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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Evangelism Needs to Become More Intellectual


There exists a fairly popular instruction for pastors that when they prepare their sermons, they should strive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf." In other words, the sermon needs to be simple with points easy to grasp by all.

I agree that it is important to communicate clearly. Part of that is to help parishioners by approaching take complex ideas and breaking them up in such a way that they can be apprehended by most of the congregation. However, I fear that the drive to "put the cookies on the lower shelf" has been over emphasized. I've seen many Bible teachers who are afraid of being "too intellectual" or presenting difficult concepts because their congregants may not "get it." As a result, much of the preaching on Sunday mornings have been dumbed-down from what the average church goer would have experienced a century or two ago.

Of course, not all ideas given in the Scriptures are able to be easily digested. God's orchestration of the conquest of Canaan is one example. The role that women play in New Testament churches is another. Concepts such as believers being predestined yet having the freedom to choose to follow Jesus is a third. All of these are directly taken from the scriptures and if one is to take in the whole counsel of God, these ideas must be addressed.

The Intellectual Needs Jesus

My concern is not simply liturgical; it is also evangelical. There is real danger in not demonstrating an intellectually robust faith for the intellectuals who are influential in shaping the ideas of a culture. James Davison Hunter makes a salient point:
Imagine, in this regard, a genuine "third great awakening" occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society-the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church-revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture. Imagine further several social reform movements surrounding, say, educational reform and family policy, becoming very well organized and funded, and on top of this, serious Christians being voted into every major office and appointed to a majority of judgeships. Legislation may be passed and judicial rulings may be properly handed down, but legal and political victories will be short-lived or pyrrhic without the broad-based legitimacy that makes the alternatives seem unthinkable.1
To support his claim, Hunter points to one of the biggest victories of Evangelicals in the last century – the temperance movement. Christians had both political representation and a significant portion of the voting public behind them to pass a constitutional amendment. However, it proved a miserable failure.

The church must reach out to the intellectual in the academy as well as the builder on the job site. Both need saving. But if we only present Christianity in the most basic idioms, what will be their assumption about the faith? Instead of seeing the robust, historic Christian tradition that birthed the writings of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Pascal, and many others, they see a feeble and childish view of the world.

I don't believe every sermon must feel like a college lecture. But offering one sermon a month that stretches the congregation and tackles some of the more complex ideas within Christendom wouldn't be a bad idea.

In the book of Hebrews, the church is rebuked by the writer for not being able to handle more difficult matters of theology. "For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Heb. 5:13-14). Paul also rebukes the Corinthian church similarly: "But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh" ( Cor. 3:1-3).

How are we reaching the intellectual with the Gospel? How are we growing our church members into mature believers who can digest solid food? Keeping the cookies on the lower shelf may be fun for the congregation, but it might simply mean we're short-changing their intellectual nutrition.

References

1. Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.46.
Image courtesy Jelllserrine - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30609111

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is Wisdom and How Can I Find It?



If you ever want to see how people can assume certain concepts, just ask a friend if they understand what the concept of time. Most would quickly respond, "Of course! Everyone knows what time is." Then ask them to give a definition of time that doesn't refer back to itself in some way (i.e. "Time is hours, minutes, and seconds. What are those? Measurements of …time.") Most people find this task extremely difficult, not because they don't have any concept of time, but because they haven't reflected specifically on what time is.1

While the example of defining time may be interesting, there are other, more important concepts that we also assume we know but don't necessarily understand clearly. Wisdom certainly fits that category. Over and over in the Bible, we are instructed to seek out wisdom, such as the passage in Proverbs 3:13-18:
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding,
for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.
This passage is indicative of how the scriptures encourage the gaining of wisdom. But there is a tendency among casual readers to assume that wisdom is the same thing as knowledge. Christians sometimes think that the command to get wisdom is basically becoming more familiar with the Bible. I don't think that's quite right. While knowledge is certainly a component of wisdom, the Bible seems to paint a fuller picture of wisdom than simply learning.

Making Wisdom Bigger than Knowledge

If one looks further in the book of Proverbs, the contrast between wisdom and folly becomes clearer. Proverbs 5 begins, "My son, be attentive to my wisdom; incline your ear to my understanding, that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge. For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword." Notice the verbs the author uses: be attentive, keep, guard and incline. It isn't that the son doesn't know or realize relations with the forbidden woman is wrong. The proverbist is teaching knowledge isn't good on its own; it must be put into practice. The son needs to remind himself of what he knows and not deceive himself by acting on his feelings in a way contrary to knowledge.

