Monday, May 31, 2010

The necessity of a true king suffering unjustly

At church we just finished a sermon series on 1 Samuel. One thing I came to a new appreciation of was the significance of
  • the unjust suffering of David, God's anointed king in waiting
  • David's unwillingness to take the kingdom promised to him by force
[The former is described in great detail in at least 7 psalms, especially 22]

Both of these look forward to the true Davidic king (Messiah), Jesus who suffered and died unjustly but would not retaliate or take the kingdom that was his by force.

Several times Jesus explained (to uncomprehending disciples) from the Old Testament that it was necessary that he must suffer.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Yahweh is not a hypothesis

On Ben Myer's blog, Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricus has a provocative post, Ten propositions on the God hyphothesis. Overall I agree with it, and it is a much-needed counter to over-zealous arguments attempting to use science to establish the existence of God.

In what image can I make my children?

What can we bequeath our children?
Will they be in our image? in the image of God?

In Karl Barth's extensive discussion of the imago Dei (image of God) (discussed some in a previous post) he goes on to compare Genesis 1:26-27 with Genesis 5:1-3
1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. 2 Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. 3 When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.
Barth then discusses how God has made possible history (the existence of human generations) and man has been blessed to control the physical mechanism by which a new generation is produced. But the "image of God" in man is only given by God, the creator.
The particular feature in the history of the human race is not given or actualised merely in the fact that it can renew and preserve itself by a continuous procreation of its kind. This history is a peculiar history in relation to that of all the other creatures because it is the history of a fellowship and intercourse between man and God.
But the possibility and continuity of this history as such is not assured by the fact Adam can be reflected in Seth; that man can become a father and have a son. Nor is it the human father who can transmit to his son that which will make him not only a living being but the subject and bearer of this history. Nor is he this himself in virtue of his existence as man, but solely in virtue of the fact that God has created him in and after His image.

The special feature of human existence in virtue of which man is capable of action in relation to God; his nature as a Thou which can be addressed by God and an I which is responsible to Him; his character as an I and Thou in the co-existence of man and man, of male and female-all this, and therefore the divine likeness, cannot be transmitted by the father to the son merely because he is the cause of his physical life.

The father can, of course, hope that God the Creator will so acknowledge the new creature to whom he as father has been able to mediate life that the son whom he has begotten may like himself be created in and after the image of God. But the realisation of this hope has not been left to his decision and action. How can he hope to be able to pass on what does not in any sense belong to him, but is his only because when He created him God willed to have mercy on him among all His creatures and to acknowledge him in this particular way? The actuality of the witness repeated in Gen. 51 is not guaranteed to all succeeding generations merely because there will be these generations........

There is no genealogical table of beings in the divine likeness, but from generation to generation the genealogical table aims at divine likeness. This divine likeness is the pledge and promise with which God accompanies the physical sequence of the generations and gives it meaning, thus giving meaning to the patience of God which makes it possible. The difference between likeness to God and likeness to Adam emerges clearly enough in the text and context of Gen. 53.
Church Dogmatics 3.1, p. 198

This clearly illustrates that Genesis is not about the natural history of the animal and plant kingdom, or anthropology, or even human history, but about the character and the history of the covenant between God and man.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Creation and covenant

In his beautiful book, Barth, John Webster has a helpful summary of hundreds of pages of the Church Dogmatics 3.1 (Doctrine of Creation). Concerning Barth's exegesis of Genesis 1&2, Webster states (2nd edition, p. 98):
The whole discussion revolves around two propositions.
First, creation is ... the external basis of the covenant; that is God's work of creation, "have in view the institution, preservation, and execution of the covenant of grace, for partnership in which he has predestined and called man," (CD 3.1, p. 43).
Christian talk of creation is not preoccupied with cosmological questions (such as the first cause of all things, or the nature of contingency) but with the history which is creation's purpose, for "Creation sets the stage for the covenant of grace." (CD 3.1, p.44)

Second, covenant is the internal basis of creation. Covenant is not an accidental modulation of created reality, but the fulfilment of its essential nature as established by the creator.

