Friday, October 20, 2017

Bunyan on Law and Grace

John Bunyan, making the SAT analogy:

Thundering Law: Promise of Grace :: Hagar:Sarah

He writes:
Wherefore whenever thou who believest in Jesus, dost hear the law in its thundering and lightening fits, as if it would burn up heaven and earth; then say thou, I am freed from this law, these thunderings have nothing to do with my soul; nay even this law, while it thus thunders and roareth, it doth allow and approve of my righteousness. I know that Hagar would sometimes be domineering and high, even in Sarah’s house and against her; but this she is not to be suffered to do, nay though Sarah herself be barren; wherefore serve it (the law) also as Sarah served her, and expel her from thy house. My meaning is this, when this law with its thundering threatenings doth attempt to lay hold on thy conscience, shut it out with a promise of grace; cry, the inn is took up already, the Lord Jesus is here entertained, and there is no room for the law. Indeed if it will be content with being my informer, and so lovingly leave off to judge me; I will be content, it shall be in my sight, I will also delight therein; but otherwise, I being now upright without it, and that too with that righteousness, with which this law speaks well of and approveth; I may not, will not, cannot, dare not, make it my Savior and Judge, nor suffer it to set up its government in my conscience; for so doing I fall from grace, and Christ doth profit me nothing. (John Bunyan, The Law and The Christian)
I can agree with this. It is not a treatise against the law per se, it is against letting the law trump (with a lower case 't')  grace. The law convicts and teaches, but don't allow grieving over sin to cross the threshold into despair and unrighteous self-loathing. We are called to joy, not self-flagellation.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Science v. Science+

I am being asked to speak about the reconciliation between science and faith, so here are a few stream of conciousness  thoughts, many of which I've written down before.

When people talk about the incompatibility of science and faith, they are not talking about science. They are talking about science plus something. Let's call it Science+ ("Science Plus"). More on that anon.

Science itself is simply a method for studying the world. It has rules, commonly called the scientific method. There are many formal definitions of the scientific method. I'll give two working definitions:

Form 1:

1. Design an experiment; document the experimental procedure
2. Faithfully record the raw data
3. Analyze the data; document the analysis procedure
4. Disseminate the experimental results (whether you like them or not)
(Note: Steps 5&6 below are often done by others)
5. Derive a hypothesis (theory) from the results; Compare theory and experiment
6. Disseminate the results of the experimental-theory comparison

Form 2:

1. Make or adopt a hypothesis (theory)
(Note step 1, above, is often based on work done by others)
2. Design an experiment; document the experimental procedure
3. Faithfully record the data
4. Analyze the data; Compare theory and experiment; document the analysis procedure
5. Disseminate the experimental results and the comparison to theory

What goes unstated I will make explicit: You are not allowed to invoke the supernatural as part of your hypothesis. That is outside the domain of science. You can investigate supernatural processes (if they exist and you're lucky enough to be near one) but you'll never explain them. If Jesus came down and announced that he was going to take a stroll across Lake Erie, you could record it. You might be able to detect pressure variations as he trundles by. But you'll never explain it, because you aren't allowed to insert the famous "then a miracle occurs" step into your theory.

That's it. Science is a process (methodological naturalism). It is completely agnostic about the practitioner. It doesn't care if the scientist is:
  • Atheist or theist
  • Man or woman (or any linear combination thereof)
  • Black, brown, yellow, or white
  • Saint or Sinner
  • Straight or Gay (or any linear combination thereof)
  • Motivated by good, motivated by evil, motivated by $, or motivated by grades
Furthermore, it doesn't care if you like science or even if you "believe" in science.

I know professional scientists who don't like science. It has become a job. But the best illustration is to go into a student lab. There you will easily find students who absolutely hate science (the pre-meds are a good pool) yet who do first-rate science. They follow the scientific method to a T. And all the while they absolutely hate what they are doing. They just want a good grade. If you look at their beautiful lab report, you see good science. You cannot detect that they loathed every minute in the lab.

How about believing in science? What does that even mean? And whatever it means, isn't that a minimum requirement?

