Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Are Genesis and Mainstream Science Really in Conflict?

This selection does not take into consideration my Neo-Omphalos theory.

It is typically taken for granted that the claims of Genesis and the claims of the modern mainstream scientific community regarding things like the age of the earth and evolution are unavoidably in conflict.  But perhaps looking at this question more closely will reveal a different picture.

Genesis teaches that the universe, the earth, and all the major forms of life on earth were created supernaturally by God in the space of six days, while mainstream science today claims that the universe, earth, and the major forms of life have come into being through evolutionary processes over the space of billions of years.  Sounds like an unavoidable conflict, right?  But let's look more closely.  Does the mainstream scientific community actually claim that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution is true?  Actually, it looks like they don't.

The mainstream scientific community often points out that its claims are not objectively certain, but only probable, that there always remains the possibility that they might be wrong whenever they make a scientific claim.  Eugenie Scott, for example, of the National Center for Science Education, in her book Evolution vs. Creationism (ABC-CLIO, Incorporated, 2005), discusses the various kinds of ideas held by scientists. She calls “core ideas” those scientific ideas that are the most firmly established by the evidence (this group would include the age of the earth and evolution). She says, "Indeed, we must be prepared to realize that even core ideas may be wrong, and that somewhere, sometime, there may be a set of circumstances that could refute even our most confidently held theory” (p. 9). She says that “The anthropologist Ashley Montagu summarized science rather nicely when he wrote, 'The scientist believes in proof without certainty, the bigot in certainty without proof' (Montagu 1984: 9).” Arthur N. Srahler, in his book Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987), said this: “Let us admit that the human mind or brain will never be privy to truth, but rather agree that the special kind of observation statement that is a scientific statement, despite being put forward as being true, actually contains a certain probability of being in error. . . . There always is the possibility, no matter how small it may be, that a scientific statement is false. . . . I would like to limit the definition of a 'scientific statement' to one that is subject to a finite probability, no matter how small, of being in error when it is asserted to be correct” (p. 7).

So it turns out that the scientific community is not actually making the claim that the earth really is billions of years old or that Darwinian-style evolution really happened.  They are not claiming that these ideas are really true and known to be true.  What they are claiming is simply that, judging by the current state of our understanding of how the world works based on our empirical observations and tests, it appears highly likely that the earth is billions of years old and that evolution is true.  But it is recognized that this estimate of probability based on our empirical analyses is based partly on ignorance (as all probabilistic arguments are).  Within that gap of ignorance is contained the acknowledged possibility that our scientific theories about these matters may be wrong and that Genesis might be right after all.

In short, then, the scientific community is not making this claim:  "We know that the earth is billions of years old and that evolution is true, and therefore that Genesis is false."  Rather, it is making this claim:  "Based solely on our current scientific understanding of the world, it appears highly likely that the earth is billions of years old and that evolution is true, but it remains entirely possible that the earth really is not billions of years old and that evolution is false and that Genesis is correct."

So we have a claim from the scientific community that Genesis might be true, and we have a claim from Genesis that Genesis definitely is true.  There is no conflict between these two claims.  They do not contradict one another.  According to the mainstream scientific community, one is not in conflict with any actual data when one affirms that Genesis is true.  If we have objectively certain reasons to think that Genesis is true from other sources (as we do--see Why Christianity is True for a case for this), then it is eminently reasonable--indeed, it is required by reason--that we affirm it to be true and assert that what the scientific community admits might be the case is in fact the case.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Another Statement of My Argument that the Infallible Bible Trumps Probabilistic Scientific Theories

This is from a paper I wrote (though it never got out of draft form) about a year-and-a-half ago on the impossibility of neutrality in civil law and policy.  This section talks about the impossibility of neutrality in science education, and provides another statement of my probability argument (which is also found in this article and its updates), including example quotations of scientists stating that scientific claims are never certain but only probable.  This selection does not take into consideration my Neo-Omphalos theory.

Let's look at another example of a supposed neutral position that is really not neutral at all: the teaching of evolution in public educational institutions. In accordance with our ideal of worldview and religious neutrality, we seek not only to base laws on neutral grounds, but we also attempt to establish neutrality as a foundation in any of the government's operations, including public education. Hence, the First Amendment and the Supreme Court rulings that support the neutrality principle are applied to the public schools as well. In the late 1980's, the state of Louisiana passed an Act that made it illegal to teach the theory of evolution in the public schools without also balancing that teaching with an alternative view known as “creation science.” In 1987, the Supreme Court struck down this Act, declaring it unconstitutional, in the court case Edwards vs. Aguillard. The Act was struck down for a number of reasons, one of which being that the Act seemed to be grounded in the motive of promoting specific religious beliefs and lacked “a clear secular purpose.” The Court declared that “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind” (

Behind the Louisiana Act was a movement that called itself “scientific creationism.” Creationists of this sort hold that living beings did not evolve by means of natural processes like random mutations and natural selection, but rather were created directly by God as separate, distinct kinds a few thousand years ago in the space of six days. Creationists do not hold that the created kinds do not contain variety or the potentiality to change over time, but they do hold that the separate kinds—think, perhaps, the “cat” kind or the “dog” kind—did not evolve from a common ancestor but were specially created by God. Modern mainstream science, on the other hand, holds that the universe is about 14 or so billion years old, that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and that all living things have arisen by means of a natural event that started life about 3.7 billion years ago and have evolved into their current forms by means of natural processes such as random mutation and natural selection. These are obviously two very contradictory accounts of the origin and history of the earth and life. Mainstream science claims that its view flows from the overwhelming scientific evidence in support of an old earth and evolution, while the creationists tend to base their view on the creation story of the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Obviously, to bring the Genesis account into public science classrooms would constitute an endorsement of particular religious views, as Edwards vs. Aguillard pointed out, as it would commit the public educational institution, and thus American public society itself, to a belief in the Bible as the infallible Word of God. A society committed to public worldview and religious neutrality must be opposed to this. It is assumed by many people that to ban creationism in the classrooms and mandate the teaching of evolution is not in violation of the ideal of neutrality, however, because the theory of evolution is supported by the overwhelming weight of the objective, empirical, scientific evidence. Bringing Genesis as the Word of God into the classrooms would clearly violate worldview neutrality, but simply bringing into the classrooms scientific evidence accessible to all would not be.

