Links from the last week

1. On Political Correctness

The title of this essay severely undersells what is a great long-read on observations of academia by a self-described “member of the liberal elite”.  Any excerpt I did would undersell it as well, highly-recommended anyone interested in our universities take the time to read it.

2. Organic water? Asarasi exploits loophole to get USDA-certified label on bottles

Oh dear.

Because Asarasi’s water is filtered through a living thing ― a maple tree ― it appears to pass the USDA’s certification test.

3. NTSB: Air Canada close-call at SFO was even worse than first reported

Not sure how many people realize that two weeks ago *almost* saw what would have been the worst airline disaster in US history, when an Air Canada flight nearly landed on a taxiway with four other jets lined up waiting for takeoff, only finally aborting when told to by ATC.  Why?  It was nighttime.  The pilot was supposed to land on runway 28R.  Runway 28L was out of service and so had its approach lights off, which may have made 28R look like 28L to the pilot (the left-most runway), which made that long strip to its right (the taxiway) look like 28R.  The flashing lights of the planes lined up on the taxiway may have looked like the strobe lights of a runway – early on in the approach the pilot asked ATC about what appeared to him to be other aircraft on the runway but was told it was clear.  All very logical, frighteningly so.

4. I’ve Worked with Refugees for Decades. Europe’s Afghan Crime Wave Is Mind-Boggling.

Another long essay on how, and perhaps why, the “refugee crime” of Europe is not uniformly distributed, but actually especially significant among refugees from Afghanistan (who now account for half of all sexual assaults in Austria, for example).

So again: what’s going on? Why is this happening? And why the Afghans? A few competing theories are in circulation.

5. Some questions I’m asking while off to my white evangelical church

Interesting read via Rod Dreher. I found most discouraging her note that every time she opens her social media she finds herself reading:

yet another treatise on how white supremacy must be eliminated and how white people need to repent of their whiteness. A friend recently said that it is like the new prayer of Jabez.

Her bigger point is to suggest that the language and categories of social justice activism naturally create an us versus them mindset, and encourage people to view others suspiciously based on demographically determined guilt. Which is poison to real unity in the Church.

6. The correlation = causation fallacy in its purest form

7. Eugene Peterson’s Theological Sigh

There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

This week brought to you by a red-tailed hawk in Lansing, Michigan’s Groesbeck neighborhood.


The death of Herod Agrippa and the reliability of the Bible

Just wanted to share two quotations that speak for themselves from this morning’s sermon by Kevin DeYoung. The first is the Biblical account of the death of Herod Agrippa, from Acts 12:20-25 (ESV).

Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

Compare that with an account of the same incident by Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian (referenced here).

Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Caesarea […] There he exhibited shows in honor of the emperor […] On the second day of the festival, Herod put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a truly wonderful contexture, and came into the theater early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment was illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it. It shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him. At that moment, his flatterers cried out […] that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’

Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and he fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. But I am bound to accept of what Providence allots, as it pleases God; for we have by no means lived ill, but in a splendid and happy manner.’

After he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace, and the rumor went abroad that he would certainly die in a little time. But the multitude presently sat in sackcloth, with their wives and children, after the law of their country, and besought God for the king’s recovery. All places were also full of mourning and lamentation. Now the king rested in a high chamber, and as he saw them below lying prostrate on the ground, he could not himself forbear weeping. And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign.

Bonhoeffer on compromise between the Church and the World

“…there is in truth no such thing as harmonious coexistence between the church and the world, for where there is no conflict it is because the world has taken over.” ~M. Wilcock

We read that quotation in our church small group last night – it was referenced in a Tim Keller Bible study on lessons from the life of Samson. But appropriately enough, I’m also reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship at the moment, and as you might imagine he has much to say about Christian compromise with the world, at one point describing the Christian life as nothing but “hand-to-hand combat” with the world. (Do we feel that?) And “the world” is not only outside our churches – he spends much time speaking against the proclamation of “cheap grace” from the pulpit, a sort of message that says “God will forgive you, so don’t worry too much about your sin”.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness with requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.

