Wednesday, 31 December 2008

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God"

I found this article fascinating and thrilling on so many levels...

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God | Matthew Parris - Times Online."

HT: Stephen Dancer

The Year Of Our Lord, 2009

"Anno Domini", words with a lovely ring to them. At least, in the
believer's ear! They remind us of some precious truths: that history
belongs to the Saviour, and the event that has defined time for all time
is his long-awaited arrival. The year of our Lord, 2009 is dawning.

Atheists and unbelievers of all stripes may (should they think too much
about it) deeply dislike the daily and hourly reminders - it's probably
down there in the corner of the screen you're reading this on - but even
in this another Biblical truth is confirmed. Whether you love Christ or
hate him, you can't avoid him, because, well, he is Lord! You never will
be able. To him every knee must ultimately bow, whether it's in the
submission of loving delight, or of resented final defeat. We know that
some have tried to get us to re-label the next year "2009 C.E.", but I'm
assured this really just means the 2009th year of "Christ's Empire." At
least, whatever C.E. stands for, we all know there's only one event that
we're counting 2009 years on from regardless of what terms it's labelled
with. Love it or hate it, it is what it is.

Thousands of years ago, the obscure prophets of an insignificant nation
proclaimed day in and day out that one day, through the coming Messiah,
all the nations of the world would worship Israel's God, Jehovah. This
was a remarkable vision, and likely proof of early insanity, as the gods
of the nations in those days were routinely local deities, expected to
protect this hill or that nation but no more. The seers of this apparent
non-entity of a nation, though, ridiculously declared that their God
made the universe, and would one day have his rule (which had been
apparently overthrown by man's sinful rebellion), restored, on an
appropriately world-wide scale. Well, that's a good joke, one ancient
Near-Easterner might say to another, especially if he belonged to one of
the more important regional powers, such as Egypt, Babylon or
Medo-Persia (depending on your century).

Except that it wasn't a joke. The good news that Jesus Christ came into
the world to die for our sins is today being spread comprehensively
throughout the nations, just as the prophets announced it would. The
most obscure and unlikely tribes and peoples have, as they foretold,
turned to the God who was worshipped in those days as the God of Israel,
Jehovah or Yahweh, now more fully revealed as the Triune Jehovah,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Whichever continent you travel to, and
whichever country (even those where Christianity is outlawed and
punishable with death), you will at least find small gatherings even if
only of secret believers. In other places you will find the whole
direction of entire cultures and continents which were defined (however
much the late-comers are trying to undo it) at their foundations by
faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the New Testament which tells his

This story will continue, like it or not. So why not decide to like it?
Jesus is Lord, and his Lordship is a wonderful thing for those who bow
to him. It is the Lordship of a loving Saviour who suffered and died to
bring us back to God, to redeem us to the uttermost. It is the Lordship
of a heavenly Friend who cares for his own people like a shepherd for
his sheep, and will at last bring every single one of them to heaven and
eternal glory. On the other hand, you can go on despising it or
rejecting it. If you do, it will only ever be the Lordship of a supreme
Potentate whose empire will spread much to your chagrin, and to whom one
day you will bow even if ultimately it is only as your terrifying and
hated judge. Whichever way you cut it, Jesus is Lord, and this new year
is marked as the 2009th year of his glorious kingdom.

I remember speaking once in a Christian old peoples' home, for the
morning devotions, and afterwards one of the resdents repeating to
himself in delight over and over the Bible verse which we had looked at:
"Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." Amen, and amen, and
may his kingdom come!

Saturday, 27 December 2008

"Creation or Evolution" review in a more permanent/accessible form

Here, in a more permanent form, is my extended (20 parts!) review of Dr. Denis Alexander's plea for evangelical Christians to embrace Darwinism:

If you think it's worthwhile, please pass this link around as far as you can - the material's only as useful as the number of readers it gets.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

A Saviour Is Born

Human beings everywhere are looking for a deliverer, a saviour. Because God made us, and made us for himself, until we find him we can only wander around in lostness. We're looking for something that's missing - whether we can articulate just what that missing "something" is or not. Some people suppress this sense of missing-ness better than others, but it's a fact of life in all human societies and cultures.

Just how desparate we are once all the image and pretence is stripped away is shown by how quickly each passing bandwagon is jumped upon. A youthful and charismatic politician appears, promising hope and change, and carries all before him. Then he fades, and it's time for the next one. Someone gave my wife some copies of the "Reader's Digest" from early 1997 - featuring an interview with the British prime minister in waiting - who's now old hat and we look for the next anointed deliverer. Politicians, football players, soap stars, musical icons, and so on - we like to believe in someone or something super-human who'll lift us up. Or we might look for it in achievement, or adventure - to "find oneself" in some trip of a life-time, or achieve some life-long goal. Excuse me, I feel a song coming on. "To dream, the impossible dream... to fight, the invincible foe..." Etcetera. Don't get me wrong - I enjoy football and am profoundly grateful for those who take on the immense task of political leadership. They have their place - but that place is not that of a Saviour.

Christmas is good news, because it tells us that this endless, fruitless quest that our nature compels us to pursue, is actually an ended and fruitful one. "A"nother saviour has not been born; the Saviour has. The Saviour to end all Saviours, who breached the gap between man and God when he died for our sins. He fought the invincible foe, overcoming man's true enemy, his sin against God. He lived the life we should have lived, died under the curse we deserved, and rose triumphant to never die again. Jesus came as a true man 2000 years ago to save men. The deep yearnings we have, which spring from our distance from God, are all satisfied in him. A Christian can sit with a level of disinterest when the next political/sporting/musical superstar is lifted up for the public to transfer their worship to. No other name is needed. God himself came in human nature. There's no need this Christmas to yearn to know how to climb your way up to him, because he came down to us. Turkey is nice, playing games and relaxing with the family is better still. But when all the fun of the season has faded once again, it'll not be leaving a gaping hole when we know him.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Some great quotes...

Gleaned from Justin Taylor's blog:

"And, of course, teaching kids can help to keep us humble: they do not understand academic qualifications, but they do understand boring, irrelevant, and pretentious–and they punish such unmercifully." More...

"As usual, as soon as religion's cultured despisers find something else to despise in religion, the mainlines, with their various seminaries and colleges, abandon it and join in the general anti-orthodox chorus, as radical, original, and revolutionary as a trust fund kid with a Che Guevara teeshirt and a Lexus. To apply a quotation from Michael Heseltine, like a pathetic one-legged army they march along, `Left, left, left, left left.'. They are merely part of the problem, not the solution. But there is a problem here for the orthodox too. The pro-gay issue is carried along by a veritable cultural tidal wave, with everybody from high-powered political pundits to soap opera screenwriters helping to create an environment where to be opposed to homosexuality is regarded as irrational, implausible bigotry. This can only be resisted in two ways: mindless anti-gay bigotry built on hatred, which is sinful and unbiblical; or a vigorous commitment to high biblical standards of morality. Such a commitment can only exist where there is a vigorous commitment to a high doctrine of scripture."


The second temptation is to become what the pro-gay left are saying we are already: hatemongers. It is vital we remember that nobody can be reduced simply to their sexuality. No heterosexual person is simply heterosexual; no gay person is simply gay. We are all complex human beings, defined by the basic category of image bearers of God, not sexual preference. As soon as we start thinking of people as a sexual preference, not as image bearers, we lose sight of them as individuals. They become mere labels or slogans, not persons. It is hard to love a slogan; indeed, it is very easy rather to hate such. Even as we are being labeled and turned into mere sound bites, we must not respond in kind. Let us stand firm on biblical ethics, but let us also reach out to gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals with the love of Christ. As Luther would remind us, our task is not done when we simply preach the law to the lost; we must then also preach the gospel to them and point them to Christ. For such, as Paul once said, were some of you; and, thankfully, somebody treated you as a lost person not an abstract moral category or a sexual preference. More...

James Grant writes:
It is hard to believe that while my wife and I are desperately doing everything we can to make sure our baby, at 23 weeks, survives and continues to grow in the womb for the next few months, there are others who in this country actually have abortions at this stage.
(For those of you praying for the Grants and their baby son, see this encouraging update!)

Think for a minute about what James writes above. What is the difference between the baby growing inside Brandy Grant's womb, and a baby growing inside the womb of a mother undergoing abortion. (In the time it takes you to read this post another baby will have been killed.)

The difference comes down to one word: want. Few words carry more power in the world today than these: I do not want this child at this time. More...

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Some more bits on Denis Alexander's book...

Anonymous has published a few good comments on the post "Synopsis of the theology of 'Creation or evolution....'" which are worth reading through.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Synopsis of the theology of "Creation or evolution - do we have to choose?"

In my last post, a commenter asked me to give some kind of descriptive overview of Dr. Alexander's theistic-evolutionary theology, how it deals with the various issues, etc. You're welcome! Here are what he says on the major points, in some kind of order, without comment:
  • The book of Genesis in particular and the Bible in general is a theological, not a scientific narrative. This means in practice that we are not to read it as a necessarily historical account or a chronological one in its description of the acts of Creation in Genesis 1-2. To read details of those chapters as if they were historical is to treat the Bible as a science text book.