However, this is an illusion. Banning creationism and teaching evolution in the classrooms violates the ideal of neutrality just as much as would banning evolution and teaching creationism. Think about it. Everybody can agree that a class which attempts to explore the subject of the origin and age of the earth and life would want to get the facts straight, right? Nobody would want egregious error taught as fact in the science classroom. It is assumed that when mainstream science and religious texts come into conflict, the objectively rational thing to do is to go with the mainstream scientific account of the evidence over the religious text. But notice that this way of thinking is based on certain worldview assumptions: What should happen when the Bible and scientific explanations of the data conflict? To say that the Bible should give way to science is to make the assumption that the Bible, in fact, is not the infallible Word of God. If the Bible really is the infallible Word of God, it would be absurd to favor the opinions of the mainstream scientific community over the teachings of the Bible.

Imagine that you hold this belief: There is good, conclusive reason to believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that everything it teaches is certainly true. This is a belief held, for example, by many evangelical Christians. Imagine you saw eye-to-eye with them on this point. Imagine, also, that you hold that the young-earth creationist interpretation of the Book of Genesis is indeed the correct interpretation. Now, let's look again at what we should do when the Bible comes into conflict with mainstream science: If the Bible is the Word of God, then the creation accounts in the Book of Genesis contain eyewitness testimony to the events that took place during the creation of the universe, the earth, and life, and the eyewitness is none other than the actual Creator himself, who is omniscient and omnipotent and is incapable of being in error or of lying. How much weight should we give to an account of creation coming from the infallible Creator himself!? And what if this account is in conflict with the account of the history of the earth and life provided by the mainstream scientific consensus? Well, where did that consensus come from? It came from a bunch of fallible scientists attempting to figure out as best they could over a period of about 150 years or so how the earth and life came about by means of clues like bits of rock, chemical analyses, etc. Moreover, these scientists themselves admit emphatically that they are not perfect and are quite capable of error, and that their theories are not at all certain but could possibly be wrong. Eugenie Scott, for example, of the National Center for Science Education, in her book Evolution vs. Creationism (ABC-CLIO, Incorporated, 2005), discusses the various kinds of ideas held by scientists. She calls “core ideas” those scientific ideas that are the most firmly established by the evidence (this group would include the age of the earth and evolution). She says, "Indeed, we must be prepared to realize that even core ideas may be wrong, and that somewhere, sometime, there may be a set of circumstances that could refute even our most confidently held theory” (p. 9). She says that “The anthropologist Ashley Montagu summarized science rather nicely when he wrote, 'The scientist believes in proof without certainty, the bigot in certainty without proof' (Montagu 1984: 9).” Arthur N. Srahler, in his book Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987), said this: “Let us admit that the human mind or brain will never be privy to truth, but rather agree that the special kind of observation statement that is a scientific statement, despite being put forward as being true, actually contains a certain probability of being in error. . . . There always is the possibility, no matter how small it may be, that a scientific statement is false. . . . I would like to limit the definition of a 'scientific statement' to one that is subject to a finite probability, no matter how small, of being in error when it is asserted to be correct” (p. 7).

So, on the one hand, we have a creation account that we have good, conclusive reason to believe is an eyewitness account of the creation of the universe, earth, and life by the infallible Creator himself. On the other hand, we have the probable conclusions of fallible scientists doing the best they can to figure out what happened from clues while admitting that everything they say just might possibly (but not likely) be wrong. Which account are we going to go with? It seems to me obvious that we would want to go with the Bible over against the mainstream scientific consensus. That is the obvious, reasonable choice, granting our starting assumptions. If the public educational institutions reject the Bible's creation account from being included in science classes and instead teach a scientific theory that is in conflict with it, this clearly reveals an underlying assumption that the Bible is not, in fact, the infallible Word of God (or at least that the young-earth creationist interpretation of it is incorrect). This would be to endorse a set of beliefs held by liberal Christians and agnostics, for example, over against the beliefs held by many evangelical Christians. There is no way to neutrally decide this issue. If we include the Bible and treat it as the infallible Word of God, we are endorsing one set of worldview beliefs over others. If we exclude the Bible and teach contradicting ideas, we are endorsing another set of worldview beliefs over contrary beliefs. If you are tempted to respond to this dilemma by saying something like, “That's ridiculous! Of course teaching evolution and not using the Bible in science classes is neutral! After all, the Bible is a religious text and evolution is based on the facts of science!” then you have not yet gotten my point. To you, it might seem obvious that the truth of the matter is that the Bible's creation story is not a factually reliable basis for understanding what really happened in earth history and that the mainstream scientific account is better supported by all the evidence, but that conclusion of yours is based in certain assumptions about the nature of the Bible that are different from the assumptions involved in other people's worldviews. Perhaps your assumptions about the Bible are right and the assumptions of many evangelical Christians (which are a part of their core worldview) are wrong, and therefore the public educational institutions should endorse your assumptions over theirs. But to assert this, of course, is to abandon the ideal of neutrality and instead to propose that public institutions endorse your worldview beliefs over others because they are right. Whatever we do with regard to teaching evolution, or with regard to the legalization of same-sex marriage, or with regard to a whole host of other things, we must inevitably establish certain worldview beliefs over others as the official beliefs of the society, in contradiction to the ideal of neutrality.

UPDATE:  I just came across (on Facebook, from the Facebook page "Science is Awesome") a quotation by Ann Druyan, wife of the late Carl Sagan, commenting on her husband, which provides another example of the common claim that scientific analysis does not provide certain but only probable conclusions:

It takes a fearless, unflinching love and deep humility to accept the universe as it is. The most effective way he knew to accomplish that, the most powerful tool at his disposal, was the scientific method, which over time winnows out deception. It can't give you absolute truth because science is a permanent revolution, always subject to revision, but it can give you successive approximations of reality.

