Then you will get what you clearly want. If I’m employed to do something then I need to have the freedom to do it. I am accountable to the management – absolutely. But I can’t be micromanaged every step. If I am…I am disempowered. And that just doesn’t make sense.

God is not like that micromanager. He wishes to empower, not disempower. He’s wise enough to know how much is enough to get us started and moving in the right direction. But he does not smother us on the journey.

 

 

The thing about God as we find him in the Bible – is that he wants to know us. He wants a relationship based on choice and honesty. It’s not his plan to compel anyone in this. Instead, He draws us toward him. And maybe for us today…we’re not fully there yet. But know that – He is there, and He does long for you to be close with Him.

 

“I led them with chords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”[3]

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

[1] Isaiah 45:15.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers), 111.

[3] Hosea 11:4.

RESPONDblogs: Human Beings are Unique

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What are we?

 

I listened to an interesting talk recently from Simon Conway Morris, who is Chair of Evolutionary Paleo biology at the Dept. of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University.

 

He asks the question – are we essentially just more “evolved” animals that belong on Darwin’s incremental tree of life? Or is there something unique about people compared to the animals? However much time has elapsed, perhaps we aren’t just naturally selected incremental improvement? Rather – we are something different altogether.

 

Evolutionary theory has drummed into us that we are essentially no different from other animal species. We’re related to other hominids. We are just matter – we are physical – we are all related. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this idea.

 

Or are we? As Morris says, “Maybe it’s not as simple as that.”[1]

 

 

First – we often misunderstand the animals we invest our lives in.

Morris thinks we have a habit of reading ourselves into the animals we relate to. Our relationship with dogs is a perfect example of this, he says. We humanize them…and they are happy to play along with our delusion. But crucially – as Morris points out – the evidence suggests that dogs have no idea what is going on inside our minds. They react to stimuli – they learn what actions and objects mean and sound like. Nothing more.

 

Dogs live happy and fulfilled lives as our pets. But we are of a different order to them.

 

We are not the only intelligent species on the planet – but it seems that our consciousness is of a completely different order to anything else. We live in an extended universe – the animals are confined to a monotonic universe. And they are happy that it is so.

 

What experimental evidence does Morris appeal to in making this claim?

 

Second – Morris offers the following evidence:

 

1 – Humans Uniquely Understand Cause and Effect

There’s evidence that crows are very intelligent. An experiment has been done where the bird has to perform a task – drop stones into a container – in order to raise the water level so it can have a drink. The fascinating thing is – often the crow will work this out. It will find and deposit the stones to raise the water level.

It is tempting to assume then – that it understands cause and effect, that it gets the implication of what it’s doing. Unfortunately – when the conditions of the experiment change – it becomes clear that the crow doesn’t understand this.

Yes, it has memory, yes its intelligent. But no, it’s not building up an understanding of nature. It can do one thing well – and that involves survival.

 

2 – Humans Live in an Out of the Box Culture

We can think in terms of “analogy”; we are meta-thinkers that can work outside of the box. We explore seemingly unrelated ideas and come up with ingenious solutions to problems.

A simple example of this is – humans use tools. We employ them in many tasks, and the evidence suggests we have done this for a long time. Chimpanzees also use tools.

Yet we go beyond them; we live outside the box. We are the only species we know today that creates tools to build tools. What’s more, we rely on the discoveries and processes laid down by previous tool builders as we do so. Human culture is cumulative, it builds on itself.

Animals like chimpanzees don’t exhibit this behaviour at all. They use tools, they have a culture. But they don’t appear to KNOW they have a culture, and they don’t build tools to make tools.

Morris opines, “This sounds like a trivial difference. But it might be larger than we realize.”[2]

 

3 – Human Culture Features Teaching and Learning

Humans have a sophisticated approach to teaching. We have a self-referential pedagogical approach – the teacher observes the pupil and knows where their mind is currently at. Through observation, the teacher works to move the student forward to where they need to be. We intuitively sense the student’s mind.