  • The mechanisms of creation is not to be thought of as supernatural/miraculous. This is because the key vocabulary of miracles is not used in the Genesis account or otherwise when reference is made to creation. DA applies this specifically to the development of life and implicitly to the origin of life, but does not discuss the origin of space/time/matter. God's overall sovereignty over the (Darwinian) creative process is not in terms of engineering a pre-determined outcome, but in terms of a general directionality and overall purpose; though the facts imposed by God through the periodic table and other laws of his operation themselves likely are sufficient to guarantee the emergence of life as we know it now.

  • The universe is about 15 billion years old, and the earth about 4.6. Basically all dates are as claimed by the scientific consensus. Man has only been present in the universe for the last second of evolutionary time, if we think of time as a 24-hour day. There is no reason why in principle there cannot be alien. life, and if there is it will probably be very similar to life on earth.

  • Adam was most likely (though we musn't be excessively dogmatic) a historical individual. The chronologies (which otherwise are not mentioned - I would have liked to ask what DA makes of the large ages in Genesis 5, because these contradict the scientific consensus which DA elsewhere always accepts as true) indicate he would have lived about 6000-8000 years ago.

  • This means he would have been a Neolithic farmer, most likely somewhere east of Palestine.

  • Human physiology, language, culture, etc., were all well developed by this time. Adam would have had human parents. But they were not made "in the image of God"; Adam was the first "homo divinus". The image of God means that there was the possibility of friendship/relationship with God.

  • Moreover, Adam's human ancestors were themselves descended from ape-like hominids, which in turn were from other life forms, all the way back to the original single-cell organisms. There are no separate "kinds" - no boundaries which evolution has not crossed, but a single biological tree of life.

  • We are not to think of man as bipartite (body/soul); this is not what Genesis 2:7 is telling us; we should think of him as a whole.

  • Adam was only "theologically" speaking, not literally, made from the dust. Eve likewise was not actually made from Adam's rib, but was descended from her own parents in the ordinary way - to say otherwise is to read Genesis as if it were a science book. There was no talking snake. There were many other humans around at the time, which is proved by Cain's fear of someone else killing him. Not all humans in the world today are descended from the Biblical Adam and Eve; e.g. the Australian Aboriginals.

  • Physical death was God's intention from the beginning, treated as perfectly normal throughout the Old Testament, which never hints there is anything unnatural about it. Adam and his ancestors were all subject to death and the Fall had no impact here.

  • Likewise, pain, suffering, disease and so forth were all also original features of the creation, for men and animals of all kinds. They are endemic to carbon-based life - biology is a package deal and you can't be a sentient being without these things. Similarly, the Fall did not bring in any creation-wide principle of decay or corruption into the created order - it continued as it had ever been.

  • The Fall was a spiritual, not a physical event. It did not lead to any kind of decay or degradation in the physical world (such as pain, suffering or disease).

  • So, what was lost at the Fall was an offer of spiritual life as God revealed himself to Adam and Eve but they rejected him. Salvation is conceived of primarily in terms of friendship with God, as Christ offers us again the life that Adam and Eve rejected. The death which Adam and Eve brought in was a spiritual one, which means ignorance of God.

  • How we inherit Adam's sin and the connection between his sin and ours is never discussed.

  • The new creation to be brought in in future by Christ (which will lack pain and suffering) is not a restoration and glorification of an original state that was spoilt through sin, but is the beginning in of a new order of a thoroughly different kind. The resurrection from the dead is only dimly hinted at in the later parts of the Old Testament and those before had no expectation of it. Jesus' healing ministry does not point to him as the redeemer of something lost, but purely points in a future direction to the kingdom to come.
The thing to be appreciated is how the above all hangs together as a coherent whole. You can't really reject one part and keep another without introducing some contradiction in the system. There is a consistent and very sharp science/theology, physical/spiritual, old creation/new creation dichtomy running through it all, that makes sure that Darwinism is treated as true as an account of history, and the Bible is treated as true as an account of theological interpretation, and the two must generally be kept quite far apart.

I think I've made it clear enough throughout the review that by explaining DA's system, I'm seeking to expose how far from evangelical orthodoxy theistic evolution ends up being when you try to hold to it consistently.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

"Creation or evolution - do we have to choose?" - The postscript

Two and a half pages end the book - the first bit with a summary of all that's gone before, the second with the forward-looking statement summing up where to go from here. DA's got a good, systematic mind and ties the book up in a straightfoward way consistent with what's gone before.

The first half then repeats what's been argued for. Science is essentially an objective, value and presupposition-free zone; ideologies are bolted on by others. Science looks at the historical reality what God did; the Bible gives us the theological interpretation. Evolution is compatible with believing in a God of intentions and purposes for the world. (In my review of the preceeding chapter I, to save space, passed over commenting on the very weak form of sovereignty DA argues for in evolution, explicitly disavowing the concept of a total control in favour of a general directional influence). DA argues that we can hold to both Darwinism and all the historical Christian doctrines of sin, the Fall and redemption. Arguing that is water under the bridge now. I think it's DA makes it clear as he argues those things that he holds those doctrines in a severely modified form that does not cohere with historical evangelical orthodoxy, and at times is grotesequely dualistic in some areas, even approaching a new Gnosticism (e.g. the interaction of science and the Bible, the connection between theological and physical facts, and the relationship between the present creation and the new creation to come).

In the final part, DA takes the gloves off. The moderate language of the earlier book (though unless my detectors are wonky, it was always with a heavy dose of condescension) gives way to something quite different. At the beginning of the book, DA told us that these were matters of comparative indifference, that Christians must differ on them amicably, and that there is no excuse for any kind of harsh language or anathematising of any others because of different views on Darwinism. Either amnesia struck DA, his editors and proof-readers, or that was just flannel and now he tells us what he really thinks, or perhaps this last section was written after getting out of bed on the wrong side and he doesn't really mean it. Because now, he tells us that Christians who reject Darwinism are "embarrassing and bring the gospel into disrepute", are (via a quote from Augustine on a different matter) "dangerous... talking nonsense... embarassing...", create intellectual barriers that prevent scientists from taking the gospel seriously, have caused very high-profile (but unnamed) scientists to give up their profession of faith, and to cap it all are following the theology condemned in the book of Galatians!

This then leads into the most cringe-worthy example of double standards, where DA, after writing a 353 page long book on the question of Darwinism, launches a stinging diatribe against Christians who waste time discussing Darwinism when the world has so many other problems to spend time on. Christians who reject evolution, he says, are "divisive" and hypocritical, talking about creation but not being the ones who spend time caring for it. They invest time in magazines about creation and fail to put money into helping the poor, tackling HIV, or funding orphanages.

I wish I could say I've never read this kind of thing before. I've probably done it myself; it's a striking example of the blindness of fallen man that someone who's just spent such a large amount of time on disagreeing with other Christians over the question of evolution can then launch such a vitriolic attack on anyone who else who dares to do the same. But we know what he really means, don't we? He means, it's an evil waste of time and resources to address this matter unless you agree with me. This argumentation is silly and unworthy. It's also a false dichotomy. The creation God has made is very big - immense. God commanded us to subdue the earth - to have dominion over it (Genesis 1:28). Our hopes of doing that were ruined by sin, but restored and indeed made certain in Christ (Hebrews 2:6-9). Man is commanded to explore, harness and glorify God in every aspect of creaton - physical, spiritual, intellectual, etc. Other than the gross generalisation in the above criticism, it's a clear fallacy to criticise Christians for spending time discussing and critiquing Darwinism and its effects on a Biblical world-view as if God commanded us to spend all our time building orphanages. That's a modern Western sentimentality that fails to get to grips with the vastness of the task that God set us in the creation mandate. It's a silly and cheap criticism easily turned back on the one issuing it. Why is Dr. Alexander living in the luxury of 21st century Cambridge, in the ivory towers of the Faraday Institute, when he could come out here and join me in Africa? There are slums with hundreds of thousands of people round here I can point him to. Why is he wasting time behind his desk penning insults against creationists when he could be down on the ground, caring for orphans and widows? I presume he has a good reason - and I can think of many excellent ones. The point is, though, that these are cheap shots whoever is making them and whoever they are made against, whether they like Darwinism or not.

The note we end on has two more points. First, DA criticises creationists for not being enthusiastic enough about combatting global warming. It has occurred to me over the last year or two that anti-creationist critics, whether Christian or atheistic, are necessarily committed to being fully convinced of disastrous man-made global warming theory. Once you take the position, as they do, that the mainstream position has to be the correct one (because of the unbiased and virtually infallible nature of the scientific process, cough cough), and that if Darwin deniers can't get published in mainstream journals then that must in itself prove they're wrong, then you have no option but to unquestionningly accept it all. It's the consensus position, and peer-review guarantees its truth. The parting shot is a final cheapie that follows on from this criticism - creationists are like the man who buried his talent in the ground instead of being good stewards of creation, for which DA references Matthew 25:14-30. He doesn't go on to explain whether, as it actually states in Matthew 25:30, he means to say that creationists are going to be cast "into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth". Perhaps I'd better not ask; I wasn't feeling the lurve, anyway.

