Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Creation or evolution - chapter 5 - speciation, fossils and information, continued

Comparing paradigms

The major argument which Dr. Alexander relies upon as the most solid proof of Darwinism is from genetics. On page 119, he says that the importance of fossils to the case for proving evolution has been relativised in recent years, and that we are now able to reconstruct evolutionary history just from genetics.

In the event, though, the proof offered falls down once more because of the invalidity of the method he uses. Put simply, DA argues that Darwinism can give a coherent explanation of this or that, and so there it is. Again, we look in vain to find DA educating his readers as to the concept of competing paradigms, and showing that the Darwinian paradigm can give a more coherent explanation of certain phenomena than a competing one. No - it's just that Darwinism explains this bunch of stuff, therefore it must be true.

So, there's a carton of orange juice on my table. You know I visited the supermarket last week, and the theory that the carton came from that trip fits with this bit of data, therefore it's definitely true that that's where it came from. But, it's not - in fact the carton was brought by a guest who came for tea. Again, DA doesn't give us a word to explain how a creationist might explain the phenomena he describes; there's no comparison, simply the naked assertion that as his model gives a coherent explanation, therefore it's proved to be true. As the book goes on it becomes increasingly clear that DA is as much marshalling rhetorical tactics as he is actual science - don't give opposing views the oxygen of publicity, and perhaps your readers will simply believe your naked assertions instead because they don't realise there's another game in ttown.

So, DA brings out various arguments - from what is often called "junk DNA", and genetic similarities found in different species that Darwinism claims are related by common ancestry, and so on. "Junk DNA", however described, is basically an argument from ignorance; DA gives no proof that these bits of DNA have no function, he just argues from the fact that we don't know their function. He is good enough to concede that the "junk DNA" label has turned out to be unfortunate as functions aren being increasingly found for parts of the genome previously so labelled. This is a "Darwin of the gaps" argument - as our knowledge increases, so it begins to vanish.

What is much more worthy of notice, though, is the implied theological, and not scientific, argument which underlines both of the arguments mentioned above. The rarely spoken assumption behind them is that "a Creator who made these things in a short time period wouldn't have done it this way". The argument being made is "these DNA similarities between different creatures are too much to be a coincedence - if a Creator had done this without common ancestry he would be tricking us with misleading evidence: I think he wouldn't have done things this way, therefore he didn't."

Seeing as this is a theological argument and not one provable by empirical observation, it's equally capable of theological refutation. Genetic similarities can be explained through a common designer as well as being explained by common descent. If the Bible is true, then we expect the world to be discoverable - this was part of the basis for modern science. We believe that the universe operates by principles that human minds can investigate and describe, because we believe that the designer of the universe also designed human minds and did so with the desire that we should explore and subdue his creation, as the Genesis mandate states. As such, then, we might anticipate that there will be a great deal of similarity and re-use of similar principles and designs in different animals. What kind of headway could we make in exploration if each of the millions of species of animal was put together in a totally different way and required a whole new branch of science to investigate it?

Thus it's too easy and glib for DA simply to assert that genetic similarity is predicted by Darwinism and so Darwinism is proved. Genetic similarity is also predicted by creationism, which is what DA is trying to disprove. If, though, you never mention or explore the predictions of the system of thought you're trying to disprove, then you'll have to excuse reviewers like this one who don't think that you succeeded.


DA's section on fossils is a bit thin; lots of dogmatic assertions (this is 35 million years old, that happened 1.2 billion years ago), but not much by way of meat in terms of arguments. More of a summary of evolutionary claims that arguments for them. Fair enough; I suppose from the fact of DA's specialism in genetics and biochemistry that he's going to major in those areas and minor in others. Tiktaalik is given the staring role as a great example of a transitional form.

Next time: the question of information.

Monday, 27 October 2008

"Creation or Evolution" - chapter 5 - "Speciation, fossils and the question of information"

Continuing from here; series began here.

Chapter five is the third and final seeking to explain "What do we mean by evolution?". After that there is a chapter seeking to answer some objections; at 37 pages, it is also the longest chapter in the book.


If you've been following this extended review, you'll know by now that Dr. Alexander is quite good at side-stepping difficult questions for the Darwinian position by the use of a carefully crafted word fallacy. His section on "speciation", extending for several pages, is another classic example.

The key question as regards Darwinism versus creationism when it comes to speciation is this: do evolutionary mechanisms have limited or unlimited potential? To sharpen it still more, are the processes which are active and observable in the natural world today able to generate the entire "tree of life" from a single common ancestor, or not? The creationist model is that God created several distinct kinds (Hebrew, "baramin"), in which the life-forms had the potential to diversify within certain limits. The Biblical text does not give us much specific information about the limits of these "kinds"; but there are some - for example, trees and birds belong to different kinds (Genesis 1:11-12, 20-21). There is variation, but within limits, and what we end up with is not a single genetic tree of life, but an orchard - several trees in which the descendents express the potential that was latent in the original ancestor individuals.

DA, though, decides to answer a conveniently different question, and gives an irrelevant answer which does not touch upon the actual creationist case, whilst, as before, giving the impression that presumably he must be talking about something relevant and probably refuting it. To what extent he's conscious that he sidesteps the issues or not, I don't know - he never refers to any creationist publication; beliefs contrary to Darwinism are always couched in terms of "many people think" or "some Christians believe". In fact Henry Morris gets a special guest mention in a later chapter, but that sudden freak appearance will be as good as it gets.

The question DA answers is this one: is speciation possible beyond the limits set by today's definition of a biological species? i.e., is it possible for new species to form under the specific definition of "species" in contemporary science? DA introduces this question in terms of the commonly used distinction between "microevolution" and "macroevolution", defining them in terms of variation within a species, or changes above the species level, then going on to define just what "species" means - it is defined in terms of reproductive compatibility. A species is a population where the individuals can interbreed with each other but not other organisms. This is clearly a related question to the real issue, but only a smaller part of it. If "macroevolution" as DA has defined is not possible, then this would imply the creationist position is right; but whilst being a sufficient condition, it is not a necessary one. In fact, no mainline creationist believes that the limits of the Genesis "kinds" coincide or are even close to being as restricted as the definition of "species" which DA gives. . Hence again we simply have the ritual disembowelling of another straw man, whilst hood-winking the uninformed reader into thinking that he's reading a refutation of something at least similar to creationism.

Having thus set up this uncontroversial non-question, over the next pages DA explains various ways in which speciation can occur in the animal and plant kingdoms, da de dum yawn, and concludes that the macro/micro-evolution distinction isn't as useful as it seems at first glance. Along similar lines, he also discusses other interesting ways in which modern biological findings are raising questions over our idea of what a "species" is. As with other parts of the book, that would all be OK and useful, were there somewhere else in the tome where he actually addresses the real question - but he doesn't.

