On Biblical Hermeneutics (The Science of Biblical Interpretation)

Recently many people are suggesting that support for a Yes vote at the General Conference is grounded in a “new hermeneutic,” reading the Bible differently than the way the pioneers of Adventism read it. There is some truth in this suggestion and it bears some careful investigation. The implication some suggest is that the new hermeneutic results in a fundamental distortion of the Bible’s message regarding the role of women, a message that is clear and unequivocal. To read the Bible any other way is to place oneself in rebellion against the clear teachings of God. This is a serious accusation and I believe it arises out of a shallow understanding of hermeneutics.

There are in fact two basic hermeneutics (the science of biblical interpretation), but the right and wrong of this issue is not as simple as some would make it. There is a way to read the Bible that is seemingly safe and secure, but often does not withstand detailed investigation. That way is sometimes called the “proof-text method.” It involves using a concordance to select passages from all over the Bible that seem to address a particular topic and attempting to understand their collective weight in light of current questions and concerns. At its best this method is a form of biblical theology, gathering everything the Bible says on a topic and seeking to learn from that data how to understand the mind of God on that topic. This method has been used within the Adventist Church from its very beginning and is quite efficient in quickly exposing biblical evidence related to a topic. It leads to relatively easy conclusions that work for a time, but tends to gloss over many things along the way. At its worst it is a powerful way to pick and choose one’s evidence and confirm preconceived opinions. At its worst it appears to honor the Bible while ignoring or distorting the message of the Bible. The selective method without exegetical (careful understanding of the original context) controls makes it too easy for one’s personal biases to determine what texts count as evidence and which ones don’t. The quality of the outcome can depend more on the character of the interpreter than the evidence itself.

The other hermeneutic is grounded less in concordances and more in broad reading of Scripture. One explores the Bible as a whole, taking it book by book and seeking to understand the questions the Bible writers were addressing and the issues they were facing. The interpreter recognizes that God meets people where they are (there is plenty of Scriptural evidence for that assertion– see the opening chapter of my book Everlasting Gospel, Everchanging World), so the teaching at any given point in the Bible may not be a final word on all related issues, but may be a specific answer to a specific issue in that time and place. Understanding the meaning of each text in its context is crucial to developing a biblical theology that can address today’s issues. In the Bible God sometimes allows or even seem to approve of actions that elsewhere are treated as wrong (how about the seeming approval of polygamy in 2 Sam 12:8?). So comparing Scripture with Scripture may still leave one short of explicit answers to every one of today’s questions, requiring one to explore where God’s revelation is trending. This is the method that has led Christians to abolish slavery, even though the New Testament seems not to forbid it (Eph 6:4-9).

At its best this method takes the whole Bible and its original contexts into account. It helps us discern what is clear in God’s revelation and what is not. It avoids the selectivity of the proof-text method and provides safeguards against our natural human biases. But this method also has its limitations. Few people have the desire or the time to master the Bible as a whole. Even for those who do, the process is lengthy and subject to human forgetfulness. In addition, understanding the context of each biblical story and message is best served by knowing the biblical languages and a great deal about ancient history and culture. This makes it easy to leave deep Bible study to the experts, who may become our authorities on what the Bible says rather than allowing every member to do their own diligence in the Word. In addition, projecting the “trajectory” of what God is doing in this world is often necessary, but it too introduces a human element into the process that can project trajectories God Himself might not recognize. So this method is not a fool-proof answer to all questions when the church is divided.

I have used both methods and see that there are strengths and weaknesses in each. A healthy church will not be limited in its approaches. But the outcome of my decades of study in hermeneutics indicates to me that God has not chosen to satisfy our curiosity about all matters in His Word. At creation God granted human beings intellect, reason and considerable freedom. Such freedom is best exercised when we don’t know the answer to everything. God calls us to sharpen our minds by wrestling with the difficult issues that He has chosen not to settle. So when the church, after years of study, remains divided on a question, humility and kindness are the appropriate response. Everyone agrees that the Bible is clear on how we should treat one another. What a shame it would be if we hammer others on things that in the Bible are not truly clear, while transgressing those teachings of the Bible that all agree are clear.

Politics in the New Testament (June 21, 2015 version)

In the previous blog posted a few days ago I raised the question whether or not there should be politics in the church. On the surface the obvious answer would seem to be “no.” Jesus’ teaching is clear. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other for a second strike. If someone curses you, offer instead a blessing. If someone abuses you, pray for him or her.” (Matthew 5 among others) This seems to leave little room for “competing interests” in the church. All subgroups in the church should adopt the self-sacrificing spirit of Jesus toward others.

Yet all who have experienced religious institutions recognize that political action is alive and well in them. Church people struggle to find a balance between competing interests among ethnic groups, people from different economic backgrounds, and people with differing theological perspectives. While it seems they should be exempt from politics, theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion would favor the competing interests of one side or the other in a church. Is there any way to get rid of politics in the church?

