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book reviews

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Book Review: “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her”

hs-gibsonFrom Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective is an extremely in-depth look at the doctrine of “definite atonement” (more commonly known as “limited atonement.” The editors define the doctrine in the introduction: “The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone” (Kindle location 463).

Due to the length of this book, I will split my review into broad comments on positives and negatives of the book, with a few specifics. It should be noted I didn’t simply reduce the positives to areas I agreed or negatives to disagreements. Rather, I have tried to be as fair as possible and show several areas of interest for this uniquely important work. I look forward to any comments you’d drop off with your own thoughts.

Positives

The most obvious positive of the book is its magisterial scope. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her is a simply huge study which touches upon multiple avenues of research related to the topic of definite atonement. The book touches upon almost every conceivable aspect of the doctrine of limited atonement, from church history to biblical theology to pastoral implications and evangelism. As Daniel Strange comments in the chapter on “The ‘Uncomfortability’ of the ‘Unevangelized’ for a Universal Atonement”: “No doctrine is an island” (Kindle location 14696).

The portions of the book which deal with specific authors are extremely interesting. The chapter on Calvin, for example, shows (in my mind) beyond a reasonable doubt that Calvin–at the least–would have found definite atonement a logical path for his theology to take. The chapter on “Blaming Beza” highlights some interesting aspects of the development of the doctrine which were fascinating.

Many chapters could be held up as “highlights,” but I particularly would say that Strange’s aforementioned chapter, which provides an argument that any view which holds that at least some are not saved is a form of limited atonement was a major highlight of the book. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Strange, his argument forces those who disagree with him to contend with it. Other major highlights are the chapters on Calvin by Paul Helm (an author whose previous work I have enjoyed), the chapter on John Owen (which highlights some aspects of Owen’s teaching I found particularly interesting), and the chapter on “The Triune God” and definite atonement by Robert Letham.

To say that these are “highlights” is to do injustice to the work as a whole, however, which simply provides a comprehensive argument for definite atonement. Even as one who does not hold to the doctrine, I was impressed by the incredible scope of the work and very interested in the historical development of the doctrine as it was highlighted therein. This book is a good read, even if you ultimately disagree with its conclusions. And, if you do disagree, you will be forced to think long and hard about your disagreement.

Negatives

Perhaps the biggest issue is that at multiple points, conclusions drawn from evidence seems overstated. One example, drawn from the chapter on Definite Atonement in Church History, states that Justin Martyr fairly clearly held to definite atonement. Now, I’m not claiming to be a patristic scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems to me the passages cited are hardly a resounding endorsement of definite atonement. Indeed, Martyr said that “[Christ] was going to endure, cleansing through his blood those who believed in him” (Kindle Location 1088). I’m not at all sure why this would be taken as evidence for definite atonement, because apart from universalists, anyone who believes Christ died for the salvation of humanity would also hold that Christ’s death ultimately cleanses the elect; those who believe. None who disbelieve are ultimately cleansed, for the application of Christ’s atonement was not brought about. Now the point is not to demonstrate this latter view is correct; my point is merely that the conclusion drawn here is actually overstated.

Going with the same section, one could just as easily take the passage cited from Martyr about how Christ “ransomed” us as allegedly pointing to the ransom theory of atonement. The problem is this latter case would also be a clear overstatement. Only by starting with a paradigm and reading Martyr through that lens does the alleged evidence turn out to support that conclusion.

Another example comes from the chapter on “Problematic Texts” by Thomas Schreiner. There, in dealing with 1 Timothy 2:1-7, he states “The immediate [contextual] reference to ‘kings and all who are in high positions’ (v. 2) suggests that various classes of people are in view” (Kindle location 9564). For support, he cites further context and a commentary. However, on face value alone, if 1 Timothy 2:2 is indeed that which limits the scope of the passage, one would have to wonder how “kings and… high positions” could be comprehensive in the way required by “all.” I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I by no means rank among kings or those in high places, but I do think that I am part of “all” or at least “various classes of people…” Moreover, Schreiner seems to think that v. 2 is the limiting factor, but the flow of the passage seems to fit more with the notion that all people includes those who are kings and those in high places and that Paul is simply emphasizing the latter group as particularly worth praying for (after all, leaders are those most in need of God’s guiding hand). Schreiner goes on to argue based upon this that the best reading is, again, “all kinds of people” not merely “all people.”