One point of interest was to see a Bible verse actually thrown into the chapter. What we've seen before is that in practice DA believes that the world of the Bible and the world of science have no real overlap as far as the evolutionary history of the planet goes. In particular, the Bible does not set any real limits on what conclusions science is allowed to give - contrary to an authentic Christian worldview in which the Bible is the foundation and ultimate arbiter for all true knowledge. DA's verse in this chapter, though, doesn't contradict this position - it's thrown in as an aside. We're told this:

No one actually knows the exact number of species on earth. the number already classified is around 2 million. ... Adam was brought by God in Genesis 2:19-20 to name all the animals, but we have a long way to go in finally fulfilling that command!

DA has not very closely read Genesis 2:20, because it actually states that Adam did in fact do the task which God charged him with; "And Adam gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an helper suitable for him." DA's interpretation seems to be that this command was part of the "creation mandate" to govern man for all time - part of the ongoing task to explore and harness the wonders of God's creation. Note, though, that DA assumes that Genesis 2:19-20 actually means species, as defined in modern biology, in terms of reproductive isolation - hence the task is to catalogue millions of species, not just to give generic names to a much smaller number of larger groupings. This muddle is truly ironic given the stern warnings in previous chapters that we must not read Genesis in terms of modern biology.

In reading through the examples that DA gives, it's noticeable that in the examples of processes involved in the production of new species, there are no examples of changes which are genuinely productive. They are all neutral or degenerative. That is, it is in terms of some change which prevented reproduction where it had previously been possible, and led to the isolation of a particular subset of creatures. This is obviously inconsistent with the key Darwinian assertion of upward progress. This is related to the key question of information, which DA addresses later in the chapter.

To be continued...

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The prophecy of Nahum (chapter 1)

Get a PDF version of this here.

The Prophecy Of Nahum (Chapter 1)

Nahum himself: Nahum is probably a book you know little or nothing about! In fact, nobody knows anything about Nahum himself except what is written in this book. Some people think that the town that he lived in (Elkos, verse 1) was later known as Capernaum (which means, “the city of Nahum”) - i.e. The city that the Lord Jesus lived in (Matthew 4:13).

The book of Nahum: The book of Nahum is really very simple. It is a prophecy of certain and terrible judgment upon Nineveh, the capital of the wicked Assyrian empire. Founded centuries earlier by Nimrod (Genesis 10:9-11), the prophet Jonah had preached to these people about 150 years earlier. Then, they had repented and turned to the Lord, who had spared them. Since then, though, they had returned to great extremes of wickedness and idolatry.

The times of the prophecy: This prophecy takes place, like all the prophets, after the nation of Jews had been divided into two – the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern (Judah). In fact, by this time the northern kingdom had been destroyed by the Assyrians, in 726BC. It is not yet the time when the southern kingdom has gone into exile in Babylon. Assyria is the real super-power in the world at this time until Babylon defeated it as prophesied in this book. Judah had been severely threatened by Assyria who had come to lay siege to Jerusalem – but at that time the Lord saved them by killing 185,000 of the Assyrian army, which had to return to Nineveh in defeat. You can read about all of this in 2 Kings 18-19.

Nineveh: Nineveh itself was an awesome city. Its walls were over 100 feet high and wide enough for 3 chariots to drive along side by side. It required 3 days to tour (Jonah 3:3) and had 1500 towers. It was surrounded by a moat that was 165 feet wide and 65 feet deep. The rulers of Assyria prided themselves that, inside it, they were invincible. But, as prophesied in Nahum 1:8, this watery defence became Assyria's downfall. In 612BC a massive flood opened up part of the city wall, allowing the Medes and Babylonians to ride in, set the city on fire and end the power of the Assyrian empire.

The prophecy of Nahum: The prophecy itself is a very terrible one. There is no hope for Assyria. Jonah's preaching brought grace to the city, but they afterwards rejected the goodness of God. As those who had known the way of righteousness but turned their backs on it, their sin was great and obvious. They were ripe for judgment. The book of Nahum is the announcement of their total doom. The city of Nineveh was destroyed so thoroughly that nobody knew where it had been situated again until the site was rediscovered in the year 1842.

Three Themes From Nahum Chapter 1

1. The Character And Power Of God (verses 2-6)

The judgment Nahum will announce is based upon the character of God. This terrible anger will be poured out because he is an awesome and holy God. He is personally affronted by sin and has determined to judge it. He does not lack any power to carry out these judgments. Whatever great things you can see in creation, they are nothing to God – he has complete control and authority over them all. There is no hope for anyone who has to face this awesome anger.

Verses like these encourage us to think rightly about God. When Christian churches deteriorate, they usually start to think of God in a very one-sided way. They talk about his love and grace, but stop seeing that love and grace biblically. They do not understand them in relation to God's perfect justice and holy anger at sin. The death of our Lord Jesus is such a wonderful gift of love precisely because of the terrible judgment he took on our behalf. The gospel only makes sense because we know how little sympathy God has with our evil deeds. The cross of Christ is the proof of the dreadful punishment that awaits the wicked – because if God did not even spare his own Son when our sins were counted as his, he will certainly not spare any of us.

2. Certain And Devastating Judgment For Nineveh (v8-14)

The earlier verses in the chapter emphasise why judgment is certain: God's character and power. These verses emphasis the judgment itself. Nahum prophesied that when it came it would be sudden and final – it would not come in stages, or with warnings, pauses and opportunities to repent (v8-9). Nineveh had gone too far for that. The end would come when it seemed that nobody could touch them, when they were not expecting it, and very quickly (verse 10), like the burning of dry stubble.

God's word was fulfilled in 612BC. A huge flood broke down part of the city's defences whilst the Assyrians were rejoicing in their safety, and when word of this came to the Babylonians they swiftly took their opportunity. God has at his hand an infinite number of ways in which to bring down the proud when he pleases. There is no safe place we can build up in this world in rebellion against him, no defence which we can use to keep him out. These verses should encourage us to be urgent and sincere in pleading with the ungodly to repent and turn to Christ. They also remind us what a terrible price our Saviour had to pay in order to purchase us from our sins (Psalm 49:6-9). They remind us too that one day he is returning, suddenly and decisively, and that many people will not be ready (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3).

3. Comfort (And Challenge) For The Faithful People Of God (v7, 12b, 15)

In a way, the whole book is comfort for God's suffering people. It tells them that though the wicked may be very powerful, very proud and seem always to be successful, yet their final doom is certain. God himself will see to it. Whoever is causing God's people to sorrow shall one day receive their just reward.