Do animals? Morris refers to various species of Ant, Meercat and chimp. And the scientific observation to date suggests that which the animals instinctively develop habits and abilities, they do so in a simple way. Animals don’t go to University like humans do. We are of a different order.

Do animals have false beliefs about the world? Do they have a theory of mind? Current understanding says no, it doesn’t look like it.

 

4 – Human Language is Very Peculiar Indeed

Morris refers to Vervet Monkeys who have been observed to make sounds that seem to relate to other animals in their habitat like a leopard, a snake and an eagle. This sounds like it could be a proto-language, like the foundations of our own language capabilities?

Well, clearly, we have words that also refer to objects and concepts. This blog post is full of them! But our language isn’t just a more evolved version of the Vervet Monkey’s sound. Why?

Morris points to two peculiar aspects of human language:

  • We can say things that go beyond a single meaning. Our communication can have an infinite number of meanings, depending on the context it is used in.
  • We have a bottomless depth of rich imagination in human discussion. We easily move between factual and fictional statements. And we have the ability to create fictional worlds – completely unrelated to our own – where the reader can enter through their imagination. And the fictional world resonates deeply with them.

 

5 – Humans Apply Mathematics in a Unique Way

Experiments suggest that Guppy fish exhibit numericity. They are able to judge relative numbers in terms of distance and size.

For example, if some were to say – “Imagine you have a stone and a feather. How much do I have to add or remove from each to perceive a difference in their weights?” It turns out that I have to add or remove quite a lot from the stone, but not very much at all to the feather to notice a weight change. This is numericity…and Guppy fish can do something similar to this.

Is this proto-maths? Well, it’s called a psycho-physical sensory effect by the scientists. But to suggest it is proto-maths is nonsense to Morris.

Mathematics is a rich conceptual language that bridges the abstract and the physical. Maths:

  • involves abstract entities that don’t exist; numbers, complex numbers.
  • requires that we can do sums like addition and subtraction. Animals can’t seem to do that.

 

 

Conclusion

Are we just advanced chimpanzees? Morris suggests this well-worn message fails to recognize the uniqueness of human beings. It underplays our conscious, thinking abilities that came up with that inadequate theory in the first place.

Humans are of a different order to animals. We have “dominion over the natural world” and uniquely exhibit the characteristics of our Creator.[3] This is not just the Bible’s opinion, it is born out in our relation to those animals we were supposed to care for.

But aren’t we just physical beings like the animals? Is brain simply a biological computing engine? Morris thinks otherwise. He’s a substance dualist. Mind and brain are different aspects of human existence.

The physical human brain seems to be more than a biological information processing organ. It’s a filter. Our intangible, human mind exists independently of our physical bodies. Our brain is part of the mechanism we use for intercepting, exploring and harnessing what goes on in our minds.

People aren’t just more advanced than the animals. We’re built specially; we’re of a different order altogether.

 

Image courtesy of New Old Stock.

[1] Simon Conway Morris, The Emergence of Life, James Gregory Lectures on Science and Christianity, https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/james-gregory-lectures-on-science-and-christianity/id917410241?mt=2&i=1000382210716.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 1:26 – 27.

 

RESPONDblogs: Have Scientists Just Disproved a Major Biblical Event?

The LADbible reported on a cool scientific discovery that was made recently.

LADbible – Science Has Just Disproved a Major Biblical Event

 

Their report says the scientific discovery shows that a well known event mentioned by the Old Testament – that Richard Dawkins has famously mocked – did not happen. The event is the Israelite invasion of Canaan.

 

The LADbible article:

  1. Reports that Lebanese people share 90 percent of their genetic material today with 5 ancient Canaanite human remains from the city state of Sidon.
  2. Refers to the Bible passage where Israel destroyed all the Canaanite cities and annihilated its people.
  3. Suggests that if the Canaanite peoples were annihilated, they could not have directly contributed genetic material to the region’s present-day population. So, the Bible claim is false.
  4. Suggests if the Canaanite cities were destroyed, there would be archaeological evidence of this mass destruction dated to between the Bronze and Iron Ages. But there isn’t any. Again…the Bible claim is false.

