Republishing My Colson Center Articles

Readers occasionally approach me with requests for links to the articles I wrote for the Chuck Colson Center. From 2011 to 2014, I maintained columns at the Center, usually supplying three articles a month. These articles endeavored to apply the Christian worldview to areas that included art, music, culture, philosophy, relationships and theology.

Earlier this year the Center had to migrate their content over to a new server, and unfortunately they had a limited amount of time in which to do so. Lots of archives were lost during this process, including all of my articles. A number of readers have been asking if there is any way they can access these articles, especially my 7-part series on Nominalism. My response has always been, “Sorry, they’re lost.”

Until now!

A couple days ago I found an external hardrive in one of my drawers that had a complete set of all my Colson Center articles as Word documents. Over the next few days I will be endeavoring to upload these articles to this blog, retroactively dating them to the time they were originally published. When this process is complete (be patient and give me to the end of the week), you should be able to access all the articles via this portal. I can’t promise that all the internal links will work, but over time I hope to update all the URLs.

Oh, and by the way, the reason I stopped writing for the Colson Center was purely practical – we did not have a falling out, nor did they become suspicious of me following my conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2013. I remain on good terms with the people at the Center. However, in 2014 I was swamped with graduate work at King’s College London and was not able to maintain such an intense writing schedule. A couple years later when I was in a position to resume the column, the Center was no longer able to pay their authors. Meanwhile, as my professional interests shifted to other areas, I found that this blog provided the best outlet for my ongoing reflections on key issues.

Anyway, here is the link. As I get articles uploaded, I will change the title in the list to bold.

Complete List of my Colson Center Articles

Complete List of my Colson Center Articles

Perspectives Column

Ancient Paths Column

Changepoint Column

Worldview Column

Dicussion Guide for Ham/Nye Debate on Creation vs. Evolution (Part 3)

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

In reacting against the scepter of an anti-intellectual ‘Christian fundamentalism’, many Christians are unthinkingly capitulating to the wisdom of our age. Assuming that young earth creationism is the natural offspring of a narrow-minded anti-scientific fundamentalism (and this is usually how it is portrayed in the media), it is trendy to embrace theistic evolution as a badge of intellectual sophistication. In this regard, Ken Ham’s unflinching commitment to young-earth creationism can be refreshing. His commitment to the authority of scripture is total, and where other apologists often compromise the Christian worldview to make it palatable to unbelievers, Mr. Ham is not afraid to openly acknowledge that his entire position hinges on the authority of scripture.

Having a total confidence in scripture, Mr. Ham is not afraid of anything science may throw up. Believing that nothing in the natural world can ever ultimately contradict God’s truth, he is not afraid to investigate. While he tries to answer scientific arguments whenever he can, his position does not ultimately depend on being able to do so, but on what he believes is the teaching of scripture. He thus strikes a good balance between a healthy skepticism to the latest scientific fads, on the one hand, and an appreciation for the value and legitimacy of science, on the other.

At the same time, Mr. Ham’s position has some significant weaknesses which I have tried to address in Part 1 and Part 2 of this discussion guide to the landmark debate between him and Bill Nye. Part 1 of this series considered some ways in which Ham seemed confused about what the debate was even about, while Part 2 looked at some difficult questions the debate raised concerning the relationship between science and religion, on the one hand, and science and scripture, on the other. This post will conclude the discussion by exploring some difficulties in Ken Ham’s beliefs about the relationship between science and the past.

Science and the Past

For those who watched the debate, here are some discussion questions. If you are using this discussion guide in a small group, please discuss these questions before proceeding to my own comments.

  1. Ham claimed that it is impossible for a scientist to infer information about the past from the present. Is this claim correct?
  2. What arguments did Nye present to counter Ham’s claim that the past is off-limits to scientists?
  3. What was Ham’s distinction between “experimental science” and “historical science?”
  4. In his own use of scientific evidence, was Ham consistent with some of the rigid limitations he placed on making inferences about the past?

Bill Nye claimed that a number of observations about the present from radiology, geology, astronomy and biology could help to inform our knowledge of the past. Instead of offering different interpretations to this evidence, Ham repeatedly dismissed all such argumentation with the claim that it is impossible to infer anything about the past from present observation. Ham seemed to take it as self-evident that the past is off-limits to science, saying, “You don’t observe the past directly. You weren’t there.” Since God was there in the past, and since He left us with Genesis as a record of scientific origins, the testimony of scripture trumps all scientific observation.

Ham is not alone here. Young-earth creationist materials going back to at least when I was a boy (and probably much earlier, though I haven’t checked) are saturated with repeated claims about the scientific method only yielding insight into the present. Throughout Ham’s ‘Answers in Genesis’ website, we continually read comments like this (my paraphrase): “The only scientific facts are those things which we can observe and repeat in the present. When it comes to explaining what happened in the past, we cannot know because we weren’t there, so all we have is someone’s interpretation. However, God was an eye-witness to the past, and He has left us with an account.”

In his debate with Nye, statements such as the above formed the centerpiece of Ham’s argument. Repeatedly he proposed a kind of non-overlapping magisteria between “observational science” and what he called “historical science.” According to Ham, the latter deals with the past and comes down to belief, interpretation and pure speculation.

This a priori skepticism in science’s ability to offer insight about the past meant that Ham never had to actually interact with Nye’s arguments for an old earth. Moreover, it means that theoretical and applied sciences must necessarily take a back-seat to the “facts” of applied sciences, even though it has been shown that theoretical frameworks are as necessary for the latter as for the former.

One of the things that puzzled me as I was watching the debate was how Ham never applied this same skepticism concerning the past to his own scientific truth-claims. For example, after stating repeatedly that science is helpless in giving insight about the past, Ham claimed that observational science (including recent research on the origin of dogs) confirms the “creation orchard” model of the past. But wait a minute! If Ham believes that it is a category mistake for Nye to make inductions about the past from present observations (i.e., that ice layers suggest an older earth), then why does it suddenly become legitimate when Ham wishes to make inductions about the past from present observations (i.e., evidence on the origin of dogs, fossils that confirm creationist orchard, etc.)

Or again, Ken Ham and other young-earth creationists wish to point to certain geological structures that supposedly provide evidence for a worldwide flood. Technically, if they were consistent with their own criteria of rigidly separating “observational science” from “historical science”, these evidences for a flood are based on a category mistake, and they should simply stick to announcements about the teaching of scripture.

This raises the following questions that Ken Ham and his ‘Answers in Genesis’ team need to honestly address:

  • Is Ham being hypocritical to erect rigid limitations that he himself refuses to observe?
  • If the scientific methodology proposed by Ham (e., the sequestering of “historical science” from legitimate scientific research) matters as much as he claims, then why is he not more consistent with it?
  • Does Ham really care about the science he talks about, or is it just decorations to give a veneer of respectability? And if the science doesn’t really matter, then what was the purpose of this debate in the first place? Was it little more than a big commercial for young-earth creationism?

Let’s step back for a moment and consider what it would actually mean if the young-earth creationist movement were actually correct in the repeated contention that science can only tell us about the present. To start with, the entire field of astronomy would collapse since all observation of the solar system involves seeing light from the past (light travels very fast, but it still has to travel). The science of Forensics would also become meaningless, and with it much of our criminal justice system. Nye pressed home these very points, but Ham never offered a response.