Because it is unconcerned with obedience, it becomes a message that justifies the sin, instead of the sinner. He says,

…do we realize that this cheap grace has turned back upon us like a boomerang? The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organized Church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard. Where were those truths which impelled the early Church to institute the catechumenate, which enabled a strict watch to be kept over the frontier between the Church and the world, and afforded adequate protection for costly grace? What had happened to all those warnings of Luther’s against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living? Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing of the world than this? What are those three thousand Saxons put to death by Charlemagne compared with the millions of spiritual corpses in our country today? With us it has been abundantly proved that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical church.

Religious subjectivism and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

A little while back there was a post here about how religion in America is “personalized, psychologized, and pragmatized.” As long as your personal religious beliefs seems to help you they’re fine for you, and if I want to hold some different religious beliefs, that’s fine for me. The actual truth or validity of the belief seems to be a secondary concern.

The Ferengi bartender Quark praying.

I’ve been slowly rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while I’m grading or whatnot, and this sci-fi television show seems to take that kind of subjectivism to the nth degree. This show is filled with all kinds of aliens with all kinds of religious beliefs – the beliefs of the money-obsessed Ferengi are especially amusing. (They hope to enter the “Divine Treasury” when they die, and deposit little slips of gold-pressed latinum into their idols when they pray.) But the television show is centered around a space station (Deep Space Nine) near the planet Bajor, and the religion of the Bajoran people plays a significant role. The Bajorans worship gods they call the “Prophets” who live in the “Celestial Temple”, watching over Bajor, and send Bajor prophets (with a little “p”) and will one day send them a sort of super-prophet called the Emissary.

OK so far, but here’s the thing – beginning with the very first episode of the show, we learn that the Prophets are actually real. Commander Sisko, the main character, discovers a wormhole in space that the Bajorans quickly identify as the Celestial Temple. The wormhole is inhabited by a species of aliens (the Prophets) who live outside of time, seeing past, present, and future, and really do care for Bajor – and Commander Sisko is to be their promised Emissary. Over time, we also learn that the Prophets are quite powerful – they make an entire enemy fleet simply vanish, communicate with Sisko when he’s far away and apparently played a role in arranging his birth on Earth, etc. In other words, so far as I can tell, the Bajoran religion is empirically verified.

Yet somehow, despite this, many of the characters continue talking about the Bajoran religion just like they would talk about any other religion. Characters get asked questions like “do you really believe in the Prophets” – um, shouldn’t everyone believe in the Prophets? An Admiral gets annoyed by Commander Sisko’s inclination to “follow the will of the Prophets” – Sisko’s main job is to protect Bajor, and if you’ve got a group of aliens living outside of time who also want the best for Bajor, wouldn’t it just be good sense to listen to what those aliens have to tell you? One Bajoran character is asked if she would mind if her significant other believed in a different religion – personally, I would say “have you looked at the window at the wormhole, bub? My religion is actually true!”

Anyway! Kind of a nerdy post, and draw what conclusions you’d like. But it’s surprising to me, at least in this fictional environment, just how far the subjective treatment of religion extends.

Richard Mourdock’s comment shows us that theology matters

And that the media doesn’t get it.

If you’ve been sleeping for the last couple days, you’ve missed some extensive (though, I sense, short-lived) outrage over comments made by Indiana Republican Richard Mourdock. Speaking on the subject of abortion, he said,

You know, this is that issue that every candidate for federal or even state office faces. And I have to certainly stand for life. I know that there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view. But I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have on abortion is in that case — of the life of the mother. I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

The controversial sentence is the last one, but in my opinion, there is nothing wrong with this comment. Even when bad things happen, God is there bringing good out of them. If you are conceived in a rape, you should still know that God intended for you to be born. That doesn’t mean, dear media, that God, or Richard Mourdock, endorses rape as some kind of moral good. In fact the Bible is loaded with examples in which God uses some evil act to accomplish his good purposes – think of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, later to save the nation of Egypt and his own family. “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” he said. But regardless of the God-intended good that came of the situation, selling him into slavery was still an evil act.

But the media, and too many (mostly but not exclusively) Democratic politicians, have jumped all over Murdouch, essentially painting him (and God) as pro-rape (at least if pregnancy results) and wondering how he got so stupid. And while the media coverage has been extravagantly wide, it has not been deep at all. I have seen no indication from mainstream sources that they understand that Christians might believe that God works to bring good out of evil. Even more critically, I have seen no mainstream source ask any Christian politician who has condemned Mourdock if they believe that children conceived in rapes are unfortunate “accidents” or mistakes in the opinion of the deity.