Do I want to change?

This morning my son and I read the chapter, Obstinate Toy Soldiers, in Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis.
I found the following passage helpful and challenging
Did you ever think, when you were a child, what fun it would be if your toys could come to life? Well suppose you could really have brought them to life. Imagine turning a tin soldier into a real little man. It would involve turning the tin into flesh. And suppose the tin soldier did not like it. He is not interested in flesh; all he sees is that the tin is being spoilt. He thinks you are killing him. He will do everything he can to prevent you He will not be made into a man if he can help it.
Similarily, God wants to transform us into people like Jesus, the perfect man, but often we do not like it, deluding ourselves that we are better off as we are.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Hallelujah!

Tomorrow night my daughter and I are going to hear Handel's Messiah sung by Brisbane Chamber Choir. Details are here.

The full libretto is here. It is a masterful sythesis of Old and New Testaments. One of my favourite pieces is

(Alto &) soprano
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
(Isaiah 40: 11)
Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
Take his yoke upon you, and learn of Him, for He is meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(Matthew 11: 28-29)

Recommended book on science and Christian belief

If you want a simple well-written book which is easy to read and gives a balanced perspective on basic issues about the relationship between science and Christianity I strongly recommend Michael Poole's, Exploring Science and Belief.
In the tradition of Lion Publishing it has really nice (and relevant) colour pictures and boxes discussing key concepts. It is at the level that intelligent young adults may enjoy an benefit from.
A great gift idea.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Am I right?

"That is just your opinion" or "That is just one interpretation of the Bible".
Whether it is understanding a passage in the Bible or interpreting a particular scientific theory, this is the reponse one might get to a strongly held view.
But, as a scientist you soon learn that not all views are equally valid and not all interpretations worthy of consideration.
But how do we decide whether or not to take a view seriously.

One criteria which I think is important, but is perhaps not considered enough is the following. How unusual is the view? Are there people from different times, places, cultures, who hold this view? Or is it just me, and a few people with similar backgrounds to me to hold this view. If so, I should be very careful. It is somewhat arrogant to claim that I am right and all these other people are wrong. But, perhaps I am right.
I should stress that I am NOT saying that truth is determined by majority opinion. And there are occasionally individuals or small groups of people who hold a minority opinion that is subsequently vindicated. Examples include Einstein, Luther, Wilberforce, Barth, ...
But, most of us are not in this league!
I am just saying that having a minority opinion should cause me to hesitant about being quick to dismiss other views.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Creator creates creature who can study the creation

I am looking forward to the Second Annual Australasian Christian Conference for the Academy and the Church, in 6 weeks.

This weekend I spent some time thinking about the abstract for my talk. Here is what I came up with.

The Doctrine of Creation and its implications for the dialogue between science and theology.

The Doctrine of Creation is not primarily about first causes or the content of scientific theories about human origins or the beginning of the universe. Rather it speaks definitively about the reality and value of the creation (the world distinct from God), about human creatureliness, the meaning and purpose of the world, God’s faithfulness, and grace.

I will review some highlights of the Doctrine of Creation expounded by Karl Barth [Creator creates creature] and discuss some possible implications for the dialogue between science and theology. Points that may be considered include that the Doctrine of Creation:

  • puts constraints on what can be known about God from science
  • affirms the objective reality of the material world
  • affirms the possibility of scientific knowledge, both through the created order and the common rationality of the creation and creature
  • provides a mandate for the scientific investigation of the world
  • provides a mandate for the practical naturalism of science

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Shadowlands in Brisbane


Previously, I have recommended plays performed in Brisbane by Crossbow productions. I am delighted that later this year (July 29-August 7) they will be performing Shadowlands, the story of C.S. Lewis and the love of his life.
Tickets are now on sale.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The one true King only gives

Previously I wrote about how 1 Samuel 8 describes how the Israelites desperately wanted a King, just like the surrounding nations, even though God warned them that they would suffer because the king would take and take and take from them.
This morning I was discussing this passage with a group of fellow Christian academics that I meet with each week. A couple of points that came up were:

1. God's warning is quickly shown to be justified within a generation. David takes Uriah's wife Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet tells the chilling parable (2 Samuel 12):

"There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds, 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him."