There are, though, particular words of encouragement included in this chapter. The prophets often did this. So that nobody should despair at the terrible judgments which they announced, they included words to encourage the godly. Even when announcing his jealousy, God reminded that he was slow to anger (verse 3). His “fury will be poured out like fire” (verse 6), but the righteous need not be afraid. When trouble comes, he will take special care of those who trust him. His goodness will not allow him to forget them, and they will be quite safe (verse 7).

The words at the end of verse 12 refer to the fact that Judah, God's people, had been caused to suffer under the power of Assyria. This had been a discipline to them. When God disciplines his children, though, it is not to destroy them but to purify and train them (Hebrews 12:5-11). It is not for ever, but so that we might be worthy to inherit what he has for us in Christ.

The words of verse 15 are also in Isaiah 52:7, and the apostle Paul refers to those or both in Romans 10:15. The people of God are encouraged to rejoice, because the good news of liberty will come and be proclaimed. This finds its ultimate fulfilment in Christ, because it is only through him that the true enemies who have kept us enslaved, sin, the devil and death, are defeated and it is the gospel of Christ which comes to the world to announce this joyful liberation.

The chapter finishes with a challenge. The overthrow of our and God's enemies is not a reason for us to become lazy or fall into sin ourselves. It is a challenge to us to faithfulness. We should not use our peace and liberty as a cover for wrongdoing (Galatians 5:13); we should use the opportunity to be careful to serve the Lord with all our hearts.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Creation or evolution - do we have to choose? - chapter 3 (What do we mean by evolution? Dating, DNA and Genes)

After 22 pages intended to give an overview of the Christian idea of creation, we are now treated to 104 to give us an overview of the idea of evolution. Perhaps this is necessary because the intended readership of the book will be assumed to already know more about the former than the latter. On the other hand, it is an interesting reflection of a theme that runs throughout the book: DA is a very orthodox evolutionist, and very reluctant to tweak with anything that forms the present consensus in the mainstream scientific community; but as regards orthodox Christian theology, it has much less that is certain and can be tweaked and adapted quite at will.

This chapter, as the title suggests, introduces us to dating, DNA and genes; the next two chapters explain the topics of "natural selection and reproductive success" and "Speciation, fossils and the question of information", before a chapter addressing some objections ties the summary up.

I am a theologian and logician, not a biologist, so if DA has made any subtle errors in the finer points of explaining DNA and genes, I won't be detecting it any time soon. Much of this kind of material is uncontroversial, though DA doesn't bother to point that out. The ways in which DNA and genes can be observed to operate in the world today can be observed by everyone, and folded into a variety of different possible theories about the past. That outwardly quite different organisms have various similarities in their genes can be explained by many different and incompatible theories. Perhaps those organisms have a common ancestor and the similarities have been copied down the years and the divergent paths of Darwinian evolution. Perhaps those organisms have a common designer who intended his highest creature, man, to study and understand the living world, and so for that and other reasons used similar designs in many of his creatures. Perhaps it's just a massive coincidence. The point is that the observation itself is a neutral fact; how we decide which theory it points to, or maybe none of the above, has to be decided on other grounds.

This is a good point to mention, then, that at no point in his book does DA explain to his readers that scientific research takes place in terms of paradigms. There is a model, and research is done to explore that model, which is then confirmed, or adapted in minor or major ways, or even scrapped, or perhaps we just put the research on the shelf because it puzzles us too much and we don't know what to do with it. Only a miniscule number of research scientists genuinely make a new advance; the vast majority are involved in doing work that simply assumes the
truth of a particular paradigm, or seeks to confirm it or possibly to tease it out a little bit. When it comes to comparing two competing paradigms (such as Darwinism or special creation), you can't just point out that your paradigm "explains stuff"; that is not evidence of superiority. Evidence of superiority comes when you show that your paradigm explains stuff better than the other one across a wide range of data. Alexander, though, despite a few critiques of modernist thought here and there, allows his reader to go away thinking that science is simply a giant consensus, slowly, objectively and relentlessly grinding its way from neutral assumptions to the discovery of all (natural) truth. That's classic Darwinist rhetoric; the simple reader must not be allowed to think in terms of controlling world-views or paradigms, because the suggestion that philosophy or personal prejudice might play a part in scientists' work, or that they simply might be just barking up the whole wrong tree from the beginning in any particular area, would lead to evolution being given a more objective scrutiny than it could survive. Hence, our chapters introducing evolution simply describe whatever the present consensus is, and keep the whole matter of paradigms and competing models or world-views conveniently hidden.

It is instructive to notice just how thorough-going DA's debt to enlightenment thinking is in these chapters. Biblical truth and scientific truth are, in his mind, in effect two hermetically sealed sources of truth. Yes, the Christian scientist may pause during his work to praise the Creator for what wonderful things he has made; but Biblical truth is never allowed to set any boundaries or limits in his study - this would be a category mistake. Hence we have two self-contained chapters on creation, and now some on evolution, and these can stand quite independently of what's gone before. Simply put, DA swallows the enlightenment fallacy of a "neutral" science hook, line and sinker. There is not a word to show us any awareness of the Christian idea of theology as the "queen of the sciences", where the Word of God is the ultimate source of revelation and authority, by which every external idea must be scrutinised and have its limits defined.

Hence it is, then, that in the section arguing for a very large age for the creation, there is simply no discussion of what limits Scripture puts upon it - even whether it does. There is nothing on this in the whole book. This fits in with the way DA has been going - the Bible tells us spiritual truths, but science tells us ones about the physical world. We noted in the last chapter that the question of whether Scripture tells us historical truths is one that DA simply side-steps. Of course, enormously long ages are needed to fit in the evolutionary hypothesis, so DA piles up various lists of things that are really really old. It's another exercise in moving swiftly on conveniently omitting to discuss any of the difficulties. If there really was a global flood, then many of the assumptions used in these things are simply wrong. If you find a nearly full bucket in my bathroom under a dripping tap, you might measure the rate of dripping and then calculate how long it took to get so full - a few weeks. In fact I filled that bucket myself and then turned the tap off 5 minutes ago and it's got a little drip. By giving you a key to the past, I've shown you that you're going wrong if you just do some sums that assume that as things are now, so they have ever been. The word of God is our key to the past. If there was a world-wide flood, as it says, then we have to factor that into our calculations; we can't simply assume that present processes can unlock our past if we just wind the clock back and do the sums. DA, though, follows the secular model totally: only data from the physical present can control our interpretation of the past, and the Bible must be treated as if it either doesn't exist or says nothing on the matter. Being a professing evangelical, DA plumps for the latter: dating and the age of the this or that is fixed by science, only by science, and the Bible is simply a book with nothing significant to say on matters of ancient history. We have here again the practical outworking of the "two books" fallacy (whether DA actually believes it or not): science teaches
us about history and the physical world, the Bible teaches us spiritual values.