That's all for now. There will be more God-willing at another time - I intend to write a review to encapsulate the whole book, and put these up in a more permanent form somewhere. If you had anything to say in the comments though, now's the time!

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Great Story

The latest newsletter of the C. S. Lewis Society (of California - I'm not a member, but it is a mightily interesting newsletter!) dropped into my inbox. I didn't used to watch many films, but in the last couple of years my wife and I have had a "movie night" (DVD) most weeks. To me a good film has a final confrontation between good and evil in which half the universe is destroyed along the way; to my wife a good film ends with the smouldering Victorian hunk getting a smooch at the altar with his hard-won bride. But, no need to spend time pyschoanalysing any of that... let's pass on to the bit of the newsletter that caught my eye:
"New Book Presents Skeptic's Appreciation of The Chronicles of Narnia:

... Along the way, she has come to appreciate Lewis's immense accomplishment in the Narniad, but largely believes that this relates solely to Lewis's use of pre-Christian legends and symbols and that the Christian imagery was inappropriate and a "betrayal"... Her error lies in failing to appreciate Lewis's (and J.R.R. Tolkein's, Charles Williams's and G.K. Chesterton's) deppert point that all truly good literature, including ancient legend, reflects shadowings of Christian truth. For Lewis, the difference betwen standard myth and Christianity is not that the former is more authentic myth, but that Christianity is most authentically what Tolkein called "true myth", in which the truths embedded in those legends, which although untrue have inspired and thrilled generatations for millenia, became all too real (DA: not too real!) in the true story of Jesus Christ."
Hear, hear, and amen. This is what caught my attention as I have sat back to reflect on the common themes of the films I have watched. There are themes which human story-tellers seem irresistably attracted to. A fight between good and evil. Love that is stronger than death. A flawless hero who conquers all against overwhelming odds. A promised one who fulfils his destiny. A last battle that brings half the world down in the process. A new beginning won at a terrible cost. Redemption. And so on, and so forth.

It's as if these themes were woven somehow in the fabric of existence, even though most of us personally have never encountered even one of those aspects at any order of magnitude, though we find echoes of them here and there in different events in life. That's the point. Those themes are woven into the fabric of existence; history is indeed, his story. That's one of the reasons why, in combination with the power of God's Spirit, the good news of Christ our conquering hero-Saviour-Redeemer, is so powerful in all times, places and cultures. It is, as Tolkein says, "the true myth". And hence I've taken up Douglas Wilson's advice and started reading Narnia to my children!

The Origin of Life (Creation or evolution, chapter 16)

In this, the last chapter, Dr. Alexander returns after the digressions of the previous chapter or two to being consistent. It's another topic that didn't fit in somewhere else, but which we'd expect to be in a book addressing the question of Darwinism, so here it is. How did life begin? DA's position thus far has been that Scripture does not teach that creation was accomplished through supernatural interventions, because it does not use the specific vocabulary of miracles in the creation accounts. This trite conclusion was, as we saw, based on a word fallacy - DA arbitrarily defines the vocabulary used of redemptive signs (especially at the Exodus and in the ministry of Jesus prefiguring the true Exodus) to be the only words allowed to signal any kind of supernatural intervention, and finding these (redemptive) words to be absent from the creation account, concludes that we must expect the mechanisms of creation to have been in terms of ordinary processes still active in the world today. Which, handily, was exactly what Darwinism required us to believe.

When I saw that DA returns to consistency in this chapter, what I mean is that he doesn't contradict the above assertions which were made when considering how life developed now that he comes to consider how life began. We're not to look for the supernatural, miracles, or any unique processes not still operative in the world today. In a word (mine, not his, because as we've seen he makes another hash of this one), the origin of life must have been naturalistic. (DA doesn't actually discuss this in the chapter - it's all assumed rather than argued that we must look for such a process and that God did not speak life directly into being). What evidence is there, then, that given the processes, reactions and laws operative in the world today, that life can begin from non-life? That it can't seems so far to be as certain a scientific conclusion as any - as yet, millions of man hours spent on the problem have only opened up more and more distance in our knowledge of what needs to be and what actually is. What does DA have to say about this?

Before answering that question, it's worth noticing that DA's consistency can only apply to the select issues he chooses to focus on. Going further back, we might ask - how did something come out of nothing? How did light come out of darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6)? What of the origin of the material world, time and space? At this point I'm presuming DA would have to concede that in fact creation did involve supernatural events, despite the absence of the words that DA requires to be present in the creation account before he'd believe it. (Surely he's not going to argue that there are processes operating on nothing that can bring about something? That in the absence of time and space can bring about time and space?) And if he did concede that, then he'd have given the basis of his whole position away. So much easier just to accept the plain sense of the Genesis account: God created immediately via a powerful, life-giving Word that brings something out of nothing; not via secondary mechanisms.

The chapter starts with three pages of special pleading in which DA privileges naturalistic theories of life's origin by complaining that the identification of self-replicating DNA as designed, requiring a mind, or not able to develop in small, gradual steps is to give up on proper research and just throw our hands up in the air and say "we can't understand it, it's designed". As ever, DA simply asserts that this is what ID theorists or creationists do, without any examples or references, continuing the pattern we've seen throughout the book of deceiving his readers as to what non-Darwinists actually assert or argue in real life. In reality, the identification of DNA as being designed logically leads to more research into its workings, not less - because whereas Darwinists are ready to write off parts of the genome whose function is not yet identified as "junk", from a creationist point of view (a super-intelligent designer designed it) this is antecedally much less likely (though non-functional or faulty parts can be accommodated into the creationist view taking into account the Fall). Believing that God created the first genomes out of nothing by a Word does, yes, end the question to seek for step-by-step developmental models. But it does open up other massive areas of investigation. When we realise a previously unencountered computer virus is deliberately designed rather than being the product of a silicon explosion, the investigators don't then say "no point studying it then!", but study it all the harder to see exactly what and how it has been designed to do its work. But DA decides, instead of intelligently discussing what that would mean, to just play polemics and falsely portray the creationist and ID positions as ending all research. Ultimately it's dishonest, because throughout the book DA adopts a tone of authority, as one who's surveyed the scene and is faithfully reporting on it to the non-expert who hasn't been there.

The substance of the chapter is really suitable for a specialist, as DA discusses various biochemical theories concerning how to bridge various of the gaps. A non-expert reader is not going to get much from this part of the book; the only clues as to the bigger picture are a couple of times when he says that any realistic over-arching theories concerning the origin of life are 50 or 100 years away. I wondered really what the point of the technical discussions were; anyone reading who was expert enough to assess them would also be expert enough to spot all the straw-men and misrepresentations of ID and creationist positions and so not be very impressed overall; anyone not expert enough will just skip this part. Perhaps the aim is just to blind the layman with science so that he comes away with the thought "well, I didn't understand that, but it seems like this guy understands the origin of life so it's probably not that great a problem". DA ends by repeating the accusation that if you assert that the origin of life wasn't naturalistic (which DA, by daftly misunderstanding again what is meant by "naturalistic" asserts is a "sinister" and "pagan" theory), then you're an obscurantist. Rather, it just means you're not wasting all those fine brains and man hours on blind alleys - it's not as if the biology of life had no areas left needing lots of detailed research! There's plenty to do with studying how God's creation works now - it's no obscurantism to not waste time on useless speculation about how life could originate in a certain fashion when the word of God tells us plainly that it originated in another.

Thus ends the book's main body - just a 2 page postscript remains.

Denis Alexander in debate

This will be of interest to readers following the blog-review of Dr. Alexander's book "Creation or Evolution - do we have to chose?"

I wanted to let you know that a debate between Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute and Stephen Lloyd of Biblical Creation Ministries is available online now.

I believe this is an important and interesting debate and so am wondering if you would consider passing on the link below to others in your organisation, to others you know would be interested or sending it via email to any mailing list you may have.

Both Christians, they discuss the theological implications of believing evolution over creationism

Unbelievable 29 November 2008

Creation or Evolution - do we have to choose? Denis Alexander & Stephen Lloyd debate

Please visit: where you can listen back to the show as well as subscribe to the "Unbelievable?" podcast.

Denis, an Evangelical Christian, who recently authored "Creation or evolution - do we have to choose?" argues there is no contradiction between the evolutionary account and believing in the Creator God of the Bible. Stephen argues that the Gospel itself is in jeopardy if we subscribe to the theory of evolution.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Evolution - intellient and designed? (Creation or evolution, chapter 15)

This is the penultimate chapter, the final one addressing the question of the origin of life on which so far nothing has been said. It follows on from the previous chapter which critiqued the "Intellient Design" movement, making some further criticisms on a philosophical level before going on to ask what we can say positively about design in nature.