But look right here, theology matters. And the secular world doesn’t understand Christians at all, in many ways.

Edit: TGC posts a similar article this morning.

How objective is our understanding of reality?

A while ago I blogged through the first book of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology trilogy. I started reading this series looking for some longer thoughts (ahem) on the relationship between science and theology. I decided to pick that up again, trying to do at least one post a week on the second volume of the trilogy, Reality. (You should not understand my decision to blog through the book as an endorsement of it though because, hey, I haven’t read it yet!)

The preface of Reality gives us some idea of why the author thought this book was necessary. The Enlightenment project, he says, has failed. That is to say, it is difficult for us to continue believing that we can come to a study of nature purely objectively. Rather, the traditions we come from as people, our place within history, etc., actually are important in our “process of knowing”.

The Enlightenment proposed an ‘objectivity’ of both judgement and knowledge which overlooked the role of both history and culture in their shaping and transmission.

However, he also rejects the sort of opposite, post-modern idea that our understanding of the world is nothing but a series of social constructs, social constructs which we may create without limit or restriction. No no, there is still most certainly a real objective world out there. In fact, a quick look at science tells us that there is no contradiction between the concepts of objectivity and social construction. He says,

Far from legitimating the Englightenment’s emphasis on pure ‘objectivity’, the natural sciences propose a spectrum of modes of interplay between ‘objectivity’ and ‘social construction’.

Physics, he says, is an example of a natural science with a “low coefficient of social construction”, whereas psychology uses this “heuristic device” regularly. Maybe most importantly, he says that social constructs are not arbitrary but do come from (and are limited by) observations.

The legitimate use of social constructions does not entail anti-realism, even in its weak instrumentalist version. Thus to recognize that “intelligence” is a social construct does not mean that there is no such thing as “intelligence”; it means that it is to be understood as a specific means of understanding a body of observational data which has a claim to reality by virtue of its explanatory and predictive fecundity, whose status is anticipated as being finally confirmed through the accumulation of additional data and interpretive devices.

His preferred solution, something that takes into account both the objectivity of reality and the social location of the observer, is known as “critical realism”. I don’t have much more to say about that right now, but I gather that it will be one of the major themes of the book.

That’s my King

I think I might have posted this last Easter – that’s OK, it was mentioned in our sermon this morning, and I’ll take any excuse to do it again! The sermon was on Acts 2:22-24,

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.

You can hear that last sentence echoed in the closing lines of the video below. In a world filled with many concerns and many troubles of the day, of the nation, or of the world… it’s good to keep perspective, and not get lost in ourselves or what we can do.

Can we prove God from nature? and other thoughts on natural theology

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied Sun from day to day
Does his Creator’s power display;
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty hand.
~Joseph Addison’s poetic rendering of Psalm 19

The final chapter of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology: Nature is about the purpose and place of natural theology – he offers William P. Alston’s definition of natural theology as “the enterprise of providing support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that are neither nor presuppose any religious beliefs.” As we’ll see, McGrath concludes that natural theology is valuable, but perhaps not in the way this definition suggests.

As Christians, we might begin by asking if there is biblical warrant for thinking God might be known, in part, apart from direct divine revelation, just by studying the natural world. And the answer seems to be yes – in the Old Testament, we can cite passages like Psalm 19, paraphrased above. But we should read them carefully – the Psalms were written by and to the Israelites who already knew God. Already knowing God, they could discern his power in Creation. There is nothing in the passages to indicate they could discern it otherwise.

In the New Testament, we see Paul, especially, pay a lot of attention to one group of non-Christians (and non-Jews), the Greeks. In his address to the Athenians, Paul bases his discussion upon Greek theistic assumptions but then goes beyond them – think especially of the altar “to an unknown God” which Paul declares he is now making known. Says McGrath,

The fundamental point being made is that a deity of whom the Greeks had some implicit or intuitive awareness through the natural order is being made known to them by name and in full. According to Paul, the God who is made known indirectly through creation can be known fully in redemption.