This chapter is preliminary. There's some material about encoding and non-encoding sections of our DNA. This is intended to pave the way for DA's proof of common ancestry. All that to come.

Creation or evolution - do we have to choose (chapter 4 - natural selection and reproductive success)

This chapter explains the "big idea" of Darwin's theory (in its modern form) - that natural selection, operating upon the the variations generated by mutations, is the engine driving the evolutionary machine.

By his own confession, DA postpones the difficult questions until later chapters, such as: where does the amazing complexity in even the "simplest" life forms come from in the first place? (i.e. the idea of Darwinism requires a pool of competing candidates to begin with), and are the changes generated by gene mutations (which DA concedes are normally harmful, not beneficial) able to cause not just one offspring to differ from another, but to bridge larger gaps - even such that ultimately the whole of all life is just a single family tree? That is, are there limits to the changes which can be generated by DNA copying errors? Likewise, questions of what evidence exists that such a process has actually happened (the fossil record, etc.) is not in this chapter.

So, like the previous chapter that makes this more of a plodding exercise in describing what the theory actually is, rather than one in which there's much argument to show that it's true or not. At least, though, in those particular cases which DA flags up, he attempts to answer them in later chapters. Other issues are not even raised.

To take an example, somebody attempting to evaluate the theory of evolution as a Christian theologian is going to have to grapple at some point with the fact that man is an awesome creature who is capable of vastly more than he needs to be capable of in order to survive. He's made in the image of God, not just as a machine to survive by the skin of his teeth. I like Handel; but even the most cunning and inventive minds haven't yet suggested how the ability to compose such intricate melodies, harmonies and so on stopped George Frederich or his fans from getting eaten by the local predators. All the wonders of human art and culture might ultimately be attributed to our immaterial souls, but they do at least pass through our physical brains. If Darwinism is a purported explanation for the origin of the complexity of those brains, it needs to explain this. Natural selection, as DA defines it, is to do with relative likelihoods of survival. Yet, the breadth of human capabilities exceeds what is needed for mere survival by a galactic mile and then some more after that. We might learn to play a piano concerto, debate the niceties of internal Labour Party politics, blend spices for the finest lamb madras, or contemplate the consequences of this or that chess move a few gambits down the line. It ought to be obvious that anyone who thinks that such excessive capabilities can be accounted for in terms of reproductive pressures is probably a few quality genes short up top themselves. DA, though, as has been his habit thus far in the book, simply ignores this question, if he's even aware of it.

One helpful "thought experiment" DA partakes in is to liken the (supposed) history of the earth to a 24-hour clock. On this scale, man appears at 3 seconds to midnight, and all of his record history takes place in the final fifth of a second. If we lengthen that to take in the whole history of the universe (not just the earth), then it's 1 second to midnight, and somewhere about 0.07 seconds for the bits we know about. DA, though, simply ignores the theological question that then arises, as to in what sense man's creation can with any responsibility or accuracy be portrayed in Scripture as being an event at the beginning of time, grouped with the creation of light and land when in fact they come at opposite poles in evolutionary reality. Nonetheless, DA is consistent in gliding over all such questions, because as we've seen his method is not to look for Scripture for history in any way - for him, it gives no parameters or boundaries, this is the role of modern science. Hence, he simply never raises the question; it doesn't come up within his methodology.

That's one of the things that concerns me about this book most. The undiscerning reader is not at the most fundamental level just being shown how evangelical thought and Darwinism can live together. He's actually getting a whole course of instruction in a new way of reading the Bible. A new way in which there are boundaries and limits set before we even open the book. A new way in which the key questions aren't to find out how the New Testament interprets the Old, or how the Saviour and his apostles guided us concerning the reliability of Genesis not just for matters of spiritual truth but also for flesh-and-blood matters of people, places and times. The reader is unwittingly being shown how to relativise the importance of the Scriptures, and form a whole new world-view which does not come from the mind of God as revealed in the Bible but from the secular "Enlightenment". A new world-view in which he learns not to ask "What does Scripture say?", but simply, in many important cases never to raise that question at all, because he's been taught to think of it as a category mistake.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Creation or evolution - do we have to choose? - Chapter 2 (final installment)

The longest section in this chapter is under the heading "Does the Bible teach science?", and rounds off the two chapters which aim to give us an overview of the Biblical position, before we go on to get an overview of Darwinism. (The chapters after that then ask how the two can be integrated.)

There are some good points scored here against those who have a naive, Richard Dawkins-style take on how religious belief and scientific research can interact. Alexander aims some shots which hit the target in criticising some modernist assumptions. Here, we're talking about the idea that science is the primary arbiter of all truths - any kind of "truth" which isn't a "scientific truth" is an inferior species. This is the empiricist fallacy. The set of justified beliefs is much larger than the set of beliefs subject to verification via repeatable experiments. How much does my wife love me? I'd say quite a lot, but I can't measure it with the love-ometer and give you a score on a scale from 1 to 10.

DA also seeks to explain something of the principle of "accommodation"; that the language of the Scriptures is designed to be intelligible to its readers, who were to read it according to its purpose, not according to any arbitrary whim they should entertain. It is not to be read as if it were an edition of The International Physics Monthly. The words should not be interpreted as if they have coded technical and scientific meanings to demonstrate to us that in fact Moses was familiar with how mobile phones work. Just because modern secularists think that "science" is a superior kind of truth does not mean we have to bend the Bible to show that it's science in order to stop it coming off second best.

In the presence of these criticisms of modernist errors, then, it is ironic to see that ultimately DA takes a position which involves one of the biggest and most damaginig to Christianity of them all. In his zeal to stop us from reading the Bible as science, DA comfortably avoids driving his cart into the ditch on the left hand side of the road. Sadly this is at the expense of making a bee-line into the ditch on the right side instead. The position which DA leaves us with is one right at the top of the list of modernist axioms. Ultimately, modern scientific journals contain objective science, and the Bible contains religious truths, and never the twain shall meet. The Bible is not intended to, and does not, teach us anything about the concrete world that you can
see and touch; it contains spiritual truths for salvation. Hence DA approvingly quotes other writers with words like "the Holy Spirit did not desire that men should learn things that are useful to no one for salvation" and " [Scripture is] a Rule of our Faith and Obedience, [but not] a Judge of such Natural Truths as are to be found out by our own Industry and Experience" and "You receive no instruction on physical matters [from the Bible]. The message is a moral one".