Consider further. If observational science tells us only about the present and not the past, then the entire scientific method would collapse, because all experiments take place in the past. (I’ll give a hundred dollars to anyone who can name one completed experiment that didn’t take place in the past.) The truth is that whenever science discovers something about the present, it is also discovering something about the past and the future. For example, suppose I do an experiment to discover that the freezing temperature of ocean water at typical salinity is 28 °F. Once I make the discovery, I haven’t just discovered a fact about salt water today, but about salt water yesterday and tomorrow. Now no one is saying that these types of inductions are completely certain, because they remain probabilistic inferences and not deductions. However, to the degree that we can know anything through science, we can know things about the past.

Another example would be the way we can study the present rotation of the stars to figure out when solar eclipses occurred in the past. People have made calculations of when past eclipses occurred, and then verified that through textual evidence from the time. This is the type of thing that scientists do all the time, yet it would be impossible if Ken Ham was correct the past is off-limits to scientific observations.

Given that Ham is wrong on this point, young-earth creationists need to get busy. If someone claims to have evidence for a universe that is 14 billion years old, apologists for young-earth creationism need to interact with evidence and propose an alternative interpretation of the same data. To simply announce that we cannot know anything about the past from present observation is not only a cheap cop-out, but fortifies the impression the creationists are unscientific.

More fatally, by collapsing “historical science” into ideology, speculation and subjectivity, Ham inadvertently undercuts the basis of his own appeal to Biblical authority. For consider, if it were true that we cannot make objective inductions about the past from present observations, then the Bible must necessarily be off-limits to us. This is because “historical science” has been necessary to reconstruct the written word after its dynamic transmission through time and space. After all, we did not observe it being written! (I have Jonathan Baker to thank for this observation.)

The assumption that the past is inaccessible to science feels like little more than a convenient way for young-earth creationists to not have to do business with their opponents’ arguments. Consider the following statement Ham made in the Q&A: “You can never prove it’s old, so that’s not a hypothetical… Not using the scientific method.” Commenting on this, Jonathan Baker made the following observation:

“This single response by Ken Ham during the Q&A session allows us to declare Bill Nye a winner in this debate. When asked if he would retain faith in God if convinced that the Earth were old, Ken Ham remarked that science could never yield for us a reliable age of the Earth. For Ken Ham, nothing historical is subject to scientific investigation. If that is true, then at last, he has answered the question of the debate: ‘Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?’

Ham can only defend his position by excluding the creation model from science altogether, as though to say, ‘No, it’s not; but neither is yours.’”

Further Reading

Discussion Guide For Ham/Nye Debate (Part 2)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

As we continue working through the landmark debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye, it is necessary to ask some important questions about the relationship between science and religion and also about the relationship between science and scripture. Let’s start with science and religion.

Science and Religion

  1. It is now routine to consider religion and science to be inherently at odds with each other. How did the two participants in the debate address this question, whether directly or indirectly?
  2. How did Ham try to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is compatible with modern science?
  3. In trying to demonstrate that young-earth creationism is incompatible with modern science, Bill Nye presented a number of arguments. Which two arguments did you find the most compelling, and which two arguments did you find the least compelling?

As I was watching Ham-Nye debate, I was struck by Ham’s opening statement that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” This seemed to suggest that Ham was going to base his arguments on observational science, and I sat back fully expecting to get an interesting science lesson in creation science. Yet as the debate unfolded, Ham made clear that his position collapsed into a question about starting points, worldview assumptions, and religious commitments. While science was brought in at various points by way of confirmation, at no point did Ham actually give an argument for why creation is the only viable model of historical science. Instead, he relied heavily on announcements about the teaching of scripture and appeals to authority via videos of smart guys who believe in young-earth creationism.

By contrast, Bill Nye’s presentations were packed full of what he considered to be empirical evidences for an old earth, ranging from observations in geology, astronomy, biology and radiology. When Nye challenged Ham to give an alternative explanation for some of these phenomena (for example, how there could be so many seasonal ice layers within a young-earth model or how speciation rates could be what young-earth creationists require), Ham never provided substantial counter-argumentation even though he had ample time to do so. This left many commentators with the impression that young-earth creationism is indeed anti-science. Clearly, Ham sees no need to answer scientists on their own terms.

The religion vs. science dualism seemed to be given further credence during the Q&A when Ham denied that his beliefs were falsifiable. For any scientific claim to have credence, it has to be both verifiable and falsifiable. That is to say, within the limits of inductive reasoning, it has to be possible in principle to show that something is true and to show that it is false. Ham wants to have the former – that is, he wants to be able to say that observation can verify some of the scientific truth-claims associated with a creationist model – but balks at acknowledging the later.

On one level, it seems grossly inconsistent to claim, as Ham did at the beginning, that his young-earth creationist model is “confirmed by observational science”, while later trying to insulate that model from all scientific critique through the denial of falsifiability. What good is the appeal to observational science if we have already determined a priori that the testimony of science can only go one direction?

We have to remember, however, that Ham’s appeal to science is post hoc after concluding on non-scientific grounds that the young-earth creationist model is true. As was observed by Jonathan Baker, “[Ham’s model] involves only retrospective fitting of a model to known data, so it can accommodate any dataset.” While this may seem dogmatic, anti-intellectual and circular, it actually isn’t. For if Ken Ham does indeed have rational grounds for concluding that young-earth creationism is the only viable model, then it is appropriate to assume that it would be impossible for science to ever suggest otherwise. Beliefs that are a priori certain need not satisfy the conditions of falsifiability. Now Ham does believe that a priori certainty concerning the truth of young-earth creationism can be derived on the basis of scripture’s authority. If this is true, then any claims about the natural world that proceed from this commitment would not need to satisfy the conditions of scientific falsifiability.

Still, two problems remain. One is that Ham never developed any actual arguments for his starting point, suggesting instead that we need to just presuppose the truth of God’s Word. The closest we ever came to an argument for the veracity of scripture was his arguments against naturalism (i.e., naturalism can’t explain morality, gender differentiation, etc) although it was unclear how these arguments proved anything beyond theism.

Secondly, the assertion of non-falsifiability carries with it a theological problem. For Ham to say that his young-earth creationism is not falsifiable could be taken to mean that even potential hermeneutical and exegetical evidence against young-earth creationism would ultimately be irrelevant. But that would be an extraordinary admission for one who claims to base his positions entirely on the testimony of scripture. We will explore this problem further in the next section.

Science and Scripture

  1. When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets scripture ‘naturally.’ What did he mean by this?
  2. Ham argued that Genesis gives us a scientifically accurate account of origins. If this were not the case, would it present a problem for the doctrine of scripture’s inspiration?
  3. Many young-earth creationists speak about needing to limit our readings of scriptural texts to “the plain meaning.” What do they mean by this?

When asked whether he takes the Bible literally, Ham replied that he interprets the Bible “naturally”, according to the genre of the book in question. His reasoning goes something like this. If a book written as history, like the Genesis narrative, then we must interpret it as history; if a book is written as poetry, like the Psalms, then we must interpret it as poetry. Using this method, the proper reading of any book of scripture should be clear, plain and straight-forward to the honest reader. As Bodie Hodge put it in his ‘Answers in Genesis’ article ‘Why Do You Take the Bible Literally?’, “we are to read and understand the Bible in a plain or straightforward manner.”

Ham is part of a larger tradition (limited mainly to American fundamentalism) that finds it difficult to acknowledge that the young-earth way of interpreting Genesis is indeed an interpretation of Genesis. The underlying notion is that we can take the Bible at face value without needing to interpret it since the meaning of scripture is clear, self-evident and utterly beyond doubt to any honest layman who desires the truth.