A careful look around the New Testament suggests that the Sermon on the Mount was not often followed to the hilt, even in the earliest church. Within a short time of Pentecost, competing interests arose in the Jerusalem Church (see Acts, chapter 6). It seems the Jerusalem Church set up a safety net for the widows in the church who may have been abandoned by their families when they accepted Christ. The Greek-speaking members of the church complained that the Greek-speaking widows of the church were not getting their fair share of the daily distribution of food. The complaint was brought to the apostles and they responded that it was not their responsibility to turn away from preaching to be arbitrators over food distribution. They invited the church instead to appoint seven men to take care of the matter.

But there are two elements in the story that are puzzling if these “deacons” were simply being appointed to relieve the apostles of administrative responsibilities. First of all, the seven “deacons” hardly confined themselves to menial tasks. The two we know the most about, Stephen and Philip, did a lot of preaching themselves, and in Philip’s case, he even did a lot of traveling. So the seven “deacons” behaved much as the apostles did. The other puzzling element in the story is that the seven deacons all had distinctively Greek names. While some of the apostles had adopted Greek names, their primary names were Hebrew: for example, Peter was a Greek name, but that is only because of translation, his real name was Simeon and Jesus’ gave him the Aramaic nickname Cephas, the linguistic equivalent of Peter (“Rocky”). So it seems likely that the seven “deacons” were added to leadership to ensure that the interests of the Greek speakers were fairly represented in the councils of church leadership. The problem in the church was competing interests, the solution was to make sure the neglected segment of the church was represented in the decision processes of the church. Sounds like a political solution to me.

A little later in the book of Acts (15:36-39), Paul and Barnabas are contemplating a second mission trip together. The previous trip had been hindered somewhat when John Mark, the nephew of Barnabas, suddenly abandoned the apostles at a difficult time. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance to prove himself, but Paul would have none of it. There arose such a sharp disagreement (the underlying Greek word is the root of the English word paroxysm) between the two apostles that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him to Cyprus and Paul sought out a different companion for his mission to Asia Minor and Greece. Couldn’t one or the other of the two apostles have “turned the other cheek?” Couldn’t they have worked it out in the “spirit of Jesus?” Maybe they could have, but they didn’t. Instead they chose to go their separate ways, pursuing a political solution to strong differences.

A less-well-known story in the Book of Acts has to do with Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem in Acts 21:16 and following. Paul, Luke and a number of others, including at least one Gentile Christian named Trophimus, came to Jerusalem and stayed at the house of Mnason who had been an early disciple of Jesus (probably one of the 70 or 72 mentioned in Luke 10). The text tells us “the brothers received us warmly” (Acts 21:17). So at first glance, Paul and company seem quite welcome in Jerusalem. The next day, however, it is clear that thousands of believing Jews in Jerusalem did not yet know Paul was there (Acts 21:22) and these were believing the worst about him. Following the advice of the apostles to appease this other group of believers, Paul is arrested in the temple and his mission in the Book of Acts is brought to a close. Clearly, the church in Jerusalem remained divided between Greeks and Hebrews many years after Acts 6. Mnason, a Greek believer from Cyprus, was happy to welcome Paul. The rest of the church in town thought other thoughts about him. The end result was pretty ugly.

This brief survey of just one book of the New Testament makes it clear that politics in the church are the norm rather than the exception (see also Galatians 2:11-14). If the apostles themselves could not avoid it, church leadership today will not be able to eradicate politics from the church. Instead, it is wiser to be aware of the politics and find ways to manage political action in a way that causes the least possible damage to the gospel. In the shadow of San Antonio, the New Testament way to handle such politics would seem to me to call for a Yes vote on the ordination issue. That will ensure that those who prefer to ordain women will get a fair hearing in their various constituencies.

Politics in the Church

We can probably all use a break from the ordination debate, so I thought I’d repost a couple of blogs that I did about six years ago and were lost in the Go-Daddy meltdown. Many people are distressed by the politics in the Adventist Church. There are voices at both extremes of the Women’s Ordination debate who are saying something like “The Bible is perfectly clear and if you don’t see that you will burn in the fire!” But their “clarity” is in opposite directions. Others say the Bible doesn’t address the issue, so let culture and local consensus be the primary guide to God’s will in this matter. People are not only confused, but fear that the “politics” itself is a major problem. So the thoughts that follow should be timely, even though they were written mostly six years ago.

Should there be politics in the church? Isn’t the idea of politics in the church something of an oxymoron (putting two things together that don’t fit together)? At its most basic, I define politics as the process of balancing competing interests in a social system. For example, in the island nation of Fiji you have two main ethnic groups, native Fijians and Asian Indians. The two ethnic groups have very little in common. Native Fijians are darker-skinned (Melanesian) and have lived in the Fijian islands since before being “discovered” by westerners. The Indians are lighter-skinned and arrived during the colonial period. The Fijians tend to farm and live in the countryside, the Indians tend to live in the cities and towns and to be involved in commercial businesses. The Fijians tend to be Christians, while the Indians are usually Muslim or Hindu. When it comes to dividing up the island nation’s resources, the interests of Fijians and Indians almost always diverge. So the political way to keep the peace is to make sure that the respective political interests of Fijians and Indians are kept in a rough sort of balance. Colonial rulers sometimes kept the balance out of a lack of interest in the concerns of either side. But now that Fiji is an independent country, the prime minister will naturally come from one group or the other. There is always potential for power plays and strife as the competing interests are sorted out.