Apart from the fact that Paul could have simply said “all kinds of people” to make it clear that that were his intended meaning, the text itself again goes against Schreiner’s view, because its context is not “all kinds” but rather “kings” or “those in high places…” In any case, I would think this passage would lead to caution about the conclusion, not the absolute conclusion given later: “[T]he pastorals… focus on salvation being accomplished for all without distinction, both Jews and Gentiles…” (Kindle location 9989).

Unfortunately, examples like this may be easily multiplied. Throughout the book, conclusions seem to be drawn prior to the evidence, and so evidence is made to neatly fit with the conclusion. Conclusions often seem to be overstated throughout, without much caution for some of the more difficult passages or acknowledgement that there is diversity among even those who hold to definite atonement on the interpretation of various biblical passages or authors.

Conclusion

Looking back over the review, I can’t help but think that it is inadequate. The scope of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her is so massive that it simply cannot be adequately covered in a review of readable length. Anyone who wishes to deny the doctrine of definite atonement must contend with this work and engage with it critically. Those who hold to definite atonement will find their view ably defended. As a reader, I was challenged as much as I was engaged. I recommend the book highly for those interested in this doctrine, though I do wish there were perhaps some more acknowledgement of the real difficulties on various points.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of the book through Crossway. I was not obligated by the publisher to give any specific type of feedback whatsoever.

Links

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Source

David Gibson and Jonathan  Gibson, eds., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Book Review: “The Myth of Religious Violence” by William Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence (hereafter MRV) examines the oft-perpetuated notion that religion causes violence. Cavanaugh levels an attack against this notion that comes in two primary directions: 1) He argues that “ideologies and institutions labeled ‘secular’ can be just as violent as those labeled ‘religious'”; 2) He argues that the “twin categories of religious and secular” are constructs which are used to “provide secular social orders with a stock character, the religious fanatic, to serve as enemy” (3-5).

Violence in the name of…

Cavanaugh first turns to the analysis of violence. He argues that rather than just declaring “religion” violent, people should engage in an empirical study. In analyzing various “ideologies, practices, and institutions” like “Islam, Marxism, capitalism, Christianity, nationalism, Confucianism, secularism, Hinduism…” “A careful examination of the varieties of each [worldview] and the empirical conditions under which each does in fact support violence is helpful and necessary. What is not helpful is to divide the above list into religious and secular phenomena and then claim that the former are more prone to violence… such a division is arbitrary and unsustainable on either theoretical or empirical grounds” (16).

Next, Cavanaugh analyzes three ways that religion is supposed to be tied intrinsically to violence. These are that “religion causes violence because it is (1) absolutist, (2) divisive, and (3) insufficiently rational” (17-18). MRV follows several important thinkers who argue from each camp. Cavanaugh concludes that:

[T]here is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, particular construals of Islam or Christianity contribute to violence… Where the above arguments [about the intrinsic ties of religion to violence]–and others like them–fail is in trying to separate a category called religion with a peculiar tendency toward violence from a putatively secular reality that is less prone to violence. There is no reason to suppose that so-called secular ideologies such as nationalism, patriotism, capitalism, Marxism, and liberalism are any less prone to be absolutist, divisive, and irrational than belief in, for example, the biblical God (54-55).

The Myth of Religion

In a very real sense, MRV could just as easily be titled The Myth of Religion. Cavanaugh argues extensively for the conclusion that “Within the west, religion was invented as a transhistorical and transcultural impulse embedded in the human heart, essentially distinct from the public business of government and economic life” (120).

The attempt to define “religion” has “nothing close to agreement among scholars…” (57). In fact, “[t]here is a significant and growing body of scholars… who have been exploring the ways that the very category religion has been constructed in different times and different places… Religion is a constructed category, not a neutral descriptor of a reality that is simply out there in the world” (58). Following Jonathan Z. Smith, Cavanaugh states, “religion is not simply found, but invented. The term religion has been used in different times and places by different people according to different interests” (58).