After school I studied mathematics at university, and whether that was a sympton or a cause, I think I've ended up with something of a nose for a system. I like to see the big picture. On that level, I've appreciated DA's book - he's a consistent man. Yes, there are arguments here and arguments there which contradict each other. And I've made it abundantly clear that I don't think that his overall system is close to being consistent with a Bible-based understanding of the world's creation or history. But, on the "big picture" level, his system is consistent with itself. It all hangs together. His overall view of God's method of creation, the principles for interpreting Scripture and relating it to science, the identity of Adam, the Fall, the relationship between sin and the physical world, the natural and supernatural, all follow the same lines throughout the book. That's a good thing, because if someone changes their line every chapter then there's no real possibility of rational consideration or debate.

It's that consistency throughout the book up until now that defines the disappointment of this particular chapter - because here it rather goes to pot. There's nothing much to dislike about the Biblical exegesis in this chapter, because apart from a few fragments thrown in like raisins in the cake, there isn't really any. What there is is a collection of (in my assessment) ad hoc arguments thrown together with little regard to whether they agree with each other or the rest of DA's thesis. In this aspect it continues and magnifies the trend I remarked from the previous chapter - he seems just to have joined together a number of second-hand talking points, and it's disappointing because the rest of the book is much more considered. I will make a few comments about a couple of those ad hoc arguments - readers can analyse the rest for themselves - then I want to go on to looking more broadly at the "big picture" of this chapter.


So it is that DA, having for the book so far criticised creationists because they seek to mix the Bible with science when he believes there is a much greater separation between those domains than they do, now criticises ID theorists for not being explicitly Christian enough in their writings. After telling us on page after page that Scripture does not give us scientific information and we must trust the scientific process for anything in that realm, on page 317 we now read, "So I find it worrying from a Christian perspective that ID proponents are so insistent that they do not look to Scripture for their core beliefs, but isntead to a form of natural theology". (Of course, this statement is in itself nonsense, because DA's chosen to treat ID theorists' statements about their scientific methods and conclusions as if they  were the whole of their belief system).

Again, for the book so far, DA has insisted in the soundness of the scientific method and that it is to the peer-reviewed consensus that we should look for truth about earth history, not Scripture (which has a theological, not a historical/scientific account). Now, though, when DA wants to argue that in fact evolution can perhaps be seen as an objectively directed, purposeful process, he starts talking about "recent" scientific writings which suggest this or that, though they are a minority, and which might point the way to understanding Darwinism as non-random after all, despite the consensus. He speaks of it being "interesting" to see "challenges" to that consensus, and so on. This is having your cake and eating it. Either you get to patronise dissenters from the mainstream, or you can be one, but not both.


DA makes a real hash of discussing the question of naturalism. His criticism is that when seeking to identify particular instances of design in nature, ID theorists concede that other things do not exhibit specific design and can be described in terms of "naturalistic" processes - and thus, he says, ID theorists give the idea of a universe in which God is only immanent in a limited number of places, rather than being present in everything everywhere. This misses the point entirely. The point is that of mind and intentionality. Suppose I deliberately place stones around my garden in certain locations, though those locations were not chosen based on any rational principle. Suppose also that there are other stones which were "just there" already from whatever had happened in the garden over the years. The resulting scattering would look much the same. A mind was involved in one case, but not in the other - but there's no way of detecting the presence of the mind. Suppose, on the other hand, that I placed some more stones to spell out the words "Darwin sucks". I think if you entered my garden and saw that, you'd conclude that a mind (whether one whose workings you sympathised with or not!) had been at work. A mind had been at work in two of those three cases - but in one, it was specifically detectable because of certain patterns in its activity. That's what's going on in ID. ID theorists are not addressing the question, "are these other things also from a mind?" or conceding that they're not. They're conducting a limited enterprise - seeking to recognise certain and limited signatures of minds, in nature. That's a simple enough distinction to understand. DA, though, spends the relevant parts of this chapter involved in what is in my opinion cheap-shot polemics, misunderstanding things at every turn and then building criticisms on those misunderstandings.

Arguments against ID

DA argues again that ID is an argument from ignorance, saying that Dembski's explanatory filter (does it describe law-like behaviour? If not, could its assembly be explained by a chance evolutionary process? If not, then the remaining alternative is design) is a "design of the gaps" argument, and that future knowledge may filll those gaps in in terms of one of the first two explanation, and that if the first two explanations don't work we should say that we are simply ignorant and need more work. But this is simply "stacking the decks". It's perfectly reasonable to consider a design thesis rather than ruling it out of court in advance - there's no reason from science itself why Darwinian explanations should get the priority against competing paradigms; only from anti-Christian philosophy and theology. A consistently Christian world-view and theory of investigation can never privilege non-design explanations in this way. The same point applies again when DA goes on to argue that to introduce the language of design into science is a category error. This argument is also far too broad, and contradicts the concession given in the previous chapter that crypography, forensics and SETI are legitimate scientific endeavours to identify design. Why the dogmatic reflex that refuses to apply the same logic to biology?

DA's arguments to consider evolution itself as "consistent with" (not demonstrating or implying - DA concedes this can't be done) intelligent agency are astonishingly weak and far too subtle for any "man in the street". He argues that there seems to be some kind of fine-tuning of the system that made the rise of intelligent life in all of its diversity not a mere chance accident contingent upon several unrepeatable events, but inevitable - comparing it to the anthropic principle in physics. Biology has a directionality - simple to complex - and biological convergence is consistent with viewing life as practically certain, not contingent. But we can't be totally decisive about this, DA concedes, because this is still an uncertain area with work needing to be done, and we only have one universe to examine so can't make overly sweeping conclusions. I'm left asking - is that it? In terms of the "man on the street", though, DA does refer us to Psalm 19 and Romans 1:18ff to insist that God's activity is everywhere obvious to everyone. Granted that this does indeed mean that it's not just evident to those with biology PhDs who can digest all of Behe's writings - DNA is not the final arbiter of design in the universe. But DA never answers in what this obviousness does consists, and what the relationship is between it and his specialist field of biology is. When DA writes that in four decades of research he's never found any antagonism to his Christian faith, he puts it down to contemporary Darwinian thinking not being remotely hostile to authentic Christianity. Having read this book, I'd put it down to his apologetic he uses being so lacking in substance that it's simply not going to present much of a challenge to anyone.

Is evolution designed?

DA's positive apologetic for a "designed evolution" never gets near the focal point of the Darwin/Christianity conflict. Gratned, DA doesn't believe that conflict exists, but in writing a polemical book against creationism he ought to at least show he knows what those on the other side of the theological divide are actually saying. The point about Darwinism is that it excludes intelligent agency - a law-like process carrying on according to its own internal principles is sufficient to account for the end results, with no external guidance or mind-input being necessary. It is an unintelligent process. DA's apologetic implicitly concedes this whole point - the design and evidence of intelligence comes in the system itself, not anything you can see as part of it or from within it - only by getting outside it and overviewing the whole and comparing it with other (non-existent, entirely theoretial) systems.

Where's this going?

I don't believe that Christian apologists are intended to "prove" the existence of God by analysing DNA, etcetera. I do believe these things can have some supporting value. I don't think it's fatal for evangelism that DA gives away the farm here, because I'm not of the school that thinks that the heart of evangelism is about intellectual analysis of scientific data. The root problem is moral. It is, though, a problem that through this book DA is teaching Christians to effectively divorce the mind of God from the phenomena of creation. DA argues that this is not so - he holds that God is immanent everywhere. That immanence, though, has no cash value; you can't distinguish it from the giant impersonal machine of deism. Christianity that's a bolt-on extra to the real world is a disaster, and that's where I ultimately think DA's apologetic, when looked at in "big picture" terms, is taking us. Christians need to learn to see God everywhere, not just by faith in a theoretical immanence, but in the real world of flesh and blood. By that I don't mean that we say "it must be God!" every time we don't understand something. Far from it - when we do understand it, then we will understand God, but not just in terms of an undetectable immanence, but in terms of a wonderful, deliberate and wise design.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Intelligent Design and Creation's Order (Creation or evolution, chapter 14)

The chapters looking at how to harmonise Darwinism with a biblical theology are now over. For me they were the most interesting and revealing part of the book, and the only ones where consistently DA makes a serious attempt to answer some difficult questions instead of neatly side-stepping them with word games. What remains is more patchy - some left overs that didn't fit elsewhere. If you want to read the meaty portions of this blog-review, skip this and scroll down to the previous 5 or so chapters!

The purpose of this 19-page chapter is to have some discussion of the "Intelligent Design" movement, associated with such names as Philip Johnson, Michael Behe and William Dembski. I got the feeling in reading it that DA felt obliged to include something about it, but was a bit tired (or just contemptuous) by this stage, and the chapter is a bit of a damp squib because it neither goes here nor there, but remains  content with some rather general arguments and statements - except for some more detailed discussion of the bacterial flagellum. It's all a bit of a damp squib, because packed into these 19 pages DA wants to survey the history of the movement, its personalities, its claims, and then comprehensively refute them such  that he can conclude that the whole thing's a waste of time. That's a book-length project in itself. There's no problem with brief discussions of these things that skim the surface, but in these days of avalanches of free articles available from the Internet, you need to do a bit more than the kind of surface-level chatty repeating of talking points that this chapter is mostly made up of. It's rather disappointing that so many of those talking points seem to have been cribbed from village atheist websites - we expect better, particularly from someone who spends a few pages opining on how proper scientific research is done. We even get a celebrity appearance of the Pennsylvania school board court case and "Judge Jones, a practising Lutheran and Republican appointed by President Bush", the claim that ID does not fall within the definition of science (though DA concedes that it is in principle falsifiable) and such gems of self-delusion as the claim (made earlier in the book in the context of creationists) that editors of science journals would be falling over themselves if anyone had any legitimate criticisms of Darwinism and would gladly make any scientist who had them an overnight star! Puh-lease.