This is ultimately a false dichotomy, and a rank modernist one at that. The God who has acted to save us is one who has acted in the world of space and time. His intervention is a historical one, involving real atoms and molecules. It is not an other-worldly salvation that only exists in an intangible spiritual realm, but in the concrete one that we live in. In this part of the chapter, DA continues to employ the strategy that has already been noted in this review. He sets up the question upon his own terms, with his own choice of dubious dichotomies, and then brings in the "some Christians believe..." straw-man to set the backdrop that he'll paint his own views against. The clear implication, given the purpose of the book, is that creationists believe that Genesis is to be read something like as if it were a copy of Newton's Principia, science written ahead of its time. Alexander writes, "A question that is often raised when thinking about the biblical doctrine of creation is whether the Bible itself presents its teachings on the subject as if they represented some form of modern science" and "There is a certain irony in the reflection that the keen atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins shares with some Christians their idea that religious and scientific truths belong to the same domain." Here are those strange bogey-men, "some Christians" again. Who are they?

The intention of the suggestion is to put into the reader's mind that this is what creationists think. That impression is confirmed because such hints are the only false suggestions that Alexander contrasts his own view with. The book is meant to refute creationism; yet DA's
descriptions of creationism are off-the-wall. Ultimately this is simple intellectual dishonesty. The briefest survey of creationist literature from any kind of mainstream source would show that DA has set up and shot down a legion of flaming straw-men. No mainstream creationist
thinks that Genesis is intended to be interpreted using the paradigm of modern science. The real question, which they raise again and again, is one of history. Genesis is not an other-worldly narrative, "written in timeless narratives" as DA says. It is very much time-bound. There is no "spiritual core", for example, to Genesis 5, such that we can dispense with the long, detailed geneaologies of how Enos lived ninety years and gave birth to Canaan, or how Jared died aged nine hundred and sixty two. This is real-world history, because the Saviour who was coming was to be born as a real flesh-and-blood man, with a real human ancestry going back to Adam. The Son of God came as a real person in the real world to redeem real people in the real world. Genesis has to be real history, precisely because contrary to secularism, the salvation which was coming was to be a real and historical one, not just a set of private ideas. The Saviour and his apostles, taught us to read Genesis as accurate history; but all questions of that kind are conveniently ignored by Alexander in order to arrive at the neat scientific truth / spiritual truth divide that he leaves us with.

In conclusion, then, we see that Alexander totally side-steps all questions of history. He sets up the neat dichotomy, "is Genesis modern science", answers negatively, and conveniently entirely ignores what creationists actually teach. Is this deliberately dishonest, or just ignorant? Either way, I again came away sad because the clever method of setting up the debate on your own terms whilst ignoring what your opponents actually say, and then displaying a lot of skill and
cleverness in your answer, will probably be persuasive to many naive readers. But to anyone who thinks that a case is only established when you represent your opponent on the strongest possible terms, this part of the book can only be judged as very weak indeed.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Creation or evolution - chapter 2 - The Biblical doctrine of creation (continued)

Continued from here; beginning of series here.

DA's section on God's immanence in creation is almost 5 pages, whereas his transcendence gets only just over 1. It's all fine as far as it goes. In the context of the book as a whole, though, this bit is a softening-up exercise, and the one-sided emphasis is not a mistake. Where we're going is that God's immanence in creation is going to be DA's answer to the objection that Darwinism is essentially an atheistic doctrine. As God is immanent everywhere, that includes him being immanent in the Darwinian process or any other theoretical or actual process, so therefore it can't be atheistic. Working this out, though, is postponed to a later chapter. What we're really interested in now, are the two sections "Creation and miracles", and (next time) the longest of them all, "Does the Bible teach science?"

Creation and miracles

Here's DA's argument in this section, summarised. It's good to put it in short form (which DA doesn't), because then it's sheer fallaciousness is much more quickly apparent:
  • The Bible uses certain words to refer to miraculous events.
  • These words are not used to refer specifically to the original creation.
  • Therefore the original creation is not a miraculous event.
The section starts with a feature that becomes increasingly frequent as the book goes on - the anonymous bogeyman. Some Christians, we are told, view God's creative actions as being equivalent to miracles. Fair enough; everything came out of nothing, and that's pretty miraculous I think; that's not really negotiable amongst Christians. Then, this: "Other Christians invoke miracles to explain the existence of those aspects of the created order which they believe can never be understood or explained by science." Well, that's fair enough in one sense - understood one way, it's pretty much the standard definition of a miracle, if by "science" we mean those things we study which are the regularly and orderly actions of God, and by "miracles" we mean those things which are extraordinary acts of God. That would basically be a tautology. But who exactly are the "some Christians" and "other Christians"? Because I don't think DA wants us to interpret him in this way. He's suggesting that there are some group of dullards out there who are indulging in the "God of the gaps" fallacy - I don't understand this, therefore it's a miracle; "God did it", or if you're one of those very high-brow atheists we come across on el Internet, "goddidit". This kind of "some Christians believe..." line keeps cropping up in the book when DA wants to distance himself from the creationist position, but it seems that he knows that the thing he's suggesting isn't actually the position of any mainstream or representative creationist. Hence, he hides behind the "some Christians believe..." trick, which gets him out of having to document what he says, or show that reputable creationists actually believe it, but still allows the suggestion to linger in the air for the undiscerning.

Putting that aside, though, we need to actually look at the argument itself. It's another word fallacy, after that embodied by the chapter as a whole (see last time). DA picks out various words which are used in the context of miracles, signs, wonders, and so on. Then he observes that these words aren't used in the creation account; then he concludes that therefore, creation is not a supernatural event. This, of course, then leaves the door open for us to accept that creation is through the Darwinian mechanism, which involves the outworking of predictable processes over a very long period of time.

This kind of abuse of word studies is what gives study of the original languages a bad name. The root error in this case, is that DA makes the arbitrary restriction that only a certain group of key words is allowed to signal the world of miracles; if those words don't appear then it doesn't matter what words are used - we don't have a miracle. So even if the Bible were to say, "this was a supernatural event, you dummy!", it still wouldn't be a supernatural event, because the word "sign", "wonder" or whatnot doesn't appear in the sentence and "supernatural" wasn't on the list we drew up. The words which DA chooses are those which are used especially in connection with the miracles performed at the time of the Exodus, and those performed by Christ in his fulfilment - the greater Exodus he achieved through his death. They are the words to do with signs of redemption. Creation, of course, is not an act of redemption, and hence it's not a shock to find that the vocabulary to do with the highlighting of acts of redemption through wonders and signs isn't used in connection with it. Creation and redemption are theologically distinct; to insist that the vocabulary of the supernatural in one category must be the same in the other is an assertion without any necessity behind it. DA, though, makes the ultimate argument from silence by asserting that this very absence is, rather than being because creation isn't redemption, instead definite teaching for us that the creation event was through predictable processes instead of an immediate act of God.

