Friday, May 24, 2013

General Revelation and Science

One of the most frequent and consistent themes throughout the Bible is that creation and its elements reveal God's existence and nature. Numerous passages say that some of God's characteristics, such as his righteousness and faithfulness, are expressed in creation. Some say that virtually everyone has some knowledge of God, because nature overwhelmingly testifies to his existence and action. Long passages on this include Job 38-40, Psalm 104, and Acts 17:23-31. Shorter examples include Job 12:7-10; Psalm 19:1-4Psalm 85:10-11Psalm 97:4-6; Habakkuk 3:3; Acts 14:16-17; Romans 1:18-20; and many others. According to the entry for "Creation" in The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery:

The same view of creation that empties nature of divinity also makes it a revelation of God and leaves it filled with pointers to God. The fact that all things find their origin in the creative work of God means that everything, in some way, bears witness to the creation and is revelatory of the Creator. According to the Bible every rock and tree and creature can be said to testify of God, declare his glory and show forth his handiwork (Ps 8:1; 19:1; 104; 148). We might accurately speak of the creation as divine messenger (cf. Ps 104:3-4). (Italics added; cf. C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 69-71)

Or as the Belgic Confession, one of the first Protestant confessions written (in 1561), puts it:

We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.

This is one aspect of what is called "general revelation", that is, revelation that is available to all people in all times (another aspect being the human conscience). This contrasts with "special revelation" which is only revealed to some people in specific times (this would include the Bible and the life of Jesus). While a handful of theologians have tried to deny the doctrine of general revelation, such as Barth and some Dutch Reformed theologians, they did not do so because of the biblical evidence, but rather because their theological systems did not allow for any knowledge of God that does not come through special revelation. Their attempts to get around the numerous biblical statements that creation does reveal the truth about God to everyone who has ever lived are extremely forced, and represent a primary weakness of their otherwise brilliant theologies.

Here are the logical steps by which creation reveals God:

1. Creation reliably testifies about itself.
2. Therefore, creation reliably testifies about itself when it shows itself to be created and ordered.
3. Therefore, we can know from creation that there is a Creator and Orderer.

Point 1 must be true in order for point 2 to be true; or conversely, if point 1 were false, then point 2 would be false as well. Creation could not reliably testify about itself when it shows itself to be created if it didn't reliably testify about itself. The former (point 2) is a sub-category of the latter (point 1). Similarly, point 2 must be true in order for point 3 to be true. If creation did not reliably show itself to be created and ordered, then our belief derived from our experience with creation that there must be a Creator and Orderer would not be valid, since it would be based on unreliable grounds.

Now, Scripture only explicitly states point 3. But point 3 presupposes point 2, and point 2 presupposes point 1. Therefore, the idea that the interaction of everything in the universe points to God presupposes that every individual element of creation can be trusted to display the truth about itself. This extends to every level of creation, and thus is true of recent scientific discoveries unknown in previous times. For example, the incredible degree of fine-tuning that the universe must have in order for life to be possible was unknown for most of human history; the space-time density, for example, must be fine-tuned to within one part in 10120 in order for any kind of physical life to exist. But the fact that this property wasn't even discovered until the 20th century doesn't mean that it doesn't show itself to come from God's hand and display his glory. In fact, the degree of complexity necessary for the occurrence of life is one of the most commonly cited evidences that the universe was made by an intelligent agent.

I should point out that this doesn't necessarily mean that we infer the existence of a Creator and Orderer from the order we find in nature. It can mean that, but it can also refer to the fact, as Alvin Plantinga points out in Warranted Christian Belief, that when we see a beautiful landscape we immediately and spontaneously form beliefs about God. Nature, then, doesn't have to function as a premise for an inference, but merely as the grounds for a belief, where "grounds" is understood simply to refer to the experience that produces the belief. In a similar way, when I see a tree in front of me, I spontaneously (i.e., non-inferentially) form the belief "There's a tree in front of me". The experience of the tree is the ground for the belief, but it does not function as the premise of an argument -- I don't infer the existence of the tree from the fact that I am experiencing it.