 

So is the article right; does the science disprove the Bible? Or does it reveal Professor Dawkins’ famous rant to be nothing more than empty rhetoric?

 

I’m taking my lead here from Paul Copan, PhD. He’s the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

 

Here’s my response:

1.Reports that Lebanese people share 90 percent of their genetic material today with 5 ancient Canaanite human remains from the city state of Sidon.

Ok. It’s incredibly cool that scientists can parse our generic material this way and detect geographic markers in the code. Amazing stuff…I want to read more.

 

2. Refers to the Bible passage where Israel destroyed all the Canaanite cities and annihilated its people.

I’d like to make 3 points here:

2.1 – The historical Yahweh Canaanite wars were unique for Israel.

The Old Testament records that Israel attacked three Canaanite cities – Hazor, Jericho, and Ai.[1]

Unlike other ancient near eastern nations, Israel was conspicuous for its humane treatment of foreigners. Its neighbours were not normally to be attacked, and foreigners who lived in Israel were respected and had the same rights as the Israelites themselves. They were not known for being a xenophobic people.

The Canaanite attack happened for a specific purpose at a point in time.

Further, scholars believe these three fortified cities were essentially military forts manned largely by soldiers rather than the general Canaanite population.[2]

 

2.2 The ancient historical setting takes some sting out of the language.

For example:

“Joshua…destroyed the Anakites from the hill country…totally destroyed them.”[3]

Yet a couple of chapters later:

“the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified…”[4]

But weren’t the Anakites (a Canaanite tribe) destroyed? Not so much!

 

There are loads of examples like this thru the Canaanite period.

For example, elsewhere talking about the conquest of Canaan, it says “you must destroy them totally….Do not intermarry with them.”[5] How do you intermarry with people who you have totally destroyed?

 

Scholar Paul Copan explains that, what’s happening in the Bible text is it is using traditional ancient near eastern language of the time. He calls it hyperbole…a bit like when we say, “Rangers played Celtic at the football today and slaughtered them.” They didn’t literally kill all of them…but they beat them soundly. The Bible’s not misleading or showing Israel up to be inept…it’s just using the language that the other nations used at the time for war. Again, Copan has specific examples of the other nations talking like this.[6]

 

So, if the Canaanite cities were military bases, then why does it say it was “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”[7] Copan opines that this was a stock phrase that doesn’t imply non-combatants were there, the language was used to mean take the military installation.[8]

 

 

2.3 The Old Testament texts of Joshua and Judges do not therefore claim that Israel annihilated everyone in Canaan.

When we read the Bible text all the way through, rather than stop at the difficult bits, we find that while a military engagement did occur and Canaanite soldiers and leaders were killed, these people were not totally wiped out by Israel. As Copan says, “The people’s who had apparently been wiped out reappear in the story. Many Canaanite inhabitants simply stuck around.”[9]

 

 

3. Suggests that if the Canaanite peoples were annihilated, they could not have directly contributed genetic material to the region’s present-day population. So, the Bible claim is false.

But who’s saying the Canaanite people were totally annihilated? As we’ve seen, it’s not the Bible. No, it’s Professor Dawkins who says this.

The cool genetic data actually confirms what the Bible has been saying all along, that the Canaanites stuck around and became part of the Israelite nation after they invaded.

If anyone is challenged by the science, it’s actually Professor Dawkins, not the Bible.

 

4. Suggests if the Canaanite cities were destroyed, there would be archaeological evidence of this mass destruction dated to between the Bronze and Iron Ages. But there isn’t any. Again…the Bible claim is false.

Where’s the evidence of mass destruction? Well – there wasn’t any mass destruction. Israel had very specific battles in three fortified cities. Archaeologists are working to identify these areas and they have some clues as to where they were. But the destruction was minimal and contained.