Surely we have here one of those places where a truth is clear to every child who picks up a Bible, but obscure to the man who's buried himself in technical arguments, word studies, and the desire to rule our special creation a priori. A small child would know that if you want to establish whether or not creation was a supernatural event, you should read the language of Genesis 1, and what the rest of the Bible says in reference to those early chapters. Alexander, though, manages to establish that Genesis 1 doesn't describe a supernatural event merely by noticing that the word group to do with signs of redemption isn't used in that chapter, and without any examination of what words are actually used and more importantly, how they are connected to each other in sentences (as if the mere presence of this or that word decides what doctrine is or isn't taught). I grieve at this chapter, because many naive readers will surely be wowed and impressed - "look, the man mentions words in Greek and Hebrew; he must be right!" But the fundamental structure of the argument is entirely bogus.

To be continued...

Creation or evolution - chapter 2 - The Biblical doctrine of creation

Continued from here; beginning of series here.

Chapter 2 is entitled "The Biblical Doctrine Of Creation", and is intended to complete the broad overview that began in chapter 1 ("What do we mean by creation?"). The next four chapters are on the question, "What do we mean by evolution?" and answering objections, before going on to ask whether the accounts of creation given to us by the Bible and by the theory of evolution can be harmonised, and how. So this chapter finishes off the overview of creation. In this chapter, DA discusses the Biblical concept of creation in broad terms, setting the parameters for the later discussion of how in particular we understand Genesis and what it has to do with Darwinism.

The headings will give you some idea of how the chapter develops, the first four being offered as "four key points that emerge about God in relation to his creation"; "God is transcendent in relation to his creation", "God is immanent in his creation", "God is personal and Trinitarian in his creation", "The three tenses of creation", "Creation and miracles", and the longest section, "Does the Bible teach science?".

Looked at overall within the context of the question posed in the title of the book itself, this chapter is one enormous word fallacy. It does not deal with the doctrine of creation proper, i.e., the question of origins and what the Bible teaches about how the universe and everything in it began. Rather, it deals with the doctrine of God's relationship to the creation as it now exists, i.e. the doctrine of providence. DA attempts some kind of defence for this in the opening paragraph of the chapter. He says that the Bible's teaching on creation includes origins, but is much more than this, and we shouldn't become too fixated on it; the majority of the teaching on creation is not found in Genesis, but throughout the whole Bible. The language of creation is much broader.

If we're talking about "the created order", then this is all fine and dandy. But this is supposed to be a book about origins, not anything and everything to do with the created order. What we have here is simply a word fallacy. That statement would be going too far, if the next chapter was going to sharpen things up and be "The Biblical doctrine of origins" - i.e. if DA weren't simply going to discuss providence instead of origins. But in fact, that's just what he is going to do; this chapter finishes the overview of creation with scarcely a mention of origins. Under the heading "The three tenses of creation" we get only a few general words about the past creation; in a later chapter there will be some specific analysis of the early chapters of Genesis (there's none in this chapter, despite its title), but even that chapter will minimise the relevance of Genesis to the question of origins. That's why I call it a word fallacy. We use the word "creation" commonly to mean origins. But DA takes the word and then slides over into any concept connected with creation. Bringing in providence, DA basically avoids discussing at all the doctrine of creation proper as understood in evangelical orthodoxy. That's a fairly incredible procedure when you have a Bible whose opening sentence is "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".

It's not, however, an incredible procedure from DA's point of view, because as the book unfolds one thing becomes clear; DA's doctrine's ultimate end is to fold creation into providence and obliterate it as a separate category. Whilst the Scriptures teach that creation is indeed a past event at the beginning, Darwinism teaches that it is an ongoing process throughout almost the whole of history that continues at the present time. In fact, as far as higher life forms go, it is an ongoing process in which the juicy bits are very recent - overwhelmingly nearer to the present time than to the beginning of time. DA himself will explain in a later chapter with impressive literary skill that, if we view the history of the universe as a 24 hour clock, then man only appeared on the scene 3 seconds ago, at 23:59:57. Man was not created in any meaningful sense "in the beginning", but in reality at the end. His creation is a result of the God working immanently in the created order through the Darwinian process - i.e., it is a result of providence, not of an original supernatural act.

That's why DA structures and proceeds in the chapter in the way he does. It's not simply that he wants to remind us that the vocabulary of the created order goes beyond origins. It's because his doctrines ultimately collapses the matter of origins and makes talk of it redundant.

To be continued...

Friday, 17 October 2008

The grace of the doctrines

This is a thought that I've heard Vernon Higham (of Cardiff) preach more than once. I think it is particularly fitting for those of us who are more doctrinally minded.

We have the doctrines of grace. But do we have the grace of the doctrines?

We speak of a gracious salvation. Do we live out one? Are our sound doctrines sharp weapons that we use to slay our theological enemies, and a rock of defence that we use to shield ourselves from criticism? Or are they the motivation to love God, love all the brethren and the lost? Are they a rock of safety when we continually see our deep sinfulness and need of Christ?

It is not the doctrines of Christ that save us; it is the Christ of the doctrines. It is one thing to know about his love; but that is only a preparatory step to towards being made alive by it, living on it and living it out day by day.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The fallacy of making a generalisation particular

If I'd had a pound for every time I've read a fallacy of this nature in a Bible commentary...

The quality of the Greek in the letter of James presents a real problem. A Galilean peasant like James would certainly have known Greek, but it is unlikely that he would have been able to write the high quality Greek of this letter.

The author of this remark then goes on to hunt for solutions for the imagined problem; for example, that in fact the letter is not a letter written by James but a collection of his sayings collated by another editor.

If the fallacy isn't obvious, here's a concrete example of it:

Nairobi is in the third world, a poor place. It's very unlikely that a man living there could have his own laptop, mobile phone and Internet connection and be posting blogs on the Internet. Perhaps, then, "More Than Words" isn't David's blog, but a collection of his remarks that someone else in the West has thrown together and put in his name.

That must be a fallacy, because I seem to be doing just that. Just because millions, the vast majority, of people living in Nairobi don't own laptops, doesn't mean that this particular one doesn't. Likewise, to say that the majority of Galileans wouldn't write polished Greek is one thing... to then conclude that not even one Galilean could possibly, even when aged at least 50 and having lived in the capital of Judean culture and learning for a couple of decades, have written fine Greek, is something else entirely. And to then go on a build up a speculative theory that in fact someone else wrote it, is madness. Yet this madness passes for critical scholarship in many quarters of the academy...

Monday, 6 October 2008

Creation or Evolution - What do we mean by creation?

(Continuing from here).