Part of the reason the doctrine of general revelation is interesting is because it seems to sanction physical science. Physics, chemistry, biology, and similar sciences are the systematic analysis of nature. Since nature is a revelation from God, these sciences are the systematic analysis of God's general revelation; in a similar way, theology is the systematic analysis of God's special revelation. Of course, the analyses may be flawed for any number of reasons, for both the scientist and the theologian. But this doesn't give us room to just reject them out of hand. It seems that the Christian is obligated, from the Bible itself, to accept the findings of science -- although not uncritically, of course. That's an important point: there is space for the believer to disagree with the prevailing interpretation of God's revelation, whether the interpreters are theologians or scientists. But this is an exceptional situation; it can't be appealed to in order to reject a source of revelation in its entirety.

One issue that general revelation raises is whether general revelation functions as an independent source of revelation, or whether it must be interpreted or filtered through the lens of special revelation before its testimony can be trusted. Some Christians, such as young-earth creationists, claim that the testimony of general revelation only holds when it is understood from within a biblical perspective. This is an attempt to avoid having to take contemporary science seriously by claiming that it is misinterpreting the testimony of nature.

I'll go over one of the primary texts for general revelation in order to respond to this charge: Romans 1:18-20. This passage begins with the following statement: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness..." Some understand this last phrase to essentially overturn the doctrine of general revelation. While creation testifies to God, this knowledge is suppressed; and so whatever witness creation displays is ignored.

But what exactly is being suppressed here? Go back to the three steps by which creation bears witness: 1, it reliably testifies about itself; 2, therefore it reliably testifies about itself when it reveals itself to be created and ordered; 3, we believe in the existence and action of God because of this order. Do those who deny God's existence deny that the universe reliably presents itself to us (point 1)? Well, apart from a few philosophers and some insane people -- and yes, there is some overlap between those categories -- the answer is obviously no. Do they deny that the universe is ordered (point 2)? Well, again, apart from lunatics, philosophers, and lunatic philosophers, the answer is of course not. What they deny is that we can validly know God's existence from this order (point 3). In other words, the suppression that Romans 1:18 speaks of is not a suppression of the facts of nature, it is a suppression of the move from the facts of nature to the existence of a Creator: it is a suppression of the recognition that there must be a God. There is nothing in this passage, or any other passage in the Bible, to suggest that our observations of the universe can't be trusted to reveal the truth about the universe. Nor is there anything to suggest that most of our inferences from these observations can't be trusted. It's only when it points to God that it becomes suppressed.

The passage continues in verses 19 and 20 by stating "...since what may be known about God is plain to them [men], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse."

This passage makes several claims. Since I've already used numbers, here I'll use letters:

a. The testimony of creation is available to all people at all periods of human history. This is evident from the statement that this testimony has been present “since the creation of the world.” Therefore, this witness was available to people who lived in times prior to the Bible's composition, and who had no special revelation from God; as such, it was and is available to those in post-biblical times who lived in places where they did not have access to special revelation, as well as those who live in such places today.

b. The testimony of creation is a reliable revelation of God; or, in other words, creation reveals the truth about God. This is evident from the statements that creation's testimony reveals "what may be known about God", and that it reveals "God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature".

c. The testimony of creation is clear and understandable. This is evident from the statements that it has "been clearly seen", "understood", and "is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them".

d. God holds people responsible for their response to the testimony of creation. This is evident from the statement that they "are without excuse".

Thus, people who have never heard the gospel message and never read a Bible verse (point a) still have some true knowledge of God through his creation (point b) which communicates to them clearly and understandably (point c), and they are held accountable for their response to it (point d).

So, if people who have never received any special revelation from God are still given clear and true communication of who God is from creation and are held accountable for their response to this communication, what does it mean? It means that creation is an autonomous witness to God, and its testimony is valid independently of the Bible. It does not have to be interpreted through the lens of the Bible before it can be considered to be a valid and reliable revelation from God. The only alternative to this is simply unsound: if we deny this it could be claimed that, by not having access to special revelation, those who have not heard the gospel simply didn't have access to the right filter or lens or interpretative framework from which they could accurately interpret creation's testimony. But this contradicts the claim that creation's testimony is understandable (point c) to those who do not have special revelation (point a). Moreover, even if we ignore this for the moment, we have to remember that God is just. He would not hold people accountable for their response to something (point d) that he never gave them access to. In order for creation to be a true and trustworthy revelation to those who don't have any other revelation -- as the Bible says it is -- its validity must hold independently of the Bible.

