Reflections on the Skeptics Forum

Tonight, I attended a panel discussion between neurologist Steven Novella and RTB‘s Hugh Ross and Fazale Rana. Ross gave a presentation defending Biblical theism from the origin and design of the universe, galaxy and solar system, and Rana did so from the origin of life. Novella then offered a rebuttal. After some dialogue among the panelists the floor was opened for a brief Q&A.

The Good

Ross is second to none when it comes to explaining all of the parameters that must be fine tuned in order for life to be possible anywhere in the universe, and how these parameters point to a creator who seemed to want organisms a lot like humans to live on earth. Likewise, Rana presented a strong case for a sudden origin of life which is inconsistent with typical naturalistic models. Novella’s critique of Ross and Rana’s Biblical concordism was also informative. (More on that below.) Concordism in this context means the idea that there is a strong (in the case of strong concordism) correlation between scientific discoveries and Bible passages.

The Bad

There is a well respected principle of Bible hermeneutics (the science of interpretation) that says “A passage can never mean what it never meant.” Isaiah 45:12 says, “It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands And I ordained all their host. “Ross claims that this and other verses that say similar things, is a reference to the expansion of the universe. There is no good reason to think the Israelites to whom Isaiah was writing 2700 years ago would have understood him to be speaking of the expansion of the universe. This strongly suggests Ross is mistaken. Moreover, Rana, who in my opinion destroys naturalistic origin of life hypotheses in his written work, tried to tie Genesis 1:2 to the origin of life. Now THAT was stretching on a cosmic scale. (Sorry, guys. I couldn’t resist.) For his part, Novella trotted out the “god-of-the-gaps” charge against Ross and Rana, while appealing to naturalism-of-the-gaps to explain the lack of scientific answers to the question of the origin of the universe and of life. He claimed that all scientific adjustments to models accommodated new evidence while anything tied to a theistic model adjust to avoid evidence.

He also claimed Ross and Rana, and those who think like them, are guilty of what he called “retroactive continuity.” This is similar to the “humans are pattern recognizing organisms” claim. He accuses creationists (in the broad sense) of taking what we know now and applying Bible texts to it retroactively to harmonize them, as if Darwinism does nothing similar. In conversation afterward, Novella denied Darwinism is vulnerable to the same charge because it made successful predictions. He claimed Darwinism predicted DNA because it posited heredity. This is another cosmic stretch, since even the simplest organism has an incredibly complex genome, not to mention Darwinism’s inability to account for the origin of information. (For the purposes of this article, I am using Darwinism and neo-Darwinism interchangeably since the difference is not relevant to the point.)

The Christian worldview holds that God created the universe out of nothing. Genesis 1:1 is consistent with this, even if some would argue it is not stated there, and Hebrews 11:3. However, the Christian worldview does not stand or fall on a particular interpretation of Genesis or other passages with respect to science, since it is not a science text. For example, C. John Collins notes the style and structure of Genesis 1 is distinct from straightforward historical narrative. He calls the style, “exalted prose.”[1] This is part of an argument he makes for an interpretation of Genesis 1 that shows it was not intended to teach how or when God created the universe. This is just one of several interpretations of Genesis, and related texts, that make better sense of the texts.

Ross and Rana do great work on scientific evidence that is consistent with the involvement of an intelligent agent in the design and creation of the universe and life. I wish they would apply more care to hermeneutics.

For his part, I am sure Dr. Novella is a fine neurologist. However, this is only possible because he is made in the image of God. His own worldview cannot account for how he could have a reliable understanding of his discipline.

[1] C. John Collins. Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, And Theological Commentary (Kindle Location 530). Kindle Edition

Author: apologeticsminion

Daniel has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. He is married and has four grown children. Professionally, Daniel is a sign language interpreter.

10 thoughts on “Reflections on the Skeptics Forum”

  1. nice report and analysis!
    Don’t you think God still could have said what he did, that he ‘stretched out the heavens’, and don’t you think the Israelites would have understood it in their own way, even though it would not have been as sophisticated as ours? As God is speaking directly in this verse would He not have had us in mind too, unlike the prophet through whom and his immediate audience to whom it came?
    Like to know your opinion on this

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    1. Thanks for your comments. As I understand it, the phrase “stretched out the heavens” trades on the idea of stretching out a tent, which is a sort of “one and done” kind of thing. It is possible for this kind of double meaning you suggest, but I don’t think there is enough evidence to support that.

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      1. So is God telling he stretched out the heavens like a tent, when in truth he did something else? How will he do something and say something else? In that verse God himself is speaking. So I think Dr.Ross is right. That is my understanding.

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      2. The question is not whether he stretched out the heavens like a tent. The question is what does that mean? I would think an Israelite in the 8th century BC would have had no reason to think it meant a continuous stretching like Ross claims. If you imagine a tent being set up, it is up and done. The universe is continuously expanding. Ross thinks “stretched out the heavens” refers to this expansion. Since Isaiah’s original audience would probably not have understood it the way Ross does, it is unlikely that is what Isaiah meant.

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      3. The point is God did it and he is still holding the tent and sustaining the stretch, which they did believe, that God keeps things in existence actively. Otherwise they would be Deists.

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      4. I agree if you mean he set it up and sustains it. The imagery of a tent is putting it up and keeping it up. The “stretching” of the universe, however is a continuous expansion. I don’t think Isaiah had this in mind. In this case it would be a continuously growing tent.

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  2. This is the response which Dr. Ross gave when I posted your comments to his facebook page.
    “It is not just hindsight interpretation of biblical cosmology. Jewish theologians writing many centuries ago, as Gerald Schroeder documents, noted that the Old Testament repeatedly taught what we now recognize to be the fundamental features of big bang cosmology. While it is likely true that people living thousands of years ago were not as intently focused on the details of cosmology as we are today (after all they lacked the data that we possess today), it does not follow that the Bible would be silent on these issues. Just as the Bible displays predictive power in history, it does so in science as well. For more on the Bible and cosmology you can read this article that I wrote with the assistance of the theologian John Rea: http://www.reasons.org/articles/big-bang—the-bible-taught-it-first I appreciate your comments on Novella. I think the best way to resolve the- God-of-the-gaps vs the-nature-of-the-gaps debate is to determine which model offers the most comprehensive explanatory power and the greatest predictive success. I explain this approach in my book, More Than a Theory.”

    Click link for conversation. You can join in if you are on Facebook.

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    1. I appreciate your comments. I also study the work of Hebrew scholars on this such as John Walton and C. John Collins. I respect all of them. I just find Ross’ view less compelling. Just for a sense of proportion, on a scale of 1-10, my level of certainty on this is 3, where my confidence in Ross’ view is 1.

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