Chapter 1 is titled "What do we mean by creation?", and seeks to give us a very gentle general introduction to the question. First, DA makes the point that all Christians are in some sense of the word, "creationists" - we believe that everything that is is ultimately due to God. This is regardless of what we believe about how God created. Nevertheless, words are defined by their usage, and so DA accepts that the word "creationist" often means something more as commonly used - but the real thing is not to quibble over words. It is how we answer the key questions concerning how we interpret those early chapters of Genesis, and whether it is compatible with the theory of evolution, and so on. OK.

From there, DA goes on to explain that in interpreting the Bible, we have to use skill and caution. It is written in foreign languages, and comes from foreign eras and cultures. We must be sensitive to such things as genre, the expected audience, purpose, and any relevant extra-textual knowledge, and so on. The next few pages unpack these issues a little bit, and then we are given a brief word study of the Hebrew words which are usually translated in the semantic domain of create, creation, etc.

Frankly this first chapter is rather plodding and not very well structured; the themes don't develop naturally so much as suddenly shift. Still, that's by the by; it's DA's theology that worries me, not his literary skills (the rest of the book is much better in this regard). This chapter is preliminary and there's not much meat on the table yet. There are, though, two issues which did catch my eye. Both were issues of omission, and this became a common theme as I went through the book. I found DA to be a skillful writer, widely read and informed, but ultimately, a bad theologian.

How so? Because DA basically treats the Bible the way that children do the pick-and-mix counter at Woolworths. He has a blend he wants to create, and so he selects some from here, some from there, to get his final product. Something like brewing up a good coffee - half a handful of beans of this one, half of that one, so on and so forth and voila - here's your drink, I hope you like it.

When DA (a self-conscious evangelical) introduces the key questions as to the interpretation of the Bible, I found him in practice to be very much in the modernist camp. What are his key principles for Biblical interpretation? These:
  • What kind of language is being used?
  • What kind of literature is it?
  • What is the expected audience?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • What relevant extra-textual knowledge is there?
All fine and good, as far as it goes. The Bible is written in human language, and we must look to the ordinary meaning of the words in all their various contexts to understand what it means. DA emphasises that the Bible has dual authorship, and the authors use their own styles and right freely from their own minds. OK. But what's missing from this picture? It's the key principle that the Bible is, to use the title of a particular book on the subject, not like any other book. There are additional factors involved which have a significant impact on interpretation, and cannot be overlooked. Theological liberals treat the Bible as if it were any other ancient Eastern bit of literature, and stop with the list of questions above. Evangelical Christians, though, are meant to acknowledge that the above questions are important but well short of sufficiency, because we believe that the divine authorship of the Bible (which DA believes in) is primary, and that as a result it is indispensable in interpreting any one part of the Bible to compare it with the rest of the Bible. The Bible is our ultimate authority, and therefore takes the prime place in interpreting itself. It is not our job to take this interesting fact here, that fact there, and blend them together to give a plausible and defensible theory of what Genesis means. True Christian exegesis means to find out what the Bible itself actually teaches us what Genesis means. The freedom to brew up our own blend is not there for us - we've already been told how it should turn out.

For Genesis, that means that the correct interpretation of its early chapters is ultimately decided, not simply by how Genesis on its own would be read by a second-millennium-BC dweller of the East; but how Genesis is interpreted by the later authors of the Bible. This question is fundamental and primary, and it is not just a slip that DA misses it out. As I read through his book, I found that with the exception of a brief examination of Romans 5, there was no real effort to survey the question, "how does the Bible itself interpret Genesis? How did Christ use its teachings and what was his and the apostles' hermeneutic? What are the results if we apply the hermeneutic from those places that they do interpret it consistently across the whole book?" Ultimately we will as we read on find that DA interprets Genesis against the background of a reconstruction of the paganism of the early east, and that for him forms the primary context.

The other notable omission was whilst DA was giving us some warnings about mistakes we can make in reading our Bibles. They were good warnings. Westerners can be prone to treating the Bible as if it were written in our own culture, which has been conditioned by the intellectual movements of the past couple of centuries - and such readings will just be alien to the true meaning. So, DA warns us against the danger of reading passages with excessive literalism - reading passages as if they were written by modernists without sensitivity to how the original writer intended them.

Where, though, I wonder is the opposite warning? We live in times dominated by Enlightenment thought. We live in the unpleasant afterglow of over a century of unbelieving theological liberalism. We live in times when people think of the Bible in terms of myth, ancient religious stories to do with the inner, private world of personal opinion, not the real world of time and space. Literalism has slain its thousands, but liberalism its tens of thousands. It is not excessive literalism which has ruined the mainline denominations of the professing Christian church; it is liberalism. So where is DA's warning that we might be in danger of treating straightforward matters of history as if they weren't? Where are we alerted to the risks of facing the Bible's cold, hard assertions about real history, real space and time, and committing the sin of unbelief in their face? Like the Sadducees, missing the text's plain teachings about the real world and reducing it to an ethereal spiritual core of mere moral teaching?

It's not a coincedence that DA missed that aspect out. Because that's where his book's ultimately going to take us in its handling of Genesis...

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Creation or Evolution - preface

In his preface, Dr. Alexander (henceforth DA) begins by telling us that his book pre-supposes the entire authority of the Bible and so is mainly written for Christians; fine. He then goes on to say that the creation/evolution debate has generated too much heat and not enough light, and that we need to make sure we disagree in a loving way. The disagreement, he says, is not over an essential and central biblical doctrine. The fact that God created and sustains the universe is essential and central; but just how he did so is a peripheral matter (the methods and mechanisms), an in-house debate in which we must speak with love to one another and on which we can fellowship whilst in disagreement.

OK, since we're being asked to, let's get our cards on the table. Many fine Christians have endorsed Darwinism, and creationists are no more immune from using harsh or intemperate language than anyone else in heated matters is. It won't be hard to use Google to find people who are both creationists and staggeringly rude, as well as Christian Darwinists who speak respectfully and edifyingly.

We have an early clue, though, from this introduction as to where the book is going to go. The Bible, we are going to discover, is basically empty of the significant content as to any of the how, where or when God created. It just tells us, in a wonderful way that omits any details that relate to time or space, that he did. That's a slight overstatement, as Dr. Alexander will allow a few peripheral details that don't conflict with Darwinism to come in - but no others. The Bible gives a nice ethereal spiritual interpretation of the world; Charlie tells us the hard facts of history and science.