2. This human king is in stark contrast to the true King Jesus, descendant of David, who does not take but only gives, indeed gives his own life to rescue his people.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Testing the God hypothesis?

After the public lecture I gave in India last month there were lots of good questions from the audience. Members also had the opportunity to write questions and comments for me to answer later.

Here are a few that are similar:
Can you prove experimentally whether or not God exists?
If God is not an object of the five senses, how is one going to verify his existence?
Is God experimentally testable?

I do not think that the existence of God is experimentally testable. But that does not mean that there is no publicly available evidence that the God of the Bible exists.

First, the God presented in the Bible cannot be "tamed" or "controlled" by man. The name LORD (Yahweh) means "I will be who I will be". God is subject not object. We can only discover God and his true nature if he reveals himself. This is just like a human relationship. We cannot force a person to disclose their true self to us.

In science experiments we are dealing with objects: DNA, protons, cells, liquids. If we are clever can control them and probe them and discover their "true" nature. But it should be stressed that often the knowledge we gain is indirect or "mediated". For example, we never truly see single electrons, just their effects.
I should also add that in science one can never "prove" anything. The best one can do is gather a lot of evidence that most people accept as evidence for something being true. Even if one has evidence against a hypothesis that does not mean that people will reject it.

So what evidence is there for God's existence? I think one needs to look at the historical person of Jesus, the evidence for his resurrection, and how he changed the lives of the disciples. Why were they willing to go to their deaths claiming that Jesus was God and had risen from the dead?
To me, the Bible presents a consistent, comprehensive, and coherent view of the world and humanity. It answers questions such as why does science work?

Fear without fear

A major theme of the Old Testament is "The fear of the LORD".
I puzzle at times about exactly what this means.
This morning I read Hebrews 12:18-29.
It brings out well the paradox that exists after the reconciling work of Christ, ending with the summary:
28Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29for our God is a consuming fire.

Christians can be confident they will escape the judgement of God, because of his great mercy, justifying us in Christ. But, that is no basis for complacency, but rather demands even greater reverence and awe.
Perhaps, this paradox is just one of many logical tensions (dialectic) the Gospel presents: the all powerful God dying on a cross, Jesus being both God and man, the first will be last, the poor widow gives the most, ....

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Picking the "right" interpretation

7But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart."
The first interpretation is the straight forward traditional reading. That God sees the heart of David and so chooses him as King.
The alternative interpretation is that God's heart chooses David.
Although, the second interpretation appears a stretch in the English translation, apparently the original Hebrew is quite ambiguous.

My point here is not to advocate on interpretation over the other but to make a general point on such issues.
First, I think we need to be careful about ever assuming that any passage has only one correct interpretation. One beauty and power of Scripture is that often it operates on many levels and can challenge us in many different ways. Hence, being open to a range of interpretations can bring out the richness of a passage. For example, the second interpretation highlights God's merciful heart for his people. He chooses a new King who will rescue his people, even though God did not want them to have a king in the first place, the first king was disobedient, and the new king will turn out to be far from perfect!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Recommended conference in USA

I was delighted when I found out that I am going to be in the USA in July for a work conference and so I will also be able to go to this conference on Christ, Culture, and the Academy, to be held in Kansas City, Missouri, from July 15-17.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Existence in confrontation, differentiation, and relationship