Sometimes different regions within a country will have competing interests. In China, for example, the people who live on the coast have very different interests from those who live in the interior. Coastal people tend to be involved in business and trade, people in the interior tend to be involved in farming. Coastal people interact more with the outside world, people in the interior of China tend to be more inward-looking. The coastal areas of China have a larger proportion of Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group. Various parts of the interior have large numbers of other ethnic groups, such as the Uighurs in Xinjiang and the Bao people in Yunnan. Keeping the country together by distributing resources fairly is a major focus of Chinese government. But competing interests have made it hard to keep the country together throughout its history.

Whether we like it or not, there are competing interests in any religious organization. Growing up in New York City, I remember the tensions that arose in my own church conference (diocese) between Hispanics and Anglos. The power in the conference had historically been held by Anglos, but as the Spanish-speakers rose in numbers, they felt that they were often left out in the distribution of power and resources and demanded greater representation in the “halls of power” or they would secede and form their own conference. Today there are strong and continuing efforts to make sure the composition of leadership in that church organization roughly reflects the ethnic makeup of the membership. Should it be that way, or should the leadership be chosen by God through more “spiritual” processes?

Theological differences can also create competing interests. Among Seventh-day Adventists, for example, there has always been some tension between a healing and service focus, on the one hand, and a doctrinal focus based on the study of biblical apocalyptic, on the other. Both of these foci are grounded in Scripture and in books like Ministry of Healing and The Great Controversy (neither of which contain the main emphases of the other), but tend to lead in somewhat different directions theologically. The healing side of Adventism tends toward an outward focus of engaging the world to make it a better place. The apocalyptic side of Adventism tends toward an inward focus of avoiding contamination from the world. Naturally, when Adventists from both sides get together, there can be tension, as it is always possible that each side will see a given issue from a somewhat different perspective. Theological discussions are easily politicized when the outcome of a theological discussion could favor the competing interests of one side or the other within the church.

Is the politicization of a theological discussion helpful or hurtful? Is there any way to avoid such politicization? Does God express his will through the outcome of political debate or does political discussion make it harder for people to hear the voice of God? Is it possible to balance competing interests in the church without conflict?  Is “politics in the church” always a bad thing? Stay tuned. The next blog will explore what the Bible has to say on the subject of politics in the church.

Appendix to Ben Clausen’s Series on Design

Below Ben shares brief summaries of leading scientists who share the conclusion that the universe gives abundant evidence of design:

Numerous scientists are recognizing the evidence that life is possible only because the universe is fine-tuned. John Barrow and Frank Tipler (1986) may have the most complete list of fine-tuning examples in their book The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Hugh Ross (1995), a physicist and Christian apologist, points out some of the coincidences in The Creator and the Cosmos. Paul Davies (1984), a theoretical physicist, has written a much shorter version entitled The Accidental Universe. Martin Rees, a professor of astronomy at Cambridge University, along with John Gribbin (1989) have written a book along the same line, Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind, and Anthropic Cosmology. It has a leaning toward New Age philosophy. Many other books and articles emphasize similar ideas from both an agnostic and a religious viewpoint (e.g., Heeren 1995; Templeton 1994; Bertola and Curi 1993; Leslie 1989; Robson 1987)

Walter Bradley (1994), a mechanical engineer previously chairing that Texas A&M University department, has given a talk entitled “Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God” at most of the Ivy League and Big Ten schools. He says it is “one of the most exciting adventures of my life: challenging students and faculty alike to consider the overwhelming evidence from modern science for the existence of God.” In his talk, available online, he gives numerous examples of scientists with no religious motivation, who are emphasizing the evidence for fine-tuning:

  • Many scientists who were not long ago certain that the universe was created and peopled by accident are having second thoughts and concede the possibility that some intelligent creative force may have been responsible. — The Washington Post, describing an international conference held in Washington, D.C. in the late 1980s
  • The equations of physics have in them incredible simplicity, elegance, and beauty. That in itself is sufficient to prove to me that there must be a God who is responsible for these laws and responsible for the universe. — Paul Davies in Superforce (1984)
  • Such properties seem to run through the fabric of the natural world like a thread of happy coincidences. But there are so many odd coincidences essential to life that some explanation seems required to account for them. — Sir Fred Hoyle, the famous British astronomer and agnostic, in The Intelligent Universe
  • Slight variations in physical laws such as gravity or electromagnetism would make life impossible … the necessity to produce life lies at the center of the universe’s whole machinery and design. — John Wheeler, Princeton University professor of physics, Reader’s Digest (September 1986)

Francis Collins (2006), head of the National Institutes of Health, points out some of these examples of fine-tuning in his book, The Language of God, and concludes that they provide “an interesting argument in favor of a Creator.” Speaking of our fine-tuned universe, Nobel prize-winner Arno Penzias (Margenau and Varghese 1992, p.78) says that the universe has “the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Paul Davies (1992), in The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, says:

  • … There is no doubt that many scientists are opposed temperamentally to any form of metaphysical, let alone mystical arguments. They are scornful of the notion that there might exist a God, or even an impersonal creative principle or ground of being that would underpin reality and render its contingent aspects less starkly arbitrary. Personally I do not share their scorn. Although many metaphysical and theistic theories seem contrived or childish, they are not obviously more absurd than the belief that the universe exists, and exists in the form it does, reasonlessly. It seems at least worth trying to construct a metaphysical theory that reduces some of the arbitrariness of the world. But in the end a rational explanation for the world in the sense of a closed and complete system of logical truths is almost certainly impossible. — p.231

And in God and the New Physics, Davies says,

  • The delicate fine-tuning in the values of the constants, necessary so that the various different branches of physics can dovetail so felicitously, might be attributed to God. It is hard to resist the impression that the present structure of the universe, apparently so sensitive to minor alterations in the numbers, has been rather carefully thought out. – p.189

John Polkinghorne (1986), mathematical physics professor at Cambridge University and Fellow of the Royal Society, who also trained for the Anglican priesthood, says:

  • The rational order that science discerns is so beautiful and striking that it is natural to ask why it should be so. It could only find an explanation in a cause itself essentially rational. This would be provided by the Reason of the Creator … we know the world also to contain beauty, moral obligation and religious experience. These also find their ground in the Creator—in his joy, his will and his presence. — p.79

Heinz Pagels (1985), executive director of The New York Academy of Sciences and a theoretical physicist at the Rockefeller University, says that “the anthropic principle is convenient, but it’s not science”. In a 1985 article he concludes with:

  • There does exist a line of thinking that is in direct competition with the anthropic principle. Edward Harrison, in his textbook Cosmology, advises his readers early on: “We shall occasionally refer to the anthropic principle, and the reader may, if it is preferred, substitute the alternative theistic principle.” The theistic principle is quite straightforward: the reason the universe seems tailor-made for our existence is that it was tailor-made for our existence; some supreme being created it as a home for intelligent life. Of course, some scientists, believing science and religion mutually exclusive, find this idea unattractive. Faced with questions that do not neatly fit into the framework of science, they are loath to resort to religious explanation; yet their curiosity will not let them leave matters unaddressed. Hence, the anthropic principle. It is the closest that some atheists can get to God.

 

Conclusion to Ben Clausen’s series on Design

This is the last in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. I am very grateful that he allowed me to present these at my blog site. The words that follow are his.

The argument from design for God shouldn’t be oversold and both sides of the argument need to be recognized, but it can be a useful argument. As long as one realizes that both evolutionists and creationists overstate their case to make a point, one has lower expectations about delivery on a promise. It is easy to make pronouncements that “man will never synthesize any organic molecules”, or “man will never set foot on the moon”, but they only make the Christian appear a fool when they happen.

The design argument is useful for the believer when evidence in the natural world is easily interpreted in harmony with a Designer; it is at least consistent with belief in the supernatural God of the Bible. The design argument can also be useful as an apologetic for the non-believer in at least suggesting that more than pure naturalism is needed.

Personally, I believe that the “heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows his handiwork.” {Ps 19:1} The design that I see in nature is not proof for God – I have a choice –, but the evidence is good enough for me.