The "central / peripheral" distinction, if pushed in this way, ends up begging or obscuring the key question. Does Darwinism by its innate tendency undermine the Christian doctrine of creation? Is its nature to take away the foundations of Christian belief concerning a perfect creation at the beginning, a disastrous all-encompassing fall, the entrance of death to spoil God's "very good" creation, a plotline and favoured line from the beginning until the coming of Christ as Saviour? Does the idea of evolution inherently imply some form of naturalism or deism (Darwin himself was a deist)? It might be possible for a man to introduce a family of termites in his basement without suffering any damage... but in the normal course of things there is only going to be one ending.

It's one thing to note that embracing Darwin is not an automatic sign of damnation. Well and good. But the real question is whether Darwinism undermines the actual gospel way of salvation. Here, creationist and atheist agree - if one is true, then the other can't be. One implies this and the other implies that, and between this and that there is fundamental contradiction. The world was created very good and fell, or it began in chaos and has undergone gradual improvement since. God ordered all things by an immediate word at the beginning, or order only comes through ongoing and continuing processes which are still active today. Either one is true, or t'other - but not both. We may both embrace Christ as Saviour; but if your teaching undermines the Biblical gospel, you'll have to allow me the freedom to say so without accusing me of being unloving.

It's interesting, then, to come to the end of DA's book and read the postscript, because by then times have changed! Now that the case has been made for the full compatibility of the Bible with Darwinism as God's method of creation, we learn that Christians who assault the teaching of evolution "are embarrassing", and they "bring the gospel into disrepute". They are ignorant and creating significant barriers to unbelievers to faith. They are a red herring which distract people from doing something useful. They are like the man in Matthew 25:14-30 who buried his talent in the ground (Dr. Alexander doesn't actually go on to spell out the parable's implication that presumably we'll be cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth). I didn't really feel the lurve there. Perhaps, I wondered, Dr. Alexander's opinion changed in between writing one and the other? Or perhaps it was just that he got out of different sides of bed on the two days he wrote those bits? Or amnesia struck between the beginning and the end? Or perhaps he's just softening us up at the beginning, and then when he's made his case and thinks he's persuaded us, he tells us what he really thinks?

The preface ends with the statement that DA hopes we'll end up agreeing with him the "Book of God's Word" and the "Book of God's Works" are in full harmony. I don't think any creationist ever doubted that... it's just whether either book has any harmony with Darwinism that we're a little bit skeptical over. The interesting question will be, as DA's book develops, how is he going to interpret those two books? Which interprets which? Which is authoritative and infallible, containing sufficient rules to interpret itself, and which is subject to the fallible judgments of fallen and foolish man? Are these two equal books, or are there differences in them that will affect how we relate them? We'll see...

Creation or Evolution - Do We Have To Choose?

The title of this blog post is the title of a newly published book, by Dr. Denis Alexander, a fellow of St. Edmund's College, Cambridge, and director of the "Faraday Institute for Science and Religion". Dr. Alexander is both an evangelical Christian and a professional biologist. In an earlier blog post I linked to this article,, where I interacted with a magazine article by Dr. Alexander promoting his book.

As noted on the Royal Institution of Great Britain's web site, Faraday was a Christian who (to use the secularist terminology), belonged to a "literalist sect" - or, in other words, he believed that Genesis contained a straightforward, historical account of the creation of the world. He was a creationist. As am I!

Dr. Alexander, on the other hand, is not. The aim of his book is to explain why not, and why you shouldn't be either. In the upcoming series of posts I will blog through Dr. Alexander's book, chapter by chapter.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

We are striving for a crown

"And every man that strives to overcome is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we, an incorruptible." - 1 Corinthians 9:25

"Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." - 2 Timothy 4:8

"Blessed is the man who endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him." - James 1:12

"And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, you shall receive a crown of glory that does not fade away." - 1 Peter 5:4

"Fear none of those things which you shall suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that you may be tried; you shall have tribulation ten days: be faithful unto death, and I will give you a crown of life. " - Revelation 2:10

"Behold, I am coming quickly: hold that fast which you have, that no man should take your crown. " - Revelation 3:11

Why do we have a crown of glory to look ahead to? Because someone once wore a crown of another kind:

"And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, and said, 'Hail, King of the Jews!' and they struck him with their hands." - John 19:2-3

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

It doesn't matter at all

One thing that I think I've been appreciating a little more over the last couple of years is this: justifying yourself or your actions is, in the vast majority of cases, a waste of time at best, and evidence of something wrong with us spiritually at worst.

Self-justification is a very natural response for fallen human beings, and most of the time we don't realise we're doing it. We hear something that implies possible that we did something wrong - and quickly we explain, "for clarity", why we did or said what we did.

Or perhaps there is an actual accusation that's floating around somewhere - on the grapevine, on the Internet, one way or the other. It casts us in a bad light, so we quickly move to clear ourselves.

Our reputations do matter. That's why slander and gossip are such serious sins, and why James describes our quick tongues as being "a world of iniquity", "set on fire by hell" (James 3:6). The murder of reputation is a breach of the sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13) just as the murder of the body is. Nevertheless, what exactly do we gain by immediately jumping in to justify ourselves whenever something is said that might case us in a bad light?

The reason that has been impressed upon me lately as to why so much of it is a waste of time (if not worse) is because of the doctrine of the judgment of God. God will bring every work into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14); in fact, he has already appointed a particular day, and a judge (Acts 17:30-31). Our own verdicts on each other ultimately will have the cash value of diddly-squat, because the final judge is the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). We ought to fear his judgment very much, because he has the all-seeing eyes and the all-hearing ears (Luke 12:1-5). Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, that he does not judge us as our sins deserve. Thanks be to God that, having judged him, for us who trust in him there is mercy.

Ultimately, if he knows that we are righteous in a matter, then man's opinion does not matter because man won't be handing down the verdict. And if he knows that we are not righteous, then all the self-justification and approval of the whole world can't help us. If we thought more of his judgment, we'd start to realise that we have many more problems than we thought - many more foolish words, many more hasty actions, many more times when we were not slow to speak and quick to listen, and so on, than we even dreamed. This ought to humble us, and make us realise the worthlessness of spouting off in our own defence... because even if we are innocent in this particular matter that we're thinking of right now, yet if God should enter into judgment with us, are there not a hundred more in which we're guilty by his holy standards?

"Judge not, lest you be judged" (Matthew 7:1). That's not a call to drop all discernment and stop speaking plainly about the difference between right and wrong. But it is an encouragement to be a little more self-critical. "For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete out, it shall be measured to you again. And why do you behold the splinter that is in your brother's eye, but not consider the beam that is in your own eye? Or how will you say to your brother, 'Let me pull out the splinter out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then you shall see clearly to cast out the splinter out of your brother's eye." (Matthew 7:2-5).

Man is always passing his opinion on this or that. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. So if your point in speaking is just to prove to other men that you are righteous, and there is no other reason to it - why not invest your time and effort more profitably?