I was hoping that DA might take a step back and answer a certain key question, which he never does. Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that the present ID movement isn't close to what he wants to see. Fine. But, is, in principle, it a legitimate scientific endeavour to investigate the distinctive signatures of intelligent agency and self-determining minds? And if so, is it legitimate to apply whatever the outcomes of such research are to the study of nature - which, after all, DA agrees is the product through whatever mechanism of the mind of God? These are the key questions which expose the philosophical bias inherent in contemporary origins science, with its presuppositional exclusion of any idea of intelligent agency. That's what ID proponents mean when they criticise reigning "materialist" paradigms, but DA never discussses this (an earlier part of the book discussed the idea of "naturalism", but in the straw-man form of "the absence of God language" rather than in terms of the presuppositional exclusion of the idea of intelligent agency). The nearest AD gets to answering the question of the legitimacy of "design detection" is when he addresses the point that such detection is common-place in other scientific fields - e.g. forensics, cryptography, archaeology and SETI (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). If we scan radio waves from outer space looking for patterns which we would conclude indicate intelligent life, why can't we scan the genome to see if its patterns indicate intelligence? DA's very lame answer is that "these are all examples where we already know that purposive human behaviours, or purposeful actions by potential little grreen men, are involved, so we are not surprised at finding evidence for such behaviour". Pardon? We know that certain radio signals would be purposeful actions by potential little green men? This is the most egregious and obvious begging the question. But, to take a step back... actually I, and every other Christian, already know that life is the product of a supernatural intelligence. DA conceded that in the first sentence of chapter one. He seems to have changed his mind now, though, put on his white coat and become the epitome of the Enlightenment scientist, who goes into his lab believing nothing except what he sees down the microscope. Does he know that DNA is ultimately the work of an intelligent agent or not?

Leaving aside this brief and weak argument, what we do get in detail is an argument that the bacterial flagellum does not constitute an irreducibly complex system, though DA only actually examines one small aspect of this question, and concludes that time will bring solutions to the missing parts of his argument. The major argument against the possibility of irreducible complexity is a circular one. DA argues that (and this is another village atheist talking point), as time goes on, science is able to provide answers to things we didn't know, filling in the gaps, and if ID relies on identifing irreducibly complex systems in biology, then as science continues to provide these answers then the gaps will inevitably shrink, and any "designer of the gaps" who was relying on the empty spaces will soon vanish. That's a circular argument, because it assumes in advance that ID is already known to be false, that irreducibly complex systems don't in fact exist and that the small, gradual steps of Darwinism will be able to explain everything. What, though, if in fact they can't? What if Darwinism isn't true, and IC systems do exist? In that case, increasing scientific knowledge will increase the "gaps" that exist between Darwinian explanations and reality as we know it, and the evidence for the designer becomes larger. Darwin himself knew nothing of DNA and the methods of inheritance. He knew nothing about the origin of life - and what we've discovered since his time has progressively shown the overwhelming improbability of a non-intelligent cause for life. Darwin imagined a little warm "pond"; now we know that the conditions for life are so many and so complicated that Darwin was indulging in day-dreaming. The gap between his speculation and reality has opened right up. DA, though, simply rehashes an Internet atheist circular argument which assumes the final outcome of what he's arguing in advance.

Modern eugenics

Take a look at this story, "Abortionist: life only matters if it's wanted".

Now, fundamentally the Bible definitely contradicts the idea that the value of life consists in its being wanted - its value consists in that God made man in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28).

The point I want to highlight in this particular case, though, isn't that one. It's that here the abortionist isn't only saying that the value of life is relative to how it is valued. It's that it is relative to how it is valued by someone other than the living person themselves, in this case the mother. We're familiar with people arguing for personal euthanasia saying "it's my life" and "I no longer wish to go on"; but here the value of your life is defined by someone else, not you. The baby isn't given the opportunity to live and grow, and then pass its own evaluation; others do it for it, it gets chopped up, and we hope it would have agreed we did the right thing - we're sorry if not.

This root idea, voice by the Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), is nothing other than the key idea behind Eugenics. Some significant other (your parents, society, or the government), gets to define the value of your life. You get to suffer the consequences, and we're sorry if you didn't like it, but you'll have to put up with it for the greater good.

Evolution, natural evil and the theodicy question (Creation or evolution, chapter 13)

In this chapter, DA continues to address the question of how to integrate on the one hand the account of history and the development of life given by Darwinism, and on the other a Biblical theology. This especially concerns questions over the Fall, Adam and Eve, and the existence of suffering and pain (so-called "natural" evil as opposed to "moral" evil). This chapter particularly focuses on the latter set of issues. DA introduces it this way, though the chapter itself actually ranges over a much broader range of territory:
"The question before us is how a good God could choose to bring about all of biological diversity, including us, by such a long and wasteful process which involves so much death and suffering." (p277)
Much of that ranging seemed to this reviewer to not be especially relevant, but other material that DA found interesting, wanted to get in the book, and shoved in in various digressions in this chapter as the best place. Perhaps there are connections that evaded me. DA's basic answer to the question is one that exists in perfect harmony and continuity with the trajectory traced out in the previous few chapters. The Darwinian account of the earth's history is not up for critique or question; the Bible will not be used to examine whether there are any faults in what contemporary secular scientists say about the past. Rather, this will all be taken as certain truth, and what will be done is to search out for a theological justification by which the general themes of the Bible can be harmonised with it.

Such a harmony, as we've already seen in the discussions of the Fall, requires that pain and suffering cannot be seen as unnatural intruders into God's "very good" creation, coming because of Adam's sin. No - such an approach irreparably contradicts Darwinian dogma, because DA has already explained that humans and such unpleasant experiences had been around for many aeons before Adam was ever born to his father and mother. It's instructive to take a step back and observe how little effort - none - DA takes to actually derive his theodicy from the pages of Scripture. These questions are not answered by any kind of inductive study of Scripture, but by an exploration of the speculations of various non-evangelical theologians, of whom the most familiar to most readers will be John Hick, the pluralist universalist. This is not unexpected; beginning with an evolutionary framework as the starting point instead of Scripture, it's only really going to be such theologians who are going to have a compatible framework to help you.

The harmony itself, then, amounts to this: biology is a package deal, carbon-based life cannot be created without the accompanying down-sides, and who are we to label the natural evils that we see with such subjective labels as "wasteful" or "evil" when God has seen fit to use them as part of the process which brings about all the good and enjoyable things that we can witness and experience? In DA's solution to "the problem of evil", then, the problem is not so much as solved as defined out of existence, with various exceptional caveats in the particular case of suffering humans. Here are some representative quotes:
"Biology is a package deal. Once we have carbon, phosphorus, oxygen, nitrogen and the other key elements for life ... virtually any plus that we care to mention .... is going to have an inevitable minus." (p279)

"As noted in previous chapters, life, at least carbon-based life of the kind with which we are familiar [reviewer: i.e. including humanity], is impossible without death." (p279)

"... without genetic variation between us all, we would all be clonal, looking identical. But it is that same genetic variation which affects our susceptibility to certain diseases, and which causes genetics diseases or cancers - necessary costs of living in a carbon-based world." (p280)

"It is a world in which moral and spiritual growth is made possible - more like a Boot Camp than a Holiday Camp. No pain, no gain." (p288)
DA's answer, then, is that the "problem", if it is one, is essential. It's like 2+2=4, or requiring that squares have right angles. God himself couldn't do it another way. If you want life in anything like the present form, then this is the only way to have it. Throughout the chapter, the answer is consistent - it's not because of sin. Human wickedness plays no real part in the evil of this world - don't say, "fallen world", because the Fall is to do with unseen, inner, spiritual reality - relationship with God - not to do with the dust and dirt of everyday life.

DA's dualism becomes Gnostic when he relates this to the new heavens and the new earth - the age to come. That will, he allows, be one free of such pain and suffering, a different order entirely. As remarked before, what this means is that salvation is not to be conceived of in terms of an originally good created order which was ruined through sin then being redeemed and glorified through the work of Christ - rather, Christ liberates us from an order that was originally and essentially unpleasant, to something better. We're freed from the prison of the pains of this life, into a better and ultimately disconnected order. Not creation restored, but creation replaced. This leaves us wondering (DA never even approaches this question) why Christ had to bring this new creation about in such a flesh-and-blood way. He came as a carbon-based life-form, so to speak, and suffered in the flesh. He underwent physical death, in order to bring in the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). But why? Why was physical incarnation, physical suffering and physical death needed, when the physical suffering and natural evil has nothing real to do with sin, the Fall and the spiritual world, or even in the case of physical pain is actually something necessary and good?