Looking at it this way, I think we can get a much better idea of what wisdom really means. Wisdom is knowledge properly applied. It encompasses both informed thought and the outworking of that reasoning. It requires the student to understand not simply the commands of God, but his character. It means the student must develop his reasoning skills to make judgments on how to act in specific situations. It also means one must practice and develop discipline and self-control, just as the New Testament commands (1 Cor. 9:25, Gal. 5:23, 1 Pet. 4:7, 2 Pet. 1:6).

Wisdom Affects Your Walk

Once the Christian sees wisdom in this broader view, it will change his walk. Study and developing reasoning skills become as much an act of devotion as prayer and worship. These are necessary tools that the faithful believer must draw upon in his or her walk with Jesus. How can one properly apply the knowledge that has never been acquired?

As the proverbist counsels in Proverbs 4:7-9, "The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown." The best way to be wise is to understand what wisdom is, and then go out and get it. You've just taken the first step. Now, keep waking towards that prize.

References

1. For those who may be wondering, one can define time as "the succession of moments." Also, any idea of change implies the concept of time, since change requires a before state and an after state. This is why when people like Lawrence Kraus tries to point to quantum fluctuations to explain the existence of something rather than nothing, they fail, since time is one of the things needing explaining.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

History is a Problem for Those Who Doubt Jesus Was Real



There are plenty of people who deny the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus. They may hold that there was a sage teacher of morality named Jesus who lived in the first century who was eventually executed by the Romans. Usually, the story goes that his followers taught others about his exploits, embellishing them with legendary acts and miraculous flourishes until we have the accounts of his life we read in the Bible today. These claims have been with us for centuries.

However, today there seems to be a growing subset of people who hold that not only did Jesus of Nazareth not do the miraculous deeds recorded in the Gospel accounts, but he never existed at all. The entire account of Jesus of Nazareth is mythical; it's an invention of people looking for a messiah-figure. These "Jesus-Mythicists" have gained traction primarily because of their presence on Internet. Even hyper-skeptic Bart Ehrman has noted that no New Testament scholar or historian, including the most skeptical, would hold such a view.1

The Problem of Association

One big reason the Jesus-myth scenario is rejected by scholars is the incredible hole it creates in explaining history. How could the story of Jesus gain traction so quickly if he didn't exist? Thomas Cooper, in his book The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time, explains the problem well:
Who can ponder on Paul's history without feeling that it must be regarded as part of the evidence for the truth of Christianity? Paul's existence and course of life, and the writing of his letters to the Christian Churches are held to be facts by all the German and French schools of skepticism; and that "Reverend" Robert Taylor that I mentioned to you who some fifty years ago was a favourite of the London freethinkers holds by the same facts But what a puzzling contradiction it seems for men to acknowledge the reality of the life and recorded acts of Paul as facts and yet to deny the truth of Christianity.

What! Paul a real man and Christ a myth? Paul a real existence; Paul, who wrote so much about Christ so soon after his death and resurrection; Paul a real existing man, and Christ's existence a fable? Paul, who held the clothes of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, while they stoned him to death? Then Stephen was also a real existing man, who died praying "Lord Jesus! receive my spirit!" Paul, the glorious half-missionary, half-mechanic, who crossed the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and visited so many shores preaching Christ, and yet there never was any Christ to preach? Paul, a real living man, who had seen and conversed with Peter, and James, and John? Then they were all real living men. How came they to say what they did about Christ if He never existed? How came they to speak of His miracles to the people who must have seen Christ's wondrous acts, if ever He performed them? Must they not have expected the people to say, "You are impostors! no such miracles were ever performed!" Yet no one said this. Even the worst enemies of Christ did not deny His miracles, though they attributed them to Satanic agency.2
This problem of explaining events such as the conversion of Paul and his self-identification as one who martyred Christians immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, the quick dissemination of Christianity by Jesus's original followers throughout the Roman Empire, along with the appeal over and over again to eyewitnesses becomes hopelessly strained and convoluted if Jesus wasn't a real, living person. All attempts to reconcile a real Paul with a mythical Jesus hold less explanatory scope, less explanatory power, and rely on ad-hoc assumptions when attempting to make any sense at all. Cooper saw this when writing in 1871!

If Paul was real, then his life and his conversion need to be explained. The most cogent way to do that is by believing what he himself testified: he had seen the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:8).

I want to offer a special thanks to Dr. Timothy McGrew for collecting Thomas Cooper's book and others at his site HistoricalApologetics.org. All the titles are in the public domain and free to everyone.

References

1. Ehrman, Bart D. "Did Jesus Exist?" The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 July 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html.
2. Cooper, Thomas. The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time a Popular View of the Historical Evidence for the Truth of Christianity. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1874. Print. 154-155.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Has Archaeology Proven the Gospel of John?