Cavanaugh argues towards these conclusion through multiple lines of evidence. First, the concept of religion itself is different across different times and places. The Western notion of religion is not mirrored in other cultures (61). Yet even in the west, the concept of what denoted “religion” evolved. The concept was used simply to mean “worship” in the past (63). Through the medieval period, religion basically just meant “rites” or “piety”: religion was “not a universal genus of which Christianity is a particular species” (64-65).

Thus, religion was “invented in the West.” Now it has come to mean a “universal genus of which the various religions are species” (69). Part of this development was due to a need in the Reformation to demarcate differences between the varying schools of thought (72ff). When moderns use the concept religion in a universal fashion, such as Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) did, the problem “is that it is unfalsifiable. In constructing an a priori religion in the minds of all people, Herbert [and those like him] has made his theory impervious to empirical evidence. All evidence is seen and interpreted through the lens of his religious view a priori” (77). “There was a time when religion, as modern people use the term, was not, and then it was invented” (81).

MRV then outlines two ways to define religion, either through a substantavist–one which focuses on the content of religion–or functionalist–which focuses on how a practice functions–approach. The problem with a substantivist definition is that “even if one were able to come up with a coherent, transhistorical, and transcultural definition of religion which would include things like Christianity and Confucianism and Buddhism and exclude things like Marxism and nationalism and capitalism, it would not tell us anything worthwhile about the cuases of violence. Indeed, to exclude [the latter three] a priori from an investigation of violence in the service of ideology in fact distorts the results of any such study” (105). Functionalist definitions fare slightly better because they define religion in such a way that “‘if it looks like a religion and acts like a religion, then it is a religion'” (109). This approach is capable of including things like the American Civil Religion.

Thus, Cavanaugh states that “there is no transhistorical or transcultural concept of religion. Religion has a history, and what counts as religion and what does not in any given context depends on different configurations of power and authority… the attempt to say that there is a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is separable from secular phenomena is itself  part of a particular configuration of power, that of the modern, liberal nation-state as it developed in the West (59).

What does this mean for violence and religion? Cavanaugh proposes a test:

The crucial test, however, is what people do with their bodies. It is clear that, among those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States, there are very few who would be willing to kill in the name of the Christian God, whereas the willingness, under certain circumstances, to kill and die for the nation in war is generally taken for granted (122).

The Creation Myth of the Wars of Religion

The story goes that, after the Protestant Reformation divided Christendom along religious lines, Catholics and Protestants began killing each other for holding to different doctrines. The wars of religion… demonstrated to the West the inherent danger of public religion. The solution to the problem lay in the rise of the modern state, in which religious loyalties were marginalized and the state secured a monopoly on the means of violence…

This story is more than just a prominent example of the myth of religious violence. It has a foundational importance for the secular West, because it explains the origin of its way of life and its system of governance. It is a creation myth for modernity (123).

Following the lines of thinking of Voltaire, John Locke, and others, Cavanaugh argues that the myth of religious violence is perpetuated in order to marginalize that which is considered religious and give rise to the nation-state. According to this myth, “All theological religions are to be tolerated, provided they do not interfere with the obligations of citizens to the state…” (129). The myth is that religion is divisive and that they “fight over doctrines or ‘religious creeds'” so that “the state steps in to make peace” (130).

Cavanaugh shows that this myth is indeed false. The “wars of religion” had any number of motivating factors. The use of this story is not so much to tell a truth as it is a means by which to legitimize the nation-state. He argues towards these conclusions by showing that many “wars of religion” were in fact wars of economy, wars of power structures, and the like. He notes four primary factors for this myth to work: that combatants were motivated by religious difference, that the primary cause of war was religion, that religious causes are analytically separable from political, economic, and social causes at the time of the wars, and that the rise of the modern state was not a cause of the wars (141-142). He then analyzes each of these in turn based upon the historical record and shows that these all fail to account for the actual history of the “wars of religion.” In fact, the opposite is true in each case (142-177).