Notice also in this quotation the assumption that the "scientific method" (which is probably here used in contrast with more purely philosophical reasoning) is the best way to find truth.  This is another good example of how the Naturalistic worldview (with its often empiricist epistemology) is often assumed in the scientific disciplines, thus biasing them towards a distorted picture of how we can gain information about reality.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Going Back and Forth on Neo-Omphalos

In this post, I express some concerns that have made me doubt the viability of my Neo-Omphalos theory in the past, while then providing afterwards an update that responds to those concerns.

I've gone back and forth quite a bit over the past few years with my evaluation of my Neo-Omphalos theory (which you can read about here).  I've recently begun to think about it once again, and once again I seem to be finding some philosophical and Scriptural problems with it.  These are the same problems I've had with it in the past, but I keep going through cycles in which I decide that these are fatal problems to it, then I decide that they aren't, then I decide that they are, then I decide that they aren't, and so on.

My difficulties here make me very hesitant to be too dogmatic, so let me just state that:  I don't want to be dogmatic.  But I thought I would lay out what seem right now to me to be significant problems with the Neo-Omphalos theory.

In the Neo-Omphalos theory (NO, for short), when the space-time universe is created during the six-day creation week, a past history is created with it along with a present and an ongoing potential future.  And this is true with each object created during that week as well.  So, for example, when the sun is created on day four, it is created with a past history.  The problem with this is that the creation of an entire timeline would not itself be a temporal event on that timeline.  One can imagine a universe with its own timeline being created by events in another timeline.  That's what happens when people write novels, for instance.   There is a series of events--the writing of the novel--which produces a universe with a separate timeline.  But the writing of the novel is not a series of events that takes place within the timeline of the novel.  From the point of view of the characters in the novel, the writing of the novel is not a temporal series of events but is timeless.  That is, it takes place at no time within the timeline of the novel.

But Genesis describes a creation week that is a part of the history of this universe.  For example, the sun is created some time ago on a particular day, before which it didn't exist.  If we envision the sun being created with a past history attached to it, that is the same as to say that the bringing into being of the sun did not take place within the sun's own history.  From the sun's point of view, or from our history's point of view, the sun did not come into being on that day thousands of years ago.  It existed, perhaps, billions of years before that.  The event of the sun's creation would have to have been an event occurring in a separate timeline, in a separate space-time continuum.  But that is not what Genesis indicates.  According to Genesis, we can trace our own universe's history back to an event in our past in which the sun came into being, and that event occurred on day four of the creation week.  So it would seem that the NO view of the sun's creation (and the reasoning here would apply to all the other created objects and the entire universe as well) is incompatible with Genesis.

To make a similar point (or perhaps to put the same point in a slightly different way), if the sun was created with a past history, is it really meaningful to talk about the sun "coming into being" in that creation event?  Yes, we can talk about the sun "coming into being" in the sense that it was created as part of a "novel" in another timeline at a particular point of the creator's timeline (i.e. I wrote page 42, where the sun came into being, last Tuesday of my time, etc.).  But from the sun's point of view, it did not come into being on day four in our history.  It existed billions of years earlier.  The same object cannot have in its own history at the same time a "coming into being" event and a simple "continuing in being already existing" event.  The same object would then have to be and not be at the same time.  Again, the creation of the sun, in this context, would not actually be an event in the sun's own history, contrary to Genesis.

Going further, we can ask, How can it even be said at all that the creation of the sun took place at any particular moment in the sun's history in this view?  NO pictures the sun being created at a particular stage in its history, with a past behind it and a future ahead of it.  But if the sun was created along with its entire past timeline at the same time, then there seems no reason to single out a particular point in the sun's history and to link that point with the sun's coming into being in another timeline.  If the entire history of the sun comes into being in that creation event, then the time of that creation is no more linked to one particular moment in the sun's history than to any other, so to single out one particular moment as the point of the sun's creation doesn't seem to make any sense.

Another problem:  In the Genesis narrative, the sun is created on day four, but other parts of the universe are not yet created until days five and six.  But if the sun is created with its entire past history, that would include its being created with all of its relationships with the other objects of the universe intact.  Thus, we would have to say that from the sun's point of view on day four, the animals of days five and six would already have to be there, because their presence would be part of the sun's history that is essential to its nature.

Perhaps an analogy might help with this point:  I have heard it claimed that when George Lucas wrote Star Wars Episode IV, he did not yet intend for Darth Vader to be Luke's father.  That major plot element was not invented until Episode V.  So we could say that in our timeline, between the making of Episodes IV and V Luke's past history changed (along with many other things that were connected with it).  But once Episode V was produced, it became the case that the Luke of Episode IV did indeed have Darth Vader as his father.  So at that point you could say that we have two Lukes--the new Luke and the old Luke.  They are not the same Luke, because they had different past histories that are incompatible with each other.  Their essences were thus incompatible with each other.  So really what happened between Episode IV and Episode V (from the point of view of Lucas's timeline, not Luke's) is that a new Luke was substituted for the old one.  It would be incoherent to say that the same Luke's history changed--that Darth Vader didn't used to be Luke's father but later it became the case that he always was Luke's father.  Really, what we have is a new Luke who is different from the old one because of his past history, and this new Luke is the one everyone has in mind now when watching Episode IV (and thus Obi Wan Kenobi is still a liar).

To tie this back in with Genesis, the sun on day four would have to be a different sun than the sun on day five and day six and subsequently, because with the coming into being of the objects of days five and six along with their past histories, the past history of the sun also changed, making the later suns not the same in essence as the previous sun.  Difference logically entails distinction.  The same identical object cannot have contradictions in its essence.  As the essences of the suns of days four, five, and six are different (and incompatible), they are not the same identical object.  This would mean that the sun created on day four (if we can even talk about its having been created on day four, which we can't for reasons articulated earlier) is not the same sun that is in our sky today.  But this seems to contradict the point of Genesis 1, which is explaining to us the origins of the objects we know, not some other mostly similar but slightly different objects.

