Apologetics for the mind

Edited from an email I sent

It is undeniable that Christianity has made a tremendous intellectual impact during its two thousand-year history. As Christians throughout that time have tried to be faithful to both Matthew 28:16-20 and 1 Peter 3:15, they have engaged worldviews left, right and centre.

However, in recent decades, that apologetic mandate has been compromised or even denied. We can find many reasons for this (the advent of postmodernity, the flourishing of science, educational apathy, fideism, intellectual laziness etc) but we’d rather spend our energy reclaiming the rightful place biblical truth holds in the intellectual domain.

One aim of Christian apologetics is to demonstrate that the Christian worldview has intellectually valid and even superior explanatory power (notice the word “superior”. Every worldview offers explanations). In human words, it claims that the Bible holds all the real answers about the human condition, morality, the purpose of existence and other big questions we’re too busy to think about until it’s too late.

With all that, I’d like to recommend to you an entire free course in Apologetics by Philosophy Professor Douglas Groothuis. The course includes both lectures (MP3) and also lecture notes (HTML – can open with your browser or word processor). I liked how much time Groothuis devotes in putting apologetics into a biblical context, as well as occasionally sharing personal experiences from his own ministry. It’s material that goes both wide and narrow and even if you disagree with something, you will find it very helpful.

Apologetics for the heart

From an email I sent

The ultimate purpose of apologetics is to overcome intellectual obstacles to the gospel so that people can actually hear the gospel. Like every other Christian ministry, apologetics is completely and utterly useless by itself. No-one ever came or ever will come to Christ through mere intellectual agreement; it is God who opens peoples’ hearts and eyes and minds to receive the good news (John 6:44; Acts 16:14). It is good to remember that when we are halfway through esteemed Professor Schwischwarffkopf’s 6,000-page treatise on the Ontological Argument und Adam’s Navel. And yes, I made that up. Don’t go Googling it.

But here’s a thought: Are apologetics only for non-believers? Are Christians immune to doubts, unanswered questions and bewildering problems? Of course not. In fact, we often suffer the worse because that’s not something Christians readily admit.

So what happens is, we readily engage the latest assault of village atheism with unmatched zeal, but meanwhile our personal walk with Christ has slowed to a trudge. We educate unbelievers on why the Bible is historically, textually and scientifically reliable, but that seems to have very little impact anymore on the way we read it – if we do.

My point is, apologetics should be levelled first at ourselves before we start wielding those five arguments for the existence of God. Why? Because we still need to grow. We are still vulnerable. But we are supposed to be constantly transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) and that goes beyond mere intellectual agreement.

With that in mind, I recommend Timothy Keller‘s sermons, which you can find here. Keller has become known for the relevant and biblically uncompromising way he does apologetics. These aren’t dry lectures – they are passionate and deeply insightful answers to some really tough questions. But it goes beyond that: Keller speaks to Christians and addresses some of the things that constantly harrow us. It’s the kind of thing you want to take notes on.

What pedants might require

When the Scripture uses anthropomorphic terms with reference to God and his actions, we must interpret accordingly and not predicate of God the limitations which belong to men. When Scripture conveys truth to us by the mode of apocalyptic vision, we cannot find the truth signified in the details of the vision literalised. If Scripture uses the language of common usage and experience or observation, we are not to accuse it of error because it does not use the language of a particular science, language which few could understand and which becomes with the passing phases of scientific advancement. The Scripture does not make itself ridiculous by conforming to what pedants might require.

John Murray, The Collected Writings: Claims of Truth v. 1, p.14

Pocket ebook, articles, dehydration and atheism

Dry land, Geography of Israel

It gets like that sometimes

[From an email I sent]

A dear brother reminded me the other day that I haven’t sent one of these resource-emails around for a while.

And I thought, “uh-oh”.

Why? Because that meant that the ever-growing list of materials to share with you would have reached epic proportions. And it was indeed so. But, knowing that there are far more important things in a Christian’s life than clicking on links, I worked hard (well, just worked) to trim the fat.

First and foremost, “A Pocket Guide to New Testament Theology” by I. Howard Marshall. I’ve been e-reading it during lunch breaks and have found it profoundly useful, as it covers more than just the basics of our faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3b).