It is important to appreciate that this is not the historic Protestant position, but an offshoot of Protestantism that arose as the doctrine of scripture’s perspicuity became mixed with the type of American individualism that Nathan Hatch has chronicled in The Democratization of American Christianity. The result is that evangelicals like Ham can have the best of both worlds: on the one hand, they can interpret scripture however they like and claim that it is the clear meaning of the text; but, on the other hand, they are able to dismiss alternative readings as obscuration, subtlety and man’s interpretation. That is why young-earth creationists do not see the need to do business with other potential readings of Genesis.

Here I am interacting with the young-earth creationist movement in general, rather than anything Ham said explicitly in the debate. What he did say in the debate is that we need to understand each book of scripture according to the genre in which it was written. Keeping with this hermeneutic, is Ham being consistent to treat Genesis as a scientific manual of origins?  Many Christian scholars of Ancient Near Eastern literature believe Genesis assumes a cosmology that, in a post-Enlightenment scientific sense, is false. If this were true, then treating the text as a manual of scientific origins would mean that the Genesis is wrong. Hold onto that thought, but first let me share a little more of what we mean when we refer to the ANE context. Brad Kramer summarized this larger context in his article ‘I’m a Christian, and Ken Ham Doesn’t Speak for Me’:

… the first chapter of Genesis (where we find the Judeo-Christian creation account) is full of terms that only make sense in an ancient cosmological context. The second verse talks of darkness being over the face of the t’hom, a Hebrew word that refers to the giant watery nothingness that preceded creation and undergirds the created world. Several verses later, God is putting a raqia between the sky and the earth. This Hebrew word comes from the premodern idea that a solid dome separated the “waters above”—rain and snow—from the earth and sea. (That same dome was thought to have collapsed, causing Noah’s flood.) These two words obviously do not fit into a modern scientific framework, so they’re conveniently overlooked or explained away in young-earth creationist literature. Ham and friends try to treat the creation narrative as a modern scientific treatise, yet can only do so at the expense of the text itself.

Ham seems blithely unaware that his view of the Bible is only possible in the world of the Enlightenment, where objectivity and reason are still king. The text of the Bible is stripped from its context where it floats in heavenly neutrality, waiting for clear-minded and unbiased interpreters like Ham to seamlessly and easily apply it to modern science. Thus the Bible ceases to be an ancient text, and therefore ceases to really say anything other than what we want it to say.

An even more in-depth and fascinating discussion of the Ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis can be found in Brian Godawa’s essay ‘Biblical Creation and Storytelling: Cosmogony, Combat and Covenant’.

If what these and other scholars are saying is correct, then Genesis assumes the type of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology that we now know to be false. Now I am not qualified to say whether these readings are correct, being neither a student of Hebrew texts nor a scholar in ANE literature. However, I can say that if these ANE readings are correct, then it creates problems for a hermeneutic hinging on “the natural reading of the text.” For consider, if Genesis does assume an ANE cosmology, then the plain meaning of the text is not immediately accessible to lay people today who have no idea about ANE history and cosmology. For this reason, young-earth creationists committed to “the natural reading of a text” are compelled to deny that Genesis assumes an ANE cosmology. However, the basic problem is then displaced, for then we have a text that was inaccessible to the original audience, since the “plain meaning of the text” would have been undecipherable prior to the advent of modern cosmology.

This dilemma is solved by rejecting the notion that the plain meaning of the text must always be immediately accessible to any honest reader. In reality, the invitation to take scripture “at face value” is little more than an invitation to read into the text whatever assumptions and biases are prevalent in our own era. Interpretation is inescapable, and once we recognize this fact, we might as well be guided in the interpretive task by the best evidence available, including whatever information is available about the larger ANE context in which Genesis was first received.

Part of the reason so many American evangelicals shy away from this type of interpretive sophistication is because they have a wrong understanding of scriptural inspiration. Reflect on the following question: if the Genesis narrative did assume an ANE cosmology that we now know to be false, would this present a problem from the perspective of scripture’s inspiration? Or again, if it could be shown Ancient Near Easterners held to a flat earth cosmology, and if it could be proved that the Genesis account simply assumed this world-picture (perhaps even a flat-earth cosmology) would this pose a threat to scripture’s inherency?

The answer to this question is that it depends. It depends what type of claims are being made in the Genesis narrative. Most Christians who hold a high view of the Bible would agree that scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms. Where fundamentalists and sceptics alike usually go wrong is in failing to properly think through the implications of “the intended sense.” If we are to get at the intended meaning of scripture, we must ask whether any of the various Biblical writers were claiming the kind of technical precision that both fundamentalists and enlightenment modernists have come to associate with “truth.” If I am reading a legal document, any slight anomaly can count as error because the author is claiming, either implicitly or explicitly, a high degree of precision. But if you tell me that my neighbor is middle aged when he is really 38, I would be a fool to accuse you of falsehood. There is a qualitative difference in what counts as error in a legal brief or in a poem, in a letter or in a casual remark, in a road sign or a theological treatise. It follows that veracity and falsehood cannot be predicted to a text independently of careful considerations about authorial intent. Scripture is completely trustworthy in so far as it makes good on its claims, and these claims cannot be divorced from the intent of the original authors to communicate certain truths to their original audience. (See John Frame’s excellent discussion of this in Doctrine of the Word of God and also the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.)

This being the case, when presented with what seems to be a mistake in the Bible, what we really need to ask is whether the author intended the kind of technical precision that fundamentalism (in its crude populist variety) has come to expect from scripture. What we must guard against is having a model of Biblical inerrancy that claims more for a text (and from another perspective less) than what the authors themselves intended.

Therefore, if it were true that the Genesis narrative assumes an ANE cosmology that we now know to be in error, this is only problematic if it could first be shown that the original author of Genesis intended for it to be treated as a scientific account of origins. “Error” is a context-dependent notion that is only meaningful after we have determined what kind of precision is appropriate to a text.

Similarly, if there really were evidence for evolution or for an earth billions of years old, this would only undermine the inerrancy of Genesis if it could first be established that Genesis was not only written as history, but as an account of origins that is precise according to modern scientific canons.

Let’s take these principles and return to Ham’s “natural reading of the text.” The questions we must ask are the following:

  • Does Ham’s view that Genesis should be treated as a scientific account of origins do justice to the Ancient Near Eastern context of the text?
  • Would a pre-Enlightenment reader of Genesis (including the original audience) have understood as clearly as contemporary young-earth creationists claim that the natural reading of the text involves treating it as a scientific manual of origins regarding a spherical earth?
  • If the answer to the last question is No, then does this make Genesis a type of Gnostic text whose true meaning was hidden for centuries?

Further Reading

Discussion Guide for Ham/Nye Debate on Creation vs. Evolution (Part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

Ever since the theory of evolution was catapulted into the public discourse in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, there have been a number of high-profile debates on the topic. The most prominent of these was, of course, the Scopes Trial of 1925.

On February 4th there was another high profile debate that history may consider equally momentous: a showdown at the creation museum between Ken Ham, the “Answers in Genesis man” and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.” The resolution for the debate was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

Ken Ham is the president of Answers in Genesis, the author of numerous books and the founder of the Creation Museum. Bill Nye is a Science Educator, a popular television celebrity, actor, writer and scientist.

The fact that these two high profile figures even agreed to debate is a source of embarrassment for both sides of the divide. Ken Ham is an embarrassment to creationists who have labored hard over the last two decades to convince the public that there is good scientific evidence for intelligent design independent of appeals to religious faith. Ham’s entire argument involves appeals to faith while his use of scientific evidence is, by his own admission, post-hoc.

