Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Stealing it back"

Steve Matheson, who is Associate Professor of Biology at Calvin College, just posted this transcript of a talk he gave at Calvin a few years back: Quintessence of Dust: Stealing it back.

Christians who accept evolution are often treated with suspicion and mistrust by other evangelical Christians. I experience this first hand, along with a general disdain for science common among many of my friends. This contempt for the scientific exploration of our world and universe is baffling to me. As one who loves and worships the Creator, nothing seems more natural to me than to explore his Creative handiwork as deeply as possible. And science has given us many tools to do just that.

Matheson, an outspoken Christian evolutionist, has this to say about his enthusiasm for science:
Why look intently at the creation and try to understand it? Because it's cool; God thinks it's cool. He gets delight from it, rides around on it. He rejoices in it. To enter the examination of God's creation is to share God's delight in what he has made. It's his creation. He made it. He thinks it's great.
Matheson goes on the explore the roots of the generalized fear and mistrust of evolutionary science so common among Christians today. In doing so, he builds a case that science has been hijacked by unbelievers, and that it is time for Christians to take it back. I encourage my friends to read his comments. Click here.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Age of the Earth question continued ...

Can we know the Age of the Earth?

James McGrath, at Exploring Our Matrix offers an excellent review of a new book by Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008). In McGrath's words, this book is "a treatment of the varied and overwhelmingly consistent evidence for the antiquity of our planet, written by Evangelical Christians with the aim of not only making the scientific case for the age of the Earth, but also helping conservative Christian readers navigate the issues of theology and Biblical interpretation that go along with such a conclusion, and all the while pointing out the difficulties and at times dishonesty of the young-earth creationist position." 

The Bible, Rocks and Time is 510 pages. As McGrath points out, few laypersons will find the time to commit to reading the entire volume. But McGrath offers an excellent synopsis which covers the major themes of the book. Every Christian who holds to a young earth belief, or who doubts the legitimacy of the science leading to the age of the earth, ought to at least read McGrath's review. Click here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Behind the scenes ...

How it Happened
Isaac Asimov (?)

My brother began to dictate in his best oratorical style, the one which has the tribes hanging on his words.

“In the beginning,” he said, “exactly fifteen point two billion years ago, there was a big bang and the Universe–”

But I had stopped writing. “Fifteen billion years ago?” I said incredulously.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m inspired.”

“I don’t question your inspiration,” I said. (I had better not. He’s three years younger than I am, but I don’t try questioning his inspiration. Neither does anyone else or there’s hell to pay.) “But are you going to tell the story of the Creation over a period of fifteen billion years?”

“I have to,” said my brother. “That’s how long it took. I have it all in here,” he tapped his forehead, “and it’s on the very highest authority.”

By now I had put down my stylus. “Do you know the price of papyrus?” I said.

“What?” (He may be inspired but I frequently noticed that the inspiration didn’t include such sordid matters as the price of papyrus.)

I said, “Suppose you describe one million years of events to each roll of papyrus. That means you’ll have to fill fifteen thousand rolls. You’ll have to talk long enough to fill them and you know that you begin to stammer after a while. I’ll have to write enough to fill them and my fingers will fall off. And even if we can afford all that papyrus and you have the voice and I have the strength, who’s going to copy it? We’ve got to have a guarantee of a hundred copies before we can publish and without that where will we get royalties from?”

My brother thought awhile. He said, “You think I ought to cut it down?”

“Way down,” I said, “if you expect to reach the public.”

“How about a hundred years?” he said.

“How about six days?” I said.

He said horrified, “You can’t squeeze Creation into six days.”

I said, “This is all the papyrus I have. What do you think?”

“Oh, well,” he said, and began to dictate again, “In the beginning– Does it have to be six days, Aaron?”

I said, firmly, “Six days, Moses.”

A tip of the hat to David McMaster, my brother-in-law. Though I have not been able to verify the author, this site credits this vignette to Isaac Asimov. Can anybody confirm?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A church closes its doors

This photo, taken last Sunday morning at 11:00 am, is the Toledo Christian Fellowship building, a church fellowship I helped to lead for the last 20 years or so. Empty church building. Empty parking lot. Easter Sunday. Many are predicting that this will become an increasingly common sight over the next few decades. Tragic loss? or is this good news in disguise?

I visited with a friend at a track meet last week. Her opinion on the question left little doubt. She had grown up attending the “Church on the Hill” before it became Toledo Christian Fellowship (TCF). When she asked how things were going at the church, I explained that the church building was no longer being used. “What?” she asked, evidently troubled. “Why? what happened?” I explained how a crisis over my views on evolution had led to the demise of the fellowship as it had existed.