“We must conclude that the myth of the wars of religion is finally incredible, which is to say, false” (177).

The Uses of the Myth

Perhaps the most challenging and paradigm-shifting portion of the book is that which focuses upon the uses of the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that the myth is so perpetuated because of its usefulness.

First, he analyzes the use of the myth in building the “wall of separation” between church and state. He examines a number of supreme courses and how the myth of religious violence was used to favor the constructed notion of “secular” over that of “religious” (183ff).

The myth of religious violence is used to create a religious “other” which can then be exploited, coerced, and denigrated. “[R]eligion–or more precisely, religion in public–is what the liberal nation-state saves us from” (192). History is revised in order to show how religion is that which causes violence, while the secular nation-state is that toward which we should turn for salvation.

Oddly, it is permitted, encouraged, and sometimes even required to give devotion to the nation state, while this is not religious. “We are all Americans, and devotional exercises [the pledge of allegiance, venerating of the flag, etc.] meant to instill love of our country are unitive, not divisive. Such exercises, however, are not religion. Patriotism, in this world view, is defined over against public religion. To allow that patriotism might be a type of religion and might carry its own dangers of violence would threaten the very basis of our social order” (192).

On a functionalist definition of religion, however, nationalism counts as religion. “American religion” has “saints (the founding fathers)… shrines (Independence Hall)… relics (the Liberty Bell)… holy scriptures (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution)… martyrs (Lincoln)… inquisition (school boards that enforce patriotism)…” and various religious festivals (Flag Day, the Fourth of July) (117). Nationalism is prevalent in many countries. Religion is privatized, secular nationalism is standardized and enforced. Not only that, but “Only the nation-state may kill” (118).

Again, Cavanaugh’s point ties into his earlier discussion: the ties to violence must be an empirical study based upon ideologies, not one based upon constructed categories of religious and secular. These categories are faulty in-and-of themselves. Furthermore, they undermine the possibility of the empirical study of violence. Nationalism and secularism–ideologies in other words–can be every bit as violent as some ideologies called “religion.”

The myth is also used to hide possible “secular” causes for war. Al Qaeda is specifically religious, and the West is all too happy to use this to ignore the fact that its own mistakes in installing regimes in the Middle East has caused the rise of absolutist, controlling states (202ff).

Worst of all, the myth of religious violence has been used to carry out violence against the religious other. Those who perpetuate this myth often use it in order to legitimize violence against the religious person, who, after all, is irrational and incapable of reason due to their religious beliefs. Sam Harris is a prime example of this notion. He argues that “There are other ideologies with which to expunge the last vapors of reasonableness from a society’s discourse, but Islam is undoubtedly one of the best we’ve got” (HarrisThe End of Faith, 136, quoted in Cavanaugh, 214). Furthermore, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them… Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of peaceful means of persuasion while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others” (Ibid, 52-53, quoted in MRV 213). Notice how this works: the religious other is that which is unreasonable and violent; in order to stop their violence, it may be ethical to kill them for their beliefs. Harris is not the only one who perpetuates this ideology. Cavanaugh cites a number of other thinkers who have utilized the myth of religious violence in this fashion.

Killing for religion is bad, killing for the state is often good (219). As Cavanaugh states, “The myth of religious violence thus becomes a justification for the use of violence. We will have peace once we have bombed the Muslims into being reasonable” (215). This analysis of violence again plays off the myth of religious violence: “Violence labeled religious is always irrational, particularly virulent, and reprehensible. Violence labeled secular, on the other hand, no matter how regrettable, is often necessary and sometimes even praiseworthy for the job it does defending us from religious violence” (216).

Violence feeds on the need for enemies, the need to separate us from them. Such binary ways of dividing the world make the world understandable for us, but they also make the world unlivable for many. Doing away with the myth of religious violence is one way of resisting such binaries, and, perhaps, turning some enemies into friends (230).

Conclusion

It is rare that one comes across a book that forces them to rethink just about everything they have thought about a specific issue. William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence is one of those books which will challenge readers on every level of the discussion. It has an extremely broad scope, but argues convincingly and with a depth that seems almost indefeasible.

