Jun 4, 2011
neil

Don’t try to sell me heaven before I get there

This post from John Piper on turning 65 is a call to remember to put the gospel to work even as we stop our ‘work’. Let’s prepare well for our future and let’s prepare our people to plan well. There is more to retirement than gardening and holidays!

Jun 1, 2011
neil

Is it reasonable to doubt evolution?

In a recent debate with a number of atheists we’ve been discussing whether or not William Lane Craig (the man the New Stateman described as having a reputation for ‘eating atheists for breakfast‘) is a worthy opponent for Richard Dawkins who until now has refused to debate him.

One key issue is whether Lane Craig’s concerns over evolution discredit him. Lewis Wolpert said of Lane Craig on this issue,  “Oh Boy! Are you ignorant!

The question I want to address in this post is simply this, is it reasonable for an intelligent mind to doubt the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution or MUST doubt over the theory be regarded as a display of culpable ignorance?

A. Evangelical Christians who are evolutionists

Some, like Dawkins, argue that atheism is a logical consequence and necessary deduction of evolutionary theory.

Stephen Jay Gould profoundly disagrees and writes:

To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue fo God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.

Gould recognises the category mistake that Dawkins is making. It really shouldn’t surprise us therefore to find that there are eminent evangelical Christians who are full-blown evolutionists. For example;

Francis Collins: A physician and geneticist who was appointed Director of the National Institutes of Health (US) by President Obama. He is a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honour given by the President, for revolutionizing genetic research) and has also received the National Medal of Science. He is the author of The Language of God and founder of the Biologos Forum.

Dennis Alexander: The Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. For many years he was Chairman of the Molecular Immunology Programme in Cambridge. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief. He is the author of Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose?

Alexander has written:

The ‘Darwinian theory of evolution, whatever may have been the various ideological uses to which it has been put since 1859, is essentially devoid of either religious or moral significance, and those who try to derive such significance from it are mistaken.’

B. What exactly is William Lane Craig’s own position?

1. WLC has no theological issue with evolutionary theory

He comments on his own website:

I think, for the reasons explained in the podcast, that an evolutionary theory is compatible with the biblical account in Genesis 1.

2. For WLC it is a scientific not a theological question

The question of biological origins is for me a straightforward scientific question: what does the evidence indicate about the means by which God brought about life and biological complexity?

3. It would therefore be inaccurate to describe WLC as ‘a creationist’ in any meaningful sense of the word

As far as the literature is concerned ‘creationism’ is a term reserved for those who reject the theory of evolution preferring either a literal reading of Genesis 1 or adopting ‘Intelligent Design’.

In other words to label WLC a creationist is to redefine the term and effectively to render it meaningless. If ‘creationism’ means only ‘God is involved’ well  ALL theists from 7-day young-earthers through to full-blown evolutionists should be called ‘creationists’ which is a bit of a pointless exercise.

4. WLC has not rejected Darwinian evolution.

WLC regards his own position as ‘agnostic’ on the issue. He remains unpersuaded but argues he is persuadable.

C. Is it intellectual suicide to be unpersuaded by current theories of evolution as Lewis Wolpert suggests?

Given that Lewis Wolpert regards the evidence to be excellent and to doubt it as an admission of the ‘ignorant’ it is surely inconceivable that any in the scientific community would be anything other than neo-Darwinian?

Are there any atheists and/or agnostics who are sceptical or at least remain to be persuaded with regards current theories of evolution?

1. 1 in 11 atheists in the US are sceptical of evolution

Michael Gerson notes in the Washington Post:

The latest findings of the Pew Forum’s massive and indispensable U.S. Religious Landscape Survey reveal some intriguing confusion among Americans on cosmic issues. About 13 percent of evangelicals, it turns out, don’t believe in a personal God, leading to a shameful waste of golf time on Sunday mornings. And 9 percent of atheists report that they are skeptical of evolution. Are there atheist creationists?

One wonders why 1 in 11 atheists are sceptical?

2. Why can’t evolutionary biologists agree amongst themselves as to the mechanism of evolution if the evidence is that strong?