I particularly enjoyed the simplicity with which the writer explains what we believe and, importantly, why (good to have a Bible at hand). I did have some minor quibbles on how he handles the “problem of evil”, but that’s nothing compared to the way he reviews the foundations of the Christian faith and the clarity with which he describes differing views (e.g. baptism, church government and eschatology).

Clear, brief, concise, insightful and helpful to everyone. Perhaps a great read for non-Christians too. And please notice how we circumnavigated terms like “systematic” and “theology” in this brief review. That’s an acquired skill.

Next, lots of articles.

“What is Covenant Theology?”, by Ligon Duncan. Pretty self-explanatory title of a good article with some great insights into the why and how.

Something that might bring a tear to your eyes: Our Father. Beautiful and convicting. And, believe it or not, it’s about apologetics.

MUST READ: “Spiritual dehydration”, by CJ Mahaney. I’m itching to write an article about this article, but we’ve talked about these things so often in these emails that I will just leave you to read it. In fact, I’d say that this link should be clicked above all other links.

A useful resource of biblical texts (originals and translations) coupled with accompanying notes: http://biblia.com. Who needs shelves anymore? We have the interwebs!

And finally, VERY finally, a couple of things on atheism. In fact, you can put these on hold and read that article on spiritual dehydration instead. Atheism can wait.

So first, a response to Richard Dawikins’ atheism from Gary Gutting, a philosopher professor from the University of Notre-Dame. It includes a good critique of the Prof’s vociferous arguments and, in my opinion, does a great job in exposing their – often embarassing – simplicity and strawmanity (look! I made a word!). The comments that follow below are usual fare.

Then, there’s this: An Amoral Manifesto. “What’s a link from Philosophy Now doing here, brother?”, I hear you ask. Well, you won’t see many in these emails (mostly because I don’t have a subscription), but have you ever heard an avowed atheist growl about the evil of religion or the immorality of religious people? It’s a strange spectacle because, you’d think, if I’m an atheist, I have to be a [WORD OF THE DAY] moral relativist. In other words, no God = no absolute morality = no real morality = no morality = no right or wrong. Yes? Yes. (By the way, this is why I think that the problem of evil cannot be logically used to disprove the existence of God. But that’s another fish).

Well, now we can finally read it from the atheist horse’s keyboard. In Philosophy Now, agnostic-cum-atheist Joel Marks declares that atheism=no morality. It’s good to see them finally admit it, that’s all.

Until next time, many blessings to all of you.

How to approach the “Creation/Evolution” debate

In the past few weeks, I’ve dived headlong into the ongoing Creation/Evolution debate (note: even though I find that particular terminology misleading, I will use it here to keep us all on the same page). It’s inevitable, especially when you are a Christian and a scientist locked in the same body and mind.

Now, from the outset, I have to warn that I am not about to roll off an amazing list of amazing arguments that will forthwith eradicate the theory of evolution from the face of Young or Old Earth. I have no such delusions, particularly because I still consider myself a student of the debate, and I haven’t yet heard every angle. Not to mention that the last thing this debate needs is another PhD making authoritative propositions that he or she hasn’t thought through carefully – and this I say to BOTH sides of the table.

Also, please don’t make any rash assumptions about where I stand on this huge debate. Stay your hand before you cast me into your particular fire and damn me either as an apostate or a fanatic.

So, if I’m not going to rattle off a bunch of arguments about dinosaurs walking next to men and Lucy being a monkey, what am I going to contribute to the debate?

Well, how about some ground rules? Seriously. I’m not pretending to be a referee here, but as I’m researching the topic I find that if the following three rules were applied consistently those involved in the Creation/Evolution debate, much time, energy and misunderstanding could be spared – and things would move a bit faster and a bit smoother.

OK, enough vague generalisations – vague because so far I’m addressing EVERYONE who comes near this debate. But the following instructions are aimed in particular to those who are arguing from (and for) a Christian standpoint:

1. Participate

In other words, don’t dismiss the debate and hope it will just go away. It won’t. Since 1859, when Darwin first published his Origin of Species, the idea that we got here by way of genetic mutation, adaptation, natural selection and a bit of luck has caught on like wildfire, and has understandingly spilled over into the philosophical realm. Worldviews and regimes have stood on it. Gigantic policies with far-reaching implications for all mankind are influenced by it. It is at the root and core of today’s aggressive western secularisation. Schools teach it. Legal courts validate it. Eminent scientists build their careers by work on it. It supersedes the Humanities, the social sciences, philosophy, morality, codes of ethics and ways of life because it affects the presuppositions of each one of them. It’s not some sinister conspiracy promoted by evil men in white coats; it is a foundational and integral part of the modern scientific edifice. And in one form or another, it constantly confronts us as Christians in our evangelistic and apologetic mandate, whether we are ready for it or not.