The myth of religious suffers a number of serious defects. It assumes an unwarranted division between the constructed categories of “religious” and “secular,” it oversimplifies the justification for violence, it is a clear example of a creation myth used for the founding of the nation state, and most alarmingly it is used to justify violence against the religious other.

The myth of religious violence may live on on the popular level, but Cavanaugh has dealt its death blow. Whether it takes 50 years or never happens, the myth has been destroyed.

The review has been lengthy, but that is due to the importance of this topic. I will be expanding on and elaborating Cavanaugh’s ideas over the course of the next 1-2 months. Check back here, where I will post links to future posts, or be sure to follow the blog to catch the posts over the coming weeks.

Finally, I want to say that this book was a gift from an anonymous donor from this site and I must say Thank you, you have been a huge blessing! It was so delightful to receive a book out of the blue, and to have it be so fantastic was another reward.

Source

William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford, 2009).

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Learning to Jump Again” by Anthony Weber

Anthony Weber’s work, Learning to Jump Again, is part memoir of a lost father, part philosophical treatise on the problem of suffering. The focus throughout is Weber’s father and the issues with mourning, suffering, and heroism his life and death brought up.

The book starts with “the Journal”–a series of entries from Weber’s journal during the time surrounding the death of his father. As one who is very close to his father, these entries truly struck home. There were many moments where this reader just lost it in tears. Weber does not hold back, at all. His father was suffering from jaundice due to cancer. He writes, “A friend stopped by that weekend to borrow some tools, and I stammered through an explanation of why my visiting father was yellow… He [the friend] knew that after the fall comes winter, and after the chill comes the cold, and he was mercifully silent” (2).

Weber does not restrict the period of mourning or the discussion thereof to the months immediately surrounding his father’s death; rather, the Journal contains entries as far as eight years (and later) after his father’s death. Christians reading the book are forced to the realization that it is not easy to struggle through these issues. When a beloved father dies, it is not something that passes with the seasons. Even eight years later, he wrote of his withholding himself from his wife and children, and the realization that came with it that he must trust in God, “even if I don’t always understand him” (76-78).

Yet the journal section is not merely a reflection. Weber shares lessons and thoughts he has on mourning, God, and the reality of pain in the world throughout his memoirs. He notes that too many people know about God without knowing God (72-73); refers to the experiences of wrestling God (45); and contrasts the ways and beliefs of “the flesh” with that of reality (33). Throughout this section, there is much for readers to take away.

The second part of the book focuses on the issues behind suffering and the Christian worldview. Weber’s discussion is an admirably easy-to-read introduction to many of the philosophical issues surrounding the problem of evil and other issues. In particular, his discussions of emotions, dreams, and prayer in particular offered a number of insights that readers will be interested in reading more about. Weber included a lot of resources for interested readers to explore, so the book serves as a valuable resource in that regard as well. His discussion of the problem of pain does an excellent job introducing difficult notions like distinguishing between types of the problem of evil (122ff). His discussion of the various possible routes theists can take to discuss the problem of evil is also brief but informative.

Throughout the book there are numerous quotes from various authors. Many of these are novelists such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Dean Koontz, Shakespeare, and C.S. Lewis. Others are from people like Helen Keller, Phillip Yancey, and Scripture. These quotes are often profound and fit the context perfectly. As a reader, this reviewer admits to frequently skimming past quotes when I see them in texts, particularly when they are out of context, but with Learning to Jump Again, the quotes all draw out new emotions, thoughts, and ideas very well. They add to, rather than distract from, the text.

