Science or Theology: Must We Choose?

 

Have you ever gone one Amazon.com to look at a book, looked at the reviews and saw a lot of one-star reviews, which when you read them you know the reviewer did not read the book? I hate that. If you are going to post a “review,” it should reflect the book and your interaction with it. Having said that, it is with all due respect that I comment here on a book I have never read. Actually, it is not about the book, but about the approach the author took, which I have seen before, and I think it is problematic.

Michael Guillen has published a book called Amazing Truths. As I stated above, I have not read it, but I heard Dr. Guillen discuss the book with Eric Metaxas on the Eric Metaxas Radio Show. Guillen seeks to show how the Bible and science are compatible. I have no quarrel with the idea that there is no conflict between the Bible (rightly understood) and science (rightly understood.) My concern is how authors like Guillen will display really poor theology and even philosophy in their arguments. In Guillen’s case, he argues that the idea that absolute truth exists is a point of compatibility between science and the Bible. Well, it is true that both scientists and theologians affirm absolute truth, neither science nor the Bible tell us this. The Bible and science both presuppose objective truth. You can’t do either without it. Granted, this is a nit picky point. However, of a more serious nature is Guillen’s attempt to explain how God who is “far away” can hear prayers immediately by appealing to quantum entanglements. It is not necessary to understand what quantum entanglements are. The idea is about instant communication over great distances. If you understand some basic theology, you would not even go there. If God is omnipresent, which he is and he has been understood to be for, oh I don’t know, the last 3000 YEARS, then he is never “far away.” Moreover, if he knows the end from the beginning, which he does, he does not need to wait until you pray to know what you will ask for or how he will act in response. In fact, you can find a wonderful story that illustrates this on pages 17-18 of Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power.[3]

I don’t mean to take away from what Guillen is trying to do. He is trying to show Christians and non-Christians alike that choosing Christianity does not entail rejecting science. However, if he is going to write as an expert, he needs to be sure he covers all his bases. What he does here is similar to other scientists who are Christians. Hugh Ross has also made similar errors in trying to use his scientific background to explain God’s capacities. In Ross’ case, he appeals to multiple time dimensions to explain prayer. This is unnecessary for the same reasons stated above.[4]

Scientists who wish to employ their expertise in the service of Christian apologetics would do well to become better informed theologically. At least they should consult with a theologian they trust to get feedback.

/rant

 

 

 

 

 

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

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