[About a year ago, I briefly described this crisis. You can read that recounting

By now, those TCF families who found my views intolerable have settled into other local churches. We're still friends. The remaining TCF families continue to fellowship together informally, but we now meet in homes.

With the exception of a couple of finance meetings, and a few informal worship times, TCF has not met formally in the building for 6 months or more. The property is currently for sale. We hope to use the proceeds of the sale to finance missions projects around the world, projects which the fellowship has historically supported. The proceeds might fund a permanent endowment for missions, or we may place the funds directly into the hands of friends in places like Liberia, southeast Africa, and Cambodia.

When I explained to my friend the current state of affairs at T.C.F., it made little difference to her that most of TCF continues to fellowship, and frequently gathers in homes. She was stunned to learn that the property was for sale! It made little difference to her when I explained that the sale proceeds would continue the mission of the Kingdom of God around the world. For her, the closing-down of a church building, the very church building which for her held so many childhood memories, was unthinkable, a horrible step in the wrong direction.

This set me to wondering how the readers of this blog might view “closing the doors” of a conventional church building in America.

I have read that there are
over 450,000 churches in the United States. If 400,000 of these churches own buildings, and if those buildings average $500,000 in value (both conservative estimates, I think) we can calculate the dollar value tied up in the churches in America at $200 billion. The actual amount is likely higher than that, probably much higher! When we add to this capital fund lock up the cash flow required to maintain those churches (the tithes and offerings of American Christians), the American church invests heavily in its own properties. And frankly, little is left over for the support of Christian missions in less fortunate corners of the world. A recent survey in Christianity Today indicated that churches give approximately 2% of their budgets to missions in foreign lands. What percentage do those same churches spend on mortgages, and upkeep and maintenance of their buildings?

I wonder how those figures compare to the fast growing church in China, now estimated to be larger than the church in the United States.

What about it, readers? Is it a lamentable shame that the United States will have one less church building? Is it a bad thing that the property will likely be added to the tax rolls to the benefit of our local taxing districts? Is it a misfortunate turn of events that several hundred thousand dollars of church capital may soon be reallocated to benefit churches in the third-world?

What if 200,000 church buildings in America were liquidated tomorrow? Would this negatively impact the health of Christianity in America? or might it be a good thing? What if the proceeds were scattered around the world to various mission projects? Anyone care to speculate on the potential impact of $100 billion or more into endowments for and direct aid to the third-world church?

Your comments are welcome!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Was Malaria designed?

"Here's something to ponder long and hard: Malaria was intentionally designed. The molecular machinery with which the parasite invades red blood cells is an exquisitely purposeful arrangement of parts. C-Eve's children died in her arms partly because an intelligent agent deliberately made malaria, or at least something very similar to it.

"What sort of designer is that? What sort of 'fine-tuning' leads to untold human misery? To countless mothers mourning countless children? Did a hateful, malign being make intelligent life in order to torture it? One who relishes cries of pain?

"Maybe. Maybe not. A torrent of pain indisputably swirls through the world—not only the world of humans but the world of sentient animal life as well. Yet, just as undeniably, much that is good graces nature. Many children die, yet many others thrive. Some people languish, but others savor full lives. Does one outweigh the other? If so, which outweighs which? Or are pleasure and pain, good and evil, incommensurable? Are viruses and parasites part of some brilliant, as-yet-unappreciated economy of nature, or do they reflect the bungling of an incompetent, fallible designer?" 

Who wrote those words? The first person to identify the author of this quote wins ... well, my praise and kudos!

How do you respond? Do you share the view that malaria is designed, crafted and carefully constructed by a Creator? Or did it slip in by accident? Creation books often explore the beauty and grandeur of the earth and its inhabitants. It is easy to credit a wise and wonderful Creator for Victoria Falls, apples, giraffes, and sequoias. Rarely do Creationists acknowledge the darker side of Creation with its shadowy, sometimes monstrous aspects. What about Malaria?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Misconceptions about Evolution

A tip of the hat to James at Science and Religion for this video by YouTube artist and communicator QualiaSoup (whose videos are informative, and quite entertaining!) I know that many of my readers still have trouble accepting evolution. Since only highly intelligent people read this blog, I suspect that most of these friends reject evolution on the basis of misinformation and misconceptions. Believe me, plenty of misinformation has been (and continues to be) disseminated within the Christian community. Much of it is intentional deception, and is a black eye on Christianity. I recommend this 10 minute video to all who doubt evolution. The video makes no attempt to prove evolution. But it does attempt to explain evolution, and expose many lies and false notions common among those who oppose it.