Which theory of evolution is so obviously true that we should without doubt accept it? The gradualism of Dawkins & Dennett or the punctuated equilibrium of Stephen Jay Gould?

If micro-evolution over time becomes macroevolution why isn’t it obvious to Gould?

Darwin himself said in The Origin of Species

geology assuredly does not reveal any such graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory’

Does the fossil record offer the strength of support that the neo-Darwinian theory claims?

The Palaeontologist Steven Stanley in his book Macroevolution: Pattern and Process writes:

The known fossil record fails to document a single example of phyletic evolution accomplishing a major morphologic transition and hence offers no evidence that the gradualistic model can be valid.

John Lennox marshals the evidence from palaeontologists sceptical of the gradualist model in his book God’s Undertaker including these two quite extraordinary quotes

Stephen Jay Gould:

The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of palaeontology.

Niles Eldridge:

We palaeontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change] knowing all the while that it does not.

No wonder Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and others were so hostile in their attacks on Gould, et al. In what became known as the ‘Darwin wars’ Maynard Smith said Gould ‘is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory.’

3. Why are a number of leading writers on science questioning the scientific consensus if the evidence is overwhelming?

a) Evolution: A theory in crisis – Dr. Michael Denton

Denton writes on his own website:

I have  never accepted the mainstream ‘Darwinian view’ that  life on earth and particularly mankind are the products of blind unintelligent processes.  I have  always been convinced and argued throughout my academic career that  our existence is ultimately a matter of design.  My primary intellectual aim has always been to show that the findings of science support the traditional teleological and anthropocentric view of  the world.

b) What Darwin Got Wrong by Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli Palmorini

Here we find materialist atheists quite at odds with Dawkins. Here’s an extract from p.153,

“OK; so if Darwin got it wrong, what do you guys think is the mechanism of evolution?” Short answer: we don’t know what the mechanism of evolution is. As far as we can make out, nobody knows exactly how phenotypes evolve.

Mary Midgley in her review of the book in the Guardian newspaper writes

There is not – and does not have to be – any single, central mechanism of evolution. There are many such mechanisms, which all need to be investigated on their own terms. If one finds this kind of position reasonable, the interesting next question is, what has made it so hard to accept? What has kept this kind of dogmatic “Darwinism” – largely independent of its founder – afloat for so long, given that much of the material given here is by no means new?

The explanation for this might be the seductive myth that underlies it. That myth had its roots in Victorian social Darwinism but today it flows largely from two books – Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity(1971) and Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

c) Why US? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves -  Dr. James Le Fanu

AN Wilson interviewed in the New Stateman reflects;

I think the jury is out about whether the theory of natural selection as defined by neo-Darwinians is true, and whether serious scientific doubts, as expressed in a new book Why Us? by James Le Fanu, deserve to be taken seriously. For example, does the discovery of the complex structure of DNA and the growth in knowledge in genetics require a rethink of Darwinian “gradualism”? But these are scientific rather than religious questions.

d) Shattering the Myths of Darwinism – Richard Milton

One Amazon reviewer comments:

Milton DOES NOT support creationism, he doesn’t even discount evolution as a scientific reality – he merely asks WHY the self-styled Darwinists and neo-Darwinists don’t stop mouthing off at anyone who disagrees with them and start finding some answers to these unanswered questions.
Alternatively, if Darwinism, in all its variations, CANNOT provide the answers, for goodness’ sake let’s move on and find a bigger and better theory.

4. Why have over 500 scientists expressed their concerns over the evidence for neo-Darwinian theories of evolution?

There is a myth circulating that a good knowledge of science and a careful consideration of the facts will compel any reasonable mind to accept Darwinian evolution.

If this is so why have over 500 scientists signed a statement which reads as follows;

We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.’

A list of all names is available and prominent signatories  include U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell, American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow Lyle Jensen, evolutionary biologist and textbook author Stanley Salthe; Smithsonian Institution evolutionary biologist and researcher at the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information Richard von Sternberg, editor of Rivista di Biologia/Biology Forum – the oldest still published biology journal in the world – Giuseppe Sermonti and Russian Academy of Natural Sciences embryologist Lev Beloussov.