No. The process says nothing about you affirming the validity of the process. I have a common hypothetical (but plausible) example that sort of illustrates the point. Suppose I hate String Theory and think it is so bad that it is "not even wrong." I don't believe it for a minute. I could be passing time reading the String Theory literature, perhaps looking for more ways to denigrate String Theory, when I come across an unsolved mathematical problem that is holding back the field. Suppose, being a good mathematical (I'm not) I solve the problem and publish the solution. I become a hero in the String Theory community. I have done great String Theory science. And yet I still think it is "not even wrong."

The alleged incompatibility between science and faith should have, via science, a measurable effect. According to science, as a corollary of the method, if you can't measure it there is no point talking about it--at least not scientifically. So scientifically, at least, science and faith are not incompatible--unless you devise a way to measure/detect the incompatibility. I have proposed two experiments:

1. I'll give you ten papers from teir-1 peer-reviewed journals. Five from atheists, five from theists, with the names redacted. Detect the incompatibility and accurately separate the papers into the two groups.

2. Design an experiment that can be done by an atheistic scientist and not a theistic scientist.

Science+ is an attempt to redefine science to make it more than what it has been. It takes many convenient forms. It might add "love" to the requirements. Real scientists love science. (One would hope so, but it is not demanded.) Real scientists "believe" in science. Real scientists work for the good of humanity. Real scientists hold no superstitions. Real scientists don't work on defense. Real scientists don't experiment on live animals.

Science is not incompatible with faith, because it is not incompatible with anything as long as the method is respected. Science is the most compatible endeavor in the world. Follow this simple method, and you are doing science--just as well as anybody else.

Science+ can be made trivially incompatible with anything, by the appropriate definition of what a Real Scientist is.

If someone tells you that science and faith are incompatible, they are talking about Science+.



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Drama of Redemption Part 7 (modified)

This series is largely based on R. C. Sproul’s audio series The Drama of Redemption, available from his website.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

The Intrusion of Sin

At the turn of the fourth century, one of the most important controversies in the history of the church erupted. It was a debate between St. Augustine (354-430) and a British monk by the name of Pelagius (ca. 354 - ca. 420/440). Such a big controversy—such an innocent catalyst. The event that launched the brouhaha was a modest sounding prayer penned from Augustine:
God, Command what you desire, and grant what you command.
This prayer encapsulates what we now call the doctrine of Original Sin. We believe it to be biblical, but in human terms it is said to have been first formulated by Augustine.

Augustine’s prayer acknowledges that man does not have the power, without God’s help, to obey God’s commands. Augustine’s prayer is this: God, I recognize that you are sovereign and can command of me whatever you want. I also recognize that I am unable to do what you command, apart from divine assistance—i.e., apart from grace. Help me.

It is important to recognize what original sin means and what it doesn't mean. Original sin means, quite simply, that we are born to sin. We sin because we are sinners; we are not sinners because we sin.
Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Ps. 51:5, NIV)
Original sin does not mean we stand charged with Adam's sin. Lead a sinless life and God will not keep you out of heaven on a technicality: True you committed no sin, but you forgot that Adam's sin was in your debit column. Gotcha! Such a concept impugns God's justice. No, original sin means something much worse, something that Augustine recognized. It means that we are such a corrupted race that in our natural state we have no choice but to sin. That is the dire consequence of the fall. Whatever we do as natural men, no matter what its outward appearance, is but filthy rags in God's eyes. Adam, as we will see, was our representative. He sinned, and the race suffered for it.

Augustine (and Reformed theology) teaches this: you have moral responsibility but, in your natural state, you lack the moral ability. In other words, apart from grace, you cannot choose not to sin. The fall did not change the requirement of obedience, but it changed us radically. So, apart from grace, we are doomed.

Jonathan Edwards wrote a treatise on Original Sin. At one point he argued that even if the bible never taught the doctrine of original sin, human experience common sense would demand it. Why? Because if we are born innocent, then occasionally we would expect to find someone, be it one in a thousand or one in a million, who remained pure—but we never encounter such a person.

Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin, arguing that Adam’s sin affected Adam alone. He believed that, at birth, infants are in a state identical to Adam and Eve’s before the fall. Consistent with this view, he looked at baptism of infants as not in a cleansing them from sin but in imparting a higher sanctification through union with Christ. He didn’t really have a developed theology of baptism—it was a simple matter that it did not cleanse you of original sin because original sin did not exist. Augustine, in contrast, taught that infants are baptized to purge them of the sinful nature inherited from Adam.