There are some (very few, I think) well-informed people who still oppose some tenets of evolution. But they do so without resorting to the ridiculous arguments which are all too common among conservative American Christians. If you choose to reject evolution, this video will help you refine your arguments, and help you to discontinue the use of arguments founded upon ignorance. As fellow blogger James wrote, "All people who oppose evolution need to see this." Click here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inspiration: Is the Bible inspired?

Questions about the Inspiration of the Scriptures, Inerrancy, troubling texts, contradictions in the Bible, etc., keep cropping up here at OutsideTheBox. Today’s post will be the first in a “sometimes series” on the Bible entitled, “Accurately Handling the Word of Truth.” In this series, I will state my own views on the Bible, and perhaps help some of my readers to sort out their honest and troubling questions about the Scriptures.

Today's post looks at the question of Inspiration. It was written 18 months ago in the aftermath of controversy surrounding my views on the sciences of cosmology and evolution in the local church to which I belong. I wrote it originally to dispel concerns that I no longer "believed the Bible." Not at all certain that I accomplished that purpose, I offer it here anyway in hopes it may, at least, clarify my views for my readers.

As I was preparing this post, I happened upon this excellent
post on “Negotiating Tensions in the Bible” which Chris Tilling posted over at Chrisendom earlier today. Those interested in a deeper, more scholarly approach to these issues may wish to read his essay, which he recently penned for some of his own students grappling with these difficult questions. Happy reading!

As always, I invite your comments.

Inspiration of the Scriptures
By Cliff Martin

What was the process of the inspiration of the Scriptures? How did it happen? To what degree are the Scriptures without error? How dependable are they? Can we safely base our lives on their teachings? These are fair and responsible questions. As I am being asked to clearly state what I believe about these questions, I have chosen to declare in writing my views on the inspiration of the Bible.

Three issues swirl about the larger question of inspiration. Every Bible believer who desires to maintain a reasonable and viable faith is obliged to face three issues honestly and thoughtfully. The three issues are:

1. How does the Bible square up with external evidences? When we place the Bible alongside the findings of history, geology, cosmology, and biology, how much agreement or disagreement do we find? And if we find discrepancies, what do they tell us about Inspiration?

2. How does the Bible square up with internal evidences? Are there contradictions? Do we find teachings in the Old Testament, for example, that do not align well with the nature of God as we understand him from the life of Jesus, and the New Testament? If the Bible disagrees with itself in matters of history and/or theology, what does this tell us about Inspiration?

3. What does that Bible say about itself, both explicitly, and inferentially? Does the Bible declare itself to be without error? What can we glean from the writers themselves? For many Christians, the starting point must be this third set of issues. It is argued that if the Bible makes certain definitive claims about itself, issues one and two must be laid aside. So I will begin this discussion with this question: What does the Bible itself declare about itself?

First, we must recognize that the Bible says nothing about itself. The Bible as we have it had no “self identity” until the process of canonization, hundreds of years after the last words were penned. To construe any claims within the texts about the “Scriptures” as encompassing all of the texts contained in our Bible ignores this fact. Or we must use an unlikely premise that the authors who made the claims were doing so in anticipation of the defining of Scripture which was not to occur for some 300 years or more.