Conclusion

All I have sort to demonstrate is

1. There are a significant, if relatively small, number of sceptics within the scientific community. There remain some who are yet to be convinced of Darwinian evolution as an all-encompassing theory.

2. The vast majority of sources I’ve considered are atheists. This is a scientific argument on which atheists and theists alike are divide.

3. It is inconceivable that such a number should be regarded as simply ‘wrong’ and dismissed as simply demonstrating a culpable ignorance of the evidence.

4. There exists still room for doubt and for someone such as William Lane Craig to declare himself agnostic ( and NOT opposed) towards evolution is intellectually credible.

Post-script: The limits to our understanding

Dr. James Le Fanu in ‘Why Us? How Science rediscovered the mystery of ourselves’ concludes:

The greatest obstacle to scientific progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge

If the history of science teaches us anything it is that we are wise not to presume to know too much not least as certain scientific ‘facts’ have to in some instances be modified and in others have to give way to new theories based on a better understanding.

May 30, 2011
neil

Is this man worth $32.17 an hour? Lessons in evangelism from Joshua Bell

I’m reading a great book called Bringing the gospel home by Randy Newman (just one chapter to go and I’ll be blogging on it later this week).

At one point in the book Newman tells the story of how Joshua Bell, the virtuoso violinist, was persuaded by the Washington Post to busk in a metro station in Washington DC.

Newman writes:

More than a thousand people walked by without glancing in his direction. A few paused for a moment, and several people tossed  loose change into his open violin case. ( He collected a total of $32.17. Yes, some people gave him pennies!) Only one person recognized the star who, just a few nights later, would accept the Avery Fisher Prize for being the best classical musician in America.

Joshua Bell’s reflected in the Washington Post feature

“I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

Four possible lessons for the church

1. Feeling invisible?

We’re not exactly world-renowned violinists but I dare say we feel like Bell when we know that what is being offered is a glorious and beautiful gospel. Surely people will stop and listen. Surely people will recognise that this message is something to stop and consider.

2. Avoidance

The Washington Post adds:

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don’t take visible note of the musician, you don’t have to feel guilty about not forking over money.

Theologically speaking we shouldn’t be surprised that many people cross the road to avoid Christians! It’s noteable that the Washington Post called the feature ‘Pearls before breakfast’ invoking those words of Jesus ‘do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces’ (Matthew 7:6).

3. Context is as important as content

There are reasons why classical musicians don’t perform concerts in subway stations. The context is all wrong. It’s not a place conducive to stopping and listening it’s a place for passing through as you get to A to B.

So how about our meetings? How do we create space where people can be encouraged to stop and listen? And does that space invite contemplation and consideration of the beauty of the gospel?

Might that suggest we need to create new settings in which to ‘play our music’?

4. A context that doesn’t contradict our message

Imagine a situation in which Joshua Bell is playing but the music is drowned out by ‘musac’ playing over the Tannoy speakers, competing and drowning out his playing. You can’t even stop and listen to him play even if you wanted to.

Do we as churches compete with and contradict the music of the gospel creating a confusing cacophony of noise that no-one in their right mind would want to stop for? Newman suggests that’s what we might be doing.

We speak of measureless love, unmerited grace, and infinite goodness but our tone of voice, demeanor, and lifestyles convey the exact opposite. We want people to quiet their hearts so they can hear the music of the gospel, but we’re performing in a context of judgementalism. We want them to feel loved by God, but they fell unloved by us. We want then to be amazed by grace but they can’t get past the smell of condemnation.

Do our gatherings seem to say more ‘hey, come and listen to this – it’s incredible’ or do they say ‘why haven’t you given anything to this’?

May 28, 2011
neil

The New Statesman on why Dawkins disappoints and the man who ‘eats atheists for breakfast’

‘There has never been a really convincing philosophical argument for the non-existence of God’

I don’t agree with all of it’s conclusions but an interesting read not least for recognising the failure of new atheism to defend their cause with any great ability.