Copan again – “The archaeological language support the biblical text…minimal observable material destruction in Canaan as well as Israel’s gradual infiltration, assimilation and eventual dominance there.”[10]

Besides, there is other archaeological evidence that Israel was in Canaan at this time. So, the invasion’s not really in doubt historically.[11]

 

 

Conclusion

The LADbible are right – the science is disproving something here. But I would suggest it’s not the Bible. The science doesn’t reveal Bible deficiencies, but it does ironically show up Professor Dawkins and his faulty understanding of the Bible. So, can we lay his well-worn, false rhetoric to rest now?

The science affirms the Bible’s claim that the Canaanite people gradually became part of the Israelite nation[12] following Israel’s invasion. God’s not shown to be an “ethnic cleanser” in the Bible.

 

But does it still bug you that Israel invaded Canaan in the first place? Me too. But, again, Copan has some ideas on that that are worth exploring…

”think along the lines of the Sicilian police invading a Mafia stronghold to remove a corrupting network of crime so that citizens can live in peace, rather than fear.”[13]

 

Image is Public Domain.

[1] Joshua 8:18-19, Joshua 9:3, Joshua 11:10-11.

[2] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 176.

[3] Joshua 11:21-22.

[4] Joshua 14:12-15.

[5] Deuteronomy 7:2-3.

[6] Copan, 172.

[7] Joshua 6:21

[8] Copan, 176.

[9] Copan, 171.

[10] Copan, 185.

[11] The Merneptah Stele: Earliest evidence for Israel in Canaan? Bible Apologetics, https://bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/the-merneptah-stele-earliest-evidence-for-israel-in-canaan/, accessed 31st July 2017.

[12] Joshua 13:1-7.

[13] Copan, 167.

RESPONDblog: Do the Gospel Writers Speak the Truth?

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The Gospel writers claim to have recorded what Jesus said and did. How do we know they haven’t embellished history beyond the bounds of ancient biography as they did so? Should the Gospels be trusted or rejected as hopelessly un-historic?

 

Professor Simon Greenleaf didn’t think they were un-historic.

He lived in the 19th century, practiced law throughout his life, held the Royal Professorship of Law and Dane Professorship at the Harvard Law School, and played a major part in forming Harvard’s coveted reputation. The London Law Journal of 1874 said of Greenleaf, “It is no mean honour to America that her schools of jurisprudence have produced two of the first writers and best esteemed legal authorities of this century…Judge Story…and…Professor Greenleaf.”[1]

 

Greenleaf believed that the New Testament Gospel writers would be taken as reliable witnesses in a court of law. Their writings should be viewed as historic. Greenleaf proposed five tests that led him to that conclusion:

 

Greenleaf Test #1 – Are the Witnesses Honest?

Do they honestly say what they believe to be true? The Gospels show many instances of the writers’ openness and sincerity. Historians sometimes call this the criterion of embarrassment.

The writers deal with such uncomfortable situations such as:

  • The many failures of Jesus’ disciples.
  • The occasional harshness of Jesus’ teaching.
  • Jesus’ anguish as he faced his own death.

Greenleaf concluded the gospel writers were, “good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.”[2]

 

Greenleaf Test #2 – Do the Witnesses Have Ability?

Did they have the opportunity to observe the situations they record? How well were they able to evaluate what they had seen and researched from other eyewitnesses? What about their ability to remember things?

Peter (Mark), John and Matthew had many opportunities to observe these events first hand. All three claim to have seen the resurrected Christ.

Luke was a physician and Matthew a tax collector. Both occupations required exactness in evaluation and reporting.

There’s no reason to question their mental abilities.

“the writings…indicate…mental vigour, as well as cultivated intelligence. The Gospels…reveal that elegance of style and lofty imagery which are invariably characteristics of intellectual depth and culture. The ‘ignorant fishermen’ idea is certainly not applicable to the Gospel writers…”[3]

 

Greenleaf Test #3 – Are there Sufficient Numbers of Witnesses and are they Consistent?

Greenleaf reports that the number and authenticity of the witnesses would satisfy any court.

“There is enough of a discrepancy (their own form and style) to show…no previous concert among them…[yet] substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.”[4]

 

Greenleaf Test #4 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Conform to Our Experience?