Evolutionists were equally embarrassed, aghast that one of their own would dignify creationists with a formal debate. As Dan Arel proclaimed at the Richard Dawkins Foundation,

“Scientists should not debate creationists. Period….When you accept a debate, you are accepting there is something worth debating. …Creationism vs. evolution however is not worth debating. Why? Simple, there is nothing to debate. Evolution is a scientific fact…

For years to come, churches, home groups, and youth groups will be playing and replaying this debate (which is available on Youtube here) to discuss it. It would be nice to think that the majority of these discussions will be intelligent analyses of the actual arguments of the two debaters. However, what tends to usually happen is that we become cheer-leaders for whatever side we happen to agree with, even when the arguments presented are faulty. This is especially the case in an issue like creation vs. evolution, where the question under debate functions as a locus of a more general network of deeply entrenched ideologies which make it difficult for us to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints.

The idea that we should be able to sympathetically consider alternative viewpoints may strike many as counter-intuitive, even odd. For Christians, it may even seem unfaithful, at least when the competing viewpoints are contrary to biblical truth. However, being able to be attentive to alternative viewpoints is necessary not only for healthy relationships (a point I have developed here) but is also a necessary part of Christian mission. One of the things that made Francis Schaeffer such an effective apologist was that he labored to really understand what animates unbelieving thought and to address unbelievers on their own terms.

The purpose of this post, and the two to follow, is to assist with this type of thoughtful analysis. I will be providing discussion questions that force us to look beyond whatever position we may happen to hold to consider the debate on its own terms. When used in a small-group setting, you should first read and discuss the questions at the beginning of each section before reading my comments. After reading my comments, you should go back and re-discuss the questions.

The questions I will raise will be addressing concern four separate but related issues raised by the Ham-Nye debate:

  1. The Resolution and the Burden of Proof
  2. Science and Religion
  3. Science and Scripture
  4. Science and the Past

The rest of this article will deal with point 1, while two follow-up posts will look at the second through fourth points.

The Resolution and Burden of Proof

  1. What was the resolution of the debate?
  2. How important was the resolution to the speakers? That is, were their arguments tailored to fit the resolution, or did they wander off topic?
  3. How important was the resolution to you as you were watching the debate, and afterwards when you were reflecting on who won?
  4. If the resolution was not important to you when you were watching the debate, why?
  5. Did either speaker seem to understand the resolution better than the other?

This past year I have been helping to coach my ninth-grade son in debate tournaments, and I’ve also served as a judge for high school debates. One of the things I find myself saying again and again to the students is to be careful not to get so caught up in their arguments that they forget the actual resolution they are supposed to be debating.

Here’s why the resolution is so important. Only by attending to the resolution are we able to determine who has the burden of proof, and only by attending to the burden of proof will we be able to assess the relevance of the arguments presented.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the Resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?” Because Ham was arguing that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, he is classed as the Affirmative, while Nye is classed as the Negative.

Now the burden of proof properly always rests with the affirmative – with those who are putting forward a case for something. As I explained last summer, if I assert “A is true because of X, Y & Z” and you are arguing against me, it isn’t actually necessary for you to prove “non-A is true” in order to undermine my argument: all you need to do is simply demonstrate how X, Y, and Z do not logically entail A.

Let’s take a real world example of this. If a politician argues that Obamacare is economically affordable because a similar program was economically affordable in Massachusetts, I don’t actually have to prove that Obamacare isn’t economically affordable in order to refute his argument: all I have to do is show that the evidence he is appealing to doesn’t support his conclusion – that, for instance, the example of Massachusetts is not sufficiently similar to Obamacare for the conclusion to be sound, or that what is true of a part is not necessarily always true of the whole.

In public debate, many people get confused about this, while many lay people consider it an arbitrary debating rule that has little practical relevance. However, understanding burden of proof (in both formal and informal argumentation) is important because it allows people to communicate without talking past each other. Often people who might otherwise be able to agree are prevented from doing so because the issue they are discussing gets complicated and confused by other issues. Only by clearly defining what two people are debating, and who has the burden of proof, are debaters able to take one issue at a time and sympathetically interact with each other.

Let’s apply this to the resolution of the Ham-Nye debate. Here the burden rested entirely with Ham since he was the one making a positive claim. The positive claim Ham needed to establish to win the debate was not that creationism is true, or even that it is the only model; rather, all he needed to show is that it is a workable (‘viable’) theory. (Remember that the resolution was “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”)

Early on in the debate Ham claimed that “Creation is the only viable model of historical science confirmed by observational science in today’s modern scientific era.” The word “only” was not required by the resolution, and by inserting it early on it the debate, Ham immediately made his case more difficult. It meant that Ham not only had to establish that young-earth creationism is a workable potential theory, but that every single other actual and potential theory has so many holes that it cannot even be considered viable.

Similarly, what the resolution required Nye to do was to establish that Ham did not meet the burden of proof, that Ham’s creation model has so many holes that it is not even a potentially viable model. As such, it was appropriate that the majority of Nye’s arguments were not arguments for evolution at all, but against young-earth creationism.

Curiously, a good portion of Ken Ham’s arguments were not arguments for creation at all, but arguments against scientific naturalism. Let’s suppose that we accept all these arguments; does it help establish an affirmative response to the resolution? Not really, for remember that the Resolution does not require Ham to establish that competing theories are false, only that creation is one viable model of origins. Moreover, the falsity of scientific naturalism does not automatically entails young-earth creationism, since young-earth creationism is only one among many non-naturalistic models of origin that have been affirmed throughout history.

Thus, we may legitimately question whether Ken Ham even understood the resolution he was supposed to be debating. This point was raised in a review of the debate by Reformed Christian Geologists, Jonathan Baker on his Questioning Answers in Genesis blog.

“we should take note that not once did Ken Ham answer or try to support the thesis of the debate. He argued that creationists could be effective scientists and develop technology, that secularists have hijacked terms like science and evolution, that dating methods are in conflict, that he obtains his reconstruction of history from the Bible, and that naturalism presumes theism to conduct science and also leads to moral decay. All of the time spent arguing these points serves well for advertising, but does not help us to answer the question in debate….

Ken Ham’s discussion on the moral implications of evolution, the prospect of salvation, the purpose of life, and even the justification of laws of logic/nature in a naturalistic worldview were completely off topic. Even if Bill Nye had conceded that science lacks epistemological grounds and morality lacks authority without Christian theism, Ken Ham still would not have answered the question of the debate.

Because Ken Ham spent the entire time arguing about issues outside the topic, and because Bill Nye stuck closer to the resolution, it often felt like the latter was ignoring the former. That is, it seemed as if Nye didn’t have satisfactory answers to the arguments against scientific naturalism. What a more philosophically sophisticated opponent could have done would be to point out that Ham had switched the ground of the debate, and that the resolution actually had nothing to do with the veracity of Christian theism. Nye missed this opportunity and so his tenacity in sticking to the resolution came off as ignoring Ham.

I will remark in closing that this type of departure from the resolution is not unusual in public debates. For example, I have remarked elsewhere that our political debates long ago departed from the canons of rational argumentation. What we typically find in public debates is that the actual “debate” is really only a forum to have a clash between different systems – systems that comprise what David Brooks has called the “underdebate.” The “underdebate” is the deeper set of implicit spiritual and emotional values that are stoked indirectly by the explicit debate and which are organically connected to our sense of self-worth. Whether we are debating health care, abortion, gay ‘marriage,’ gun control or evolution, the actual debate tends to trigger deep chains of associations in our minds that highlight a semi-articulated moral divide.