Ultimately, this chapter has no real relationship to a Bible-based theology. It scrapes around from what this or that Princeton University scholar had to say that can be made to fit into an evolutionary worldview. At best it has some helpful thoughts that could be developed in a Scriptural way. At worst, it undercuts the Bible's own historical narrative and removes the foundation of the gospel, replacing evangelical religion with the ancient and disastrous Gnostic heresy.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Evolution and the Fall (Creation or evolution - do we have to choose? Chapter 12)

We can do this the long way or the short way, and for once I think we'll choose the latter. This chapter (which really is a continuation of the previous, "Evolution and the Biblical understanding of death"), has really only one claim. That claim is explained from a variety of points of view and applied to different situations, and discussed in relationship to different Biblical texts; but it is a single claim. The claim is that the Fall was an event that no physical effect upon humanity or the world. It was a spiritual event, not a physical one. It made no difference to the phenomena of pain, sickness, suffering or death, all of which existed before and continued afterwards, both for mice and men.

Thus, if you only have time to read one chapter in order to see how a theistic evolutionary position works out when applied to particular issues, this is a good one. This is the chapter to read if you want to see how far from orthodox evangelical theology you have to depart in order to accommodate Darwinism within one's overall scheme.

DA achieves these conclusions mostly by continuing to interpret Genesis overall as a "theological and figurative" (by which he means, not essentially historical) narrative, and by interpreting other relevant Biblical passages through the false dichotomy of "spiritual death" versus "physical death". This is carried on even when dealing with passages such as 1 Corinthians 15, where the physical resurrection from physical death is stage front and centre - even then, it never seems to really dawn on DA to see that this dualistic separation is fundamentally un- and anti-biblical. The exegesis is also characterised by a liberal dose of the "this passage is difficult, therefore we don't know for certain what it means, therefore it can't be held to mean the thing I don't want it to mean" interpretative method, known in more polemical parlance as "blowing smoke" or "hand-waving". Does Romans 8 state that the created order itself is in bondage to decay because of man's sin? Ah, but this "passage has kept commentators and PhD theology students happily busy for centuries!", so "we cannot be too dogmatic about the interpretation". And so on and so forth. Same picture as we've seen throughout the book - what Darwinism speculates must be treated as proven scientific truth, whose accuracy is established by the certainty of the scientific method... what the Bible says is difficult and must not be treated with dogmatism, and if we can find a way of reading it that doesn't contradict the theory of evolution, we should allow that as a possible interpretation.

What then is the Fall? It's a purely spiritual event. Friendship with God was offered to a select family of Neolithic farmers in the east (whilst, remember, many other humans were living in other parts of the world, including the Australian Aborigines who aren't descended from Adam). They rejected it, rebelling against God, losing the life he offered. This makes the Fall basically a loss of something that humanity never had. It bumbled along for many tens of thousands of years (according to DA, as explained in the previous chapter) without knowing God... that knowledge was eventually offered to one particular couple, who rejected it - which, unless my logic circuits have been fried, basically means that "the Fall" means that nothing happened - things went on as they were before.

DA's treatment of pain is a massive departure from evangelical orthodoxy. Biology is a package deal; you can't have all the good things in there without the bad things, and it's pain and death that grease the skids of the evolutionary machine and make all our pleasures possible. If you think pain is an evil intruder, you've been reading Milton's "Paradise Lost", instead of the Bible. It's not possible to be a sentient being without pain. The implication of this is that God is not the master of creation who determined its modes of operation, but is a prisoner to its limited possibilities - apparently not even he could have designed a system where humans could experience pleasure without experiencing pain; this is simply logically impossible, like squaring the circle or making two and two come to five. DA then gets himself into something of a pickle when he concedes that the future kingdom of God will be without pain or suffering - because then it seems that God could in fact do such a thing, and that sentient beings can exist without pain... but DA either never realises, or simply decides to pretend not to notice, this glaring contradiction. (Or perhaps the future creation is utterly ethereal and immaterial - angels floating around with harps like those Daily Mail cartoons after all). DA concludes that the healing ministry of Jesus was not to do with him restoring a fallen creation, but simply pointing the way to a new one. This means that redemption is not, contrary to orthodox Christianity, creation restored and perfected; it is creation replaced. This is not evangelical theology. It is, though, what you get when you insist on the truth of Darwinism, and from that point of view I am glad for DA making clear what the extent of the theological pay-load is if you ever feel tempted to do that.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Evolution and the Biblical understanding of death (Creation or evolution, chapter 11)

The next few chapters of the book are in my opinion particularly significant, and worth reading especially for any wavering creationist who wonders if he's making too much fuss over the origins issue. In these chapters, Dr. Alexander spells out the theological implications of his "evolutionary creationism" view. Accommodating one's interpretation of the Bible to Darwinism comes at a price, and in these chapters DA spells out just what that price is, with commendable candidness. From an orthodox evangelical point of view, the concessions that have to be made are much too great.

The organisation of the book could have done with a little more work in this bit, because in fact a significant part of the discussion is contained in the next chapter, "Evolution and the Fall". As "by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin" (Romans 5:12), as God had promised (Genesis 2:17), you can't really discuss the Biblical doctrine of death without discussing the Fall. DA, though, does appear to think otherwise. As he presents these matters, this chapter is intended to be a "complete" (page 253) summary of the Bible's teaching on death, and the Fall is something that we can better understand after (not as part of) getting this "complete" understanding. This is not simply a matter of presentation. DA's doctrine of death and the Fall really does depend on this separation.

DA presents death in three parts - physical death, spiritual death, and the "second death". That in itself is OK - until you realise the hermetic sealing existing between the first and second of those (except in the case where God sends physical death as a particular judgment). That's how the Fall doesn't need to be discussed in this chapter at all - there is no reference whatsoever to Genesis 2-3 or to Romans 5 - because these two kinds of death are quite independent.

What, then, of physical death? First it's good to ask what Darwinian orthodoxy would require us to believe here, because if you've read this far in the book you'll know that that will be precisely what the Bible will end up being found to teach, or at least be "compatible" with. According to the long-ages dating DA adheres to, and the placing of the various evolutionary dates on that scale, anatomically modern, intelligent, cultured humans were around for plenty of time before Adam and Eve, who had human ancestors (though, DA adds, they would not have had any knowledge of God). Physical death is an essential part of the evolutionary engine, including in producing humanity. It cannot be an evil intruder, but has been the normal course of events for the 99.99(etc.)% of history before the Bible's timeline begins. What this means is, that you can't have the orthodox Darwinian scheme, and believe that death invaded the human race in a terrible way as a result of Adam eating the forbidden fruit.

So it is, then, that we find DA writing such heterodox untruths as "Nowhere in the Old Testament is there the slightest uggestion [sic] that the physical death of either animals or humans, after a reasonable span of years, is anything other than the normal pattern ordained by God for this earth" and "the Old Testament ideal is a long and useful life obeying God's will, followed by death." DA follows a consistent pattern throughout the book. He does not interpret Old Testament texts using the light of New Testament revelation; he instead follows the modernist error of treating them in isolation (though in this case I think even with that treatment you shouldn't go as far wrong as this). Hebrews 2:14-15 states that "Jesus... [came] that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage." What does this mean? Jesus destroyed death through his physical death. Death cannot be cut up into neat "physical" and "spiritual" portions in DA's fashion, and then the portions utterly divorced from each other - the apostles' inspired explanations forbid it. Distinguished, yes - separated and divorced, no. DA writes (page 245, emphases mine) "Although there are hints of the possibility of resurrection in the later books of the Old Testament, there is no developed resurrection teaching within the old covenant". Jesus, though, thought differently, and severely rebuked the Sadducees, who only believed the first five books of the Bible, for "erring", "not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God", for not understanding that the teaching of the resurrection was clearly stated in the second book of the Bible, in Exodus chapter 3 (Matthew 22:29-32).

DA emphasises the normality of death in the Old Testament, but because this is entirely without any discussion of the Fall - i.e. the event which brought death in - it's a totally out of context discussion. Yes, of course death is normal - that's because the first father of the human race rebelled against God, and we inherited his sin and punishment (Romans 5:12ff)! DA, though, manages to give a "complete" discussion of the Biblical doctrine of death without mentioning the fall, and ends up concluding - just as orthodox Darwinism required him to do - that death is totally natural, and part of God's design for life on this earth. In this context, it then makes no sense (though DA never addresses this tension - is he aware of it?) when DA proceeds to the New Testament to talk about liberation from death, and that "Physical death has no place in the fulfilled kingdom of God", quoting the verses about tears being wiped away, etc. (p249). He speaks of physical death being "an enemy to be overcome", but we have no idea how this can be seeing as it was perfectly natural and necessary for our upward progress out of the sludge. DA's answer seems to be that it's just by contrast with the wonderful kingdom of Jesus - such a glorious thing that it makes death seem dark by comparison. DA ends up with the answer that the reason for physical death is that it is necessary for us to inherit the kingdom of God via the resurrection bodies, which could not have been done otherwise - though DA then grants that in fact this is not necessary because those who are alive when Jesus returns will inherit the kingdom without physical death. Confused? He certainly is. (As someone with a systematic bent, this leaves me wondering what DA supposes would have happened to Adam if he had passed the test of the tree, and been admitted into life - would God have killed him anyway so that he could then have been resurrected?) What we have here in DA's theology is not the apostles showing how the Christ event fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather, they rewrite them - death, which was nice and natural before, suddenly becomes an enemy because of newly revealed future resurrection which the Old Testament believer would never have known about. Having the New Testament rewrite the Old in this way instead of fulfilling it makes us feel sympathetic for the Jews who rejected Jesus - it seems that they were correct about him not being the promised Messiah of Scripture after all, and for teaching different truths to the ones they found in their Bibles!