Later, in the beginning of the book of Romans Paul, though writing to a Christian audience, says that (ESV),

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Says McGrath,

The general line of argument is that sufficient of God’s nature and requirements has been manifested within the created order to render humanity without excuse for any failure to respond to God, in particular recognizing their status as creatures.

So the Bible does seem to indicate that we can talk about a naturally-derived knowledge of God. However, several well-known Christian philsophers have wished to qualify this point. I don’t want to go through them all, but I’ll give one example – Alvin Plantinga, who rejected the idea that we could prove the existence of God from nature. Why not? Because, he thinks, that idea rests on a false understanding of the nature of religious belief. Says McGrath,

Natural theology supposes that belief in God must rest upon an evidential basis. Belief in God is thus not, strictly speaking, a basic belief – that is, something which is self-evident, incorrigible or evident to the senses. It is therefore a belief which requires to be itself grounded in some more basic belief. However, to ground a belief in God upon some other belief is, in effect, to depict that latter belief as endowed with a greater epistemic status than belief in God. For Plantinga, a properly Christian approach is to affirm that belief in God is itself basic, and does not require justification with reference to other beliefs.

Not sure I agree with that or not – but it does lead McGrath to point out that the historical purpose of natural theology has NOT been to prove the existence of God, but rather to help us understand his nature. We may also study nature to reinforce our belief in God – asking questions like, “if the Christian God exists, what might we expect to observe in nature?”

McGrath concludes the chapter by saying that,

Christian theology provides an interpretive framework by which nature may be interpreted. This approach takes nature to be an explicandum, something which requires or demands explication, but is not itself possessed of the intrinsic capacity or ability to offer such an explanation.

He thinks it important that we study nature as Christians, placing natural theology underneath revealed theology, rather than trying to approach nature with no assumptions whatsoever. Indeed,

It is impossible to read theological insights from an allegedly epistemologically neutral ‘nature’. Nature has to be seen in a certain way before it has revelatory potential.

To prove his point here, he offers the example of Gnosticism, which held that the world was created by a Demiurge, not God. Why, then, would we expect to learn anything about God by studying Creation? For Christians, though, who believe that God created the world out of nothing, we can expect to see his identity revealed in Creation. Hence the assumptions we come to our study of natural theology with matter a lot.

(This argument sounds like a good one to me – but I do wonder how to reconcile this idea with Romans 1, which seems to say that all people, regardless of their assumptions, can perceive some of the same things about God in nature. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion.)

That is all! That ends this book. I will continue with the next two books of the trilogy, but not with any regular posting schedule, because apparently I’m too busy to make that happen! Thanks for reading along.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 5 – Order, order, everywhere
Chapter 4 – in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater
Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”

Order, order, everywhere

Goodness me, I thought blogging once a week about a book would be no trouble at all, but somehow I got quite busy and missed two posts! (Also, it turns out it is in fact rather difficult to summarize 50-page chapters in a much smaller space in a way that is still, I hope, useful.) Getting back on schedule then, here are some thoughts on Chapter 5 of Alister McGrath’s book A Scientific Theology: Volume 1: Nature. Come for the Augustine quotations, stay for the David-generated chatter.

Chapter 5 is titled “Implications of a Christian Doctrine of Creation”, and I just want to share two big thoughts. McGrath says that the Christian doctrine of Creation means that…

1. We can reasonably expect to find some of the attributes of God expressed in Creation, most especially order and beauty. (Both of these, but especially the ordering of all events in the universe is exceedingly important for science, but also inexplicable by science.)
2. We can reasonably expect that we will be able to perceive this order.

Let me start with the second point first. In Genesis 1:27, we read (ESV),

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

One long and still debated question has been – what exactly does it mean to say that man, unlike all other creatures, is created in the image of God? One popular answer, and so far as I can tell the answer McGrath prefers, is that the imago Dei can primarily be identified with human reason, which corresponds with divine rationality. He quotes Augustine,

The image of the creator is to be found in the rational or intellectual soul of humanity… Although reason and intellect may at times be dormant, or may appear to be weak at some times, and strong at others, the human soul cannot be anything other than rational and intellectual. It has been created according to the image of God in order that it may use reason and intellect in order to apprehend and behold God.