In the Ham-Nye debate, the “underdebate” was about the whole network of implicit commitments that become attached to the participants’ different positions. It was about the role of religion and science in American public life. It was about the type of education we should allow in the schools. It was also about the reality of spiritual knowledge vs. a purely naturalistic view of the world. It was about whether creationists are stupid. These were not the questions the debate was supposed to be about, but in another sense these were the only real questions the debate was really about.

Further Reading

Music and the Church Fathers

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music into the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to have this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that an abiding concern among many of the church fathers was music. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism was felt was in popular music.

The difference between their world and ours is not that paganism no longer makes inroads into the church through music. The difference is that many Christians today no longer think that music is an area where we need to exercise discernment.

If you don’t believe me, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church chooses to play for its worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you will get is not that your criticisms are false, but that it is based on a category mistake because this is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I was talking to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that certain types of music are more suited to various activities than other types of music. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that we make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

Here are some examples of what I mean. If you were to ask anyone to suggest a type of music to create a festive atmosphere, or a melancholy mood, to hype someone up before a fight, to create an atmosphere appropriate for seduction or a barbecue or a birthday party, we could all name certain styles and probably even certain specific pieces. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians are hesitate to suggest that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we talk about music. One of the reasons why Christians are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because they haven’t first understood about music from Monday to Saturday.

Partly this is because we haven’t understood how important music really is. It is commonly assumed among Christians that it is only the words that make a song good or bad. We’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm.

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a proper theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:


Music: Myths, Meanings, Messages and Mediums

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Music and the Early Church

As I’ve been reading Saint John Chrysostom’s On Marriage and Family Life, one of the things that strikes me is how concerned he was about the deleterious effects of pagan music on the Christian household.

Saint John Chrysostom (347-407) was not the only church father to share this concern. In his book A New Song for an Old World: Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows that music was an abiding concern among many of the Patristics. This naturally included a desire to encourage the church to glorify God through hymnody, but it also involved warnings against the spiritual harm of pagan music.

This concern is not surprising. After all, the early church lived in a world where the line between Christianity and paganism was very real, very distinct and very palpable. One of the chief areas where the tentacles of paganism were most strongly felt was in popular music.

Paganism still makes inroads into the church through music, though sadly many Christians no longer believe music is an area where we need to exercise discernment. They have fallen prey to a number of music myths perpetuated by the godless philosophy of our day.

Music Has Meaning

Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating when I say the church has largely abandoned discerning thinking about music. If you think I’m exaggerating, try this little experiment. Go up to a Christian friend and start criticizing the type of music his or her church plays during worship. Nine times out of ten, the response you’ll receive is not that the criticisms are false, but that they are based on a category mistake since music is a realm regulated by pure subjective taste.

That is, instead of receiving the retort, “You’re wrong – this type of music is actually very appropriate for worship”, the person will often reply, “Who are you to say?” The subtext is often that because music has no intrinsic meaning apart from the words, any meaning we assign to the melody, harmony and rhythm is regulated by little more than personal subjective taste.

Earlier in the year I talked to Douglas Wilson about this. He observed that in most areas of life, Christians will agree with non-Christians that different types of music are better suited to various activities than other types of music. For example, we could probably all agree that it would be unfitting to play a funeral dirge at a barn-raising or rap music to help a baby get to sleep. It is only when it comes to the activity of worship that Christians tend to make an exception and say that any type of music is just as appropriate as any other type.

The non-Christian community has no trouble grasping this general point. If you were to go into a college dormitory and start asking young people to suggest a type of music to assist with meditation, to work-out to, to create a partying atmosphere, to invoke a melancholy mood, to create a condition of mind appropriate for seduction, to hype someone up before a fight, most people would be able to match certain styles of music to these activities with a surprising degree of consensus. But when it comes to worship music, many Christians hesitate to say that one style might be more appropriate for worship than another. While we are all ready to acknowledge that certain styles of music are appropriate or inappropriate for a barbecue, a birthday party, or a barn-raising, when it comes to worship Christians will deny that the concept of appropriateness even has coherence.

Now worship music probably shouldn’t be where we begin when we have discussions about music. One of the reasons we are so confused about music on Sunday mornings is because we haven’t first understood about the meaning of music from Monday to Saturday. We don’t understand worship music because we don’t understand “secular” music, having been influenced by the following interrelated music myths.

Music Myth #1: Only Words Influence the Soul

One of the ways Christians routinely misunderstand music is in thinking that only the words can have a formative influence on the soul.

The very idea that the unique combination of melody, harmony and rhythm that goes into any piece can contribute to the ordering or disordering of the soul, often strikes us as strange. It is almost an unquestioned axiom that only the words contain spiritual and ontological significance.

As such, we’ve failed to take seriously the warnings of Plato and Aristotle on the formative power of melody, harmony and rhythm. In this regard, it is we who are strange, for until the twentieth-century it was universally understood that music can affect the ordering of the soul in ways that are either conducive to human flourishing or which contribute to our disordering. Until recently, it never even occurred to serious thinkers (whether Christian or pagan) to suggest that apart from lyrics music is a realm of complete spiritual and moral neutrality.

Music Myth #2: It’s all in the Ear of the Listener

Ever since the Romantic era it has become increasingly common for people to talk about beauty being in the eye of the beholder with respect to visual art. The musical equivalent is to say that all objective categories we might predicate to music reside completely in the ear of the listener and not in the music itself.

This type of aesthetic relativism works to systematically remove all objective categories from the discussion of music. Christians whose worldview antennas shoot straight up when they encounter relativism in ethics or epistemology, easily embrace aesthetic relativism when it comes to music. This aesthetic relativism is usually always just assumed as an unquestioned axiom – something that is so obvious that it does not even warrant rational reflection.

Space prohibits me from interacting in depth with all the problems with aesthetic relativism, although I have dealt with it my article, “Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.”

Music Myth #3: the Medium is NOT the Message

Still another way we fail to appreciate the true nature of music is in thinking that there is no intrinsic link between form and content. It is routinely assumed that if we predicate qualities like “anger”, “aggressiveness” or “sensuality” to a song, we are either making truth-claims about the words of the song, or about the reactions of certain individuals – reactions that have no organic relation to the specifically musical elements of the work. As such, we fail to appreciate that in many respects, “the medium is the message.” While Christians are generally coming to understand the principle that “the medium is the message” in other areas of cultural analysis (i.e., communication technologies or eating practices), our thinking about music still lags far behind.

This was something that came up last year when Christianity Today asked Mars Hill Audio host, Ken Myers, about various Christian hip-hop artists. In his responses to Russell Moore’s questions, Myers asked us to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that, as a vehicle, the style is better suited to certain types of words than others. That is, form and content are organically related in ways that Christians are often apt to ignore.

“Music sounds ‘like feelings feel,’ said Myers. That’s why no one could credibly suggest that Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ conjures ‘feelings of melancholy, humility, tentativeness, or ennui.’ And no one could claim that Gregorian chants are ‘brimful of arrogance, assertiveness, anger, or brashness.’

By contrast, Myers said, ‘Hip-hop is quite successful in [expressing] raw energy barely contained; it is a form that dares its hearers to contradict its address with a threat of escalation or retaliation.’ In other words, rap is anything but about ‘reticence, patience, self-giving, or submissiveness.’

‘Hip-hop with a bowed head (or a bowed heart) is hard to imagine; it would be unfaithful to the spirit of hip-hop, and to the spirit of reverence,’ Myers said as we continued talking over e-mail. One cannot, he said, rap the Sermon on the Mount without altering the fundamental meaning of either the text or the form, any more than one could easily perform ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ set to Fleet Foxes’ ‘White Winter Hymnal.’ To use “pious and humble” hip-hop lyrics would be to ignore or denigrate ‘the musical vocabulary of hip-hop,’ since it is a style ‘more at home with a confident swagger than with receptive poverty of spirit.’