Charisma News published a web article last week with the bold headline "Pool Where Jesus Healed a Blind Man Discovered, Proves Gospel of John Is True." It opens with the claim "Archaeological evidence now proves the Gospel of John is true," then references both Eric Metaxas and a Los Angeles Times article that quoted Princeton New Testament scholar James H. Charlesworth. The claim is irresponsible.

Before we go too far, let me first say that the discovery of the pool of Slioam is a significant find for biblical archaeology. Discovered in 2004, it offers additional evidence that the author of John's gospel had first-hand knowledge of the city of Jerusalem, just as the discovery of the pool of Bethsaida (the setting of the healing in John 5) was found with its five porticoes, just as John described them. Since the 5th century, Christians had thought Siloam was the outlet of Hezekiah's tunnel, but this discovery shows a much larger, grander pool, according to the Biblical Archaeological Society.1 As Charlesworth stated in a Los Angeles Times interview which was cited by Charisma News, "Scholars have said that there wasn't a Pool of Siloam and that John was using a religious conceit… Now we have found the Pool of Siloam ... exactly where John said it was."2

Both Metaxas in his commentary and Charlesworth are correct to say the discovery lends credence to the level of historical reliability the Gospel of John holds. But that is a completely different claim than the one leading the Charisma News article. Both the article and the headline trumpeted "Archaeological evidence now proves the Gospel of John is true." Proves? It proves the truth of the entire Gospel? That's a troubling oversimplification that is actually dangerous to the message of the Gospel, as we can see by looking at a parallel story in the Los Angeles Times.

Are You Willing to Believe in Greek Gods?

The well-developed pantheon of gods in Greek mythology is familiar to most people. Much of that familiarity comes from the required reading of Homer's epic The Illiad. It is Homer's tale that provides the narrative of Helen of Troy ("the face that launched a thousand ships"), Achilles and his heel, the Trojan War and the accompanying Trojan horse. We read how the Greek gods work for or against the story's heroes and for or against each other.

Of course, Troy and Sparta are real places, but many scholars also held the Trojan War references in The Iliad were just as mythical as the references of the Greek gods. Troy was considered at first to be "entirely mythical."3 But in 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported "Archeologists have uncovered strong evidence that the Trojan War described by the poet Homer in 'The Iliad,' one of the first and most important books in Western literature, actually occurred."4

The article then reports the archaeological advancements at Troy:
In the 1870s, German merchant Heinrich Schliemann identified what he believed to be its site, a large mound on the Anatolian Peninsula about 15 miles from the modern city of Canakkale. The mound, about 600 feet long, 450 feet wide and more than 100 feet tall, is called Hisarlik (Place of Fortresses) and is accepted as the site of Troy…

But archeologists from Blegen's generation and later ones argued that the citadel was too small to be the Homeric Troy. "People believed there was a kernel of truth in the (Homeric) story, but the citadel was too small to be an important place," Korfmann said. 5
In the 1990s, when excavations resumed after a fifty year hiatus, archaeologist can now show the Trojan War was not merely possible, but maybe even probable.

Sauce for the Goose, Sauce for the Gander

Given this, does archaeology prove Homer's Iliad is true? Would any Christian claim such? Of course not. It shows Homer was familiar with the area of Troy. In fact, the article quotes archaeologist Korfmann postulating "Homer might have written down his story while viewing this ruins of this city. The ruins available in this landscape could have been the stage for an epic."6

Similarly, the archaeological evidence for the Siloam Pool demonstrates it is implausible to believe the Gospel of John was wholly invented in Asia well after the fall of Jerusalem by someone who has never visited the city. It adds credence to the claim that John was an eyewitness to Jesus' miracles at the Pool of Siloam or Bethsaida. But one cannot claim it proves the Gospel of John. Otherwise, a well-informed atheist can simply ask why you don't also believe in Achilles, and the Greek gods, since archaeology has proven the Iliad in exactly the same manner.

There are many things archaeology can tell us and many things archaeology cannot tell us about the Bible. But let's be careful in how much we assume.

References

1. Staff. "The Siloam Pool: Where Jesus Healed the Blind Man." Bible History Daily. Biblical Archaeological Society, 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 8 Feb. 2016. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/the-siloam-pool-where-jesus-healed-the-blind-man/
2. Justice, Jessilyn. "Pool Where Jesus Healed a Blind Man Discovered, Proves Gospel of John Is True." Charisma News. Charisma Media, 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 08 Feb. 2016. http://www.charismanews.com/world/54933-pool-where-jesus-healed-a-blind-man-discovered-proves-gospel-of-john-is-true
3. Maugh II, Thomas H. "Archeological Evidence of Homer's Trojan War Found : History: Researchers Show That City Was Large Enough to Withstand the Epic Battle Described in 'The Iliad.'" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 22 Feb. 1993. Web. 06 Feb. 2016. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-02-22/news/mn-438_1_trojan-war
4. Maugh, 1993.
5. Maugh, 1993.
6. Maugh, 1993.
Image courtesy Ian Scott (Pool of Siloam) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Saturday, February 06, 2016

Time Is No Longer the Friend of Darwinism



Today's neo-Darwinian scenarios have always relied on an abundance of time as an essential component of diversification through adaptation. We've all heard the canard where enough monkeys with enough typewriters will eventually produce a Shakespearean sonnet. Of course, it's been proven there's a big bias in even that assumption. However, now, as we learn more about the complexity and intricacy of encoded DNA instruction sets, we are finding out that time is not the friend of evolution.