Of course, all of this becomes even more weird, complicated, and difficult when we include in our discussion all the other objects created on creation week, including animals and people!

So I don't think that NO is going to work after all.

But what about the certainly true elements in NO--particularly, the philosophical observations about the nature of time, that every moment in time implies a preceding moment?  Doesn't that necessitate us to have a situation where the creation of the space-time universe must involve the creation of a past, and thus involve us in the situation we've been attacking above?

No, I don't think it does.  It is true that it is certain that every moment in time implies a potential preceding moment, and thus that there can be no potential barrier in the past stopping someone in principle from going back further into time and discovering earlier history.  That reasoning is sound (and I have never seriously doubted it in all my vacillations on the other elements of NO).  However, remember our distinction between potential and actual history.  True, the past must be potentially infinite, but it can only actually be finite, because it is only perceived to a finite extent by any finite mind.  And space and time simply do not exist where they are not observed by finite minds, except as potential realities.  So what if God, wanting a self-contained narrative of creation history, created the world in such a way that the created universe is completely discontinuous with any potential previous history?  In this case, it would be impossible for us to ever push back into such a potential history, because the only way to infer the past from the present is to examine clues in the present, and this process implies causal and narrative continuity between the past and the present.  Thus, we could never look into the potential past, and since no one can see it, and since it has no bearing on the nature of the actual creation, it would simply not exist at all in any real sense.  In this case, we can think about the first moment of creation being the first moment perceived by finite created minds, and therefore we can say that before this moment there is no time.  There is no universe that precedes the creation.  Thus we preserve the fact of the theoretical potential infinity of the past while putting forward a strong claim that in no real sense is there an actually existing past before the first moment of creation.  This scenario seems entirely philosophically plausible to me (I've almost always thought so, even through all my vacillations on NO).  Assuming, then, that our critiques of NO above are accurate, it would seem that something like this scenario must be true.

So these are some problems I see now and have seen in the past with the NO theory.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I am very hesitant to be dogmatic one way or the other on these things, considering my tendency to vacillate on this subject.  Even before I started seriously to think negatively about NO again last night, I had already been considering my practical approach to the creation controversy.  I had decided that perhaps I ought to say that my own view is the more traditional YEC view, while presenting NO as a viable alternative.  Why would I then side my guess with the more classic view?  Because I suspect that mainstream science is wrong about the history of the earth.  Perhaps I was also influenced by growing subconscious concerns with NO along the lines of my above critique.  So perhaps what I will say at this point is that, while I don't want to be dogmatic, I am sorely troubled by NO, and so I will side with the more classic YEC view.  But I wish to present my viewpoint on all of this (or at least much of this) as tentative and about which I feel some subjective trepidation, and therefore I would encourage no one to take my word for anything and draw conclusions about what is true solely from it!  (Good advice in everything, actually, but I think it deserves special emphasis here.)  I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some further editing on this subject going on on this blog in the future.  :-)  But that's enough for now.

UPDATE 6/1/13:  OK, so that didn't take too long.  I believe I have successfully answered the above objections, and thus NO appears once more to be viable.

My main concern above was that NO would have the six-day creation events be events that occurred in some other universe's timeline but not our own, while Genesis portrays the events as occurring in our history, in our universe's timeline.

But it is not the case that NO would have the creation events not be events in our timeline.  NO envisions the history of our universe to be the origin history recorded in Genesis.  The other past history comes in only as an implication of the nature of the universe created by those creation events (owing to the fact that temporality always extends potentially infinitely into the past).  While both the origin history and the other created history are real in their own spheres, in their relationship to each other we should see one as subordinate to the other.  It seems that God views the origin history as constituting the actual narrative history of our universe, while the created history is seen as simply an implication of the substance of things created in that origin history.  This doesn't make the created history fake, but it does put it on a different level.

If we imagine the created history and the origin history to be the same sort of thing, on the same level, neither subordinate to the other, we end up with "narratival incoherence" in the creation.  We would have to say, for example, that the sun both existed for billions of years and also did not exist for billions of years in the same sense, which would be a contradiction in its essence.  But NO, rightfully understood, does not say that the sun both existed and did not exist for billions of years in the same sense.  It says that there are two different kinds of histories--an origin history and a past implied history created as an implication of the things created by the origin history.  They are not the same thing.  The one is subordinate to the other, so that while both are real in their own spheres, the origin history should be considered the true narrative history while the created history should be considered an implied characteristic of created things when the two are placed side by side and compared with each other.  Therefore, there is no incoherence, because we can say that the sun experienced billions of years of history in its created history while not experiencing this in its origin history.  As the two histories are distinct elements of the sun's nature, differences between them do not amount to contradictions (much as Christ suffering in his human nature and being unable to suffer in his divine nature is not a contradiction because the divine nature and the human nature are distinct and work together in expressing the identity of the one person of Christ).

So, in short, NO tells us we should say that the sun, in its own history, was created a few thousand years ago on day four, while the nature of its essence (due to its temporality) implies a back-history built into its being and thus created along with it on the fourth day, a back-history which, though real in its own sphere and contributing significant elements to the sun's nature, yet compared to the origin history in Genesis is not itself a part of the actual narrative history but is a back-history attached on as an implication of the sun's substance.  I think this clears up the concerns of the objections raised in the initial post.  NO is consistent with Genesis because it agrees that the creation events are indeed the history of our universe and are on our timeline, while the back-story created history does not occur as events on that timeline except as implications of the things that do occur on it.  Also, there is no narratival incoherence between the two histories because they are distinct from each other, neither invading the space of the other but both existing complementarily with each other, both contributing elements to the essence of the created universe.