An Appendix will follow in a couple of days for those interested in further reading on this topic. It will expand on key works in the following bibliography.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler. 1986. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford Univ. Press).
  • Bertola and U. Curi, eds. 1993. The Anthropic Principle, Proceedings of the Second Venice Conference on Cosmology and Philosophy (Cambridge Univ. Press).
  • Bhaktivedanta Institute. 1984. Origins (3764 Watseka Ave., Los Angeles, CA).
  • Fred Bortz. 2010. “Hawking and Mlodinow return with a unifying ‘Grand Design’,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 5; http://articles.philly.com/2010-09-05/entertainment/24977039_1_leonard-mlodinow-quantum-mechanics-lucasian-professor
  • Walter Bradley. 1994. “Scientific Evidence for the Existence of God”, The Real Issue 13(September/October):3-6,14, [http://www.leaderu.com/real/ri9403/evidence.html].
  • J. Carr and M. J. Rees. 1979. “The anthropic principle and the structure of the physical world”, Nature 278(12 April):605-612.
  • Brandon Carter. 1974. “Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology”, in Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data, International Astronomical Union Symposium No. 63, M. S. Longair, ed. (D. Reidel, Dordrecht-Holland), p.291-298.
  • Marcus Chown. 2001. The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms (Oxford Univ Press).
  • Francis S. Collins. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (Free Press).
  • Paul Davies. 1983. God and the New Physics (Simon and Schuster)
  • C. W. Davies. 1984. The Accidental Universe (Cambridge Univ. Press).
  • Paul Davies. 1992. The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (Simon and Schuster).
  • Richard Dawkins. 1987. The Blind Watchmaker (W. W. Norton).
  • William Dembski, ed. 1998. Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design (InterVarsity Press).
  • Gabriel A. Dover. 1993. “On the edge”, Nature 365(21 October):704-706.
  • Linda T. Elkins-Tanton. 2013. What Makes a Habitable Planet?, Eos 94(16):149-150, 16 April.
  • Owen Gingerich. 1995. “Is There a Role for Natural Theology Today?” The Real Issue 14(March/April):1,9-14, [http://www.leaderu.com/real/ri9501/natural.html].
  • Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. 2010. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (Pantheon).
  • George Greenstein and Allen Kropf. 1989. “Cognizable worlds: The anthropic principle and the fundamental constants of nature”, Am. J. Phys. 57(August):746-749.
  • John Gribbin. 1976. “Oscillating universe bounces back”, Nature 259:15-16.
  • John Gribbin and Martin Rees. 1989. Cosmic Coincidences: Dark Matter, Mankind, and Anthropic Cosmology (Bantam).
  • Stephen W. Hawking. 1988. A Brief History of Time (Bantam).
  • Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. 2010. The Grand Design (Bantam; Random House)
  • Fred Heeren. 1995. Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God (Searchlight Pub., Wheeling, IL); see review by Dennis L. Feucht. 1996. Persp. Sci. Christ. Faith 48(March):50.
  • Lawrence J. Henderson. 1913. The Fitness of the Environment: An Inquiry into the Biological Significance of the Properties of Matter (Macmillan).
  • Sir Fred Hoyle. 1959. Religion and the Scientists (London: SCM); quoted in: Barrow and Frank Tipler, op cit., p.22.
  • James Kasting. 2010. How to Find a Habitable Planet (Princeton Univ Press).
  • John Lennox. 2010. “As a scientist I’m certain Stephen Hawking is wrong. You can’t explain the universe without God,” Daily Mail, 3 September; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1308599/Stephen-Hawking-wrong-You-explain-universe-God.html
  • John Leslie. 1989. Universes (Routledge, NY).
  • Mario Livio. 2003. The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number (Broadway).
  • Casey Luskin. 2014. “Alister McGrath Mistakes Intelligent Design for a God-of-the-Gaps Argument”, October 15, Evolution News & Views (Discovery Institute); http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/10/alister_mcgrath_1090411.html
  • Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, eds. 1992. Cosmos, Bios, Theos: Scientists Reflect on Science, God, and the Origins of the Universe, Life, and Homo sapiens (Open Court, La Salle, IL).
  • Alister McGrath. 2014. “Big Picture or Big Gaps? Why Natural Theology is better than Intelligent Design”, BioLogos, September 15; http://biologos.org/blog/big-picture-or-big-gaps-why-natural-theology-is-better-than-intelligent-des
  • Simon Mitton. 2011. Fred Hoyle: a life in science (Cambridge Univ Press).
  • P. Moreland, ed. 1994. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Intervarsity Press).
  • Heinz R. Pagels. 1985. “A Cozy Cosmology”, The Sciences 25(March/April):34-38.
  • Blaise Pascal. 1966. Pensées Translated with an Introduction by A. J. Krailsheimer (Penguin).
  • John Polkinghorne. 1986. One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (Princeton Univ. Press).
  • Martin Rees. 2000. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe (Basic Books … Perseus Group)
  • John M. Robson, ed. 1987. Origin and Evolution of the Universe: Evidence for Design? (McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, Montreal).
  • Hugh Ross. 1995. The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God (NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO).
  • Joseph Silk. 2010. “One Theory to Rule Them All,” Science 330(6001):179-180.
  • Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise. 1989. Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge Univ Press)
  • Victor J. Stenger. 2011. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not Designed for Us (Promethus Books).
  • John Marks Templeton, ed. 1994. Evidence of Purpose: Scientists Discover the Creator (Continuum, NY).
  • Michael Turner. 2010. “No miracle in the multiverse,” Nature 467:657-658.
  • Howard J. Van Till. 1995. “Special Creationism in Designer Clothing: A Response to the Creation Hypothesis”, Persp. Sci. Christ. Faith 47(June):123-131.
  • Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. 2000. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (New York: Copernicus … Springer-Verlag).
  • Steven Weinberg. 1992. Dreams of a Final Theory (Pantheon Books, NY).
  • Matt Young and Taner Edis. 2004. Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism (Rutgers Univ Press).

Other Cautions with the Design Argument

This is the eighth in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

(1) Design arguments are good, but not an air-tight case for a Designer. Although I believe that the universe, Earth, and life were designed by God, I am careful (often uncomfortable) about using design arguments. Looking at the natural world and universe as a believer, I can see the evidence for God’s direct design; but looking from a scientist’s perspective who uses methodological naturalism, I realize that other explanations are often possible and at times may be better (Young and Edis, 2004; Stenger 2011). The design argument is a good one, but it must be used carefully. Dependence on it can be like Israel depending on Egypt (Isa 36:6). Using design to encourage faith in the believer is well-intentioned and probably useful; using design as an anti-evolution polemic to convert the unbeliever has pitfalls.

