Category Archives: Science

A (Now) Open Letter to Reasons To Believe

Open letters are usually letters of critique. The letter I am making public below, however, is a letter of thanks to the creation science ministry called Reasons to Believe, founded by Christian astronomer Hugh Ross. I wrote the letter in April 2015 some time after reading Ross’s book, A Matter of Days. I am publishing it here because I desired at some point to write about why thinking about the physical age of the world is important for Christians, and realized that this letter already contained a good introduction to my thoughts.

Dear Reasons to Believe:

My purpose is simply to thank Dr. Hugh Ross and your ministry for the work you do, and to tell you about the impact Dr. Ross’s book A Matter of Days has had on my perception of the physical world.

I am 32 years old, and, by God’s grace, have always been a Christian. But growing up, it was fairly assumed that being a Christian and taking the Bible seriously meant holding to a young earth creationist model of origins, which I did. Like many young people, I found science very interesting. That interest in scientific topics never faded (though I did not study science in college). In high school I read Henry Morris’s Scientific Creationism, which is a heady tome for someone that age. Though much of it was beyond me, I basically understood the arguments from biochemistry against abiogenesis, which were extremely compelling. As time went on, I began to understand other things, like the rudiments of information theory; irreducible complexity in the cell, in organs and higher organisms, and even in ecosystems; and the case these discoveries made for intelligent design. If the creationists I was reading had done anything well, it was exposing the flaws in evolutionism.

But of course, there was also the issue of the age of the cosmos. Understand, I not only enjoyed reading creation science, I actually attended San Diego Christian College (formerly Christian Heritage College), cofounded by Dr. Henry Morris himself. Henry Morris, John Morris, Duane Gish, and Ken Ham were household names for us. I had from time to time visited the Institute for Creation Research museum. I was familiar with the arguments for a young earth and a global flood, which at the time seemed sufficient. There was no real argument for a young universe, though we all expected this to be forthcoming as science advanced. Until then we just assumed it was young and that explanations for its apparent age would emerge. For a while, I was quite excited about Russell Humphrey’s and John Hartnett’s white hole model.

It is only over the past year or so that I began to doubt the idea of a planet less than 10,000 years old. But after reading a useful little title by Keith Mathison called A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture [currently free for Kindle], I began to realize in a clearer way what I would have affirmed verbally all along—namely, that natural revelation from God in the physical world around us is a source of true knowledge, when properly understood, and that it may be helpful on some occasions in clarifying the meaning of certain things revealed specially in the Bible.

At the same time, I was losing faith in “appearance of age” arguments. These seemed to suggest that even if many lines of carefully considered data all converged to indicate an age of the universe or the earth of billions of years, these lines of data either must be completely misunderstood or they may be authored by God, despite being practically illusory. Even many YEC scientists were rejecting the “light in transit” explanation of visible distant stars, because supernovas greater than 10,000 light years away would requires us to believe the exploded star never really existed and that the perceived explosion was simply a light show God had made. This obviously has unsettling philosophical ramifications about God’s way of communicating, and our belief that the world we live in is real, and not an illusion, as the Bible says (and contrary to some eastern and new age views), and that God has given us senses that accurately perceive this real world, as the Bible assumes. Appearance-of-age explanations for other phenomena, whether geological or astronomical, are likewise problematic.

I began to research interpretations of Genesis 1-2 from Gorman Gray, Meredith Kline, and Mark Futato. This lead me to consider for the first time that a young-earth interpretation may not be the only interpretation that respects the text or authorial intent.

Still, I did not yet know just how compelling the evidence for an old earth was, nor how thin arguments for a young earth were. Besides, in all my reading of science articles from YEC sources, I had heard of this “Hugh Ross” character many times, and knew he was up to no good! But, after opening up to the possibility of an old cosmos, I was interested, hungry even, for more information. I began perusing Reasons.org. Eventually, I wanted to find out what RTB had to say about all this in depth. Still being slightly suspicious, and on a budget, I didn’t want to pay full price for Dr. Ross’s opus, so I “donated” ten dollars to RTB and got the book as a “free gift.” Sorry!

I devoured the book. I sometimes comment that I read it in “a matter of days.” It helped me understand the large volume of evidence for an old earth and universe. This volume of evidence is a real problem for a YEC interpretation of the Bible. YEC proponents often (rightly) point out that facts don’t interpret themselves, and that there are facts and then there are interpretations of the facts. This is true. But likewise there is the text of Scripture, and there are interpretations of it. A true interpretation of the Bible will submit to the Bible’s literary forms, and will integrate the whole, and will not turn a text on its head—words do have understandable meaning, and interpretation has definite limits. So I am not saying the Bible can be “interpreted” to accommodate just anything. On the other hand, this must also be true of natural revelation, since God is its author. Interpreting facts of nature in such a constrained way so as to make them basically incomprehensible also does damage to the idea of God as a revealer of truth, or about the possibility of science at all. And the Bible encourages science (e.g., 1 Kings 4:33). The more we discover about the universe, the more material we have for which to praise a mighty and wise God. There is no need for me to repeat back to you all of your own reasons to accept an old age of the earth. Suffice it say I have been convinced that the earth is old.

I used to view all of secular science with a degree of suspicion. Granted, many of these sources begin with a presumption of atheism. Not that all the contributors are atheists. I simply mean that they will only allow for naturalistic causes of all things. But now I find reading from Nature, National Geographic, or the Smithsonian can be much more exciting, because there is no need to be constantly denying the old-cosmos timeline that is everywhere present. There will always be the need to read all sources with a discerning mind. But maybe these scientists do have much to teach, often unbeknownst to them perhaps, about the glories of the Creator. Maybe they have much to teach about the realities around us—things we can learn. (John Calvin thought so.)

After finishing A Matter of Days I read the Presbyterian Church in America report on the hexameron cited in Dr. Ross’s footnotes. I will also read the Westminster Seminary report. Being Reformed (Baptist) in my own understanding of Scripture, I have much respect for these sources and what they say about the acceptable ranges of interpretation for Genesis. Thank you for pointing them out.

But most importantly, thank you for pointing out the facts of God’s world. God’s people are to be a truth-seeking people. Truth is truth. Believing in a God of truth and revelation, and in an intelligible world created by a law-giver who gives us sensory perception and the laws of logic themselves, and who upholds the universe by fixed and uniform laws, we can pursue the clues of nature methodically to come to accurate conclusions. The irony is that it is the Christian alone who understands the basis in God for math, logic, uniformity of nature, and language. It is this pursuit of truth that concerns me most. It is this, I fear, that YEC proponents may be giving up in order to adhere to their tradition. Dr. Ross’s book was a real eye-opener for me, and I pray that RTB can continue to impact the world for Christ by pursuing truth in all spheres, both theological and scientific.

Sincerely,

J—

 

Some Quick Thoughts on the Age of the Earth

It occurs to me that if the earth were young, its age would be hotly debated among secular scientists, as they were torn between the weight of the geological evidence and the timespans necessary to permit biological evolution, which they would need to hold to as a foundation of their naturalistic assumptions. As it is, science at large has reached total unanimity regarding the age of the earth, and the debate rages only within the church (including among Christian scientists) whose members are torn between the weight of the geological evidence and the timespan restraints imagined by some to be required by the Bible. The very fact that the debate about the age of the earth is raging in the church and not the secular scientific world is a strong indication that the earth is old. Indeed, as old as scientists say it is.
This is not because scientists are smart and Christians are dumb. Nor is it suggesting that in other questions scientists do not argue among themselves. Rather, this is an observation about which group of people—the scientific community or the Bible-believing church—is finding within their ranks apparent conflict between observations of nature and another perceived restraint on the limits of their belief. If the earth were young, it would show itself to be so. But secular science could not easily agree with such a conclusion, since it would preclude evolution. Thus they would be doing the bickering, while Christians happily and harmoniously acknowledged the youth of the planet. On the other hand, if the earth were old, it would show itself to be so, and some Christians would find this difficult to allow, do to a particular interpretation of the first eleven chapters of Genesis; others would permit the record of nature to inform their Bible interpretation and argue that the earth is a few billion years old, in accordance with the scientific findings and not at odds with Scriptural teaching. Thus the church would be those at discord, while the secular world would go on with the understanding of a billions-of-years-old earth, not thinking twice about it.
 Now, all this is based on the assumption that the age of the earth will be evident in the examination of the earth itself, if done carefully and corroborated over a length of time. If one assumes the biblical notions that truth is absolute, that it is that which corresponds to reality (i.e., truth=facts), that the world is real and not an illusion, that real history preceded the present, and laws of physics are constant, then the age of the earth ought to be discernable via the scientific method.
 Interestingly enough, the Bible itself refers to the mountains several times as being “ancient,” “age-old,” or “primeval.” One of these instances is in a blessing given to the tribes of Israel by Moses near the end of his lifetime in Deuteronomy 33:15. This would have been in the neighborhood of 1405 B.C. Now, according to a strict young-earth timeline, adhering closely to the biblical timeline as calculated by Bishop James Ussher in his Annals of the World, Moses would have said this about 2600 years after the creation of the world. This would be pushing the lower limits of “ancient” or “age-old” in my opinion, especially given the fact that pre-Flood humans could live naturally over 900 years. But it gets more difficult. Young-earth creationists believe that the topography of the present-day earth was born out of the cataclysmic geological upheaval that occurred at the time of the Noahic Flood. This means, of course, that the age-old hills were not created during creation week, but in the aftermath of the Flood. This means that the hills were in fact no older than 943 years—less actually, since this is based on when the flood began, and does not take into consideration how long it took for the continental land masses to move and reshape the terrestrial landscape. Moses at this time was 120 years old. These ancient hills, then, were not eight times older than he was. Now, I might refer to Independence Hall in Philadelphia as old, but I would hardly refer to it as ancient. I get the distinct impression that Moses, the author of Genesis, believes these hills to be much older than 1000 years.

Psalm 111:2

“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

The Bible leaves no doubt about the greatness of the works of God. Our experience should leave no doubt about the greatness of works of the Lord. And we who delight in God should also delight in what God has accomplished. Psalm 111 was read in church this morning, and I took particular notice of verse two. Here, the psalmist says that all who delight in the works of the Lord study the works of the Lord. The NIV says they “ponder” them, and The Message paraphrases the verse by saying, “God’s works are so great, worth a lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!” Indeed, for the child of God, to study God’s works is to take enjoyment in them as they reveal with greater depth the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Almighty.

Here is a call to consider, to chronicle, to analyze, and understand the works of God. I do not mean we can fully comprehend the reasons for all God’s works, the methods behind all his acts, the interworking of all his plans—or even discover everything God has done. But we can try our best. So long as we refrain from useless speculation about what God leaves hidden and train our minds to examine the works of God that he has revealed, we are doing the right thing and strengthening our ability to exalt God properly.

Studying the works of the Lord involves, as I see it, two broad branches of knowledge. It may involve more than this, as God is creator of all things, visible and invisible, and the ultimate cause of all history. God’s decree includes all things that exist and all things that occur. Hence history is a subject that deals with the works of God indirectly (i.e., via second causes). But when I think of the study of the immediate works of the Lord, I think of especially of theology and science.

Theology is the careful study of the special (Scriptural) revelation from God to humankind. Of course, theology includes more than God’s actions. It also includes God’s being as well as our relation to God, angelology, ecclesiology, etc. But all Bible study is theological in nature, and therefore to study the works of the Lord in the history of redemption is to study theology. The great miraculous works of God in the history of Israel may be more keenly in the mind of the psalmist here, though perhaps not exclusively. But it is clear that the verse applies to the entire portfolio of God’s works. If you are amazed or comforted by them, then study them. If they bring you wonder and delight, then study them. They speak to us about God’s love, God’s holiness, God’s power to save and to judge, and God’s plan for the ages. Study all the Bible says about what the Lord has done.

Science is the careful study of the general (natural) revelation from God to humankind. As such, as I have said previously, science is a kind of theology in its own right, examining, as it were, the artifacts of God. As R. C. Sproul has pointed out, general revelation is just as infallible as special revelation when it comes to conveying truth. Any fact we glean about nature is a fact gleaned about a creative act of God, and thus about God himself. Our interest in the great “works of the Lord” must extend to all his works, and this includes his works of creation. Certainly we see a biblical precedent for this. I remember the first time I realized that King Solomon was an amateur botanist, zoologist, and ornithologist who composed descriptions of local flora and fauna. This is revealed in a single verse in 1 Kings, which says “he spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish” (4:33). The NET Bible puts it in more modern terms: “He produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. He also produced manuals on biology, describing animals, birds, insects, and fish.” Remarkable! Christians have reason to be more excited about science than anyone else, because they know the Maker of “all things visible” (the earth, the elements, life, the whole visible universe) and “invisible” (not only spiritual entities, but radiation, gravitation, magnetism, nuclear forces, energy, and possibly dark matter, plus whatever else may be out there). Delight to study these things.

Needless to say, general revelation is subject to misinterpretation, especially when approached from the outset with a rejection of special revelation (which is more explicit). But special revelation is subject to misinterpretation, too. Furthermore, like non-Christian scientists, scientists who do accept the authority and divine origin of the Bible can and do misinterpret natural revelation. This is the nature of science and the need for the scientific method. But this should not discourage the study of science, since it is still the study of the works of the Lord. Both scientists who do and scientists who do not believe the Bible will, as a result of their fallible science-study of infallible natural revelation, get things right and things wrong about God’s works. Likewise, those who are and who are not true children of God will, as a result of their fallible Bible-study of infallible special revelation, get some things right and some things wrong about God’s works. Wrong ideas about God’s works are to be corrected by ongoing study, whether in the realm of science or in the realm of theology.

By God’s grace, human beings have gained very much knowledge about the works of the Lord in creation by Christian and non-Christian scientists alike. Every fact published by any atheistic scientist, every new discovery disclosed in any secular journal by any institute or organization, adds yet another reason to awe at the glory of God. Even many who scoff at theism have discovered by their good research wonder upon wonder performed by God. There is no danger for the Christian in studying those wonders (scientific facts). Praise God for the good science happening globally. Nevertheless, Christians should not be content to leave the studying to the world. No, indeed! The psalmist says the works of God are studied by “all who delight in them.” Christians, that’s us. It doesn’t mean you personally have to be a scientist or a professional theologian. But if you delight in the works of the Lord, delight to learn about them, about all of them—facts about the miraculous redemptive works of God recorded in Scripture, and facts about the creative works of God recorded in the natural world around us. Even facts about the providential work of God upholding the cosmos and caring for his creation. They are all equally works of the Lord, on display for our education and delight.

Balaam’s Donkey and Animal Cognizance

This is another older entry resurrected from a blog I had years ago. It was originally posted 18 June 2008.

As you probably recall, in Numbers chapter 22 in the Bible, we are given the remarkable story of Balaam, Balaam’s ass, and the angel of the Lord, in which Balaam’s beast actually speaks to her master after turning aside from the angel which had remained invisible to Balaam.  The question of the donkey’s speech is usually at the forefront, but I think there is not so much to ponder there: God supernaturally gave the donkey the capacity for vocalization. That satisfies just fine. I’ll await further details in heaven.

My question, as it relates to this narrative, has to do not with donkey’s vocalization, but with the donkey’s message. That is, with the donkey’s thoughts. Was she given the message by God? There is nothing in the text to indicate that that was the case. Rather, the passage says that “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” upon which she subsequently “said [something] to Balaam.”  It appears at first glance, that all the Lord did was give the donkey utterance, and she simply said what was on her mind. I don’t think this is far fetched. I think an animal such as a horse or a donkey could have such thoughts as Balaam’s donkey’s.  Balaam’s donkey 1) wants to know why she was deserving of whipping. She says, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And 2) makes an objection based upon past service. Says the donkey, “Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?” These sentiments are simplistic enough. We do not see the donkey beginning to pontificate the finer points of Aristotelian philosophy.

Notice once again the language. The Bible says that “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” as if only so she could say what was already there (in her mind). The passage then uses similar phrasing for Balaam when “the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way.”  When Balaam’s eyes were opened he was made able to see what was already there. Is it that incredible to think that when the donkey’s mouth was opened (i.e., she was given the ability to vocalize), she simply said what she was already thinking? I give the benefit of the doubt to the donkey. I think that she, as just a normal donkey, was thinking the things she spoke before God worked any miracle. The miracle was the vocalization, not the message, of the donkey.  God, the ultimate mind reader, knew what she would say, given the chance, and opened her mouth to get Balaam’s attention.

So what’s the moral of the story, kids?  You’re pets have feelings too.  “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).

My old blog notes that at the time I wrote this I was reading a Michael Crichton novel called Next. Next did have some talking orangutans, as I recall, but I think that was only a coincidence.

Science as Theology

Some say you cannot mix science and theology, but au contraire, you cannot separate science and theology. Science itself is, in a way which I hope to explain, a branch of theology when properly understood, and as we owe God praise and credit, we ought to think thus of science. This is certainly not to say that science cannot be used—and used to great instruction and benefit—without thinking of God, but that using science without thinking of God is not seeing all that science has to tell us and, more importantly, is robbing God of his due credit. It is not using science to its full potential or even its ultimate purpose.

The Bible says that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4). That is, the universe preaches to us, in general terms, about God’s creativity, wisdom, and goodness, and this proclamation, found in the world around us which we observe daily, is everywhere present, making it obvious that God is there and that he has acted. Dante said that “nature is the art of God,” and who could deny it? The Apostle Paul said that what can be known about God (apart from special revelation) is plain to people because God has shown it to them in the things he has made! Though nature is not very specific in what it tells us about God, it does tell us certain things quite clearly. For instance, nature tells us about his eternal power and his divine nature (Romans 1:18-20). That is, from the natural order it is easily deduced that God is immensely powerful—that he is in reality God. He is not like us.

When we look deep into the secrets of the world, from the cosmos to the quanta, we learn about how nature operates. We get an idea about how things function and what causes what. We begin to formulate laws that govern how particles interact with each other, or with energy or gravity or magnetism; we discover and record how animals survive and how they interact with each other in eco systems; we look at the behavior of waves, of light and sound; we reduce physical behaviors to mathematical equations to predict the motion of the planets or the acceleration of the stretching of space. In any and all of these cases we are ultimately learning about the maker of the these systems, just as studying Michelangelo’s artwork will tell you about Michelangelo himself. We believe that God upholds all the created order by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). Science is the study of the means he uses to do so. Science tells us what God created and how he conserves creation. It tells us how he keeps it all together. Physicist Dr. John Hartnett once observed that “the universe, including the created laws that describe the way it normally operates, often turns out to be far more ingeniously constructed, and at the same time elegant, than previously imagined” (Starlight, Time, and the New Physics 12).  When we wonder at how it all works, we often have no idea how amazing it really is. This is because God is infinitely wise. The living cell was once thought to be a simple little blob. Newtonian physics was once thought to perfectly and exhaustively describe the motion of bodies in space. But God was working on another whole level.

When archeologists and anthropologists want to learn about an ancient culture, they study their artifacts. The universe is the dig site of the artifacts of God. When we engage in science, we engage in the study of God’s work. When we engage in the study of God’s work, we are studying God. When we unpack the laws of nature, we peak into the mind of the lawgiver. May science be treated with enough respect to be acknowledged as a vehicle for learning about how great God is, and may God be worshipped and glorified as we lower our microscopes and raise our telescopes to the purpose of finding out just how awesome and mighty a God we serve.

What Our Schools Need is a Moment of Science

The National Medal of Science is awarded by the President of the United States of America to individuals whose scientific contributions have been deemed worthy by a 12-member committee gathered for just this purpose. The medal itself pictures a man with a crystal in his hand and inscribing a formula in the sand. When I first saw a picture of the medal, I thought the man was holding a flame of fire in his hand, which to me was a poetic depiction of human discovery, immortalized in the ancient myth of man’s first discovery of the means of controlling fire, from which, according to the myth, our scientific progress proceeded. The crystal which the medal actually depicts represents the order of the universe, apart from which science would be impossible, and the unfinished equation represents scientific abstraction. The man is surrounded by earth, sea, and air, representing his attempt to comprehend the elements that make up the world around him.

To me, this picture of man is a beautiful one, hearkening back to the words of Shakespeare, “in apprehension, how like a god!” or of the Bible, that God has “made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor and has given him dominion” and stated that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

Human existence is one of discovery and subsequent control, in the creation of artifacts based upon knowledge of the materials we use to create. Science is of utmost importance. It is one of the things that separates man from the apes. It is indeed a result of the imago dei in humankind. And it works. Everything we see around us is due to the understanding we have of nature through the scientific method. Your house, your air conditioner, your car, your computer, your Advil, your shoes. Even your toothbrush. They are all products of applied sciences. I trust science. And so do you. It’s value cannot be questioned, but it is not only a vehicle of comfort, security, productivity, or health; it is an intrinsic part of the human experience, and without it, we stagnate into a kind of essential death, or death of our essence. Scientific inquiry is a necessary part of the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:26, 28, and to abandon the pursuit of it would be to sever a piece of the human soul and to spurn the desire of God.

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