This might be where things get tricky. After all, the Gospels report various miraculous events, culminating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Who’s seem a real miracle in their lives?

It turns out, MANY people have experienced what they believe are miracles. Craig Keener has done one of the biggest studies into miracle claims of all sorts in every human culture, and has come to this conclusion on miraculous physical healing:

“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide claim to have experienced or witnessed what they believe are miracles. Eyewitness claims to dramatic recoveries appear in a wide variety of cultures, among Christians often successfully emulating models of healings found in the Gospels and Acts. Granted, such healings do not occur on every occasion and are fairly unpredictable in their occurrence; yet they seem to appear with special frequency in cultures and circles that welcome them.”[5]

 

Greenleaf himself urges an attitude of following the facts to their conclusion, even if the testimony is unusual. On the Gospel reports of Jesus healing miracles, he states:

“In every case of healing, the previous condition of the sufferer was known to all; all saw…restoration…these…were facts, plain and simple…comprehended by persons of common capacity and observation.

If they were separately testified to, by different witnesses…the jury would be bound to believe them”[6]

These witnesses were credible.

 

Greenleaf test #5 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Coincide with Contemporaneous Facts and Circumstances?

There are various instances where the Gospel writers clearly speak accurately about the geography, history and social factors at work in their day.

For example:

1 – The Pavement

Jesus trial before Pontius Pilate is reported to have occurred in an area known as “the Pavement.”

“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.”[7]

If the pavement is fabricated, maybe the whole trial is?

But there’s good evidence to suggest that the pavement is not fabricated, because the archaeological evidence suggests it has most probably been located.[8]

 

2 – The Pool of Bethesda

This is mentioned in John chapter 5 with reference to a healing miracle of Jesus. This pool is apparently not referenced by any other historical document, yet was excavated and identified recently.[9]

 

 

In summary, dishonest witnesses tend to be guarded in what they say, avoiding detail that might reveal them as dishonest. Yet the Gospel witnesses are refreshingly open with details that are cross checked with what else scholars have learned about life in those days.

 

The evidence suggests therefore that the Gospel writers speak the truth.

 

 

Image courtesy of http://www.pexels.com.

[1] Cited in Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers’ Case for the Resurrection, (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, & Public Policy, Inc), 43.

[2] Clifford, 45.

[3] Cited in Clifford, 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), Kindle Edition, 2012, Loc 5814.

[6] Cited in Clifford, 48.

[7] John 19:13, NRSV.

[8] Pavement Stone at Fortress of Antonia, Bible History, http://www.bible-history.com/past/jesus_trial_pavement.html, accessed 26th July 2017.

[9] The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles, Bible History Daily, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus%E2%80%99-miracles/, accessed 26th July 2017.

RESPONDblogs: PART 2 – Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and…Theologian?

isaac newton two

In part 1 of this blog, I presented a case based on Isaac Newton’s published writings. I said that he was both:

  1. a brilliant scientific revolutionary and
  2. a passionate, counter-cultural believer in God

He passionately grappled with both Nature and Scripture to understand the God who’s influence he saw there. Even though his conclusions put him at risk from 17th century society’s heresy laws. He studied both of these revelations (nature and scripture) to the glory of God.

Why does this matter today? Well, I would suggest it matters for three reasons.

First, mankind’s greatest scientific mind believed passionately in God.

Newton’s influence can’t be understated in scientific terms. He laid the foundation of optics, he formulated the law of universal gravitation, and he invented calculus. His book Principia, “was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.”[1]

And he embraced the theological implications of science. Faith and reason were not opposites to the brilliant mind of Isaac Newton. We cannot brush his religious faith under the carpet or frame it as simple and empty self-serving political posturing. Why? Because of the evidential passion of his belief in God that overflows in his private theological writings.

Since 2008, the Newton Project at Oxford University have been publishing the 2.2 million words of Newton’s religious works online. “The papers demonstrate that in this field Newton was a thinker of the highest calibre and intellectual daring, though our respect for his courage may well be tempered by the fact that he published almost nothing of it in his lifetime. “[2] We looked at that in more detail in part 1.