(2) Design arguments often use marketing flair and rhetoric over academic rigor and full intellectual honesty. Arguments that need to be used carefully are: chance and incredulity (how could this complexity have occurred randomly?) and the cool factor (it’s so neat that God must have done it); they appeal to the non-scientist by not giving the full set of data and interpretations.

(3) The design argument may leave one with a God who designed the evil in the world, or at least allows it. Weinberg (1992, p.250) says, “Although I understand pretty well how brightly colored feathers evolved out of a competition for mates, it is almost irresistible to imagine that all this beauty was somehow laid on for our benefit. But the God of birds and trees would have to be also the God of birth defects and cancer.” Are the catastrophes in the universe designed – colliding galaxies, exploding supernova, and what at times appears to be chaos? Does God use stellar evolution to design the necessary elements for the universe? Did plate movement form the continents before life existed on earth? Are the catastrophic earthquakes and volcanoes directly associated with plate tectonics part of the design?

(4) Design arguments do not necessarily require the God of the Bible. They can also lead to various other metaphysical philosophies: New Age, Eastern mysticism, pantheism, theosophy, Hare Krishna, etc (e.g., Bhaktivedanta Institute). The design argument can also leave one with a deistic God – a God who sets things up correctly at the beginning to have the right fine-tuned constants, habitable planets, and life-developing properties and then just lets history take its course without further intervention. Projecting from methodological naturalism to philosophical naturalism in its extreme form is insufficient, but in some modified form it appeals to some, e.g., Howard van Till (1995).

(5) One cannot prove the existence of God and shouldn’t feel the need for science to prove the Bible. That may be like expecting proof of Jesus’ Messiah-ship by asking for signs and wonders (John 4:48). The design argument is not a silver bullet; humans have a choice. As observed by Blaise Pascal in his Pensées:

“We have an incapacity for proving anything which no amount of dogmatism can overcome. We have an idea of truth which no amount of skepticism can overcome.” — frag. 406

 “God wishes to move the will rather than the mind. Perfect clarity would help the mind and harm the will.” — frag. 234

To be concluded. . .

Caution: Design Not Really a Science Argument

This is the seventh in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

While design is evident to our senses, the appeal to a Designer moves beyond methodological naturalism to something more, something beyond. To be science, the design paradigm should present a better alternative working scientific model, rather than just attacking the standard cosmological model; however, that may be difficult because the design paradigm appeals to actions from outside the realm of repeatable, ongoing processes.

Scientists trust the ongoing processes of nature just as all of us do in our everyday lives. Methodological naturalism works so much of the time that one has reason to trust the method: aerodynamic theory gets us around in airplanes, quantum mechanics theory gives us computers, and seismic theory can reduce the devastating effects of earthquakes and volcanoes. Since methodological naturalism works so well today, it makes sense to use it to explain the past with plate tectonics and stellar evolution, and there it also works amazingly well. Weinberg (1992, p.247) says, “… the only way that any sort of science can proceed is to assume that there is no divine intervention and to see how far one can get with this assumption.” Modern science developed in a Christian culture with many of the founding fathers being devout Christians, but the scientific principle had within itself the seed of atheism. The more that is understood of nature, the less need there seems to be for supernatural intervention to explain it.

Actually, no one would want God to be continually intervening in unpredictable ways. If one expects God to be continually intervening, it would not be useful to study how the world works. There would be no incentive to try to find patterns and laws that govern on-going processes.

Thus, design arguments are encouraging for the believer, but not so logically convincing for the unbeliever. That is not because most scientists are anti-God, at least not the ones I have worked with, but because it doesn’t provide a scientific explanation that is better than what science currently provides. Although one may believe that the universe was designed by a supernatural intelligence, that doesn’t make the design argument a scientific argument; it is more than that. In most cases, methodological naturalism’s use of natural law works well without a need for God to continually step in and adjust the universe, but that still leaves open the possibility that God designed and upholds those natural laws.

To be continued. . .

Caution: Design Can Be a God-of-the-Gaps

This is the sixth in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

These naturalistic explanations for design have their problems, but an appeal to a supernatural being also has its problems as pointed out in the book 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Goldstein (2010). The design argument can easily degenerate into a god-of-the-gaps argument (McGrath 2014; Luskin 2014): Anything humans can’t explain, must have been by God’s specific intervention.

Before Sir Isaac Newton, God was thought to be directly responsible for making sure the sun rose every morning. Then Newton explained the motion of the sun, moon, and Earth using the laws of gravitation, while still attributing the laws to God’s design. Because of these natural laws, the observation of Halley’s comet in 1682 resulted in a predicted return in 1757; a yet to be observed planet (Neptune) was used to explain what would otherwise be slight gravitational irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. However, equations for a solar system with more than two bodies could not be solved exactly, and perturbations could accumulate and disrupt the order. So Newton felt that God (a god of the gaps) had to occasionally intervene to adjust the orbits because they were unstable and could become chaotic.