May 27, 2011
neil

The one thing Barack Obama and David Cameron didn’t talk about

Never mind ‘the Beast’ Christine Odone spots an elephant in the room.

May 26, 2011
neil

Innovation comes at a price but what if that price is a piece of ourselves?

A fascinating article on digital media and what it is doing to us in the New York Times.

Bill Keller, Executive editor of the Times, declares himself to be no luddite but in a week in which he introduced his 13 year old daughter to Facebook he writes of the unforeseen, unintended consequences of pursuing digital technology;

My inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.’

The shortcomings of social media would not bother me awfully if I did not suspect that Facebook friendship and Twitter chatter are displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg’s device displaced remembering. The things we may be unlearning, tweet by tweet — complexity, acuity, patience, wisdom, intimacy — are things that matter.’

May 25, 2011
neil

The cost of being controversial. Godly advice from John Newton

John Newton wrote a short but compelling letter to a fellow minister who was about to write a publication criticising a minister for his unorthodox beliefs. The letter is a masterly treatment on the theme of controversy and in just a few lines brings the gospel to bear on how to argue in so many ways. Reading it got me thinking about what it means to contend for the faith and how to argue well along with the hidden dangers of entering into controversy.

I’m preaching through 1 Timothy on Sunday evenings and am reminded of Paul’s opening appeal to Timothy to fight the good fight but with a real warning not to be like those who have ‘an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels and words that result in envy, strife’

Paul charges Timothy (6:11) ‘But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.’

So how do you contend for the truth of the gospel and fight the good fight with love and gentleness?

How do you argue with gospel motives and gospel motivations?

Here are some gems from John Newton’s letter as to how the gospel informs our interaction with others whether in church, in an e-mail, on a blog, etc..

A. Arguing with a fellow-believer

1. Argue with gentleness out of love

The Lord loves him and bears with him; therefore you must not despise him, or treat him harshly.

2. Argue remembering you WILL be reconciled if not now then in heaven

In a little while you will meet in heaven; he will then be dearer to you than the nearest friend you have upon earth is to you now.

B. Arguing with an unbeliever

1. Argue with great compassion because of your great privilege over him

He is a more proper object of your compassion than of your anger. Alas! “He knows not what he does.”

2. Argue remembering that apart from God’s grace you too would have held his views!

If God, in his sovereign pleasure, had so appointed, you might have been as he is now; and he, instead of you, might have been set for the defense of the gospel. You were both equally blind by nature.

C. Remembering the reading public

When we argue, publically, in a blog or through a publication we have a second, sometimes forgotten, audience. John Newton highlights three readers and offers his advice.

1. The reader who disagrees with you in principle

Newton urges you to remember them in the same way as your recipient above.

2. The reader who is naturally sympathetic to your point of view but who have little knowledge

These are very incompetent judges of doctrine; but they can form a tolerable judgment of a writer’s spirit. They know that meekness, humility, and love are the characteristics of a Christian temper.

From us, who profess these principles, they always expect such dispositions as correspond with the precepts of the gospel. They are quick-sighted to discern when we deviate from such a spirit, and avail themselves of it to justify their contempt of our arguments.

3. The reader who shares your view

You may be instrumental to their edification if the law of kindness as well as of truth regulates your pen, otherwise you may do them harm. There is a principle of self, which disposes us to despise those who differ from us; and we are often under its influence, when we think we are only showing a becoming zeal in the cause of God.

D. Watch out and pray for your own heart

Most striking of all in Newton’s letter is his concern for what controversy can do to us and the natural temptation to a self-righteous heart. It is sobering when Newton writes

We find but very few writers of controversy who have not been manifestly hurt by it….If the service is honorable, it is dangerous.

Pray for your own soul that you will not be corrupted by your own defence of the gospel!

E. Pursue God’s glory and your fellow mans good in how you write

If we act in a wrong spirit, we shall bring little glory to God, do little good to our fellow creatures, and procure neither honour nor comfort to ourselves.

Go forth, therefore, in the name and strength of the Lord of hosts, speaking the truth in love; and may he give you a witness in many hearts that you are taught of God, and favoured with the unction of his Holy Spirit.