Myers was not arguing that hip-hop is bad, or that it is incompatible with Christian practice. Rather, he was asking Christians to respect the integrity of hip-hop as a style by recognizing that its forms are intrinsically more suited to certain types of content than others.

Music Myth #4: Music is a Realm of Complete Spiritual Neutrality

When engaged in discussions with young people about music, I frequently run into the idea that music is a realm of complete neutrality. The very idea that music is a realm of spiritual neutrality would never have occurred to church fathers like Saint John Chrysostom, let alone pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The fact that such an idea is so prevalent in our age should propel all Christians to think as carefully about music as we have thought about other areas of cultural life.

Part of the problem arises because of a pervasive false dilemma. When I try to talk to young people about the relationship between form and content, people tend to automatically “hear” me saying that certain styles of music are sinful. They think I want to legalistically ban certain styles of music when all I want to do is to invite reflection on music in the same way Christian young people are encouraged to reflect on other areas of cultural life. Sadly, the rich vocabulary for talking about music that has been handed down to us from over two thousand years of reflection is neglected as the entire issue is collapsed into a choice between affirming that certain music is sinful vs. saying that music is a realm of complete spiritual neutrality.

The problem with this false dilemma (musical legalism vs. musical neutrality) is the same one that I identified in my 2012 article about food. In that article I pointed out that there is a whole realm of inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos, for which it was created, and to respect that telos through the wise ordering of our practices. Too often we want to start with ethics when we should be starting with ontology, teleology and theological anthropology.

Christians often find it hard to embrace a theology of music for similar reasons. When it comes to both music and food, our nominalist presuppositions often rob us of the categories with which to talk meaningfully about the right ordering of nature independent to questions of right and wrong. That is to say, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions about music is sin-avoidance, and since sin does not apply to musical choices in any type of distributive (categorically-general) way, thousands of Christian young people are ready to make the non-sequitur leap to the fact that music is an area of complete spiritual neutrality.

Don’t be scared off by all these big words I’ve been using. All I’m saying is that it is problematic the way so many Christian young people are quick to unthinkingly assume that where sin does not apply to musical practices, it therefore follows that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice. What gets lost in the process is all questions about how music contributes to the ordering of our nature as spiritual and physical beings. What gets lost is also questions about music itself: the nature, teleology, and purpose of music. If we could back up from reductionistic ethical questions to reflect deeply on these more rewarding philosophical questions about music, then a lot of our assumptions about music’s supposed spiritual neutrality would be seen to be suspect.

Where to Go From Here?

Okay, so I hope you’ve got my basic point: we need to start thinking seriously about music. But where do we start?

It is beyond the scope of this post to even begin to outline a philosophy and theology of music. However, I do want to close by pointing to some helpful resources that can guide us to developing a musical discernment:

Next Steps. Get together with a group of Christians and go through Robin’s discussion questions about music. Also, share some of the resources above to discuss in small-groups. When meeting together, consider playing different types of music and then asking everyone to discuss it.


Moral Order, and Wisdom (Nominalism 6)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Could God Have Been Incarnated As a Donkey?

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Saint John declared in the opening of his Gospel. So far so good, but have you ever wondered if the Word could have become a donkey and dwelt among us? Or could the Word have been incarnate as a man and as a donkey at the same time?

This question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In Stanley Grenz’s book The Named God and the Question of Being: A Trinitarian Theo-ontology, Grenz tells how the philosopher William of Ockham (1288-1347) declared that God might have come to earth an ox or donkey. Other medieval philosophers disagreed with Ockham, and the matter became one of intense dispute. According to accounts left to us by Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), by the fifteenth-century scholastic theologians had moved on to trying to work out more subtle details such as whether God could have been nailed on the cross and sacrificed for our sins if he had been incarnated as a donkey.

This wasn’t just an abstract question for medieval philosophers with too much time on their hands. Rather, it was a question that penetrated to the heart of an entire way of understanding the world and God’s relation to it. For William of Ockham, it was important to emphasize that God has no attributes apart from His freedom to be free from all attributes. Concerned—not without some warrant—that the dominant scholasticism of his day was domesticating God, turning Him into a civilized Aristotelian, Ockham asserted that God’s saving will-acts must be unconditioned by any factors outside the Divine fiat, including the past history of God’s works. Indeed, Ockham insisted that God could even produce in human beings knowledge of a non-existent past if He wanted to, although he never went as far as some of his contemporaries (particularly John of Mirecourt, Gregory of Rimini, and Pierre d’Ailly) in suggesting that God could actually undo the past.

Ockham hoped to combat stagnant views of God’s freedom, yet as Timothy Nonne pointed out in his article on Ockham in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, “in several texts in his Sentences commentaries, Ockham allows that God could command the opposite of practically any act currently contained under his ordered power. Ockham’s reasoning on such occasions is that God cannot be disallowed from doing what seems to involve no contradiction.”

Is Reality Radically Contingent?

What was lost within the framework of Ockhamist nominalism was any sense of a moral order rooted in the teleological directedness of creation. The raw command of God—unconditioned by any factors outside itself—becomes the only mechanism by which we can assert a static moral order, however arbitrary that order might ultimately be.

This understanding doesn’t exactly leave us with a random world in which anything might happen, where vices might become virtues and virtues might become vices, since Ockham made clear that once God had freely exercised the Absolute Power to create the world in a certain way, He will continue to act consistently in that way. However, this system did imply a world in which the moral and teleological order that we find in creation is radically contingent, derived only from God’s will acts. Accordingly, if God had wanted to, He could have commanded that adultery, theft and murder to be right, while He could have ordered kindness, self-sacrifice and love to be sinful.

The Normativity of God’s Nature

In the first article of this series I offered an alternative to this radically contingent view of reality. Following the realist vision articulated by Alister McGrath in his Scientific Theology: Volume 2: Reality and by Oliver O’Donovan in his Resurrection and Moral Order, I have suggested that God’s will is not the ultimate source of moral values; rather, the ultimate source of moral values is the nature of how reality is.

The obvious objection to this realist conception is that it seems to push God to the margins by giving us a standard more ultimate than God Himself. This objection fails when we recognize that God’s own eternal character is the source from which this rational ecosystem derives its meaning and legitimacy. Thus, when we recognize that falsehood is disordered according to the nature and final end of speech, this is because reality has its source in a God whose very nature is truth itself (John 14:6). The reason God could not have made adultery virtuous is because God’s will, like reality itself, is rooted in the unchanging constants of His Holy character.

If we were to express the problem in terms of the classic Euthyphro dilemma, we could say that it is false that an action is good purely because God wills it, while it is also false that God wills an action because it is good, at least where goodness is conceived as something external to God himself. This is because neither the goodness of an action nor the will of God are related to each other as efficient cause and effect: rather both are effects of the same common cause: God’s own nature. John Frame articulated this in his essay ‘Euthyphro, Hume, and the Biblical God’:

“God’s nature is righteous and therefore normative. God loves goodness because he is good, and therefore he commands goodness in his revelation to man. Therefore in one sense, God loves the good because it is good; the concept is not arbitrary. Yet he does not need to look outside himself for a standard of goodness. That standard is his own character….

Because God’s commands are supremely normative, the self-expression of God’s supremely normative nature, they entail normative conclusions….

