Authors Theodore Cabal and Peter Rasor II have done a great service to the Church with the publication of their new book, Controversy of the Ages, which offers a historical perspective and a proposed way forward for the ongoing debate in the Church over the age of the universe and how historical science should be squared with the book of Genesis.
In my opinion, the most helpful section of the book is the summary of the "conservatism principle" in chapter 2. The principle suggests that believers should work through science-theology questions using a process that involves two assumptions and two interpretive steps:
Assumption #1: Assume biblical inerrancy, but not inerrant interpretation. Remember that while Scripture cannot err, interpreters and expositors of Scripture can err in various ways.
Assumption #2: Assume that nature and Scripture cannot disagree. Since God is the author of the book of nature and the book of Scripture, they cannot conflict when both are rightly interpreted. And when there is conflict, theologians should not necessarily be the only arbiters in the dispute. In matters such as geometry, astronomy, music, and medicine, theologians are not more expert than specialists in those fields.
Interpretive Step #1: If a new scientific theory conflicts with the traditional interpretation of a Bible passage, keep the new theory at arm's length for the time being. Remember that new scientific theories can be errant interpretations of nature.
Interpretive Step #2: If the new scientific theory is ultimately proven true (or at least extremely likely), you may finally conclude that the traditional interpretation of the Bible, on that particular point, was wrong, at which point you may start a new interpretive tradition.
The authors very helpfully offer a historical example of this process at work. For centuries, scientists and theologians believed in a geocentric universe because all the observational evidence, not to mention the traditional interpretation of the Bible, affirmed it. However, with the discoveries of Copernicus, the geocentric model became increasingly untenable. Even so, the vast majority of theologians kept the heliocentric model at arm's length, seeing that it was still just an unproven theory (and you don't jettison centuries-old Bible interpretations for new and unproven scientific theories). However, after Isaac Newton's discoveries about gravity and Galileo's discoveries with the telescope, heliocentrism was discovered to be an indisputable fact: the earth does in fact revolve around the sun, rather than the other way around. Once this fact had been firmly established (which took a number of decades), and all alternative theories for the new discoveries had been proven untenable (which also took a number of decades), virtually all theologians concluded that the traditional interpretation of Scripture was in error and they established a new interpretive tradition--one that recognized the "language of appearance" in Scripture. No central doctrines of the Christian faith were harmed by jettisoning the traditional geocentric interpretation of the Bible, and this reworking ensured that natural revelation and special revelation continued to enjoy harmony. This is the "conservatism principle" at work.
This obviously has application for our own day, when new scientific facts, and theories about those facts, seem to pour in by the hour. How should the evangelical community respond? By remembering the two assumptions and two interpretive principles mentioned above, by moving slowly and thinking carefully about new scientific theories and new interpretive options, and by carefully vetting each new attempt to harmonize the book of nature with the book of Scripture before adopting a new idea. And always remember:
The complex relation between God's Word and his creation requires that Christians be careful with our confessional duties while being honest about our incomplete knowledge...
Not only do science-theology controversies force entire generations of Christians to wait on the Lord for solution, individual believers also have a normal progression of growth in knowledge. It is absolutely proper, and at times even required, to confess the truth about a matter. But revelational propriety also demands humble admission when we don't know and kindness toward those with whom we disagree...
For those who believe they understand things rightly, they should humbly and patiently teach so as to nurture the unity of God's church. And if boundaries must be drawn, and at times they must, may they be outlined with exquisite Christian kindness and gentleness. (p.223-25)
Michael Vlach, Professor of Theology at The Master's Seminary in California, just authored an excellent new volume on the Kingdom of God entitled He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God. This 638-page book offers a survey of the kingdom theme from Genesis to Revelation, and makes a very convincing case for premillennialism. Why should you devote significant time to reading and studying the kingdom? Vlach explains on the last page of his book:
The Kingdom of God is the great and grand theme of Scripture... Having a proper view of the kingdom gives the believer a clearer understanding of God's purposes for this planet and a real hope for a wonderful future. When one contemplates the kingdom how can we not help but be excited for its coming? How can it not affect how we live our lives? How can we not be motivated to share Jesus with those who do not know Him?
Several times a year I am invited to give the opening prayer at the Marshall City Council's monthly meeting. Here is the text of the prayer I offered at today's meeting:
Let us pray.
Blessed are you, O LORD, forever and ever; for yours is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty. All that is in heaven and on the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. For these things we give you our thanks, O God, and we praise your glorious Name.
And we pray for your blessing on our city, O LORD, and upon each of its leaders. We ask that you would give each of them a holy fear of your Name; that you would guide them in all the decisions that they make; that you would grant to them a measure of your wisdom, that our city may prosper for years to come. Help them to serve you and others with integrity, righteousness, fairness, and love. Give them a hatred of sin and a holy reverence for your Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Grant them courage to stand for what is right, to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to their care, and to be a voice for those in our city who need an advocate. And as they do so, LORD, let them receive the honor they are due from the people who elected them.