May 24, 2011
neil

Why your church is doing too much (probably)

The old adage ‘aim at nothing and you’re sure to hit it’ has always been true in my experience and there is good reason to think that churches drift because of a lack of vision.

Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Church makes a strong appeal for churches to have and hold on to clear biblical vision. Here are some edited highlights from chapter 4: The Foundation for a Healthy Church.

The need for a clear purpose

Nothing precedes purpose. The starting point for every church should be the question, “Why do we exist?” Until you know what your church exists for, you have no foundation, no motivation, and no direction for ministry. If you are helping a new church get started, your first task is to define your purpose. It’s far easier to set the right foundation at the start of a new church than it is to reset it after a church has existed for years.

However if you serve in an existing church that has plateaued, is declining, or is simply discouraged, your most important task is to redefine your purpose. Forget everything else until you have established it in the minds of your members. Recapture a clear vision of what God wants to do in and through your church family. Absolutely nothing will revitalize a discouraged church faster than rediscovering its purpose.

Unless the driving force behind a church is biblical, the health and growth of the church will never be what God intended. Strong churches are not built on programs, personalities, or gimmicks. They are built on the eternal purposes of God.

The benefits of a clear purpose

Warren suggests at least five.

1. A clear purpose builds morale

People working together for a great purpose don’t have time to argue over trivial issues. When you’re helping to row the boat, you don’t have time to rock it.

I believe it is also true that where there is no vision, people leave for another parish! Many churches are barely surviving because they have no vision.

2. A clear purpose reduces frustration

A purpose statement reduces frustration because it allows us to forget about things that don’t really matter.

A clear purpose not only defines what we do, it defines what we do not do.

The secret of effectiveness is to know what really counts, then do what really counts, and not to worry about all the rest.

How do we respond to all of those suggestions that come our way as leaders as to how to improve church?

The filter must always be: Does this activity fulfil one of the purposes for which God established the church?

When a church forgets its purpose, it has a difficult time deciding what’s important. It will vacillate between priorities, purposes and programs.

3. A clear purpose allows concentration

One of the common temptations I see many churches falling for today is the trap of majoring in the minors. They become distracted by good, but less important agendas, crusades, and purposes. The energy of the church is diffused and dissipated; the power is lost.

In my opinion, most churches try to do too much. This is one of the most overlooked barriers to building a healthy church: We wear people out.

The older a church gets, the truer this becomes. Programs and events continue to be added to the agenda without ever cutting anything out. Remember, no program is meant to last forever. A good question to keep in mind when dealing with programs in your church is, “Would we begin this today if we were not already doing it?”

Being efficient is not the same as being effective. Peter Drucker says, ‘Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things.’

God wants churches to be effective. Those few churches that are really effective concentrate on their purpose.

4. A clear purpose attracts cooperation

People want to join a church that knows where it’s going. When a church clearly communicates its destination, people are eager to get on board.

Tell people up front where your church is headed, and it will attract cooperation. Spell out your church’s purposes and priorities in a membership class. Clearly explain your strategy and structure. This will keep people from joining the membership with false assumptions.

5. A clear purpose assists evaluation

How does a church evaluate itself? Not by comparing itself to other churches, but by asking, “Are we doing what God intends for us to do?” and “How well are we doing it?”

The important issue is this: Your church will be stronger and healthier by being purpose driven.

How do you get there?

First, you must define your purposes. Next, you must communicate those purposes to everyone in your church – on a regular basis. Third, you must organize your church around your purposes. Finally, you must apply your purposes to every part of your church.

May 22, 2011
neil

The Bible…it’s not about you

May 21, 2011
neil

When does porn disqualify me from ministry?

Tomorrow evening I preach 1 Timothy 3 including v.2 ‘the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife.’

As Ryken notes in his commentary this phrase is not limited to a discussion on polygamy and how many wives you can have (!) but that ‘elders must be morally accountable for their sexuality

So it was useful to stumble across this from Mark Driscoll in the week leading up to my sermon.

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