Some commands in Scripture could have been otherwise; indeed, some are changed in the history of redemption, such as the command to bring animal sacrifices to the Lord. But the fundamental requirements of the law (what the Westminster Standards call ‘the moral law’) are as unchangeable as God Himself.”

Wisdom and the Is-ness of Creation

In the Apocryphal text The Wisdom of Solomon we read that “the whole creation in its kind was fashioned again from above to serve Your commands…” (19:6). Think about that for a minute: all of creation serves God’s commands. Whatever else this may mean, it points to a basic congruence between God’s commands and how creation is.

Moral order flows out of the is-ness of creation, not the arbitrary command of God. This order of creation, in turn, is rooted in the is-ness of God’s eternal character which remains prior to, and the basis of, God’s will-acts. Since creation is an expression of God’s nature, there is a natural ordering to reality that we can observe and make appeals to. The world is an ecosystem of teleological and moral order, and that order is deeper than merely the sub-total of all God’s commands in the aggregate.

Only with this understanding is it possible to fully appreciate the structural dimensions of sin. Sin is not simply an abandonment of isolated commandments; rather, sin as disorder; a turning away from the intrinsic telos of our human nature.

Of course, one has to be careful when making appeals to the natural ordering of reality. Because we are fallen, our reason and our senses are not always ordered towards their true ends. God’s revelation is indispensable in our moral reasoning, and the danger of a natural law approach is that one can begin to think that Biblical revelation is irrelevant or an optional add-on. But in fact, it is only through scripture that we know that reality is ordered towards the Trinitarian God in the first place, and it is through scripture that we are given full insight on the ends towards which the world is ordered.

Precisely because of this, the task to those who would grow wise is to meditate on God’s commands and discern the order to them, rather than just memorizing lists of rules. Indeed, throughout the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, we are told that the wise man is one who meditates on God’s laws long enough to discern their internal logic, the patterns by which reality is ordered, the principles which undergird and interconnect God’s various commands. This is a central precondition to being able to fully delight in God’s laws (Ps. 1:2; 119:97) since without this deeper understanding we are unable to fully appreciate the fittingness of God’s laws within the context of creational order.

Getting God’s Commandments under the Skin

An analogy should make my meaning clear. When I was doing my undergraduate studies in music, I had a professor who could sit down at the piano and improvise in the style of any composer we might name. My classmates and I would shout “play Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary [or some other familiar tune] in the style of Bach” and he would proceed do it without even thinking. After a minute or two, we would say “switch to a Beethoven style” and he would effortlessly switch to sounding like Beethoven. We could continue through all the composers and each time he would improvise flawlessly in the appropriate style. There were two things that made this so amazing. The first was that this professor had never played these tunes before in that style: he was completely making it up on the spot. The second amazing thing was that he actually sounded just like the composer whose style he was imitating. How was he able to do this? The answer is simple: by becoming so thoroughly familiar with each composer’s music, he could sit down at the piano and almost ‘become’ them.

If we consider how a person develops this skill, it provides an analogy for how wisdom works. Suppose my goal is to be able to sit down at the piano and “think” like Chopin, to be able to take contemporary songs and improvise on them in Chopin’s style like my professor did. In order to reach this goal, I need to do more than simply memorize all of Chopin’s works, although that would certainly be a start. I would also need to meditate on Chopin’s works, to analyse the patterns within them, to listen to them constantly, to continually practice adapting Chopin’s style to new melodic contexts. If I did that long enough, eventually I would start to notice the internal grammar by which Chopin organized his musical ideas. By being cognisant in Chopin’s unique musical logic, I could then apply it to new contexts and take songs on the radio and arrange them—perhaps without even thinking—to sound like Chopin.

In a similar way, to grow in wisdom involves more than just memorizing raw commandments: we need to meditate on God’s commandments long enough to notice their internal grammar, their fittingness for this world, the principles that undergird and interconnect the vast array of commandments. We must allow God’s commandments to get “under our skin”, so to speak, in a way that can only be achieved through the application of those commandments in our lives (i.e., holy living). Only in such a way are we fully equipped to apply God-like thinking to new situations not directly covered by explicit commandments, even as my professor could take the style of Bach and apply it to new situations never touched upon by Bach himself.

When the author of Psalm 119 declares that God’s commandments have made him wiser than his enemies, and that by making God’s testimonies His meditations he has gained more understanding than all his teachers (119: 98-99), he means more than simply that he could win a game of trivial pursuit about God’s laws. He means that God’s laws have become part of his whole system of thought so that he begins to see the world through the lens of God’s commands. He has hidden God’s word in his heart (Psalm 119:11) like the musician in my example took Chopin’s music into his heart.

How to be a True Theologian

To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas’s ‘16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge’  are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history.

Aquinas argued that there is a reciprocal relationship between knowing and loving. If you really love someone you want to know them, but the only way to really know someone is to love them. In this regard, it is no coincidence that scripture describes the nuptial union between husband and wife in terms of “knowing.” Similarly, to truly know God, one must love Him – not in the sentimental feeling-based way that we have come to associate with the word ‘love’, but the type of love expressed in doing what God has commanded.

To summarize, the true theologian is a student of how reality is, and the eternal patterns disclosed in the teleological and moral order of creation. However, in order to truly discern these patterns, the theologian must allow God’s commandments to soak into every fiber of his being through living out the reciprocal relationship that exists between Being, Loving, Knowing and Doing.

A Very Big View of Redemption

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

When we talk about redemption, a lot of the time we focus entirely on what we are redeemed from, which is sin and death. If this is our main emphasis, then our focus is often on not sinning and we may even tend to think that anything that isn’t a sin is an open playing field.

However, we should also give attention to what we have been redeemed for.  But that involves taking an expansive view of redemption. Our view of redemption should stretch as far as the curse is found, which is to all of creation. That means that redemption and New Creation do not just cover our moral lives, as if the goal of Christianity were simply not sinning; rather, New Creation needs to be allowed to stretch into all the little nooks and crannies of existence, to change literally everything.

Abraham Kuyper appreciated this. In his Stone Lectures, Kuyper pointed to the example of John Calvin whose expansive view of redemption led him to introduce hygienic measures in Geneva during the plague.

During the plague, which in the 16th century tormented Geneva, Calvin acted better and more wisely [than Cardinal Borromeo], for he not only cared incessantly for the spiritual needs of the sick, but at the same time introduced hitherto unsurpassed hygienic measures whereby the ravages of the plague were arrested.

Calvin knew nothing of the spurious distinction between the sacred and the secular, nor did he erroneously imagine that any area that isn’t a sin is automatically an open playing field. Commenting on this in his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga wrote as follows:

At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn’t content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn’t content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too. If the management/labor structure contains built-in antagonism, then it needs to be redeemed. If the health care delivery system reaches only the well-to-do-, then it needs to be reformed. The same goes for hostile relationships of race, gender, or class. The same goes for proud and scornful attitudes among heterosexuals towards homosexuals. Landlord and tenant, student and teacher, husband and wife—these and countless other roles and relationships may develop warped expectations and unfair practices. The same goes for certain forms of popular entertainment, with their tendency to violate taboos in order to gain an edge, draw a crowd, and make a buck.

Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans. The whole natural world, in all its glory and pain, needs the redemption that will bring shalom. The world isn’t divided into a sacred realm and a secular realm, with redemptive activity confined to the sacred zone. The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, and so the whole world needs to be redeemed—every last person, place organization, and program; all “rocks and trees and skies and seas”; in fact, “every square inch,” as Abraham Kuyper said.