As for the idea that NO implies different suns at different times because the essences are different, this is solved by the above as well, because what we really have is the same sun, the single, non-contradictory essence of which is contributed to by both the origin and the created histories.  There is thus no more incompatibility between the various aspects of the sun in NO than between the past state of the sun and its present state in any normal accounting of the sun's history.  As the essence is not contradictory, we need not posit different entities.

In my initial post, I suggested that we could subsume the potential past of the universe into our creation theory without NO by positing that the creation events wiped out all continuity with that potential history before creation, thus making it completely non-existent.  However, I neglected to recall that no matter what you do, no matter what the nature of the creation events, there is going to be some kind of continuity between the events of pre-creation history and post-creation history.  This is because although space and time only exist in a finite point of view, yet it is always possible to say of any point in the past (including pre-creation potential history) that the universe exists in God's mind in such a way that, if translated into a finite point of view, that point in history will have certain definite characteristics.  Thus, we cannot avoid the fact that there is built in to any potential history before creation a definite character, and that character will affect the essential nature of the creation and its history.  That fact can be put to the side of our account of creation, but it can never be wholly obliterated, and thus it tends to come back and haunt one to find a better place for it in one's theory, thus contributing much to the tempting nature of NO.  If it is incoherent to say that an origin history creates a universe with an implied created back-history (and I have argued above that it is not), then this is an incoherence that is impossible to avoid without doing away with the idea of the creation of space-time altogether.  As long as time remains time, every moment will imply a preceding moment, and so any creation of time must necessarily result in some kind of past history of some definite character that will be a back-history to the ongoing created timeline.

Again, I don't want to be dogmatic.  It does occur to me, though, that the objectively safer route, considering my vacillations on this issue, is probably to avoid rejecting NO, even when I am somewhat troubled by it, until I am closer to being absolutely sure it is wrong.  There is less potential harm done by keeping as potentially viable a theory that turns out not to work in the end than by rejecting something that might turn out to be the truth without which all the data cannot be fitted together adequately.  So even if I again swing away from NO, I think I will be more hesitant to assume that I won't swing back again soon, unless the basis of my new swing is so strong that it overpowers this practical reasoning.  At any rate, for now, it seems that NO is back on the menu.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dialogue with a Semi-Congregationalist

Here is a dialogue to help further illustrate the fact that in a Presbyterian system of church government, denominational division implies a refusal to acknowledge each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches.

The dialogue is entirely fictional.  It is between Frank and an "OPC Elder."  The elder represents no particular person.  I chose the OPC because I am familiar with it and know where to find things quickly in its Book of Church Order, and not because the OPC suffers from semi-congregationalism more than other modern Reformed denominations (the disease is quite widespread both in America and abroad).  In past hypothetical examples and conversations, I have used the PCA, the RCUS, etc.

Frank:  There is a PCA church about an hour away from here.  Do you consider its session, and the officers that make up its session, to have full de jure authority?

OPC Elder:  Yes, I do.

Frank:  Just as full and real as your authority and the authority of your own church session?

Elder:  Yes.

Frank:  The Book of Church Order of the OPC affirms Presbyterian church government as biblical.  In Presbyterian government, there are a limited number of authoritative offices in the church.  There are ruling elders, teaching elders (which can include ministers as well as theological doctors), and deacons.  Am I correct?

Elder:  Yes, that is correct.

Frank:  Are there any other offices recognized by the church?

Elder:  No.

Frank:  The elders (both teaching and ruling) have responsibility for governing the church, correct?

Elder:  Yes.

Frank:  Are the governing officers to function independently, or together as a board of elders?

Elder:  They are to function together and exercise their authority together.  The board of elders is called the "session."  The session as a whole has more power than individual officers alone, and it can act as a court overseeing not only church members but individual officers who are part of the session.

Frank:  The OPC's Book of Church Order (Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies") describes how the church is to function corporately, with individual officers functioning together as sessions, and sessions being parts of larger governing bodies such as presbyteries, general assemblies, etc.:

Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.

Do you agree with this portrayal of how church officers and courts are to function?

Elder:  Yes.  This is basic Presbyterianism.

Frank:  It would seem to me that this system of things implies that each individual officer has a right and a duty to function as a member of a session, and that sessions have a right and a duty to invite and require that individual officers functioning in their congregations function as parts of the session.  Likewise, it would seem that each individual session has a right and a duty to function as a member of a larger regional body (a presbytery), each presbytery has a right and a duty to function as a part of a larger general assembly, and so on, and that the larger assemblies have a right and a duty to invite and require the lower assemblies to function as members of these higher assemblies.  Am I correct in these observations?

Elder:  Yes, quite correct.

Frank:  Is your session a part of a larger regional church?

Elder:  Yes, we are part of the Presbytery of New York and New England.

Frank:  Judging from all that has been said, I presume that the PCA church an hour from here, as it is recognized as having full legitimacy and authority as a church session, is regularly invited to participate as a member church of the Presbytery of New York and New England.  Am I correct?

Elder:  No, that is not the case.  Although we would welcome the PCA church to bring fraternal greetings to the presbytery meeting, the officers of that church are not allowed to function as voting members of the presbytery.

Frank:  Why not?

Elder:  We are separate denominations.

Frank:  What does that mean?

Elder:  We don't have a fully worked-out, mutually agreed-upon set of standards for doctrine and practice (though we are close), and we function independently from each other.  We are not united under common binding councils.

Frank:  How can you function independently of each other?  According to the OPC's Book of Church Order, which I quoted a few moments ago, individual church courts never function independently from each other:  "These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body."  It seems to me it is very un-Presbyterian to have church courts functioning independently from each other, with no possibility of appeals to higher mutually-binding assemblies, etc.

Elder:  Well, we don't agree on all matters of doctrine and practice, and concern for the purity of the church demands that we be careful about whom we unite with.