However, New Testament writers did look back upon a defined set of the Hebrew Scriptures. And many of these writers, and Jesus himself in his spoken words, clearly regarded Old Testament texts which they quoted to be the words of God (though we must be careful not to press this point too far—often they quoted the textually corrupt Septuagint). They might, for example, quote an Old Testament Scripture with the words “the Holy Spirit says ....” Neo-orthodox thinkers like Karl Barth [1], and many others who do not believe in plenary verbal inspiration, confess their belief that God’s Holy Spirit does indeed speak to us through the Bible, through the very words. But it requires a deductive leap to conclude that these New Testament authors therefore regarded all of the O.T. as the very words of God, without error. Such a claim is never made anywhere in the Bible. But Paul does declare that the Scriptures (however he might have defined them) were inspired. Let’s examine this clearest of all Biblical claims about its composition, from 2 Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (NASB)
The Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos. It occurs only this one time in the New Testament, and it is absent from other Classical Greek literature of the era. So beyond this one verse in the Bible, we are left with no clues as to its usage. But the word itself refers to the breath of God. While some might argue that “God-breathed” can only mean verbal (word for word) inspiration, the term may mean no more than its Latin corresponding word, the root of our English, inspired, which means “breathed in”. An artist or a hymn writer might be moved to paint or compose by some stirring expression of nature, and properly claim that they were inspired of God to produce their work. Of course theopneustos, may mean more than that, but we are not obliged to conclude that it does. Therefore, the Scriptures themselves seem to leave those of us who believe in Inspiration with considerable latitude for our understanding of the meaning of Inspiration. Charles Pinnock, a respected evangelical leader, has concluded,
The Bible does not give us a doctrine of its own inspiration and authority that answers all the various questions we might like to ask.  Its witness on this subject is unsystematic and somewhat fragmentary and enables us to reach important but modest conclusions. [2]
When we turn our attention to the text of the Bible itself (issues one and two, above), we are confronted with many inaccuracies and discrepancies. I will not point them all out in this essay. But no honest Bible scholar denies them. John Piper [3] (a leading Evangelical defender of inerrancy), readily admits that there are “hundreds” of such discrepancies, and that “we dishonour the text not to see them ....” He holds out the hope that all these problems will find solutions, but he suggests we might not get those solutions “in this life” [4]. I do not share his optimism. The list of discrepancies is not getting shorter. Instead, the list keeps growing as our knowledge of the earth and the cosmos expand. It boggles the mind to understand how some of those discrepancies could possibly be solved. And it borders upon intellectual dishonesty to dismiss them in such a cavalier fashion as Piper does.

Perhaps the problem isn’t with the Bible. Perhaps the fault lies in our definitions of Inspiration, and our insistence that the Scriptures are verbally (word for word) inspired in their totality. If the Scriptures do not expressly claim this for themselves, and if the mounting evidence is to the contrary, should we not at least give consideration to other views of Inspiration? The modern day doctrine of inerrancy together with the importance bestowed upon the doctrine, was born in the fundamentalist reaction to modernism at the turn of the 20th Century. Many consider it to be the lynchpin of orthodoxy. But the early leaders of the fundamentalist movement were not unanimous in their acceptance of inerrancy. One of those early leaders, James Orr, warned,
It is urged...that unless we can demonstrate what is called the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details, the whole edifice of belief in revealed religion falls to the ground. This, on the face of it, is the most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up. [5]
Suicidal, in Orr’s opinion, because he viewed inerrancy as impossible to defend. And thus, the inerrantist inevitably paints himself into a corner.

Rather than spending any more time discussing what the Bible is not, I would like to make clear what I believe the Bible is.

I believe that the Bible is a unique book, inspired from Genesis to Revelation. I believe it is the very book God wanted us to have. I hold to the authority of the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice. I believe the Bible provides a solid and dependable foundation for Christian living. I read it. I study it. I love it. I teach it. I find that it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16, NASB). I believe all the Scriptures are infallible. Infallibility, as I use the term, means that the Bible, in its totality, does not mislead on issues of faith and practice, though it may not be without error in all respects, e.g. in history or science. In my years of reading and studying the Bible, this view of the Scriptures is more consistent with the Scriptures themselves than what I consider a forced claim of inerrancy.

[Though my view of Inspiration has shifted as I have gained a more thorough understanding of the issues, this shift has not affected my core beliefs. I believe in the Incarnation; I believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus; I believe in his Bodily Resurrection; I believe in the reality and power of prayer. I believe in the indwelling, empowering Holy Spirit.]

I believe that in the process of inspiration, God did not override any author’s memory or knowledge base. [Paul, writing the inspired book of 1 Corinthians, included a little misinformation, then corrected himself, then said he was uncertain because he could not remember (1:14-16); the variations in the reporting of events during the life of Jesus which are found in the Gospels are best understood as resulting from inexact recall of events]. It was not God’s intention to produce a supernatural perfect book. Many have wondered why it is that the leader of the Christian faith, Jesus Christ himself, never wrote a book [6]. The answer is quite simple for me. If Jesus had a written a book, the church would have fallen into worship of that book. It would be venerated. It would be legalistically applied. God has chosen not to give us “the perfect book” because our faith is not about words on a page, but about a growing, dynamic relationship with the Lord of the Universe! However, the Bible does give a faithful and accurate account of this growing relationship with God from Abraham through John, the Apostle.