What does it mean that we are "made in the image of God"?
Genesis 1:27 states

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Karl Barth (as can be expected) has an original and stimulating exegesis (Church Dogmatics 3.1, pp. 194-195), that first engages with W. Vischer who stated
"man is the eye of the whole body of creation which God will cause to see his glory; that all creation aims at the confrontation of God and man and the inconvertible relationship between Creator and creature"
Barth then concedes
It cannot be contested that in the wider literary context, of which the biblical creation history is the first part, is not interested in man in abstracto, in his soul or spirituality, in his body or even in the superiority which he certainly enjoys over all other creatures, but in the future partner of the covenant, the kingdom and the glory of God, in the true counterpart of God, in the earthly subject, addressed and treated by God as a "Thou", of a history which begins with the creation and continues right up to the end of time.
but says there must be more to it than just the "I-Thou" confrontation but there is also a dimension of "differentiation and relationship". Barth then engages with Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
"Man is distinguished from other creatures by the fact that God himself is in him, that he is the image of God in which the free Creator sees himself reflected.... It is in the free creature that the Holy Spirit calls upon the creator; uncreated freedom is worshiped by created freedom...."
But this created freedom finds expression in the fact,
" that that which is created is related to something else created; that man is free for man".
It is expressed in a confrontation, conjunction and inter-relatedness of man as male and female which cannot be defined as an existing quality or intrinsic capacity, possibility of structure of his being, but which simply occur. In this relationship which is absolutely given and posited there is revealed freedom and therefore the divine likeness. As God is free for man, so man is free for man....
...the image and likeness of the being created by God signifies existence in confrontation, i.e., in this confrontation, in the juxtaposition and conjunction of man and man which is that of male and female
Barth then goes on the emphasize the notion of "differentiation and relationship," and the key feature of us being made in the "image of God" is reflected in our existence as men and women.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

God is outside time

This morning my son and I read and discussed the chapter, Time and beyond time, from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. He discusses the problem of God can keep track of the prayers of millions of humans "simultaneously" I thought the following analogy was particularly helpful:

Suppose I am writing a novel. I write 'Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door!' For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary's maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as. long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary's time (the time inside the story) at all.

This is not a perfect illustration, of course. But it may give just a glimpse of what I believe to be the truth. God is not hurried along in the Time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own novel. He has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only man in the world.

Lewis then introduces a second helpful analogy:

If you picture Time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind before we get to B, and cannot reach C until we leave B behind. God, from above or outside or all round, contains the whole line, and sees it all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Deconstructing the "God is an elephant" argument


I heard a stimulating talk today at UniBible talks today, "Aren't all religions the same?"

One issue that the speaker, Andrew Brown discussed, was the common argument by analogy about the Indian story about the six blind men who come across an elephant who all by touch develop their own "truth" about what the elephant is.

Andrew (following Lesslie Newbigin and Tim Keller as described here) that its requires a certain arrogance to assert that all followers of religion are "blind" and that one has the "vision" to see the true "reality" of the "elephant", i.e, God.

Further problems with the argument are discussed in this post at everystudent.com

Monday, May 10, 2010

Haydn's Creation in Brisbane

The Creation by Haydn will be presented by Chordiality, with selected soloists, at the Ian Hanger Recital Hall, Queensland Conservatorium, South Bank, on Sunday 23 May at 2.00 pm. $18 and concessions. For bookings, call 3818 0017.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Paul, apostle, D.Min.?

The Doctor of Ministry is an interesting degree which raises all sorts of questions. Why do ministers undertake it? For reflection on their experience of ministry? To gain more respect from their congregations, by being called Dr.? As a stepping stone to gaining a position teaching in a seminary or a theological college?

I am on a committee which reviews applications for admission and proposals for research projects for this degree. The applications make fascinating reading. Here are a few observations and generalisations, which will hopefully generate some discussion.

Most proposals are too driven by personal experience, both how the the research project is formulated and the "hypothesis" that is being examined. Some want to "prove" something about the problem with their situation, i.e., they are going to gather evidence to support their claim, not look for evidence that might show that their hypothesis are wrong or the situation is more complicated than they thought.
The best hypotheses in science are falsifiable.