Frank:  No doubt that is the case.  But you miss my point.  According to Presbyterian church government, as articulated in the OPC Book of Church Order, lower assemblies have a right and a duty to participate as members of higher assemblies, and higher assemblies have a right and a duty to invite and require lower assemblies to participate as members of themselves.  According to this system, which you acknowledge to be right and biblical, it would seem that by not inviting a fully legitimate and authoritative church session (such as you have acknowledged the PCA church an hour from here to have) to be a full member of presbytery, your presbytery is violating its duty as well as the rights of that church session.  And how can this be justified?

Elder:  You don't understand.  What you say is the ideal, but the church is not in an ideal state.  You can't expect the church to function according to ideal standards in non-ideal times and circumstances.

Frank:  Do non-ideal circumstances justify the breach of duty, or allow the claims of legitimate rights to be ignored?

Elder:  No, of course not.  But sometimes non-ideal circumstances necessitate that what would be considered a right or a duty in normal circumstances not be considered a right or a duty in the currently-prevailing circumstances.

Frank:  Are you saying that there are some situations that make it so it is appropriate for church courts to function independently, and that lower assemblies not be united under higher assemblies?

Elder:  Yes, I suppose that is what I am saying.

Frank:  In other words, there are circumstances--such as ones existing today (and for the past few hundred years at least), presumably--in which the church ought not to function under a Presbyterian form of church government?

Elder:  I didn't say that!  We must always be Presbyterian, but our Presbyterianism doesn't always manifest itself in the same ways.

Frank:  Well, Presbyterianism requires lower assemblies to be subject to higher ones, so it would seem that you are indeed justifying a not-fully-Presbyterian practice of church government.  If Presbyterianism is the biblical form of church government, how do non-ideal circumstances justify changing it?  I presume that you would not think it a good argument were I to justify bringing unbiblical practices, such as the use of images, into the church on the grounds that "current circumstances call for non-ideal practice."

Elder:  No, we can't ignore the teaching of the Word of God because of "non-ideal circumstances."  That is no excuse.

Frank:  I agree.  So why the exception when it comes to Presbyterian church government?  Why, in this case, do "current circumstances" imply that we should cease to follow biblical patterns of church government?

Elder:  Well, the Bible also says that we have a duty to preserve the purity of the church.  We are concerned that uniting with the PCA may dilute that purity, and we cannot unite with them until our concerns are assuaged.  Just as we should not ordain officers, especially teaching elders, until we are assured that they are biblically qualified and sound in doctrine and practice, so we cannot unite with any other denomination until these same sorts of conditions are met.

Frank:  I grant that the Bible commands the church to preserve her purity as well as her unity.  I grant that this is a good reason not to ordain certain men to the ministry of the church.  I also grant that this can be a good reason to refrain, at times, from uniting with another denomination.  However, concern for the purity of the church does not allow the church to ignore proper procedures of church discipline in dealing with existing church officers and courts.  For example, if the presbytery were to decide that your session was involved in serious doctrinal error, you would expect them to have to prove that and follow proper formal procedures in charging your session with errors.  They could not simply stop inviting you to presbytery meetings, etc.  And you should have the right to defend yourself against their charges in a formal way, and the right to appeal to a higher court should the presbyterial court decide against you.  Correct?  And if you should lose, and assuming the presbytery's case against you was just, your session would rightly be stripped of authority to function as a church session, right?  You would lose authority and legitimacy as a church session?

Elder:  Yes, all that is correct.

Frank:  Well then, since you have granted that the PCA session an hour from here is indeed a fully legitimate session possessing authority, I presume you will grant that the same process ought to be followed in their case as well?

Elder:  No.

Frank:  Why not?  Why don't they get to be treated the same as you?

Elder:  They are of a different denomination.

Frank:  Are they a legitimate and authoritative church session or not?

Elder:  They are.

Frank:  Then what does it even mean to say they are "of a different denomination"?  The phrase has no meaning to me.  They either are a fully legitimate church session, or they are not.  You have said that they are, so I don't see why they should be treated any differently from you or have any different rights or responsibilities relative to the rest of the church and to higher assemblies of the church.  I don't see how the statement that they are "of a different denomination" affects that at all or even adds any meaningful substance to the conversation.  Are you inventing new offices in the church of Christ?  For example, there are OPC elders, and these officers have different rights and responsibilities from PCA elders?  Where in Scripture (or in the OPC Book of Church Order) do we see distinct offices along these lines?

Elder:  We don't.  It's just that . . . well, they don't have the same status.

Frank:  What do you mean?  Are you saying that PCA elders have the same office as OPC elders, but they are not given permission to fully execute their roles for some reason?  Why would they not be allowed to execute their roles?

Elder:  They may not be fully orthodox in doctrine or practice.

Frank:  They may not be fully orthodox?  I wonder what you would do if the presbytery were to cease to invite you to presbytery meetings or give you or your elders any role in higher assemblies on the grounds (without any specifics mentioned) that you may or might not be fully orthodox?  To do this would be to discipline you, and that would require a full formal process, would it not?  It could not be done on a mere whim and the expression of some people's informal opinions?  Wouldn't they need to formally charge you with some particular error, etc.?

Elder:  Yes, that is correct.

Frank:  And what would happen if they were successful in charging you with something--say, that you are allowing unbiblical elements into worship?

Elder:  Assuming the charge held up after appeal to the general assembly, I and my session (if they went along with me) would have our authority as church officers and as a session revoked.

Frank:  Have the officers of that PCA church an hour from here had their authority revoked by such a formal process?

Elder:  No.

Frank:  Have any charges been brought against them?

Elder:  No.

Frank:  So why aren't they being invited as full voting members at presbytery meetings?

Elder:  Our presbytery can't charge them or revoke their authority, for they are not under our jurisdiction.

Frank:  Who's jurisdiction are they under?

Elder:  The PCA presbytery in the area.

Frank:  Well, if that presbytery is tolerating error in one of its sessions, you should appeal it to whatever assembly binds you both.

Elder:  There is no such assembly, because the PCA and the OPC are independent.

Frank:  But Presbyterianism requires churches to function inter-dependently under mutually-binding councils.  So how can two legitimate parts of the church be functioning independently?