Holding both scientific and Christian perspectives on life made sense to Newton.

 

Second, Newton challenges us to follow his example.

He searched the scriptures trying to understand who his Creator was. He worked hard at it, and he held the Bible in high regard; he devoted his life to it. He spent more years writing Theology works than his works on nature.

If the greatest scientific mind can apply his reasoning abilities to God, then, why shouldn’t we? Are we saying we know better than him? Are we saying that belief in God is evidentially less reasonable in the 21st century than it was in the 17th century?

Some might suppose that, if Newton was alive today, he would be part of the ranks of the enlightened atheistic thinkers. After all, science has discovered so much more about how the Universe works now. Yes, it has. And as it has done so, it has stood atop Newton’s shoulders. In modern times, we do understand more about the Universe we live in. But one thing hasn’t changed. In fact, one thing is becoming much more pressing with each scientific discovery that we make. Newton understood that thing at his time, and he would no doubt have seen it more clearly now. What is that thing?

Evidence for God’s work is found in what we DO understand…not what we DON’T understand.

In speaking of the planets and their motion, Newton observed:

“To make this system therefore with all its motions, required a Cause which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the several bodies of the Sun and Planets and the gravitating powers resulting …to compare and adjust all these things together in so great a variety of bodies argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in Mechanics and Geometry….[this] system was the effect of choice rather than of chance”[3]

In other words, the fine-tuned mechanics of this system requires the influence of a skilled designer. Chance and natural alone is unable to account for the universe. Newton didn’t find evidence for God in the 17th century gaps of scientific knowledge. He found the evidence in the whole system of this universe. There’s no reason to suggest he would think any differently today.

Someone might complain, “But Stuart, he didn’t even agree with your basic tenants of Christianity! Are you saying he was right to do that?” He disagreed with the Christian belief in the Trinity for sure; God as Father, Son and Spirit. Personally, I’ve wrestled with various Christian doctrines throughout my life. I know what wrestling feels like. I’m not trying to somehow portray Isaac Newton as an evangelical Christian from the 21st century. What I am saying is that his reason led him to embrace and passionately wrestle with a personal belief in God as Creator involved with his creation. Newton was no deist. And he chose to spend his life diligently trying to understand the God who is present and active.

How about us?

 

 

3 – Newton puts a stake through the heart of the notion that science and God are incompatible

John Lennox, Professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says it so well.[4] He describes the supposed antipathy between science and religion as a myth. The real conflict is not between science and religion. It’s between theism and naturalism.

We can see that as we review the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics. There have been winners who are Christians; there have been winners who are atheists. If belief in God is irrational, then what’s a Christian doing winning a Nobel Prize?  Clearly the battle does not involve science.

Actually, it is a battle of opposing world views. It’s a conflict between two beliefs:

  • naturalism (the universe is all there is) and
  • theism (God created the universe with creatures who are both material and spiritual at the same time)

The point is that neither theism or naturalism are statements of science, they are both statements of belief. When Newton makes a case for God, that’s not science speaking, it’s Newton. When the brilliant Richard Hawking, famed modern scientist, makes a case for atheism that’s not science speaking, it’s just Hawking.

The reality is, faith is essential to science. I come to a place of trust in a position, and I reason on the basis of my trust. Faith and reason closely work together. And in Newton, we see that faith in God is the motor that drove science forward.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this; is there evidence for my belief? How trustworthy is my belief? Why do I believe it? Because it’s going to influence my life.

And it’s here we reconnect with Isaac Newton.

“Don’t doubt the Creator, because it is inconceivable that accidents alone could be the controller of this universe.”

Science and belief in God are not enemies; theism and naturalism are.

 

4 – Newton’s big question is – how good is the evidence for my belief?

Here’s a final example, again from Lennox[5].

Stephen Hawking has until recently held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. And he’s an atheist. He believes that the Universe came from nothing. The existence of gravity, naturally will result in the formation of the universe. From nothing.