My understanding of the mechanics of inspiration is perhaps best expressed in how I view the early chapters of Genesis, especially chapter one. Here, we see God inspiring Moses to convey remarkable new truths even as he wrote out of his mistaken Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) concept of the universe which included a firmament, with “waters above”. [7] The cosmology of Genesis 1 is quite clearly based in these concepts. We read similar accounts of Creation in Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature that predates Moses. But Moses offered some rather earth-shaking revelations about the one Creator-God, and the nature of God’s relationship to mankind. This is the essence of the revelation of these chapters. [8] It is a message which is today obscured by an insistence that Genesis 1 be understood literally. When the world hears Christians defending literalist interpretations of the Biblical account of Creation, this powerful message of Moses is marginalized, and the voice of the Church is, sadly, muted.

I believe that once Moses had these understandings about Creation, that God “inspired” him to write down his understandings. Moses then supplied the context in terms of ANE cosmogeny [9]; these misunderstandings did not bother God, nor did they detract from the revealed truths being conveyed. God knew that as man’s relationship to Him progressed, further revelation would build upon these writings of Moses. He knew that, in time, man would get the science right. Through this process of progressive revelation, truths about God would come into clearer and clearer focus. I believe this is exactly what we see happening through the whole course of Scripture, culminating in the person of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament.

When I read through the Bible, I am so thankful that God inspired Moses to write down what he was learning about God, even when his understandings were incomplete, or inaccurate. But God, as I have come to know him, is better represented in the writings of David, than Moses. Better still in Isaiah, Jeremiah. Better still in the Gospel records, and finally, in the writings of Paul, and John. Each new layer of inspired writing builds upon the earlier revelation. Like the process of zeroing a telescope in on a distant star, the person and character of God comes into clearer and clearer focus as we move through the Scriptures. In the end, we are equipped with a faithful journal of the history of the one true and living God with a people who sought him, and found him. The net message of the Bible, taken as a whole, comes through loud and clear! It is the revelation of God.

The fact that the Biblical authors did not have their cosmology down pat (no one did until the 15th Century A.D!) does not detract from the power, life-flow, and personal impact the Scriptures convey to me. To push the issue of inerrancy, to insist upon a woodenly literal interpretation of Genesis 1, obscures the real truth of the Word, robs it of its life, and sets up an easy target for the skeptics.

The conflict that has grown up between science and the Bible is an artificial one. It should never have happened. Christian faith was the driving force for science up to and including Darwin. Believers were highly motivated to explore Creation, the handiwork of our Friend! When a strong anti-evolutionary bias linked to Fundamentalism’s defense of the Bible (a linkage which James Orr, and his friend B.B. Warfield both warned was a mistake), an unhealthy distrust of science developed in the Fundamentalist wing of the church. Bible-believing Christianity ceased to be a major player in the advance of science. Lamentably, we deeded that territory largely over to the secularists, who today use science as a club to beat up on Christian beliefs.

There is no conflict between the true scientific exploration of Creation, and the inspired revelation of the Creator. (And contrary to the popular notion among some believers, there is no anti-Christian conspiracy among scientists today, many of whom are Bible believing Christians.) Truth about God and his Creation is truth, whether it is found in the pages of Scripture, or in the lenses of Hubble’s telescope. It is all truth. It is time for this tired, misguided warfare to come to an end.


1 Neo-orthodoxy, a 20th Century movement, is distinct from both Liberal Protestantism and Fundamentalism. This can be seen in Barth's understanding of the Bible. He rejected the Fundamentalist claim that the Scriptures are inerrant. He rejected the modernist Liberal Christian claim of that time, that God could be known primarily through human scholarship (science and reason). He believed that the Bible was the primary place where God is revealed to human beings, but he did not hold the Bible to be without error.

2 The Scripture Principle, Charles Pinnock, page 80

3 These excerpts come from Piper’s book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, page 77

4 I have never understood how the inerrant Bible Piper holds, reads, and teaches from is any different from Barth’s neo-orthodox Bible. Both scholars hold a book riddled with errors. The known errors admitted by both men number in the hundreds. Piper and Barth have an identical problem: how to read and discern the Bible which has known errors, and may contain other errors we have not yet identified. There is no difference. Those who hold to inerrancy and cast aspersions upon those who do not, claiming that they can “pick and choose” what to believe are not being fair or honest. They have the ability, and the responsibility to do the same! Piper and Barth are both utterly dependent upon Holy Spirit illumination, without which the Bible is nothing more than dead words on a page. (And isn’t this how God intended us to regard the Bible?)

5 Revelation and Inspiration, James Orr, page 197.

6 Christians seldom ask this question, but in my experience, it is among the most common questions raised by nonbelievers.

7 See Gordon Glover’s Beyond the Firmament, chapter 3 and following.

8 Steve Martin has written an excellent post on this subject which can be found

9 a cosmogeny (or cosmogony) is any view of how the universe came into being.