Elder:  Well, we can't unite with them until we are sure they are fully orthodox . . .

Frank:  But if you have already accepted their full legitimacy and authority as a church, you have to function inter-dependently with them under mutual councils.  That is what Presbyterianism requires.  The only way you can avoid doing that is by refusing to recognize their de jure legitimacy and authority.  If you have recognized it in the past, you must repudiate it through proper formal channels (church courts, discipline cases, etc.).  If you have not recognized it in the past, then you can simply continue not to recognize it.  But what you can't do, in Presbyterianism, is acknowledge them as a legitimate part of the church (with all the rights and responsibilities that entails) and then treat them as if they are not.  But that is what you are doing.

Let me make a proposal as to how we should best understand your behavior:  In reality, you do not accept the de jure legitimacy and authority of that PCA church an hour from here.  You do not consider her officers (individually or collectively) as being subject to all the rights and responsibilities that de jure legitimacy entails.  You consider only OPC churches as truly, currently possessing de jure legitimacy and authority.  The problem is that you have become so confused by the culture and language of denominationalism that you can't see it or bring yourself to see it.  But if you want to continue to justly claim to be a proponent and practitioner of Presbyterian church government, you have no other choice.

UPDATE 6/24/14:  A second dialogue with a semi-congregationalist can be found here.

Friday, May 10, 2013

New FPCS Catechism

The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has just released a new catechism that focuses on FPCS distinctives in terms of doctrine, practice, and history.  The catechism is enormously helpful in expressing the character and positions of the FPCS.  It addresses a large number of subjects, including the inerrancy of the Bible, evolution, church government, church unity, the need to affirm and preserve Second Reformation attainments, and many others.  It includes a number of appendices that contain key constitutional documents of the FPCS as well as synodical resolutions that define the FPCS's official position on several points.  It is a great resource for learning about the FPCS!

One of the things that excites me in particular about this catechism is that it addresses important issues regarding church unity that I personally have not seen the FPCS address officially before--in particular, it addresses the international unity of the church.  Of course, the FPCS, along with all Presbyterians, has always maintained a commitment to the universal international catholicity of the church, but until now all the pronouncements I have seen from the FPCS  that issue a specific call for church unity and for denominations to be united have focused on the churches in Scotland, with the application to international church unity being only implied.  But the new catechism explicitly addresses this.

The catechism also displays the noteworthy tendency the FPCS has to state very clearly and boldly the church's duty to be united, the need to provide a clear justification for a separate denominational existence, the fact that a failure to be united when possible or to put barriers in the way to unity is sinful schism, its own claim to be the church that has the right to separate existence, and the accompanying obligation all other churches have of being united with it.  Rather than simply advocating that "everyone stop fussing and just get along," as is so often the case in calls for church unity these days, the FPCS once again shows that it has a realistic idea of how to truly and biblically heal the divisions of the church and achieve unity.

Here are some examples from the catechism dealing with these issues of the unity of the church:

106 Q. What is meant by Christ’s Church being Catholic?
A. The word Catholic means Universal, which teaches us that the Church of Christ is one in all nations.

141 Q. Is the Free Presbyterian Church opposed to union with other Churches?
A. No, the Free Presbyterian Church encourages biblical union with any Church in Scotland or overseas provided that there is a unity in doctrine, worship, government, discipline, and practice.

146 Q. When should individual believers separate from the fellowship of others?
A. The Scriptures enjoin believers to withdraw themselves from those who are professed brethren and who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), so when men have so rejected sound doctrine, right government, and discipline, or have introduced superstitious worship, or are maintaining a schismatic position, and when an orderly correction of these evils fails, then believers are to separate from such.

147 Q. When is it lawful to break ecclesiastical union through separation?
A. Unity is an absolute duty and therefore the only lawful reason for separation is when one is compelled unavoidably to sin in order to maintain the bond of union. In this case the sin of schism is made by those compelling to sin. Up until this point any separation would be unjust schism since one may still testify against corruptions in the Church and use all lawful means to have them removed.

148 Q. What is schism?
A. Schism is a breach of the union and communion that ought to exist within the visible Church in doctrine, government and worship (1 Cor. 12:25; Rom. 16:17).

149 Q. What is the duty of Churches in Scotland who profess to represent the Reformed Church?
A. All Presbyterian Churches in Scotland claiming to represent the Reformed Church and who have caused or who maintain schisms contrary to the avowed Westminster Standards are bound to repent and to return to purity in doctrine, worship, government and discipline. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is not guilty of schism and claims to be the true heir of the Reformed Church of Scotland in doctrine, worship, government and discipline. While she certainly does not claim perfection, she maintains that all Churches in Scotland should unite around her constitution and testimony.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Facing One of the Practical Problems Arising out of Denominational Separation

As I have said many times in this blog (would you believe me if I said that I often tend to mull a topic over until I've explored it from every conceivable angle?), when denominations are separate from each other, not in full communion, within the context of a Presbyterian system of church government, the separated denominations (however they came to be separated) are rejecting each others' de jure legitimacy and authority as churches.  Each denomination is claiming that it has the authority to function as the church, while other denominations don't.

And this is not only true within individual nations, but on the international level as well.  When denominations are divided from each other in Scotland, or in the United States, they are rejecting each others' authority and accusing each other of being schismatic.  But also, when a church in Scotland and a church in the United States are not in full communion with each other, manifested by mutual submission to each other in a binding presbyterian international council and a willingness to seek the same unity of faith and practice with each other that they practice within themselves, they too are rejecting each others' authority and accusing each other of schism.

Now this has some very important practical implications.  One area in which those implications need to be explored is in a situation where Christians are living in an area where no de jure church is present.  I am acutely aware of this particular kind of situation, because it is one in which I and my family currently live.  We believe that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the proper de jure church to be a part of.  The fact that the FPCS is not in full communion with any other church in the United States implies that the FPCS rejects as illegitimate all non-FPCS churches in the United States.  That includes the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America, which are the only Reformed churches present in our area.  There are a number of reasons why the OPC and PCA are not in full communion with the FPCS.  One of those reasons is differences in understanding how the regulative principle plays out in worship.  For example, the OPC and the PCA both use uninspired hymns and instrumental music in worship, while the FPCS views this as a violation of the regulative principle.