Eventually it was found that the perturbations averaged to zero and planetary motions were stable, so that equilibrium in the solar system could be explained without some supernatural intervention. Pierre Simon de Laplace further developed the theory of cosmology and carried naturalistic determinism to the point of saying that the future behavior of the universe is absolutely predictable, given the present position and motion of every particle today. He believed that nature was so well designed, that there was no need for a “god-of-the-gaps”. Tradition has it that Laplace gave his 1798 book, Mécanique Céleste to Napoleon, who said: “M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” LaPlace responded, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse” … “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Now theists seem comfortable accepting that God works through natural law to keep the solar system working without occasionally intervening in some “supernatural” way not amenable to scientific study. Over time the need for God seemed to decrease and this god-of-the-gaps design argument has fallen into disrepute. Thus, using the design argument as a god-of-the-gaps argument can be dangerous, because further evidence can refute the argument. Intelligent design arguments can do religion a disservice. One who makes a proof for God on the evidence of design today must be prepared for a possible disproof tomorrow.

To be continued. . .

Suggested Naturalistic Explanations for Design

This is the fifth in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

The evidence of fine-tuning has been explained naturalistically in various ways:

(1) Perhaps the fine-tuning of the constants is the only possible way that the laws of nature could exist (Weinberg 1992). Natural design happens all the time; take the intricate frost patterns for example, just based on the properties of water molecules.

(2) Perhaps it is not so much that the universe is finely adapted for life, but that life adapted itself to the universe through evolution, natural selection, and survival of the fittest. Organisms adapt to conditions, so perhaps other conditions than those on Earth could be adapted to by some form of life. The designer is just the environment.

(3) The Anthropic Principle is a suggested alternative to requiring a Designer (Carr and Rees 1979; Carter 1974; Barrow and Tipler 1986; Greenstein and Kropf 1989). The weak form of the principle states that: if the laws of the universe weren’t such as to allow life, we wouldn’t be here to notice, i.e., what we expect to observe is restricted by the conditions necessary for the presence of an observer. The Strong Anthropic Principle states that the laws of the universe necessarily must be such as to allow life. To many this explanation is lacking in appeal; it is like explaining why you can see an elephant in your living room by saying that you wouldn’t see it there if it wasn’t there.

The anthropic principle suggests that the laws are the way they are by chance and low probability events happen all the time. For example, the chance of you having your parents, being born where you were, and having the characteristics that you have is very small, but it happened. Any calculations concerning the likelihood of chance events are based on assumptions and changing the assumptions can profoundly change the calculated chances. Many features are necessary for life to exist on a particular planet, but with many planets orbiting many stars, it is possible that some might have the right conditions. In The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) say, “In the same way that the environmental coincidences of the solar system were rendered unremarkable by the realization that billions of such systems exist, the fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes.”

(4) Infinite time and space have been suggested as possible explanations for the chance coincidences. Infinite time could be provided by multiple universes in series. Infinite space could be provided by having multiple universes in parallel. Perhaps many different universes exist in different spaces with different physical laws and we just happen to live in the one universe with the laws that make life possible. A multiverse was suggested by Hugh Everett in the 1950s to remove the strangeness of the observer effect in quantum mechanics. A non-observable universe has been suggested beyond what we can see out to 14 billion light years. And general relativity suggests additional dimensions beyond the three space dimensions that we observe. The multiverse concept is interesting, but beyond what science can observe.

Hawking explains the multiverse theory as Richard Feynman explains the quantum mechanical nature of light – just as light particles take multiple, in fact all possible, paths in the double slit experiment, the presence of “all possible universes” best explains the many options for choices in quantum theory (Bortz, 2010). M-theory allows 10500 universes, which would then allow for the possibility of different theories for each of the different universes. In The Grand Design, Hawking and Mlodinow (2010) explain that “according to quantum theory, the cosmos does not have just a single existence, or history, but rather that every possible history of the universe exists simultaneously … [Hawking and Mlodinow] question the conventional concept of reality, posing instead a ‘model-dependent’ theory of reality … the laws of our particular universe are extraordinarily finely tuned so as to allow for our existence … quantum theory predicts the multiverse–the idea that ours is just one of many universes that appeared spontaneously out of nothing, each with different laws of nature.” A universal inflation is continuing and verified, but the spawning of bubbles of space-time to make the multiverse is not really science, because it cannot be tested.

Physical laws can never provide a complete explanation of the universe. Laws themselves do not create anything; they are merely a description of what happens under certain conditions. Naturalistic theory would tell us not to confuse law with agency (Lennox 2010). “Science doesn’t do ‘why’ – it does ‘how’” as Feynman warned (Turner 2010).

To be continued. . .

A Designed Universe

This is the fourth in a series of guest blogs on science, religion, and design by Dr. Ben Clausen of the Geoscience Research Institute, based near the campus of Loma Linda University. The words that follow are his.

The evidence for a beginning to the universe points to a beginner, or designer to get things started. Evidence for an expanding universe was observed in about 1930 by Edwin Hubble, but the idea did not take hold in the scientific community for more than thirty years because it seemed to point to the need for more than naturalism, the need of a “Beginner/Designer” (Gribbin 1976). This is a limit to scientific explanation because of an effect without apparent cause.