Lord, teach us all to repent when we sin, to pursue reconciliation when our fellowship with you or others is broken. Wash away all of our shortcomings and all of our sins in Christ's atoning blood. Help us all to remember that we live our lives before your face, and that you are the Judge of all the earth. Prompt us to seek you while you may still be found. In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, we pray it. Amen.
The U. S. State Department just released its annual report on international religious freedom. You can read the full report by clicking here. In short, the report finds that "international religious freedom is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations." In fact, it says that "The blatant assaults have become so frightening—attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship—that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. Many observers have become numb to violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion."
I have several friends in Turkey, so I immediately turned to that section of the report. It lists Turkey as a "Tier 2" nation, which means that its behavior toward religious minorities is "deplorable," but apparently not as deplorable as some other countries. Regarding Protestantism in Turkey, the report states that:
The Protestant population in Turkey is estimated to be
between 6,000 and 7,000 people [out of a total population
of 80 million!]. In 2016, as in previous years, there were
reports of Protestant churches being vandalized and
pastors receiving hate speech via text messages, Facebook,
and e-mails. The community has complained that the
government has not addressed their concerns or provided
sufficient protection to targeted churches or pastors.
Let's remember to keep our Christian brothers and sisters around the world in prayer as they continue to face challenges simply because they declare, "Jesus is Lord."
Eerdmans Publishing Company has announced its publication date for The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia--November 30, 2017. Here is what the publisher is saying about the volume:
With more than four hundred entries, The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia provides a wide-ranging perspective on Edwards, offering succinct synopses of topics large and small from his life, thought, and work. Summaries of Edwards's ideas as well as descriptions of the people and events of his times are all easy to find, and suggestions for further reading point to ways to explore topics in greater depth. Comprehensive and reliable, with contributions from the premier Edwards scholars in the world, this encyclopedia will be the standard reference work on one of the most extraordinary figures in American history.
I am certainly not among "the premier Edwards scholars in the world," but I was privileged to contribute an article on Edwards's doctrine of Immutability to the volume and was so grateful for that privilege. If you would like to pre-order a copy, you can do so here.
(Governor Rick Snyder on the right, Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley on the left, and me in the back)
Last night I was privileged to be one of only two Christian ministers to attend the annual gathering of the Michigan chapter of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I was invited by a member of my church, Keith den Hollander, who runs the Midwest chapter of the Christian Coalition. At the reception preceding the main event Keith and I spotted Governor Snyder and his aide, so we decided to make our way over and introduce ourselves. Both were very personable and knew my city, Marshall, very well. At the end of our brief conversation the Governor's aide asked me for a business card. I reached into my wallet, but to my surprise I was all out of cards. I must have handed them all out earlier in the week and failed to re-stock. However, I did have a few Community Groups invite cards left (C-Groups being a home-based Bible study ministry sponsored by my church), complete with my personal contact information. I asked if the Governor would accept one of these in lieu of a business card. The aide said yes. So, I want my Group to know that I have done my duty--I invited a non-member to attend our Group! Since it seems unlikely that Governor Snyder will become a weekly attendee, however, I guess I should keep on inviting my friends from Marshall!
The image above was taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe as it was leaving our solar system. The tiny dot in the photo is Earth, and the streak passing through it is a ray of sunlight. I love to quote the late Carl Sagan's reflection on the picture: "We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings...every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam..."
And of course, our pale blue dot is just one speck, orbiting a single star, in a galaxy with more than 100 billion other stars. And now, Astronomy Magazine has just reported that astronomers believe there are at least one trillion galaxies in the known universe! Thoughtful people may be tempted to ask, "does all of this mean that we humans are insignificant? That our lives are meaningless?" As a Christian pastor and theologian, I answer with an emphatic "No!" Here's why:
1. Value is not determined by size. A one-ounce diamond has more value than a one-pound lump of coal.
2. "Bigness" is a relative concept. Compared to us the universe is immense, but what is it compared to its Maker? To the Infinite, even a 14-billion light-year, trillion-galaxy universe must be small.
3. Our hearts tell us that we matter. Our knowledge informs us that we are small, but our hearts tell us that that our lives really do mean something--that what we believe, say, and do really matters. I would suggest to you that our hearts tell us this because it is true.
4. The cross of Christ tells us that we matter. Small though we may be, our Maker determined to send himself into our world, in the person of his Son, to live, die, and rise again for us. That means we matter to him. And if we matter to him, we matter!
But why such a huge universe? I think Psalm 19 offers us a compelling answer: "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands." In other words, the bigness of the universe exists to proclaim the glory of its Maker, so that sentient beings like us might know him, praise him, and trust him. This is why the psalm ends with this personal meditation: "May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer."
Something to ponder as you look up at the stars this evening.