If redemption is really this big, then we should seek to find ways to bring redemption to bear on every area of life: art, economics, education, architecture, music, and even food. Thus, Plantinga continues:

“But God’s creation extends beyond the biophysical sphere to include a vast array of cultural possibilities that God folded into human nature. Thus, in the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1:28, God charges humankind to be ‘fruitful and multiply,’ to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ According to a widespread interpretation of this mandate (or is it a blessing?), God’s good creation includes not only earth and its creatures, but also an array of cultural gifts, such as marriage, family, art, language, commerce, and (even in an ideal world) government. The fall into sin has corrupted these gifts but hasn’t unlicensed them. The same goes for the cultural initiatives we discover in Genesis 4, that is, urban development, ten-making, musicianship, and metal-working. All of these unfold the built-in potential of God’s creation. All reflect the ingenuity of God’s human creatures – itself a superb example of likeness to God.”


Anti-Discrimination Laws (Part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

Earlier this month the town of Coeur D’Alene became the fifth city in Idaho to pass laws forbidding discrimination against LGBT people in the areas of employment and accommodation.

Although the law does not apply to religious organizations or to people who are renting a room in their home, many Christians in the community fear that their freedoms could be under assault. (See the Spokesman review article ‘New CdA law opens rift over equality’ for a good summary of some of these concerns.)

As someone who lives in the town adjacent to Coeur D’Alene, I take a personal interest in this law. I know people whose family businesses could be affected by this change and who could be sentenced to six months in jail if they refuse to hire homosexual staff to work alongside their kids.

What it Looks Like in Practice

Let me give an example that is close to home of how this might play out in practice.

My wife and I own a small business selling essential oils. It’s just a family business, but next year we hope to expand to the point of being able to hire a secretary two days a week to work in our home alongside me and my children. Now suppose I advertised for this position and two people apply, James and Chris.

Imagine that after interviewing both applicants, I discover that Chris is a practicing homosexual. Now in principle I don’t mind my older children working alongside homosexuals in our family business because I want them to learn to be comfortable around others who have a different lifestyle, even as our Lord was comfortable eating beside tax collectors and sinners. However, I haven’t explained to my younger kids about homosexuality and I don’t want them to be exposed to it for another few years.

I know that my kids will all be working alongside whoever I hire, and I also know that if I hire Chris to work in our family business that something might easily come up that could create confusion for my children, such as if Chris referred to what he did on the weekend with his boyfriend. I am also aware that, as a general rule, homosexuals can often feel threatened by those who believe homosexuality is immoral, and I don’t want to be under the stress of having to hide the books and magazines in our house that might alert Chris to the fact that I am “homophobic.” Therefore, even though Chris is more qualified to do the work than James, I decide to hire James based on these considerations alone.

Now suppose that I share my thought processes with someone who I think is trustworthy but who actually goes and tells Chris that I discriminated against him because he is a practicing homosexual. In such a situation, Chris would be able to sue me for unlawful discrimination and I would be forced to either pay a heavy fine that could bankrupt the family business, or serve six months in jail and have a prison record for the rest of my life.

Racism, Segregation and Anti-Discrimination

To the Coeur D’Alene city council men tasked with making the decision, it was a very straight-forward matter: we don’t allow discrimination on the basis of race or religion, so why should we allow it in the case of sexual orientation? In their simplistic way of thinking, laws banning discrimination against homosexuals are no different in principle to the laws that banned slavery or segregation.

After my friend Pastor Stuart Brian went to the city council meeting to protest the new law, he recalled that he was asked on several occasions by Councilman Kennedy to give a description of the difference between discrimination on the basis of religion versus discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

As this question suggests, the debate is being framed in terms that seem to force Christians into a position that is arbitrarily inconsistent at best and bigoted at worst.

Bad Reasons to Oppose Anti-Discrimination Laws

To many conservative Christians it seems obvious that the laws banning discrimination on the basis of religion and race are appropriate, yet it seems equally obvious that religious liberty should permit us to discriminate against homosexuals. Faced with this seeming inconsistency, the best many Christians have been able to do is to simply assert that the latter type of discrimination is okay since homosexuality is bad and contrary to the public good. But didn’t the advocates of segregation and racism make similar arguments, namely that equal treatment of certain races was contrary to the public good?

Other Christians have taken refuge in the non-argument that the new law is unjust because it didn’t have the support of the majority of citizens. But again, it is hard to see how such an argument doesn’t open Christians up to the charge of inconsistency, since on other issues the Christians constituency castigates law-makers who simply follow majority opinion.

Still other Christians have argued that we should be able to discriminate against homosexuals because homosexuality is unnatural, leads to sexual diseases and is contrary to simple biology. The problem with this view – apart from committing the is-ought fallacy – is that for many people homosexuality seems natural, and unless we are prepared to invoke meta-ethical considerations rooted ultimately in the Christian worldview, it is far from obvious that homosexuality isn’t as natural for certain people as heterosexuality is for others. As for the argument from sexual diseases, heterosexuality can also lead to sexual diseases, so if this argument proves anything it proves too much.

Even so, I do think it is appropriate for Christians to oppose these types of anti-discrimination laws, but we need to think carefully about our justification in doing so. In particular, we need to stop letting the other side to dictate the terms in which the debate is framed.

The Burden of Proof

Let’s return to the question that Councilman Kennedy posed to Pastor Stuart Brian. If discrimination on the basis of religion or race is unacceptable, why should discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation be tolerated?

Framed as such, the burden of proof is made to rest with the Christians opposing anti-discrimination measures to show that there is a principled difference between discriminating against a homosexual vs. discriminating against a Jew, so that the former can be justified while the latter is not. But this is backwards. The burden of proof properly always rests with the affirmative – with those who are putting forward a case for something.

To give a basic example, if I assert ‘A is true because of X, Y & Z’ and you are arguing against me, it isn’t actually necessary for you to prove ‘non-A is true’ in order to undermine my argument: all you need to do is simply demonstrate how X Y and Z do not logically entail A.

Let’s take a real world example. If a politician argues that Obamacare is economically affordable because a similar program was economically affordable in Massachusetts, I don’t actually have to prove that Obamacare isn’t economically affordable in order to refute his argument: all I have to do is show that the evidence he is appealing to doesn’t support his conclusion – that, for instance, the example of Massachusetts is not sufficiently similar to Obamacare for the conclusion to be sound, or that what is true of a part is not necessarily always true of the whole.

In the case of anti-discrimination laws, the burden does not rest with those of us who oppose the creation of new offenses to demonstrate that discriminating against homosexuals is different from discriminating against blacks or Buddhists; rather, the burden properly rests with those who put forward such laws to themselves demonstrate that discrimination against homosexuals is equivalent to the types of discrimination we agree to be unjust, and then to show how such considerations are sufficient to justify the creation of new civil or criminal offenses.

The problem, of course, is that the debate about anti-discrimination laws rarely ever gets down to this level. Instead, it is simply assumed from the outset that all discrimination is bad. So we have what amounts to the following syllogism, in which the first premise is simply assumed without adequate reflection:

  1. All discrimination is unjust.
  2. X is a case of discrimination.
  3. Therefore, X is unjust.

The problem is the universal quality of the major premise. In the real world, only some types of discrimination are actually unjust. This may sound controversial, but it actually isn’t. In Part 2 of this series I will show that it is actually uncontested that certain types of discrimination are not only justifiable, but also rational and appropriate. Building on this, I will suggest that laws banning discrimination against homosexuals hinge on questionable notions concerning the role of the state.

Stay tuned.

Further Reading

For background into the controversy in Coeur D’Alene Idaho, see the following resources: