Anything Worth Writing Is Worth Writing Well

When I write something and publish it, whether a Facebook post, a book review, or a blog, I hope people will read it. Often these posts are intended to persuade people to my point of view on the chosen topic. This requires that what I write be clear, concise, and cogent. (I sound like a Baptist preacher with all this alliteration.) This post is no exception. It is my contention that any of us who aspire to be apologists and/or evangelists have an obligation to write this way as an act of respect for our readers. In other words, part of what it means to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is to write in a style you would like to read. This is especially true if we are going to ask someone to pay for our materials.

Clarity

Dennis Prager is fond of saying “Clarity before agreement.” This is what Paul would call a “trustworthy saying.” We cannot begin the task of helping to move someone’s view from error to truth until they first understand what we have to offer. (This assumes we have done our homework to be sure we understand theirs.) Obstacles to clarity can vary from gaps in our own understanding to simply poor writing mechanics. If we do not fully grasp the point we are trying to defend, it is very difficult to help someone else to do so, so lets be sure we have that down. However, we can know our view inside and out and still fail to communicate because we write so poorly.

Concise

When we write, if we are excessively verbose, we fail to show respect for our readers’ time. We should give enough information to be clear, but not in a manner that is so repetitive and redundant that reading the piece becomes a chore. This means devices such as using questions as transitions should be used sparingly, and only when there is a major transition. Moreover, overuse of words like “now” and “well” also unnecessarily lengthens the piece, not to mention making reading it become an unpleasant experience.

Cogent

Naturally, we ought to argue well, avoiding fallacies and poor argumentation. Sometimes, even cogent arguments can be undermined if our writing is littered with hasty generalizations, even if they are intended to be hyperbolic. Excessive use of phrases such as “we all have had…” and “most of us have…” can have the effect of looking like the fallacy of hasty generalization. When I see this, it reminds me of the fact that you can always tell when someone is about to say something they cannot defend when they open it with “We all know…” or “Everyone knows…”

Finally, those of us in the practice of writing with the hope of persuasion ought to have the humility to recognize the need for help from those more skilled than we are to improve our writing. To write badly in the name of “authenticity” is simply to be authentically bad at writing. There is no virtue in that.

H/T Doug Groothuis. Christianity and Autonomous Reason: Drawing an Important Distinction

The secular philosophy textbook I use for Introduction to Philosophy classes proclaims that philosophy exercises one’s rational autonomy. Nascent philosophers are told to think critically by thinking for themselves. Some think that this embrace of philosophical autonomy conflicts with Christianity. Christians believe that we are created by and fully dependent upon God, redeemed by the http://douglasgroothuis.com/2015/02/23/christianity-and-autonomous-reason-drawing-an-important-distinction/ 

Why the Universe Is the Way It Is

Hugh Ross is the founder and president of Reasons to Believe, a science/faith think tank that looks for harmony between God’s general revelation through the “book” of nature and his Special revelation through the book of Scripture. Ross has a PhD in astronomy from Toronto University. Additionally he serves as adjunct faculty at Tozer Seminary and Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Ross’ background in physics and astronomy, as well as having other physicists and a biochemist on his staff makes him eminently qualified to write the scientific content of the book. While clearly qualified to speak to the scientific issues of this book, Ross does not have any formal theological training.[1] As president of Reasons to Believe, however, he has access to advice from Kenneth Samples, who is a theologian and philosopher. Having read Samples’ work, however, it is not clear how much influence he has had on Ross’ theological conclusions. I do not think it is necessary for someone to have advanced degrees in theology to offer opinions on the theological implications of what they study. However, one of the benefits of formal education in any discipline is that it helps you be aware of what you do not know. This issue shows up in a few areas in this book.

Ross’ passion for spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and understanding how to use his scientific knowledge to respond to objections to the message provide the impetus for this book.

The main thesis of Why the Universe Is the Way It Is is that the universe has a purpose and that this purpose can be discerned by studying its origin, history, and structure, as well as scripture. The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, Ross addresses features of the universe that present a puzzle to many and how science has discovered the significance of these features for humanity. In the second section, Ross argues that the Bible accurately describes many features of the universe long before they were discovered by scientists, and that it reveals the purposes for which the creator designed it.

In chapter one, Ross explains the need to address the questions in the book. The next seven chapters answer “why” questions about the size, age, population, darkness, decay, alternative, and conditions of the universe. In chapter 2, Ross explains the relationship between the size of the universe and the fundamental laws of physics, as well as the exquisitely fine-tuned mass and energy density and how these allow for a place where advanced life can live. In chapter 3, Ross tells us how stellar evolution (there’s that word again) lead to the necessary materials for life, and how long the process takes. Chapter 4 explores the difficulties of interstellar space travel and how this impacts the question of if we can know of other advanced life in the universe. In chapter 5 Ross explains the benefits of low levels of ambient light. Chapter 6 analyzes the benefits of decay. In chapter 7, Ross argues that a collection of improbable features of the universe point to another world beyond this one. Chapter 8 catalogs the fine-tuning parameters that make earth ideally suited for advanced life.

Section two opens with a defense of the Bible from scientifically interpreted verses. Chapter 10 offers a scientific response to the problem of evil. Chapter 11 argues that the laws of physics provide predictable consequences for our actions that give them meaning. Chapter 12 argues that there will be two creations because the first prepares us for the second. Chapter 13 exposits Ross’ view of the new creation in a manner that reflects his views of dimensionality and time. Ross includes appendices on the age of the universe, fine-tuning, design, creation accounts beyond Genesis, and the new Heavens and the new Earth.

Of all the strengths of this book, one that stands out in particular is the irenic tone. Ross is passionate about the subject matter, but his passion comes across as excitement, rather than anger. His attitude toward skeptics of his view seems like they are opportunities to share his view rather than mortal enemies. There are no accusations of deception, heresy, or ulterior motives directed at those who disagree with him. This is especially remarkable considering the kinds of attacks Ross has experienced from Christians who have disagreed with him.

Another strength of the book is the clarity with which Ross makes issues of the size and age of the universe accessible to the layperson. I have personally heard the question, “Why is the universe so big if God only wanted to put life on earth?” (Unfortunately, this was long before I read this book.) I was at a loss to answer the question even to my own satisfaction. While the question of life on other planets is an open question, Ross makes it clear that whether there is or not, the universe would still be just as big, and necessarily so given the laws of physics. Moreover, Ross offers a powerful argument that the universe was created to support advanced, intelligent, physical life. Additionally, as Luke Nix points out, Ross offers a cogent explanation of the problem of evil with respect to cosmic design.[2] It seems to me that another strength of the book worth noting can be found in the content of the review by David Koerner, writing for the National Center for Science Education. Despite Koerner’s expertise as a PhD in Planetary Science from the California Institute of Technology, his entire review is one long ad hominem rant. [3]While absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, it is if you should expect evidence. In this case, if this is all Koerner can do, it suggests Ross’ case lacks serious scientific issues.

With respect to weaknesses, the first that comes to mind is more methodological than content. Ross holds a strong concordance view, which means he sees a very strong correlation between science and Scripture. This is expressed when Ross writes, “After months of intensive investigation, I couldn’t escape the stunning (and unique) consistency of the biblical texts with scientists’ emerging discoveries about the universe, with natural history, and even with current events in human history.”[4] While I believe in inerrancy, that the Bible is without error in what it affirms, and that the Bible does not contradict science in any of its affirmations, I disagree with the level of agreement Ross finds. In their fine book on hermeneutics, Fee and Stuart note “A text cannot mean what it never meant.”[5] Miller and Soden likewise chime in on the issue when they write:

The ancient world, as represented by texts from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan, presents significant parallels with the biblical account of creation, which suggests that the author was arguing against the worldview inundating Israel while defending the uniqueness of Yahweh.[6]
In other words it seems more likely that God was seeking to correct their understanding of what the world was and who made it, rather than how or when. Similarly, Walton argues “they thought about the cosmos in much the same way that anyone in the ancient world thought, and not at all like anyone thinks today. And God did not think it important to revise their thinking.”[7] Applying the principle of understanding how the original readers/hearers would have understood the text, it is difficult to see how they would have found modern scientific concepts in Scripture. Some would object that there are instances where writers of Scripture themselves sometimes did not know what their messages meant, such as prophets. As 2 Peter 1:20-21 says, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” When Isaiah wrote, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NASB) neither he nor his original readers/hearers could have known he was referring to the coming Messiah. However, we only know that because of another writer of Scripture, Matthew, who wrote, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’”(Matthew 1:22-23)

In another example of concordism, Ross cites Psalm 104:2 and Isaiah 40:22 as Biblical evidence of an expanding universe.[8] Ross draws a parallel between the stretching of a tent and the continuous expansion of the universe, but there is no reason to think the Psalmist or Isaiah would have had this in mind.

One instance that is theologically problematic comes where one of Ross’ explanations seems to deny, or at best overlook, divine omniscience. Figure 9.3 offers a suggestion for how it could be possible for God to hear billions of simultaneous prayers. This explanation suggests God operates in a different time dimension. However, classical Christian theology holds to omniscience as an essential attribute of God, and this attribute entails some form of foreknowledge. As such, God knew what everyone who would ever exist would pray for and when, as well as when and how he would respond, logically prior to the creative decree. Ross’ model for multidimensional access to human prayers is unnecessary since God already knows the content and timing of those prayers and acts in time accordingly. Ross’ explanation suggests he is unaware of this doctrine, or rejects it. This is issue also surfaces in chapter 9 when Ross claims, “Because humans are trapped in time, where time is linear and cannot be halted or reversed, the idea that anything could exist “before” time defies imagination. Yet both the Old and New Testaments, uniquely among premodern texts, refer to God’s activities ‘before the beginning of time’”[9] Here again, the doctrine of the divine decree, which was in the mind of God timelessly without creation, makes such speculative interpretations of the Scriptures Ross cites in support of his claim unnecessary. This is a reflection of his lack of formal theological training. As a scientist, Ross is likely to default to his discipline to solve problems he encounters. It is not clear if he consulted Samples on this.

As an apologetics book, Ross would have two purposes in mind for writing; to persuade the skeptic, and to strengthen the faith of the believer. There seems to be much more of the latter than the former here. For the skeptic, a better book would be Ross’ Creator and the Cosmos.

Ross has supported his main thesis well for those who already believe in God. The length and technical level of the book do not lend themselves to adequate support for the educated skeptic. However, references to Ross’ other books such as Creator and the Cosmos and Origins of Life, which he coauthored with Fazale Rana, could have been helpful for an honest skeptic. For example, a student member of the Secular Student Alliance wrote a review for their website in which his rejoinder to Ross’ argument from the just-right amount of carbon was that this only applies to carbon-based life.[10] However, Ross and his team address this concern in Creating Life in the Lab.[11]

Any Christian who wants to know how science and faith work together would benefit from reading this book. The material covered, as well as the technical level, make it suitable for high school students and even for scientists who want to understand why there is an interest in Intelligent Design.

Even with the issues I pointed out, I would recommend this book for Christians who want to understand how “The heavens declare to glory of God,” and that they need not fear science. Moreover, the book offers good reasons Christians need not feel as though an ancient universe lends strong support to metaphysical naturalism.

[1] Email correspondence with Reasons to Believe, 12/4/2014

[2] Luke Nix, “Review: Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Hugh Ross,” Apologetics 315 (blog), August 31, 2013, accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.apologetics315.com/2013/08/review-why-universe-is-way-it-is-by.html.

[3] David Koerner, “Review: Why the Universe Is the Way It Is by Hugh Ross,” Reports of the NCSE 29, no. 5 (2009): 43-45, accessed November 28, 2014, http://ncse.com/rncse/29/5/review-why-universe-is-way-it-is.

[4] Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2008), 19.

[5] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 30.

[6] Johnny Miller and John Soden, In the Beginning… We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishing, 2012), 1012, Kindle Edition.

[7] John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 167, Kindle Edition.

[8] Ross, 133-134

[9] Ibid., 128

[10] Kevin B., ““Why the Universe Is the Way It Is” Critique – Part 1: Posts,” SecSI, April 25, 2014, accessed December 24, 2014, http://secularstudents.org.uiowa.edu/hughrosspart1/.

[11] Fazale Rana, Creating Life in the Lab: How New Discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the Creator (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2011),  84-85

Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case

Stealing From God

Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case

Frank Turek is a speaker and author who wrote or co-wrote Correct But Not Politically Correct, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist, and Legislating Morality. Turek speaks on college campuses and hosts a weekly radio and television show. He has a DMin in Christian Apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. (I knew it! He came eating and drinking, so he has a DMin!)

Turek’s writing and speaking, as well as his radio and television shows, center on Christian apologetics, and this book is a natural extension of his work.

In Stealing From God, Turek argues that the kinds of ideas atheists appeal to in order to disprove God would not even exist if God did not exist, and therefore atheism is almost certainly false. Turek discusses six of these ideas using the acrostic, “CRIMES:”

  • Causality
  • Reason
  • Intelligence and Intentionality
  • Morality
  • Evil
  • Science

He then covers each point in the first six chapters. In chapter 7 Turek makes a case for mere Christianity by addressing the existence of truth, God, miracles, and the reliability of the New Testament. Finally, chapter 8 defends the idea of eternal punishment.

In his discussion of causality, Turek notes that many of the new atheists appeal to science, especially the principle of causality, for what can be known. However, when it comes to the universe, suddenly there is an exception. In response to arguments such as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, where it is pointed out that anything that begins to exist must have a cause, the universe began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause, atheists appeal to some as-yet undiscovered natural process to explain its origin. Some, like Lawrence Krauss go as far as to redefine nothing to muddy the waters. Moreover, Turek addresses Krauss’ claim that physical effects must have physical causes, and notes the need to explain the causes of the laws of nature and the fine-tuning of the universe for life. Finally, Turek notes the absurdity of the “Who made God?” challenge.

Reason

Atheists appeal to reason but reason points to a rational ground without which reason is an illusion. All of our capacities for reason are grounded in logic, but as Turek points out, the origin of logic needs to be accounted for. Atheists will sometimes claim that logic is a human convention, but the universal applicability of logic defies this explanation. Some will go as far as to deny logic, but it is inescapable. Turek argues that immaterial entities like the laws of logic cannot have a material origin. Therefore, reason would be impossible if atheism was true.

Information and Intentionality

Turek notes the common experience that information comes from an intelligent source and that DNA contains large quantities of information, and that along with epigenetic information provide the instructions for the various body plans. Atheism cannot account for the origin of such information. In response to the claim that appeals to Intelligent Design are not scientific, Turek notes that neither are appeals to Darwinism. The difference is philosophical.

With respect to intentionality, Turek points out many examples in the created order that point to being made for a purpose. This is evidence that there was a mind behind their existence. (While “intentionality” is used correctly here, though more for the sake of the acrostic, it seems to me teleology would have been clearer since in philosophy intentionality is more the “aboutness” of thought.)

Morality

Atheists will often complain about their rights while at the same time denying an objective ground to them. Moreover, they will appeal to evolution and biological processes to explain morality. Turek demonstrates the confusion that often surfaces over how people behave, how they ought to behave and how we know it. Turek then shows how the very moral intuitions atheists have but try to suppress are grounded in One who is good by his very nature.

Evil

Atheists complain about the evil they see in the world. What they don’t recognize, as Turek points out, is that evil proves the existence of good, which proves the existence of God. Without God, evil is just us “dancing to our DNA.” Moreover, contrary to the claim that religion causes wars and evil, Turek notes the millions killed in the 20th century by atheistic regimes.

Turek illustrates the hypocrisy of many skeptics who complain about evil by showing how we all want all the evil in the world removed… as long as it is that which is more evil than ourselves. He goes on to explain the purpose of suffering in the context of the purpose of our lives.

Science

It is sometimes claimed by atheists that science has disproven God. Scientific evidence is interpreted just like all kinds of evidence is. Turek notes that differences in worldview shape how the evidence is seen. Different approaches are required for studying origins than studying operational science. Science searches for causes whether event or agent. For an atheist to assert that all causation is event causation is to beg the question. Atheism only allows for event causation. To allow for agent causation requires the abandonment of materialism, which atheists are unwilling to do.

Science depends on the laws of physics, logic, and morality, none of which can exist without God. As Turek notes, it is not God that is at odds with science, but atheism.

Case for Christianity

Turek argues for mere Christianity by showing that the existence of truth, the existence of God, the possibility of miracles and the reliability of the New Testament provide sufficient evidence to think it is true.

Defense of Hell

In the final chapter, Turek offers arguments for the justice of eternal punishment for unregenerate sinners, noting that it is not loving for God to force people who don’t want him to spend eternity in his presence.

In his introduction, Turek defines his terms so it is clear what sort of God he is defending. Additionally, Turek’s treatment of the Canaanite conquest is well balanced by showing both Copan and Jones’ responses. Moreover, Turek’s engaging style and use of acrostics and catchy subtitles make for enjoyable reading.

Stealing From God is written at a level appropriate for highschoolers all the way to graduate students. It is a must read for anyone who thinks atheism is a robust alternative to the Christian worldview.

The Allure of Gentleness

The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith In the Manner of Jesus

By Dallas Willard

 

A review

Dallas Willard received his PhD in Philosophy from Baylor University in 1964. He served as Philosophy professor from 1965-2012 at the University of Southern California. In addition to The Allure of Gentleness, Willard wrote 13 books including The Divine Conspiracy, Renovation of the Heart, and Spirit of the Disciplines. He passed away in 2013.

The Allure of Gentleness was put together by Willard’s daughter from a series of talks given in 1990, along with notes and a list of additions Willard wanted included.

Willard’s purpose in writing this book was to return to a sense of apologetics as a shared journey of exploration, where we invite people to examine their doubts, welcoming the questions that trouble believers and seekers. The main thesis is that a gentle spirit and a kind presentation of the intellectual aspects of apologetics make them more effective.

The book is short, just seven chapters on 170 pages of content. Chapter 1 lays out Willard’s case for using our rational faculties in service of Christ. Chapter 2 applies this idea to apologetics as a practice. Chapter 3 offers a biblical model for apologetics. Chapter 4 explores the relationship between faith and reason. In chapter 5, Willard defends divine revelation. Chapter 6 addresses pain, suffering and the problem of evil. Finally, chapter 7 explores the ongoing interaction between the disciple and his Lord.

I really like reading anything Willard writes. When I read his work, I feel like I am having a conversation with the Christian grandfather I never had. I always come away feeling challenged and motivated to strive to do better, to seek God more fervently, and to emulate his manner. This book is no different in that respect. However, for those very reasons, there are a few things in this book that bother me.

One of the less troubling comments Willard makes is with respect to cosmic evolution. He notes that, “The suggestion of cosmic evolution (order out of chaos) as an alternative was not presented until the nineteenth century.”(76.) But it seems as though Willard is conflating the idea of cosmic evolution with biological evolution. Until the early 20th century, the reigning paradigm was that the universe was eternal and static. It was not until the work of Einstein and Hubble foreclosed on the steady state model that theories like Big Bang cosmology were proposed. Another place where Willard’s views could bring about confusion is in his section “Reading E=MC2 From Left to Right.” Here Willard asserts that God is energy. This lends itself to confusion because of equivocation of “energy.” If by energy one means the ability to do work, this is not a problem. However, when physicists speak of energy in the context of E=MC2, energy is a form that matter can take. However, I do not believe Willard means to say that God is a physical being.