Do you know who the second holder of that chair was? Isaac Newton.

Here’s the irony. Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity and believed in God. Stephen Hawking, who also occupied Newton’s chair at Cambridge, uses gravity as a reason not to believe in God.

Looking at both these men, it’s clearly not science that is incompatible with belief in God. It’s the belief we bring to our science. So – do we have evidence for our beliefs?

Do we believe with Newton that God created the Universe? Or do we believe with Hawking that nothing created the Universe? We have a belief, whether we like it or not. Once we’ve picked a side, it’s time to look at the evidence. And in that…Isaac Newton helps us. I imagine he would strongly reject Hawking’s “nothing” explanation for the Universe to this day. Why?

Because the original evidence, that Newton patiently observed and pointed towards, hasn’t changed:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[6]

 

 

Isaac Newton is a refreshing revolutionary in matters of science and faith. He challenges us to own up to our convictions, and to seek to evidence them. I think he really has done us a great service today.

 

 

 

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sir Isaac Newton: English Physicist and Mathematician, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Newton, accessed 22nd July, 2017.

[2] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3] Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 7.

[4] John Lennox, Are God and Faith Anti-Science and Anti-Reason? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKzizwPwNWU, accessed 19th July, 2017, summarized.

[5] Lennox, Faith Anti-Reason? summarized.

[6] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 7.

RESPONDblogs: Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and… Theologian?

newtonTim Peake is a British hero. He’s one of our most recent astronauts, spending about six months about the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016. Tim’s a passionate scientist, and he longs to inspire children to follow his lead.

When it came time to select a name for his mission, do you know what Tim called it?

“Principia”

Weird name, eh? Why choose that name? “To honour Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which described the principle laws of motion and gravity on which all space travel depends.”[1]

Who was Isaac Newton? He lived in the 17th century, he started the scientific revolution, and his brilliance inspired later scientists such as Albert Einstein.

“He was intellectually daring…His achievements were so momentous that the term ‘scientific genius’ was invented to describe him” – Professor Robert IIiffe, Director, The Newton Project.[2]

Here’s the thing. When we look at Newton’s life, we find that he was not only a brilliant thinker and communicator of scientific principles that have changed how we look at the universe. He also believed in God.

Is it helpful to look at the Christian backdrop of Isaac Newton? Does this help make the case for belief in God today?

Some would suggest not. After all, “the Protestant faith of the Bible was a standard part of the upbringing of children at that time and Newton was no exception to this rule…. a certain amount of sincere religious piety…is to be expected…”[3]   There’s no guarantee Newton was a “Christian”. Isn’t it more likely that the brilliant Newton was canny enough to work out how to climb the ladder of academic achievement? In his day, this involved public agreement with Christianity. Maybe he didn’t want to suffer like Galileo did at the hands of the Catholic Pope? Maybe he was a brilliant thinker who played the religion game to get ahead.

Yet there’s a problem here. We can so easily view Newton thru the spectacles of our own atheism. A brilliant thinker, tip-toeing thru the powerful, irrational Western religious minefield of the 17th century. Newton was too smart to be a Christian. Surely Newton’s outward religious statements were simply a survival strategy. Newton was just as godless inside his head as so many are today! Right?

 

No – I suggest the evidence doesn’t leave this option open to us.

If we lay down our comfortable presuppositions and look at that evidence, we find a different picture of Isaac Newton that challenges atheistic worldview assumptions to the core.

 

 

1 – Newton wrote the most significant science book in human history.

I mentioned it in my introduction.

The head of the Royal Society library said of Principia Mathematica, “It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published…influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”[4]

 

2 – All editions of Principia combine BOTH scientific principles and theology together.

I’ve heard people say that you simply cannot bring God into science. Well, that’s evidentially false. Newton was way ahead of us and doing just that centuries ago.

His ground-breaking Principia opens with the statement:

“Behold the pattern of the heavens, and the balances of the divine structure. Behold Jove’s calculation and the laws That the creator of all things, while he was setting the beginnings of the world, would not violate; Behold the foundations he gave to his works.”[5]

Newton blends the discussion about God and physics together seamlessly.