That secondary point – that the, er, reason God gave us reason is so we may apprehend him – is important too, for a couple of reasons. First, it offers a rebuttal to the now-common but unprovable suggestion that man was inclined to believe in a God, and so we made him up, we invented religion (and there is no God). Mais non, it is just as reasonable to say that God implanted within us a desire to seek him – we are inclined to believe in him because he exists. Augustine again,

To praise you is the desire of humanity, a small piece of your creation. You stir humanity to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

Yes, I also can hear Audrey Assad now.

Second, if we can apprehend God by our reason, then let’s do it of course, in every way, including, in this context, by studying Creation.

Before we get there – McGrath offers one sort of special case of the reason God has given us – the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics. Mathematics, often called the language of the universe because it has been so successful in describing the observed world, is also something you can study, abstractly, alone in your bedroom with the windows to the outer world firmly shut. So why should it be at all useful in the sciences? Astronomer Johannes Kepler thought that this was because mathematics came from the mind of God,

In that geometry is part of the divine mind from the origins of time, even from before the origins of time (for what is there in God that is not also from God?) has provided God with the patterns for the creation of the world, and has been transferred to humanity with the image of God.

(I love how earlier scientists had no problem infusing their scientific work with theology.)

This does bring us to our other big point – that the attributes of God are expressed in Creation, especially his order and beauty. Quoting McGrath,

One of the most significant parallels between the natural sciences and Christian theology is the fundamental conviction that the world is characterized by regularity and intelligibility.

Indeed, we assume this in the natural sciences literally all the time. We assume there is some orderly, intelligible explanation for everything we observe.

And, McGrath quoting Paul Davies,

…in Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature.

Thus Christians have a reason for the order irreligious scientists can only marvel at. Specifically, we might expect to discover laws of nature which are the manifestation of this order. Paraphrasing Paul Davies, McGrath says that most scientists would agree that laws of nature have four features,

1. They are universal.
2. They are absolute (they do not depend on the nature of the person observing them).
3. They are eternal.
4. They are omnipotent (nothing is outside their scope).

Says McGrath,

It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that these attributes which are, by common agreement and convention, applied to the ‘laws of nature’, show remarkable affinities which those which are traditionally applied to God…

After discussing the order of Creation, McGrath goes on to discuss the beauty of Creation. Beauty is a more difficult concept to articulate than order, but I think most scientists have indeed felt that true scientific theories also tend to be beautiful ones – truth and beauty converge. There is even the famous quotation by Paul Dirac that “it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment”! Could this not be another expression of God’s character in Creation? Quoting Augustine again!

I loved beautiful things of a lower order, and I was sinking down to the depths. I used to say to my friends: ‘Do we love anything other than that which is beautiful? Then what is a beautiful object? And what is beauty? What is it that charms us and attracts us to the things that we love? It must be the grace and loveliness which is inherent in him; otherwise they would in no way draw us to them.

God put beauty in the universe as a reflection of himself and in order to draw us to him. C.S. Lewis makes a similar and quite well-known comment,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

Ah, everyone must love Lewis.

McGrath closes the chapter by pointing out that what we have learned here is that there is a high correlation between what we would expect to observe based on the Christian doctrine of Creation, and what we actually observe – but this doesn’t prove the doctrine. Christians who accept the doctrine do, however, themselves gain a framework for engaging with the world, a framework McGrath will surely employ in subsequent chapters.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 4 – in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater
Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”

in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater

“The New Testament is hidden in the Old; the Old is made accessible by the New.” ~Augustine.

Quoting in Latin makes you sound smart.

Recall that chapter 3 of Alister McGrath’s book A Scientific Theology: Nature was devoted to discussing why “nature” was too vague a concept to employ in discussions about the relationship between science and Christianity. Instead he was going to introduce the more robust concept of “creation”. I found chapter 4, which is basically a historical overview of how Jews and Christians have conceived of creation, very interesting. Next week we’ll hit chapter 5, which discusses the implications of Christian ideas about creation.

So why the Latin quotation in the title? McGrath points out that when Christians discuss creation, we often begin with Genesis 1 – which is actually kind of odd. Because Christ is the basis of all our articles of faith, and because the Old Testament is often unclear to us without the further revelation in the New. Quoting Emil Brunner,

So when we begin to study the subject of Creation in the Bible we ought to start with the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and some other passages of the New Testament, and not with the first chapter of Genesis.