In a paper published last year in the Journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, John Sanford, Wesley Brewer, Franzine Smith and John Baumgardner look at the nut and bolts of DNA mutation and calculate just how long it would take to get new, biologically meaningful nucleotides. In other words, we don't simply need genetic mutations. We need mutations that will be of some benefit to the organism, will be significant enough to be "set" in the population, and will be able to do so within a population and generational set projected for the species. Let's look at each of these requirements in more detail.

1. Mutations Must Add to the Fitness of the Organism

In their paper, Sanford et. al. looked at strings of code within the DNA commonly referenced as genes. These strings of code are the instruction set for building all the biological systems that make up you and me. Just as a book is composed sentence by sentence, the sentences are built word by word, and the words are built by strings of letter, so DNA nucleotide strings are the source of the proteins or RNA machines that build more complex biological functions. These are the foundation of biology and it is at this level where any meaningful change must happen for evolution to work.

Further, not just any mutation counts. Just as any recombination or addition of letters doesn't lead to new sentences, the mutations must be to the degree that it provides "stronger fitness benefits" to the organism according to natural selection.1 This isn't controversial in and of itself; common descent argues this way. But needing specific mutations raises the odds and requires more time than just any mutation.

2. Mutations Must be Set Within the Organism

Advantageous mutations are not good enough, though. The mutations must be of a kind to be hereditary. They have to be able to be passed from parent to offspring, otherwise they die with the carrier. Not only do they need to be hereditary but they need to be dominant enough within the population to permeate the species.

Imagine you have an isolated village of blond-haired people. One dark-haired traveler stumbles onto the village and decides to settle there. He marries and has children, some of whom are dark-haired. While dark hair is a dominant trait, not all the dark-haired man's children will necessarily carry his dark hair gene. Dark hair could still be lost within a few generations.

The model used by Sanford et. al. takes this factor into account. It also raises the complexity of the mutation, sometimes requiring the same mutation more than once in a population in order for the gene to be "set."

3. The Size and Reproductive Rate of the Population Matters

Lastly, these kinds of mutations happen at different speeds for different types of organisms, as Michael Behe deftly explained in The Edge of Evolution. For example, the E. Coli bacteria can have a population pool in the millions within a community. It divides every thirty seconds, allowing less than 20 years for researcher Richard Lenski to reach 50,000 generations.2 However, for higher primates, the population size is much smaller and they reproduce at a much slower pace. Human beings must achieve puberty before they can start having babies. This means that mutations are passed much more slowly.

So what happens when you take these various factors and put them all together into a computer model? Just how long is enough time to get a biologically advantageous mutation within a hominid population, that is an animal type that would eventually produce homo sapiens?

Sanford's model shows there simply isn't enough time for enough significant mutations to move from more primitive hominids to human beings. The paper's conclusion states:
Biologically realistic numerical simulations revealed that a population of this type required inordinately long waiting times to establish even the shortest nucleotide strings. To establish a string of two nucleotides required on average 84 million years. To establish a string of five nucleotides required on average 2 billion years. We found that waiting times were reduced by higher mutation rates, stronger fitness benefits, and larger population sizes. However, even using the most generous feasible parameters settings, the waiting time required to establish any specific nucleotide string within this type of population was consistently prohibitive.3 (emphasis added.)
Interestingly, one point noted in the paper was that increasing population sizes to help point number three actually work against point number two by making the new genetic function more diluted within the population group and therefore less likely to become "set."

Overall, the paper is interesting and offers independent verification to the time problem Behe argued in The Edge of Evolution while using a completely different methodology. Make sure you take the time to read it.

References

1. Sanford, John, Wesley Brewer, Franzine Smith, and John Baumgardner. "The Waiting Time Problem in a Model Hominin Population." Theor Biol Med Model Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 12.1 (2015): n. pag. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.
2. Gallup, Dave. "E. Coli: A "Model Organism" From Theodor Escherich's Legacy." The Environmental Reporter. EMLab P&K, 13 May 2010. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.
3. Sanford, 2015.
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