DA's faithfulness to whatever most contemporary scientists think is most likely concerning the past is very admirable. The price, though, is a corresponding loss of faithfulness in believing what God has actually testified about the past, and a resulting mangling of the Bible that has to take place in order to bring these things into line. I am indeed grateful to Dr. Alexander for spelling out some of the implications for Christians who seek to fold evolution into their systems of belief. DA isn't one for compromising when it comes to doing that, and he shows us exactly what price you're going to have to pay if you're going to be consistent instead of picking and choosing the bits you like. I hope that discerning readers will read this section of the book and respond with a resounding "No thanks".

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Who were Adam and Eve? Genesis and science in conversation (Creation or evolution, chapter 10)

This chapter continues and concludes the discussion of the question of how to identify Adam and Eve, begun in the previous. As with the previous chapter, the bigger issues are revealed in this chapter by taking a step back. It's amazing to see what DA is certain about, given how uncertain he is about many things in the Bible he isn't certain about. Ancient teeth fragments can be relied upon to reveal human evolution in dogmatic detail. Stone tools appeared 2.6 million years ago. We know who lived near Lake Turkana (not so far from here - another few hundred k's up north - a couple doing food relief from this town travelled there yesterday) 1.44 million years ago, and don't make the mistake of saying it was 1.43 or 1.45.

The chapter, then, starts with several pages of dogmatism about the evolutionary history of man and his various cousins, the gorillas , gibbons, chimpanzees and Great Uncle Archie's family of throwbacks. There's some discussion of genetics, the development of human culture and language, before focussing on the "Neolithic" era (10,000 BC onwards), as the ultimately most relevant to the identification of Adam and Eve. This all winds up to the conclusion, which ought to sound out the big warning bells for anyone whose evangelical instincts haven't been thoroughly labotimised by the 230-odd pages beforehand:
"It is against this cultural and historical background [reviewer: i.e. the history of humanity according to present Darwinian theory] that one needs to consider the early chapters of Genesis."
Did you get that? Perhaps you were one of those naive Bible believers who thought that God gave us Genesis as a true account of humanity's origins, so that by this divine yardstick you could measure, approve or reject all competing accounts. Perhaps you foolishly imagined that the Word of God gave you a cultural and hsitorical background against which to test theories from other areas of study, such as Darwinism. Simpleton! DA will put you right. The sure and certain revelation of Darwinism gives you the truth, and against this background you must read the Word of God. If you can't spot the theological down-grade by this stage of the book, you're not going to.

There's then a small aside whilst DA considers the question of whether humans are still evolving. I applaud him for including it, as many times in the book he simply skirts around relevant issues. In DA's theology, creation is via gradual processes which are part of the world today as much as they are the past. This does raise as a natural question - so, are human beings still developing upwards, and shall we in future be something else? Did Jesus die for the coming homo futuris as well as the present homo sapiens? Well, DA poses the question but his answer is a pot of warm slop. Holding to Darwinian orthodoxy, he doesn't deny any of the premises, but falls back on giving three reasons why future human evolution (though theoretically possible), is unlikely in practice. What it boils down to is that in the modern world we don't get the isolated populations where natural selection can kill off the weak before they pass on their faulty genes. I think DA's answer needs to be better informed by the realities of present anthropology, because what he says isn't true. It's widely reported in the news in recent months (following a kind of contact made with an isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest) that there are still believed to be around 100 tribes in the world that have no contact with the rest of humanity or with modern life. So DA needs to cook up a better answer than this one. (Did anyone see Steve Jones' answer to the same question in the Telegraph recently? Equally preposterous!).

This then leaves us with the synthesis of all the material in the preceeding 40+ pages on the Adam/Eve question. After all this, just who were they?

DA presents us with five possible "models", different ways in which Christians have answered the question. These range right from saying that Genesis is thoroughly mythological, just a story to teach timeless truths, to the young-earth creationist (YEC) position that Adam and Eve were created immediately out of the ground on the sixth day. You can guess which model DA is going to favour and which he holds in utter contempt by the number of words he gives in describing each: in turn models A, B, C, D and E get 1/3 of a page, 1/2 a page, 3 pages, 1/3 of a page, and 1 sentence. Yup, model E is the YEC position (D is old earth / episodic creationism), and as DA wants to keep his good standing in the academic community its necessary to make clear he sees it as beneath his contempt to discuss, so just 1 sentence it is. DA sees all these models as possible within a Biblical framework, which is a revelation in itself about DA's approach to Scripture, though consistent with all we've seen so far. Whether you take an out-and-out liberal position and assign the foundational historical narratives of Scripture to the wastebin of utter myth, or whether you think that when God says he made Adam directly from the earth he really means it, is a matter of comparative indifference, though DA has a preference. After this, models D and E simply get tossed into the wastebin, because they are incompatible with the theory of human evolution, and that, to DA, is all that needs to be said to tell you they must be false.

That preference is model C, which recognises that the rest of Scripture does treat Adam and Eve as real historical individuals (not generic humanity, or "everyman"). Moreover, it recognises that this is going to be "perhaps" somewhere around 6-8,000 years ago - here we get the only fleeting mention that the Bible (e.g. Genesis 5) contains detailed genealogies, a point unexcusably absent when DA is discussing what literary genre the Genesis accounts are. This dating would make them (reading Genesis, as we have been told we must, against the backdrop of the certainities of contemporary Darwinian accounts) Neolithic farmers living somewhere in the east.

This identification does then pose a number of theological problems if you want to keep carrying your membership card for the club of Darwinian orthodoxy, such as:
  • Mmmm, doesn't that mean that far from being the first two humans, there were actually many thousands of others around at the time?
  • And those others... they will have already developed human language, culture, art and religious rituals, according to contemporary archaelogical and anthropological thinking.
  • So how can Adam be the father of the human race, and Eve the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20)? What does this mean for the doctrine of original sin?
  • And this means that Adam had human ancestors (following the grunting gorillas) - so what of the genealogy of Luke, which puts Adam at the head? (Luke 3). How can Paul call Adam the "first man" (1 Corinthians 15:45)?
What we see as DA looks into some (but not all, particularly the interesting one about original sin - see Romans 5:12ff) of these questions is the same picture we've seen all the way along. His evolutionary orthodoxy holds absolutely firm - and the Bible becomes a nose of wax to be moulded as one pleases. He grants all these implications (lots of other humans, the human race is not all descended from Adam and Eve, Adam had human ancestors, etcetera), and then goes around to find some theological wheeze to still allow some kind of meaning to be put on the Bible's plain statements, and then he proclaims the resulting massacre of the sacred Word to be an elegant harmony of "science" (read: Darwinism) and "theology" (read: the Bible's history). Yuk.

The basic answer is that Adam was the first man to whom God started to reveal himself in a special way - the first man to come to a heightened awareness of God and his greatness, and to be invited into a saving relationship. What about the salvation, DA asks, of those who were before and scattered in other parts of the planet? We don't know, he answers, and should be humble. More pertinent would have been to ask, "saved from what - what does this concept mean in DA's alternative proto-history?" The picture DA gives us for Adam is basically that which holds for Abraham - a chosen family picked graciously out of a world of ignorance. What "graciously" could mean in a context where nobody else even has this mysterious awareness of God and hence none at all of his moral laws or commandments could mean, we are never told. The "salvation" DA has in mind seems to be very amenable to contemporary thinking - a kind of "God became my special friend", rather than the deliverance from holy wrath against wilful covenant-breakers which is actually the story of Scripture.

This leaves us wondering what the fall could mean. If life had gone on for gazillions of years, and intelligent humanity for tens of thousands, with no knowledge of God (how, from Romans 1:18ff, is that possible?), and God decides now to enlighten a couple of farmers a little, if they say "no thanks" what kind of fall is that - to just continue as you were before? How to understand death, the fall and evil within this bizarre framework are the subjects of the next three chapters. But perhaps I can urge my readers... it really is so much simpler just to believe the Bible as it really is than go into this insanity.

A challenge to atheist readers...

I know I have several atheists reading this blog. So here's a challenge.

Most of you say that science has made religion superfluous. Can you explain for us how it's done that?