That said, McGrath does begin his survey with the Old Testament, perhaps as a means to emphasize how important the New is to our understanding. He makes a couple points I wanted to share.

1. Most of the Old Testament passages that reference creation do not require a belief that God created the universe out of nothing – rather the passages could be read as indicating that “creation” was really an ordering by God of some chaotic environment that already existed. In fact many, perhaps most, Jews did not believe in creation ex nihilo until relatively recently (McGrath says the final commitment didn’t happen until as late as the 15th century AD). I found this quite surprising.

2. But, the OT does make a couple ideas quite clear – that God created all things, and that the created order is itself not divine. Both ideas distinguished the Jews from many of the cultures around them. The former point was especially important in that it was used to argue that God had authority over all nations, not just Israel, and over all places and all times. In fact, this was the central thrust of the Jewish doctrine of creation – “creation in the Old Testament is not a statement about the natural sciences, but about human history”, to quote Ludwig Kohler.

The New Testament introduces one new idea, and clarifies another, about creation.

In the first place, the New Testament recognizes a Christological dimension to the doctrine of creation; in the second, it points to a pattern of divine activity which is expressed in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

Both these ideas are expressed in the famous first chapter of John, where we’re told that the Logos existed before anything was created, and that everything was created through him. And, Christ, who became flesh, is seen not only as the agent of creation, but also it’s final goal. Quoting G.W.H. Lampe,

The Pauline parallel between Christ and Adam implies that God’s design for Adam has been effectively realized in Christ. Adam was intended to be son of God; he was created in the image of God. Christ is God’s son; he is the image of God; he is ‘in the form of God’; he is truly Adam, which means that he is truly and completely human. The sonship to God which was fully realized in Christ belongs to the nature of all; it characterized humanity as the Creator intends it to be.

We have some friends with a son named Adam – named after the new Adam, they emphasize.

From here, McGrath goes on to talk about how the doctrine of creation was articulated with the passage of time. I just want to mention three moments in time.

1. Very early on the Church was threatened, at least intellectually, by Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught that some inferior deity, different than the redeeming God of the New Testament, was responsible for the first creation of this world – this is why the world is filled with evil and defects. In response to Gnostics, Irenaeus “argued for a direction connection between creation and redemption in the economy of salvation”. God created a good world which was blemished by sin through the first Adam. In the incarnation, God came down into his own created order to restore it to the pattern he originally intended. Redemption is not just for individuals, but is happening to all of creation. This rejection of Gnosticism, a rejection of the idea that the universe was created with inherent defects, may have been important for the development of the natural sciences.

Against any idea that the natural order was chaotic, irrational or inherently evil (three concepts which were often regarded as interlocking), the early Christian tradition affirmed that the natural ordered possessed a goodness, rationality and orderliness which derived directly from its creation by God.

2. In the Middle Ages, we have Thomas Aquinas, who is extremely difficult to understand, if you ask me. So I don’t want to spend much time here, except to say that Aquinas argued both that nature is autonomous, working according to the laws of causality, and also that God worked within nature. He did not see these two principles as contradictory. He believed, according to McGrath, that “the explanatory autonomy of the created order is itself a consequence of its creation by God.”

3. Finally, we come to Calvin. Calvin also held to the causal autonomy of the created order, but was aware that such a belief could be interpreted as atheism – the universe humming along just fine with no God to be found. I’ll share one quotation,

…the regularities within nature are not to be thought of as being intrinsic to it, but reflect the ordering imposed upon it by God in creation. Thus Calvin stresses that the rain does not fall, nor the sun rise, by some ‘blind instinct of nature’; rather, such regularities reflect the ordering of the world in creation, and subsequent general influence of God through providence. Non id fieri caeco naturae instinctu, sed quia Deus ita decrevit.

According to Google, that last part means “It is not a blind instinct of nature to be done, but because God decreed that.” Far too much linguistic showmanship in this chapter, I tell you.

Much more than Aquinas, Calvin also emphasized that sin resulted in an intrusion of disorder into creation – both in terms of the actual structure of the world, and in the capacities of our mind to reflect upon it, with a restoration for the whole world hoped for in Christ.

OK, that’s good for now! Next chapter, as I said, is about the implications for the Christian doctrine of creation. And get excited, because I see at least one scientific formula in that chapter…

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”