According to Pelagius, there was no imputation of Adam’s sin onto his descendants. But scripture makes the symmetry plain: We are made righteous through imputation: Christ, as our representative, has abounding righteousness which is credited to us through imputation. It is not a fiction, and it is not a meaningless legal technicality: we are changed as a result. Likewise Adam’s sin, as he was our representative, is imputed to us. (Only later to be imputed from us to Christ on the cross.) It is not that we are charged with Adam’s sin, but that we are deeply affected by it. The physical result of the imputation is that we incapable of seeking or desiring or obeying God. We are dead in out trespasses.

So Pelagius argued that it is unnecessary for God to “grant” what he commands of us. Instead, according to Pelagius, it is possible for man, on his own, to fulfill God’s commandments. Pelagius believed that moral responsibility implied moral ability; it would be unjust for God to demand that we obey and yet arrange it so that we are born with the inability to do so. He argued that we must be born morally neutral—or innocent.

Pelagius had a role for grace: it facilitates our quest for moral perfection, but it is not required. In principle, at least, we can make do without grace. And, in fact, Pelagius argued that some people do, in fact, live a perfect life. Augustine, on the other hand, argued that grace is not only helpful but required.

Attacking Augustine and his doctrine on original sin, Pelagius argued that human nature was created good. In fact, we stay good. Sin does not change our essential human nature—we always will be “basically good.”

At the heart of the debate between Pelagius and Augustine is the thorny issue of free-will. Pelagius argued that Adam was given a free will, and his free will was not corrupted by the fall, nor was man’s moral character affected by the fall. Everyone, according to Pelagius, is born free of a predisposition to sin. Augustine agreed than man had a free will, but that man, on his own, was unable to use his will to choose God. Augustine believed that sin is universal and that man is a “mass of sin.” Man cannot, according to Augustine, elevate himself to doing good without benefiting from God’s grace.

Harnack (German theologian, 1851-1930) summarizes Pelagian taught:
Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God - were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man's own effort.
R.C. Sproul writes:
Augustine did not deny that fallen man still has a will and that the will is capable of making choices. He argued that fallen man still has a free will (liberium arbitrium) but has lost his moral liberty (libertas). The state of original sin leaves us in the wretched condition of being unable to refrain from sinning. We still are able to choose what we desire, but our desires remain chained by our evil impulses. He argued that the freedom that remains in the will always leads to sin. Thus in the flesh we are free only to sin, a hollow freedom indeed. It is freedom without liberty, a real moral bondage. True liberty can only come from without, from the work of God on the soul. Therefore we are not only partly dependent upon grace for our conversion but totally dependent upon grace.
Pelagius was condemned at the synod of Carthage in 418. Subsequent councils affirmed the condemnation of the Pelagian heresy and reaffirmed the doctrine of original sin.
So Augustine won the battle, but Pelagius won the war. Because we are a race of beings that doesn’t like grace, but with a religion that is only grace with no way to work your way to heaven. Strangely we have a natural affinity for the idea of salvation by works, so we try to sneak it in at every opportunity. And so the church, from the time the battle was won by Augustine, has faced a constant assault of Pelagian thought.

Sproul writes:
Humanism, in all its subtle forms, recapitulates the unvarnished Pelagianism against which Augustine struggled. Though Pelagius was condemned as a heretic by Rome, and its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism was likewise condemned by the Council of Orange in 529, the basic assumptions of this view persisted throughout church history to reappear in Medieval Catholicism, Renaissance Humanism, Arminianism, and modern Liberalism. The seminal thought of Pelagius survives today not as a trace or tangential influence but is pervasive in the modern church. Indeed, the modern church is held captive by it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Well he is bald!

Now this is somewhat troubling:

Jim Bakker (yes that Jim Bakker) threatens the wrath of God upon those who mock him. I'm going to watch out for bears on the way home.

Maybe if I buy some tasty survival food buckets from his store, I'll be forgiven?

I seem to recall something in the bible related to false prophets...

Good Work, Professor Coyne

Jerry Coyne, as most of you know, is a retired (and respected) atheist evolutionary biologist from the prestigious (and IMHO best comprehensive research university in America) University of Chicago.

Coyne sometimes posts on Christianity, and on that subject he is almost always wrong 1.