“No being exists or can exist which is not related to space in some way. God is everywhere, created minds are somewhere, and body is in the space that it occupies…So the quantity of the existence of God is eternal in relation to duration, and infinite in relation to the space in which he is present”[6]

 

He added additional theological principles Principia in his second and third editions.

 

3 – He intended for Principia to help connect the dots between the natural world, and its Designer.

When a young clergyman named Richard Bentley once approached Newton and asked about ways his scientific arguments pointed towards God, Newton responded:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[7]

To someone called Halley, who verbally tore down Christianity in Newton’s presence, he was quick to respond. “Mun, you had better hold your tongue; you have never sufficiently considered the matter.”[8]

He fully intended his work to have application beyond the scientific disciplines, clearly pointing men to the Designer of this universe. And he was quick to challenge atheistic views that were clearly common in the 17th century.

 

4 – Newton wrote theology for longer than he wrote science.

Strange, given his scientific influence. But true.

He might be known for his scientific works, and he dabbled in alchemy too. But a lifetime of Bible study shows he was no reluctant church pew filler, or resentful, closet atheist. From his early thirties, Newton wrestled with complex theological issues writing works that deal with understanding Biblical prophecy, the Christian creeds, the Jewish religion and much more. He was no nominal religious observer. He was active and engaged. If we didn’t know that, it’s because his writings were not published until 2008 by Oxford University![9]

If it’s true that Newton was more than a scientific survivor, but a passionate believer in God, then we would expect to see, “sincere religious piety and Biblicism on the part of a Cambridge scholar like Newton living when he did…more…passionate than common piety…and when we look at the decade before the composition of the Principia this is precisely what we find.”[10]

Newton was a scientist and a passionate, God fearing theologian. But he was an interesting type of theologian. He was a Christian heretic, at odds with the Christian establishment.

Newton was so invested in scripture that he came to very different conclusions about the nature of God. Raised Anglican, he robustly rejected Roman Catholicism, but he also rejected a central part of Anglican Christianity as well; “[he broke] with almost all his contemporaries in condemning the concept of the Holy Trinity as the central doctrinal plank of that antichristian religion that came to dominate the Western world.”[11]

Christianity has traditional held that scripture teaches God is three persons, yet one in essence. One God, three separate coexisting persons. Newton rejected this teaching, and risked life and limb in the process. People were either hanged or imprisoned for rejecting the Trinity at that time.[12] Yet Newton held to his convictions.

Even though his religious writings remained unpublished until very recently, there is some evidence that towards the end of his life he was gearing up to more actively spreading his understanding of true Christianity; some observe this creeping into to the second and third editions of the Principia itself.[13]

Newton passionately believed that Christianity, “was a simple religion, preached to ordinary people, whose central feature was the principle of charity (or the Golden Rule) rather than any abstruse claim about the nature of Jesus Christ or about the precise manner in which he had redeemed humanity by his suffering.”[14]

 

 

 

 

 

What can we conclude from his religious writings and his unorthodox, risky spiritual convictions? It’s wrong to downplay Isaac Newton’s religious convictions as “simply expected and therefore meaningless.” Not at all. He stood apart from his contemporaries and he risked his life given his beliefs in God.

 

So…Newton was a scientific revolutionary and a passionate believer in God and the Bible. So what? So, he challenges how we approach and live our lives today.

How?

More in part2.

 

 

[1] Principia mission, UK Space Agency, https://principia.org.uk/the-mission/, accessed 20th July 2017.

[2] Isaac Newton: The man who discovered gravity, BBC iWonder, http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zwwgcdm, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3]Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 13.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/05/principia-sir-isaac-newton-first-edition-auction-christies-new-york.

[5] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 9.

[6] Ibid, 18.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Stephen D. Snobelen, Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/heretic.pdf, 31.

[9] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[10] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 13.

[11] Introduction, Newton Project.

[12] Snobelen, heretic, 15.

[13] Snobelen, heretic, 26.

[14] Introduction, Newton Project.