Science is descriptive. It can tell us what happens. It can describe how we observe one event giving rise to another in a predictable fashion. But what can it actually say about the root causes of such events? We can watch gravity at work in an orderly way. But what is the actual cause of gravity? Why do two bodies with mass exert an attraction based upon the product of their masses and the inverse square of their separation? We can compute a value for the force of gravity - but where is the entity actually giving rise to that force? Theoretical physicists speculate about gravitons. Suppose for the sake of argument they existed. Still, that takes us no further - we've simply described one more thing. Describing is not explaining.

In a broad way, religion explains; science describes. There is a law of gravity because of the creative and sustaining acts of a supreme being who transcends and is everywhere immanent in the material order. Thinks work in an orderly, predictable way that we can investigate because he is a God of order who made us with minds and desires us to investigate. Religion not only supplies answers that science never can, but it explains the rationality of the scientific enterprise itself. In the atheistic view, that enterprise just hangs in thing air.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Who were Adam and Eve? - The background (Creation or evolution, chapter 9)

As I read Dr. Alexander's book, my main fear ironically isn't that it'll persuade Christians to embrace Darwinism. What this book will actually do to Christians who really take it to heart is much worse. The worse thing is that it might lead them into a much more far-reaching theological downgrade, through the methods of Bible interpretation that Dr. Alexander uses. As with many "bad books", the badness isn't ultimately in the questionable and obviously controversial conclusions (though it is). It's in the questionable methods of Bible interpretation used to reach them; methods which the author doesn't tell you are questionable or controversial, but simply presents as if they were quite normal and the kind of thing we should all do without hesitation.

The chapter starts, as a previous one did, with a somewhat limited disclaimer. DA protests that we must start with the biblical text if we are to ask about Adam and Eve, not to start with evolution and then try to retro-fit it. So far, so good, but it'll soon become apparent that there's going to be a gallactic mile of wiggle room such that the end result is happily (for DA) the same as if he'd done the latter. He proceeds to state that we should "listen to what the Bible has to say and then see whether there are any interesting resonances with the evolutionary account." No. That statement is a classic statement of the "two books" approach DA consistently follows: the Bible is the book of theological meaning, science (and eventually Darwinism) is the book of scientific truth, and each must be listened to and obeyed. This is not evangelical hermeneutics. The authentic Christian approach to the Bible is to give it an unrivalled place of supreme authority and absolute truth, so that it dictates the parameters which any other supposed sources of truth must adhere too. The Bible is certain and non-negotiable; other sources of truth are uncertain, must fit within the parameters of Scripture and be believed with appropriate tentativeness.

To DA, Genesis is not only primarily theological in intent, but basically exclusively so, and so he tells us that as he reads it he will approach it looking for theological and figurative aspects (verse 191). This is putting the cart before the horse. The fruits of the theological instruction arise from the historical reality of what is described. To change analogy, DA wants to have the fruits of the tree after he's plucked up the roots. That's not evangelical theology; it's classical liberalism. Liberal theologians decided to take the historical narratives of the Bible, strip them of their roots in the real world of time and space, and keep the results for their ethical teaching. The liberals concentrated most of their fire-power on the gospels and particularly the miracles of Jesus in this because for them the mythological status of Genesis was already beyond question. They were at least consistent in treating the gospels in the same way as Genesis. DA's hermeneutic needs to be seen for what it is - exactly the same de-historicising hermeneutic. Should it be acceptable for evangelicals to do to Genesis, the Bible's foundational book, what we absolutely reprobate and call heretical when we see others doing it to other historical narratives in the Bible?

The rotten fruits of DA's down-grading approach to Scripture become clear as the chapter proceeds. It's a chapter of two parts (and only begins to discuss the question of Adam and Eve - the next chapter continues). The first half looks at what the Bible says; the second half examines the evolutionary account. The first half is full of uncertainty and doubt. This passage is difficult. This portion admits of many interpretations. The commentaries suggest many possibilities here. It is not certain what this means. We cannot base any firm conclusions on this, and so on and so forth. Then we get to the second half of the chapter to learn what contemporary evolutionary biologists says about man's origins, and it's a totally different story. Here are results about which we can be as certain as about anything. This is an assured and definite truth. There is no real doubt about this to anyone in the field, etcetera, etcetera. It's as if I'd wandered into a gathering of the village atheists - the "religious" source of truth is by nature uncertain, doubtful, speculative... but here's science, which tells us results which are guaranteed in their infallibility because they are derived from the fail-safe scientific method, praise be to Richard Dawkins, Hallelu-Hitchens and Amen! But please, really... if DA is really an evangelical by consistent practice and not just in profession, then which of the two, contemporary science and Scripture, should we keep being told is infallible and certain, and which of the two should he keep emphasising is tentative and unsure?

Why is humanity's descent from the apes so certain? DA is consistent in relying on a single argument that he's outlined earlier in the book, though here he goes into more detail (and the man's certainly very gifted in explaining unfamiliar scientific concepts, provided you at least have some background). It's the argument that the human genome is full of what are basically relics from the past - gene sequences that are no longer active, or have been corrupted in some way. His argument is then theological - this really looks like common descent, and therefore it must be, because otherwise God would be playing games with us by deceiving us. As before, though, DA doesn't compare his scenario to the alternative creationist paradigm, but simply asserts that the particular account he's given fits really well and that there's no alternative (we'll have to take his word for it), therefore it must be true. Real life creationists, though, as opposed to the "some Christians say..." straw-men who roam through the pages of this book, have no problem in accommodating the concept of many inactive genes in the human genome. We believe in the fall - a fall which had a real and very serious effect on humanity at very many levels. Man became subject to all kinds of illnesses, sicknesses and even death. As there is no real separation between the theology and the real-world biology, what that would mean among other things for the genes that we would expect to find we lost abilities in our genomes, which is just what DA skilfully explains. DA relies heavily on what he says are identical losses of functionality in humans and some of their supposed evolutionary cousins. Again, though, there are other possibilities. These gene sequences may not be as useless as presently thought - future science may discover a function we do not presently know, making DA's argument a Darwin-of-the-gaps one. Or, the common Designer, having designed man and physically similar beings using common design, may have at the fall made common changes in the genomes. DA's argument that common gene sequences must mean common ancestry (as opposed to common design, a thesis he never mentions), is an empty assertion.

DA's down-grading approach to Scripture is nowhere illustrated more clearly than in the case of his explanations of what the Genesis account says about Eve. Eve was made out of Adam's side whilst Adam was in a deep sleep (Genesis 2:21). DA explains all of this, goes on to explain the significance of this for the doctrine of marriage... and then goes on further to assert that therefore since the important implication is the doctrine of marriage, we thus should not insist that Eve was actually made out of Adam's side after all. With the skill of the clever rhetorician he is, he seeks to make this sound as ridiculous as possible: "Now if we take this ... as referring to some early Near Eastern operation during which God both provides the anaesthetic and does the surgical manipulation of a male rib to generate a woman, then we will have missed the point of the text by reading it through modernist spectacles. No, if we go down that route then we are in real danger of abusing the text, which is about the foundations of marriage." DA, though, does not trouble himself to investigate the New Testament texts where the writers do, with all seriousness, interpret the details of Adam and Eve as real historical phenomena and not just nice literary teaching aids (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:13 - Eve being formed after Adam, or 2 Corinthians 11:3 - Eve really was deceived by a talking snake!). The irony is that it is DA's own non-apostolic interpretation which is classic modernism. He reads Genesis 2, scoffs at the idea of a talking snake or a woman being formed out of a sleeping man's rib, and concludes like a good rationalist that it cannot really mean that, and therefore we are just intended to extract the theological payload from the passage and leave the vessel that was used to teach that payload in the realms of mythology where it belongs. Similar is his treatment of the name given to Eve, the "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20). This disagrees with Darwinian orthodoxy, and hence cannot be literally true, so DA re-interprets it to say that it might mean that she was the mother of the family of faith - later in the book DA will admit that Aborigines cannot, if Darwinism is true, be descended from Eve, which leaves some interesting implications...

Hence it's no surprise to find that DA entirely skips over any discussion of Genesis 5, with its very down-to-earth genealogy, with a long list of dates and names, of Adam down to Noah. It's hard to extract too much theological significance from "And Enos lived ninety years, and begat Cainan", unless in fact Enos living 90 years and begetting Cainan, i.e. the literal history, is itself the theological significance. That is how it is, because the Bible writer is tracing out the line which eventually leads to Abraham, David and Jesus the Messiah - the line focussed on in 1 Chronices 1, Matthew 1 and Luke 3. The real-world actual-historical nature of the text is not an optional extra that we can throw away, because the Saviour we have is a real-world flesh-and-blood one. Genesis finds a fundamental part of its significance in being his history. The Bible does not leave the question "who were Adam and Eve?" hanging in the air. It gives us a very full and precise account, complete with detailed genealogies which eventually go right from Adam to Christ. God promised at the fall that there would be a seed of the woman who would conquer the serpent (Genesis 3:15). Jesus is that unique man, and so the Bible is very careful to demonstrate very precisely how he fulfilled that promise, giving us his line and the dates going right back to the beginning, so that we might know him for who he is. The ultimate fact in Darwinian manglings of Genesis is that it's not just a side-story in the Bible that they're playing games with - it's the foundation of the whole lot.