Coyne sometimes posts on an alleged incompatibility between science and religion, and on that subject he is almost always wrong 2.

Professor Coyne, however, deserves enormous praise for his comprehensive and diligent posting on the Regressive Left Mob's (among other sins) campaign to curtail free speech --which they often do under the guise of an Orwellian claim to be doing the exact opposite.

Here are some recent examples:

American University cancels “Unsafe Space” Title IX discussion on dubious grounds

How Kirkus changed its review of American Heart after mob pressure

An apologist says that Islam is the best way to prevent sexual abuse

Biloxi pulls “To Kill A Mockingbird” from eighth-grade readings

Bisexual student threatened by a University of Texas official after saying he said he didn’t have a “high opinion of Islam” because he’d be killed in some Muslim countries

Wellesley student paper argues for “hate speech” limitations on free speech


Well played, Dr. Coyne.


1 By which I mean I disagree with him.
2 See footnote 1.

A Born Again Star

Perhaps the brightest nova ever seen.




This is a not a supernova, but a nova. A supernova is the death of a single massive star after it runs out of fuel. Our sun is not massive enough to end its productive life as a supernova 1. Instead its out-of-fuel fate is to simmer on (with a inoperative fusion engine) as a white dwarf-- which is more or less a dead medium sized star. However, if there is a nearby star (a so-called binary system) then the white dwarf can steal material from its companion and its fusion engine can reignite.

In other words a nova is a redeemed star that has been born again. You don't have to be Fellini to see the metaphor.

Of course if you are a Young Earth Creationist you could argue that this is but a false memory, kind of like if Adam had false memories of getting a Thomas the Tank Engine on his fourth birthday. That God placed the light, in transit, as if two stars collided 200,000 years, ago although they never did--they never even existed. God did that. Because reasons.



1 This is set to occur in about five billion years. The inner Hal Lindsey in me predicts that Jesus will return before then. What the astronomical and cosmological ramifications of the Parousia are--about those I cannot speculate.

Homeopathic Holiness (modified)

Consider this verse:

The wicked flee when no one pursues (Proverbs 28:1)

Matthew Henry gives this commentary:
What continual frights those are subject to that go on in wicked ways. Guilt in the conscience makes men a terror to themselves, so that they are ready to flee when none pursues; like one that absconds for debt, who thinks every one he meets a bailiff. Though they pretend to be easy, there are secret fears which haunt them wherever they go, so that they fear where no present or imminent danger is, Ps. 53:5 . Those that have made God their enemy, and know it, cannot but see the whole creation at war with them, and therefore can have no true enjoyment of themselves, no confidence, no courage, but a fearful looking for of judgment. 
R. C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God, has a different take. He views it as a repulsion when unbelievers encounter the holy, even the tiniest holiness of God reflected in virtually homeopathic (my word, not his) quantities among believers. He relates an anecdote of a professional golfer who was part of a foursome with Billy Graham. After the round the pro returned to the clubhouse in a foul mood complaining to a friend that he didn't appreciate Billy Graham shoving his religion down his throat. But upon further questioning, it turned out the Graham had not mentioned his religion, not even once.

From my recollection as an unbeliever, I think Sproul is closer than Henry. The slight uneasiness I felt around believers (that is, around those who were not proselytizing. Around that type there was a profound uneasiness) was not that of a criminal fearing that an arrest warrant was about to be produced, but a slight revulsion telling me that I should not stand too close to this person. He has cooties.

At any rate Henry and Sproul (and I) agree that the irony here is that there is, in fact, no persuit.

Sproul also discusses how people fear God much more after they come to know Him. This is very true--and interesting, given that atheists will often say that we come to God out of fear. Whether or not that is ever true (it was not in my case) it is certainly true that we come to know fear. Sproul gives the perfect example from scripture:
3 Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. 4 And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  5 And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. 6 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5: 3-8)
Peter was just getting to know Jesus. He was not afraid. He was even (possibly) a little condescending in an eye-rolling manner with Jesus. Ahem. Just who is the fisherman here? But OK I'll humor you, teacher. But when he saw God revealed he was so afraid that he had his personal Isaiah-6 moment, recognized his own unclean lips, and asked Jesus: please, just go away.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Clergy Housing Tax Break: Good Riddance