Given the intimate involvement of the student with the research subject it is not clear they have the objectivity necessary. Their relationship with interviewees (e.g., a pastor with members of his congregation, a mission director and his staff) may mean that the information gathered and processed may be slanted.

Some propose studying and/or interviewing such small groups of people it is not clear that statistically meaningful information will result.

There is little theological, historical or Biblical reflection on the issues at hand. Is any ministry situation in the twenty-first situation really that different from the past?

Although in an Australian context there appears to be a common pre-occupation with
American influences, writers, and materials. Most bibliographies seem to contain only very recent literature (i.e., the last decade). Surely, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Wilberforce, Boenhoffer, and others have much to say that is relevant...

On the other hand, every situation is geographically and historically unique. Much can be learned from examining what is unique and what is common. Most of the proposals do not propose such a comparative analysis.

Unfortunately, some students present a pessimistic view of the church and its future. Sometimes, they are judgemental about their congregations and denomination.

Many are looking for (or claim to have found) a magic solution to their problems. This is usually some new technique, method, or framework (family systems theory, narrative theology, purpose-driven church, Appreciative Inquiry, ...) I don't question that such approaches may have something to offer. But, it seems too much is being hoped for and the proposals and methodologies overlook the complexity of situations and multi-faceted problem being considered.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

A good place to start the search for understanding

I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

This is how Job responded to God's challenge to him and his friends.
(Job 42).

A good default position is that everything is more complicated than we may think. We are not God.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Gospel in just one word: δικαιοσυνη

21But now the righteousness [δικαιοσυνη] of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness [δικαιοσυνη] of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified [δικαιουμενοι] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness [δικαιοσυνης], because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26It was to show his righteousness [δικαιουμενοι] at the present time, so that he might be just [δικαιον] and the justifier [δικαιουντα] the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26 (ESV)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A great scientist and Christian

Physics Today has an obituary for Conyers Herring, one of the founders of theoretical solid state physics [my research field]. The last paragraph is interesting:

Conyers had many outside interests. Having a deep, nonjudgmental faith in Jesus Christ, he was a lecturer, with nine others, of a science-and-religion series at Stanford in 1985. He thought that theology underlies science because “science is ultimately based on leaps of intuition and aesthetic perceptions.”

Monday, May 3, 2010

The focus of the Doctrine of Creation

The Doctrine of Creation is not primarily about science or history or causality or mechanism. It is primarily about relationships. Specifically, we are Creatures, i.e. we are accountable and not completely autonomous. Furthermore, we were created to live in relationship with our Creator.

Jesus Christ is

the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What can science do?


At times I make the following claims.
"Science is not philosophy. It can say little about meaning and purpose."
"Science cannot explain why it works."
"Science cannot explain the purpose or meaning of things."
"Science cannot tell us what is ethical, of value, or just."
Commenting on this, Sudarshan, makes an excellent point in response:
[see the first Comment on this post]
Isn't this such a cop-out statement to make? can we instead say that "science has not yet explained the purpose or meaning of things and what are ethics, values or just."
His point is well taken. However, I would modify my claims to something like:
"Science has not yet explained why it works, the purpose or meaning of this, and what is ethical, or value, or just. However, it is not clear that it will ever be able to."
Why is that?

Science deals with quantities and concepts that must be objective, i.e. in principle everyone should agree on what these quantities and concepts are, regardless of their culture, gender, race, religion, geographic location, ...
In contrast, meaning, values, and purpose are usually not objective - they can vary significantly between cultures.
What is the meaning and purpose of life? There are many possible answers to get rich, to have a family, to be famous, to serve others? How could science ever assign a relative value to these?
The claim that only science can answer such questions (or the more moderate position that only questions that science can answer are meaningful and important) is often referred to as scientism.
But, that does not mean that there is no true answer.
I think that is where we have to turn to alternative approaches and sources of information (and revelation).

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8