2. Research

So, we’ve seen that we will have to get involved at some level. But how? Isn’t it best to leave it to Christians who are formally trained scientists and trained theologians?

Well, yes and no. It is true that the Creation/Evolution debate requires a good understanding of the scientific process, and reading a few Wikipedia pages just won’t cut it (having said that, scientists constantly turn to Wikipedia for reference). But on the other hand, Science is no longer the province of an elite group – we live in an exciting time of unprecedented openness and publicising of the scientific domain (if I said “stem cells” ten years ago would I have made the front pages?). For example, here’s an excerpt from a Nature editorial this week: “…there is no shortage of scientific information on the web. Witness the way that research funding agencies use the web to inform the public about everything from planetary missions to public health. In principle, anyone with an Internet connection now has access to more, and better, scientific coverage than ever before.”

And even though that often comes at a cost (LHC doomsayers anyone?), it also means that there is an organised effort to help the uninitiated comprehend as much as possible from the realm of scientific discovery. What does that mean? Quite simply, you don’t need a PhD in the life sciences to get a firm enough grasp of what’s currently going on in the world of evolutionary biology, because scientists will fall head over heels to explain it to you – and rightly so. There are resources out there – books, websites, videos, seminars, webinars – that can educate most people to an above-average level. And if it’s relatively easy to get valid resources, then there is no excuse for some of the abysmal argumentation that more often than not characterises the Christian camp to the mocking glee of the “other side”; it seems that some decades-old arguments are perpetually regurgitated despite having been challenged or even refuted. Or even worse, they reveal and/or lead to mortifyingly embarrassing misunderstandings of evolutionary theory (I really won’t mention that video again).

But having said all that, I feel compelled to propose that the frontline apologetic should be the burden of Christians who are formally trained in the sciences and those who are trained in biblical theology and apologetics. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga points out: “The scientists among us don’t ordinarily have a sufficient grasp of the relevant philosophy and theology; the philosophers and theologians don’t know enough science; consequently, hardly anyone is qualified to speak here with real authority. This must be one of those areas where fools rush in and angels fear to tread.”

3. Reject/Refine/Re-establish

It’s the way science is done: We observe something. Based on that observation, we make a hypothesis. We then test the hypothesis by testing its falsifiability. If the data from our test (aka “experiment”) falsify our hypothesis, we go back to it and either refine it or reject it completely. If the data don’t falsify our hypothesis, we re-establish it. Simple?

I still remember the first time I became aware that there was a debate going on. I wasn’t even a Christian yet, when at my church’s bookstore I picked up a little booklet that opened with something along the lines of: “When you wake up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror, do you say ‘I am made in the image of the most High God’ or do you just see an ape?” And shockingly, that line of argumentation still thrives today among certain people who pretend to represent an apologetic against evolution (I really won’t mention who, don’t bother asking).

But do a simple search on the Web and you will find hundreds of arguments challenging the theory of evolution. Then go over to a website like talkorigins.org and you will find some reasonable, well-researched and conscientious rebuttals to virtually every single one of them. And that seems to be the end of it. Where is the response of Christian scientists? Where is the refinement of the first argument or hypothesis? Why can’t we close ranks too and form a cohesive apologetic that keeps up with the times? The Creation/Evolution debate might really be a battle of a priori naturalism vs a priori biblical theism, but in the down and dirty it feeds and runs on the interpretation of scientific data – and that didn’t stop in the 19th century. If we want to get to a point where we can truly and validly reconcile science with the Bible on the issue of origins (which cannot be impossible), we won’t do it by arguing about errors that Darwin made– science has moved on since his time and so must we.

So, in closing, we want to be honest as Christians and honest as scientists. We don’t want to violate the authority of Scripture and we also don’t want to divorce our God from the realm of reason, especially when the Bible itself teaches that natural observation and reason bears witness of Him:

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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. – Rom. 1:19-23