Well, this opinion may not be shared by many of my friends. Nevertheless, here goes:

The housing deduction enjoyed for the past 60 years by clergy is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).  The FFRF has prevailed in the latest round of appeals. As reported by Christianity Today:
Once again, a federal judge has declared that the longstanding clergy housing allowance violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment. 
Offered only to “ministers of the gospel,” the 60-year-old tax break excludes the rental value of a home from the taxable income of US clergy. It’s the “most important tax benefit available to ministers,” according to GuideStone Financial Resources. 
It’s also the biggest: American ministers currently avail themselves of the tax break to the tune of $800 million a year, according to the latest estimate by the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
This is a blatant special privilege for clergy. There is no reason why a pastor should get a housing tax break as opposed to, say, a carpenter, or a lawyer, or a staffer at Planned Parenthood.

This was an indefensible benefit created primarily for Christian clergy. We shouldn't take advantage of government support, beyond what is given to all non-profits.

Those of us who can give more to make up the loss should do so. We should be supporting our pastor--his housing should not be subsidized by the government.

What. Does. That. Mean? (modified)

A question to any readers out there:

If you could have just one biblical passage explained to you, perfectly, with no possibility of error, which one would it be? I don't necessarily mean in importance--just one that bugs you because you have no clue what it is about. One that leaves you scratching your head.

For me it would be this:
16If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17
It doesn't matter how many commentaries I read. None give satisfaction on this passage. I don't get it. I don't get it at all. I do not buy the fairly common explanation that this is about sin that leads to immediate death, such as in the case of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10). That explanation has the slimmest of purchase. Apart from somebody sinning and dying, it doesn't fit nor offer any help in understanding the passage as a whole. Not to mention that since Ananias and Sapphira were summarily terminated there has been an obvious paucity of people sinning and dropping dead on the spot. With nothing new under the sun, if there are sins leading to immediate departure, you would think it would not be a rare phenomenon.

No, I don't think that's it. It is not about Ananias and Sapphira.

Sigh. It's one of those instance were I am reminded of the aphorism that it is not what you don't understand about the bible that should keep you awake, but what you do understand.  I get that. But it's not helping. This passage has always been stuck in my craw.

Do you have a passage that drives you nuts?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

You! Come up out of that water this instant! (modified)

As you read this, keep in mind I'm a Baptist. I just don't think you can prove that immersion, as a mode of baptism, is prescribed biblically. I look at it more or less as a perfectly sensible tradition tat if you don't like it--well don't join a Baptist church!

The Baptist insistence on immersion as the only acceptable mode for baptism is based on three arguments.
  1. One is the meaning of the Greek word babtizo, for which the claim is made that it absolutely implies immersion. (It doesn't. It can refer to a cleansing that doesn't demand immersion.) 

  2. The second argument is that Paul's writing identifies baptism as the symbolism for Christ's death, burial, and resurrection, and only immersion gives justice to that symbolism. This is an attractive and compelling argument (and the basis for immersion being such an acceptable tradition) but ultimately is a subjective appeal.

  3. And the third is that the baptisms described in scripture clearly indicate immersion.
The last point is the weakest of the three, and is the only one I'll discuss here.

The basis for the argument is the Greek preposition eis which, in the relevant passages we'll examine, is translated as out of and into. However, it can also be translated as to, upon, unto, towards, for, and among.

The most quoted passage is that of Jesus' baptism, another famous 3:16 verse:
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: (Matt 3:16, KJV)
Here the argument goes that if Jesus came "out of" the water, then he must have been immersed. Obviously that is not the case: if one is waist deep with a dry head one can still come up out of the water by walking to the shore. This passage is, at most, suggestive of immersion. It does not require it.

However, the death blow to this argument (not the death blow to the case for immersion, just the death blow for using such passages to prove that it is the only legitimate mode) comes from the case of the Ethiopian eunuch. There we read:
36As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)
The problem here for we Baptists is that whatever was described for the Ethiopian in relation to the water must also apply to Philip. They both went "into" the water. They both came "up out of" the water. If such language, the same as used in describing Jesus' baptism, demands immersion—then we must conclude that the baptizer (Philip) was also immersed. I know of no Baptist church that requires the pastor to be immersed when administering the ordinance.


 The observant will note there is no verse 37. It was not left out.