In addition, Willard has a section he calls, “There is No “Good” Without Evil.” However, if it is the case that evil is a deprivation of good, how is good dependent on evil? Willard seems to be arguing that human evil is necessary. I can see his argument that certain goods require evils, such as courage requiring threats, mercy requires wrongs, and generosity requires needs, but a world without threats, wrongs and need could still be good.

The most troubling thing Willard writes is in his discussion on the hiddenness of God. Willard argues that God “…is capable of not knowing whatever he does not wish to know—should there be any such thing.” (66.) This idea is not even coherent,  for in order for God to choose to not know something, he would have to know it and when it would obtain in order to be sure he does not know it. This is a strange departure from the classical view of divine omniscience. Willard defends the view by drawing a parallel to divine omnipotence, noting that on omnipotent God is able to do anything power can do, but it does not mean he does do everything his power allows him to do. However, omniscience is not the ability to know, but the possession of the knowledge.

Finally, Willard gives a weak defense of the idea that God speaks to individuals. I say weak because the Bible passages offered do not support his argument. I do not mean to say that God does not, or cannot speak to individuals even today. What I am saying is that the passages Willard cites do not teach that every believer can expect to experience this. (For a more detailed treatment of this issue, see http://www.str.org/publications/does-god-whisper-part-1#.VOUFmVPF9Oh)

These concerns aside, I highly recommend this book, as well as anything else Willard writes. It is written at a level that a high school student can understand, and an academic can enjoy. It is an encouragement for those considering apologetics as a part of their skillset, and a challenge to those of us who have developed some skills to apply them in a more Christ-like manner.

Finding Truth

Finding Truth

By Nancy Pearcey

A Review

 

Nancy Pearcey is the director of the Christian Worldview Center at Houston Baptist University. She is the author or coauthor of six other books, including Total Truth, Saving Leonardo, and How Now Shall We Live (with Chuck Colson.)

Many Christian philosophers and apologists have written effective critiques of worldviews that compete with Christianity in the marketplace of ideas. In that sense there is nothing new in Pearcey’s book. The beauty of Finding Truth is in how Pearcey offers a systematic way to evaluate these worldviews in a way that exposes their weaknesses, and shows Christianity to be a viable alternative.

Working from the text of chapters 1 and 2 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Pearcey outlines a five-step process for evaluating worldviews that compete with Christianity. She notes that every worldview has an ultimate concern, or something that has the status of divinity, hence the first step is to identify what this is for the worldview. What stands in for the God the worldview denies?

Every God-substitute turns out to be something within the created order, and therefore smaller than the God who is. Pearcey shows how all competing worldviews entail some form of reductionism. She then helps the reader identify it. If you think of a worldview as a box, only Christianity has one big enough to contain reality. All others are too small, and therefore they must deny, dismiss, or ignore aspects of reality that do not fit in the box.

Having noted the aspects of reality that must be denied, the third step is to compare the view with how one experiences the world. How well does the worldview make sense of the world as we find it?

In the next step, we examine the worldview to see if it passes its own test. Ultimately, worldviews contrary to Christianity are self-refuting.  For example, materialism denies the existence of free will. However, some form of free will is necessary for rationality to be possible. If rationality is not possible, the materialist cannot affirm or defend materialism. In the final step, the case is made for the Christian worldview, noting how the competing worldview is already borrowing from Christianity while denying it at the same time. Pearcey closes by arguing for an integrated faith that applies critical thinking, rather than shuns it.

Finding Truth is a must read for parents of high school students contemplating college, college students, youth pastors, and anyone else who wants to think carefully about faith and be able to share their faith more effectively.