An obvious questions arises here:  What are I and my family supposed to do in this situation?  All the churches in our area have been declared illegitimate and schismatic by the church we regard as possessing the de jure authority to say so, and we concur with this judgment.  Is it right to be members of illegitimate churches?  Throughout Christian history, I think the typical answer to that would have been "no."  But on the other hand, if we aren't members of an illegitimate church, we will not be able (at least in the near future) to be members of any church at all.  And yet Scripture tells us we need to have elders to submit to who watch over us.  In our case, we have initiated an attempt to join with the Santa Fe (Texas) congregation of the FPCS (the existence of which is another indication that the FPCS rejects all other American churches as schismatic and illegitimate), but this will likely be a very long-term process.  We have already had a visit from one of the elders there, and will likely be able to have further visits.  We were hoping to travel to Santa Fe next month, but occupational and financial responsibilities have made that impossible.  In our current situation, we are very rarely, if ever, going to have the ability to travel cross-country, particularly when the only way to meet with the session at Santa Fe is to go there during a communion season.  And we are not, financially or vocationally, able to move at this time.  But nevertheless, at least there is a way forward that can be taken to some degree, though it is not for the short run.

The main thing I have found frustrating about this situation is that the FPCS has no clear, worked-out policy regarding how to deal with people like us.  This is an area where the people of God need good, solid, clear pastoral advice.  What should we do?  Should we continue members of our schismatic church?  Should we leave it?  If we leave it, will pastoral care be able to be provided?  If so, how?  If not, what should be done?  The FPCS is a small denomination, and it exists mostly far, far away in Scotland.  It is difficult for them to deal with people on the other side of the world.  But what could be done, and what I think should be done, is that the FPCS could develop clear standard policies regarding such situations, so that when people contact them to ask, "What should we do?" there will be a clear answer ready at hand (even if it has to be adapted from time to time in light of unusual circumstances).  That answer, that policy, could consist of any number of possibilities.  Perhaps the role of superintendent (such as discussed in the First Book of Discipline) could be revived.  Perhaps a system could be set up to send ministers to visit regularly with people who contact the FPCS.  Perhaps instructions could be given to attempt to join the nearest FPCS congregation while remaining in membership with another denomination in the meantime (with a clear, thought-out, theological foundation for the legitimacy and appropriateness of doing this--see my own thoughts on this here).  Perhaps persons could be advised to leave their schismatic denominations and simply exist outside of formal membership until they are able to join with the FPCS, and contact could be kept up periodically with such families and groups as they try to hold informal meetings for psalm-singing, listening to sermons, etc.

I don't know what would be best (we've currently taken the next to last option mentioned).  But I think that the FPCS ought to have worked through this issue enough so that some kind of standard plan and instructions are in place, rather than simply leaving it to the individuals to figure out for themselves what they should do.  It is no light matter to be in a situation like the one described.  Serious moral issues are at stake:  Is it wrong for us to be without formal pastoral oversight, even if it comes from a schismatic church?  Is it wrong to support a schismatic church by remaining a member?  Is it wrong to remain out of formal communion with the true de jure church?  Surely these are questions the church ought to be ready to answer with its pastoral guidance.  If the church deems it fit to provide practical instructions and guidance when it comes to what Bible translation to use, whether or not people ought to ride public transport on the Sabbath, how people ought to dress in worship, etc., surely these matters are not less important?  Surely they should not be left without careful thought and individuals left without some clear guidance from the church?

I do not say this in criticism of any individuals in the FPCS.  Everyone I have spoken with about these matters in the FPCS has been very sympathetic and very helpful.  I've received much advice and in general had much correspondence with a number of people.  I've already mentioned the practical steps the Santa Fe Kirk Session has taken to provide help and guidance.  My comments are not meant to point out anyone's individual failure, but simply to point out that a denominational response is needed to these matters.  This is something that the FP church as a whole needs to deal with and needs to come to some kind of practical conclusions with regard to.  We live, increasingly, in an international world.  National churches cannot afford to simply remain turned inward, dealing with their own affairs, but not worrying much about the international catholicity of the church and the practical implications that necessarily come from taking a position of remaining out of formal communion with other churches.  These matters need to be squarely taken up and faced, and that soon.  Concern for the souls of men, for the gospel in the world, for the purity and unity of the church in the world, and ultimately for the glory of God, demands it.

UPDATE 5/10/13:  The FPCS has recently released a new catechism of its distinctive principles that deals with the subject of the international catholicity of the church.

UPDATE 11/17/14:  See here for a biographical update relevant to the subject of this post.

I would also add that the FPCS has indeed articulated a position on the subjects addressed in this post, although it could be more specific and practical relative to particular situations that are out there.  For example, the new FPCS catechism mentioned in the earlier update makes it clear what those who are in schismatic churches should do:

146 Q. When should individual believers separate from the fellowship of others?
A. The Scriptures enjoin believers to withdraw themselves from those who are professed brethren and who walk disorderly (2 Thess. 3:6), so when men have so rejected sound doctrine, right government, and discipline, or have introduced superstitious worship, or are maintaining a schismatic position, and when an orderly correction of these evils fails, then believers are to separate from such.

The Synod statement from 2013 on the separate existence of the FPCS adds this:

Accordingly, conduct giving the impression that there is no obstacle to association with other Churches undermines the necessity for a separate position and is therefore inconsistent with loyal adherence to the Free Presbyterian Church, and is consequently disapproved of by this Church.

These statements make it clear that we are not to be united with schismatic churches in any way that would suggest that these churches are not schismatic or possess legitimate authority.  This doesn't answer all practical questions, but it certainly narrows the options and puts forward some key principles necessary to deal with the practical issues.