The second law of thermodynamics is tied to this concept of a need for a creator. As formulated by Lord Kelvin, the law indicates that the amount of useful energy in the universe is decreasing. One can find local increases in useful energy, order, or design, such as in crystal structures, living systems, or the source of hydroelectric energy, but only at the expense of a greater loss of useful energy elsewhere. Kelvin believed that the universe required a Creator/Designer to wind it up at the beginning with sufficient useful energy: “a necessary diffusion of energy which only God Himself could restore to its original concentration (Smith and Wise, p.332).

All of this leads to another concept of fine tuning in the Universe. If the Big Bang is assumed, the mass of the universe seems to be finely tuned. A little more mass at the early stages of the universe would have caused a rapid gravitational collapse; a little less mass would have resulted in too little gravitational attraction for clumping of matter into galaxies and stars. Much of the apparent fine-tuning seems to be related to a variety of fundamental constants that keep our universe powered. One of the most intriguing is the cosmological constant which remains difficult to explain within the naturalist construct.

In 1915 Einstein put into his general relativity equation a cosmological constant. He assumed a static universe and needed this constant to provide a repulsive force to keep the universe from gravitational collapse. Once evidence for an expanding universe became available fifteen years later, the constant appeared to no longer be necessary. Einstein later lamented that inserting the constant was the biggest mistake of his life, for without it, his equation could have predicted an expanding universe. The cosmological constant needs to be exactly zero to 120 decimal places, an unexpected specificity that appears to require design. Weinberg (1992, p.223) recognizes that the constants of nature are well suited for the existence of life, but believes that a final theory would be able to prescribe values for these constants without any surprising coincidences. However, even he recognizes that a cosmological constant of exactly zero to 120 decimal places may still require some kind of anthropic principle for explanation. Though no longer needed for a static universe, the constant seems to be important for other reasons. Silk (2010) notes that the acceleration of the universe is produced by dark energy, but yet the governing cosmological constant is 10120 smaller than predicted by particle theory.

The nucleus of an atom is another example where the forces of nature appear balanced beyond coincidence (Rees 2000). For most atoms, the nucleus contains many positively charged protons. Due to the electromagnetic force, like charges repel each other. How then do all the protons with the same charge stay inside the nucleus without flying apart? Apparently, some stronger force holds them together. For want of a better term, physicists call this force the “strong force.” To get the range of light-to-heavy elements necessary for life, the ratio between these two forces must be finely tuned. If the electromagnetic/strong force ratio were larger, protons would not be able to clump together. No heavier elements necessary for life, such as carbon and oxygen, would be stable. If the ratio were smaller, protons would too easily clump together to form the heavy elements, but no single-proton hydrogen atoms would remain for water or life. There might be plenty of gold and platinum, but no one to enjoy it.

Here are some other fine-tuned constants: (1) The mass of the neutron is slightly greater than the proton. If the relative masses were very much different than they are, the burning of stars and stellar evolution wouldn’t work. (2) The relative electron and proton masses need to be balanced in a particular combination, in order to have the chemical bonding forces combine to give the molecules important for life. (3) The number of positive protons and negative electrons needs to be balanced to cancel to zero, or else the electromagnetic force would dominate the much weaker gravitational force in the universe. (4) The great excess of matter over anti-matter is an unexpected and perhaps designed necessity after the Big Bang occurred. (5) Other examples are listed in The Creation Hypothesis by Moreland (1994) if you wish to read more. Notice that these fine-tuned forces are related to radioactive decay, so that a suggestion of change in decay rates would also suggest a change in the fine-tuning of the forces, thus making life impossible.

The universe seems to be designed with an abundance of the right elements for life to exist – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, etc. The relative abundances of the elements in the universe can be explained as due to stellar evolution. With a beginning material of hydrogen (single protons), stars produce helium and energy by combining protons into a helium nucleus with two protons and two neutrons in a process similar to how hydrogen bombs produce energy. Once the hydrogen is used up, three helium nuclei can combine to form carbon and the interaction of additional helium nuclei can make the heavier elements such as neon, magnesium, silicon, etc. up to iron. All of these reactions give off energy to fuel the sun or star, but elements heavier than iron require a different process that consumes energy. To form these heavier elements such as lead or gold or uranium requires additional energy from a stellar explosion called a supernova. (Chown 2001) If the elements were formed in this way, it lead to several questions: Was it by fiat or process? How long did it take? Is such creation continuing?

One physicist working in the 1950s made a prediction in regards to the abundance of the elements. In general it would be difficult to get three helium nuclei close enough together all at the same time to make carbon inside a star. Two helium nuclei could group together briefly (with a 10-16 sec half-life) to make beryllium-8, but to easily add another helium nucleus would require carbon to have a resonance (an excited state) with just the right energy for combining beryllium-8 plus helium-4. Fred Hoyle suggested the need for this carbon resonance to a fellow physicist. Fowler discovered that in fact there was such a resonance and received a Nobel Prize for its discovery. Hoyle’s 1959 response: “I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed with regard to the consequences they produce inside the stars.” (Mitton 2011)

To be continued. . .