So I think the Bible requires the believer to accept the testimony of creation, even when that testimony is a very specific article of knowledge or something only recently discovered. Since science is the systematic analysis of God's general revelation, the believer should accept the findings of science -- again, not uncritically. The believer can't say "I accept the Bible, but not science", since the requirement to accept the testimony of creation comes from the Bible.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Grand Inquisitor

One of the most important, thought-provoking, and deeply Christian passages in all of literature: The Grand Inquisitor passage from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Read it at your own risk.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Do the laws of logic prove that God exists?

Interesting post by Bill Vallicella, which comments on an article, "The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An Argument for God from Logic". You could make a similar argument from mathematics. Vallicella concludes that the argument does not command assent, although it is certainly suggestive.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Quote of the Day

This encompassing outlook on the Christian faith has never been better expressed than by the leading character, Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited:

The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of "complexes" and "inhibitions" -- catchwords of the decade -- and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophic system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.

Within the context of such an outlook, individuals with standing in a particular professional field sometimes feel free, or even obligated, to cloak themselves in the authority of their area of expertise and make grandiose statements such as this by a professor of biological sciences:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear. ... There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That's the end for me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either.

Logically viewed, this statement is simply laughable. Nowhere within the published, peer-reviewed literature of biology -- even evolutionary biology -- do any of the statements of which the professor is "absolutely certain" appear as valid conclusions of sound research. One trembles to think that an expert in the field would not know this or else would feel free to disregard it. Biology as a field of research and knowledge is not even about such issues. It simply does not deal with them. They do not fall within the province of its responsibilities. Yet it is very common to hear such declamations about the state of the universe offered up in lectures and writing by specialists in certain areas who have a missionary zeal for their personal causes.

Dallas Willard
Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Some more reflections on Dallas Willard

Over the last couple of days I've told several people about Dallas Willard, and encouraged them to dig into his writings. Something I've told them I have not mentioned here before. The two books by him that I know best are Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God and The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Bearing in mind that Willard was a Husserlian phenomenologist, I think Hearing God is essentially a phenomenology of religious experience, and The Spirit of the Disciplines is a theological phenomenology of the body, how the body influences the spiritual life.

The spiritual books of his that I haven't read yet are The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship. However, I have read several of the chapters, as they were published as articles prior to the book: I provided some of the links to these chapters here. The other book is Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, which I mentioned here. I started it yesterday.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Dallas Willard has passed away

I just learned that he died on May 8, five days ago (of pancreatic cancer). At first I was devastated when I heard this. More than anyone else, he is responsible for whatever paltry spiritual growth I've accomplished over the last 15 years or so. I sent him a copy of my dissertation in January, thanking him for his writings and telling how much they have meant to me. I've prayed for his ongoing projects, still listed on his website, and which will now never be written and which I will never get to read: The Rage against Identity: Philosophical Roots of Deconstruction, and The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. These things just devastate me.

Then I read this reflection by John Ortberg, which starts off by pointing out:

When Dallas Willard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late summer of 2012, one of his reflections was: "I think that, when I die, it might be some time until I know it." Dallas was always saying things that would never occur to anyone else. He said that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life. Jesus himself said that the one who trusts in him will not taste death. 
This morning Dallas Willard passed away. I'm not sure if anyone has told him yet.

So for me to be devastated at his passing is to forget everything he taught. I encourage everyone to read, absorb, and meditate on his books and other writings; here's his website. He was a man that God used to accomplish great things.

Hebrews 5:12-14 says "In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." I very much doubt I have much in the way of spiritual maturity, but regardless, Dallas Willard's writings is the solid food.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Here's the trailer for Ender's Game:

I saw Asa Butterfield, who plays Ender, in Hugo recently and was very impressed. Now all I have to see is the trailer for The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag and I'll be happy.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


The US Air Force is continuing their successful investigations into scramjets. The most recent example is the X-51A Waverider which traveled 230 miles in six minutes. Prior to their recent string of successes, the longest a scramjet had ever worked was about ten seconds before melting, and now they're shutting them down deliberately. I'm really excited about this: it's an old technology that was abandoned in favor of other areas of research that is finally being given the attention it deserves. While we're on that, you might want to check out Vintage Space which I also have listed on the sidebar.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hurricane watch

There's an enormous hurricane going on right now. At the north pole. Of Saturn. Try to avoid the area.