Learning to Jump Again was a bit of a surprise for me. The section of the book that was a memoir served poignantly to draw readers into the heart of a mourning man. But it did not leave readers with that; rather, Weber constantly struggled with issues that Christians at all stages must deal with. Further, the philosophical section which encompassed the latter part of the book is an excellent survey of a number of issues. Many will benefit from the insights Weber provides. The book tugs at the heart strings and gets the mind working. Readers who have already extensively explored the issues of the latter part of the book will benefit from viewing the issues in the context of a memoir. Those who have not will benefit greatly from the discussion throughout the book. I recommend it very highly.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “The Cell’s Design” by Fazale Rana

Arguments for intelligent design often hinge upon what mechanistic, naturalistic means “cannot explain.” The arguments go something like “See feature x, how can naturalistic mechanisms explain x? They cannot. Therefore, ID is true.” There is something to be said for this type of argument. If one simply cannot explain a specific thing by means of the mechanisms suggested, one must look for different means. That said, if the case for intelligent design rested only upon negative arguments, it would not be as robust as if it also had positive evidence.

Fazale Rana’s book, The Cell’s Design, seeks to present just such positive evidence. The sheer volume of fine-tuning required to make a cell work baffles the imagination and, Rana argues, serves as positive evidence for design.

Rana’s argument is an argument from analogy. He draws heavily from William Paley’s “watchmaker” example (If one came across a watch in the sand, they’d know it was designed… Paley argued that one could similarly conclude that life was designed). Rana doesn’t ignore the arguments raised against such analogical reasoning, but confronts them head on. After identifying several criteria which allow proper analogical reasoning (30ff), Rana makes his case for the Creator.

The first line of evidence comes from the machines in the cell. Again, Rana’s approach is analogical, rather than negative. The machine-like nature of the flagellum, along with other motor-like cellular functions presents an argument: “Organisms display design. Therefore, organisms are the product of a creator” (86).

The case doesn’t rest merely upon molecular machines. Rather, that is but one of the many lines of evidence. Rana draws out the implications of several “chicken-and-egg” paradoxes. These include the “mutual interdependence of DNA and proteins” (99), the origin of proteins themselves (100ff), and more (105ff). These systems present a kind of “irreducible complexity in which the system depends on the system to exist” (108).

Other elements of design are present in the cell as well. Aquaporins intricate and detailed workings illustrate the design that is present in the system (111ff). Other detailed, intricate designs (such as collagen, mRNA, and the breakdown of proteins) hint at the need for a designer. But the reasoning is not only supported by the details, it is also bolstered by the structural composition of the cell (126ff). The analogy of cells to machines is strengthened further by the quality control systems within the cell (198ff). Again, the reasoning is analogical–these things are designed, therefore they need a designer.

“Information can’t be separated from the activity of an intelligent agent” (142). The numerous examples of information in the cell lead to the inference of an agent. But it is not only the information’s presence that hints at a designer. Here Rana’s case really builds on and develops the work of other ID theorists. The information alone could be enough to infer an agent, but one must also account for the fact that cellular information follows rules like syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (144ff). It is not merely information, it is the use of that information and the rules governing that use that strengthen the case for an agent behind the information.

One of the most amazing parts of The Cell’s Design is the chapter called “A Style All His Own.” Darwinian evolution, if rewound, would come out different ways every time. Different mutations would occur, which would lead to different organisms. What is not expected, on Darwinism, is a convergence pattern in evolution. When the same templates keep showing up through independent routes of development, it provides strong evidence for a designer. Yet this “molecular convergence” is exactly what scientists have discovered again and again. On pages 207-214 Rana writes, with citations from scientific journals, of no less than 100 examples of molecular convergence. As a reader, one can’t help but be stunned as they go through these pages. Over and over, there is evidence that the same designs show up in different places, independently, throughout nature. As Rana writes, “if life emanates from a Creator, it’s reasonable to expect he would use the same designs repeatedly…” (215). And this repetition of design is found in life’s most basic components: DNA (216ff).

Rana does not ignore detractors arguments against his position. One counter-argument to Rana’s conclusions is the presence of poorly-designed mechanisms in nature. Yet Rana effectively nullifies these examples, citing how many of them have turned out to be optimally tuned for life, and how others may be expected to be equally tuned (258ff).

The Cell’s Design is an extremely difficult read, but it does not leave readers who are not scientists to flounder. Rana’s second and third chapters provide some basic biological understanding which readers must have to understand the argument throughout the rest of the book. There is also a 12-page glossary at the back of the book which will let those unfamiliar with the terminology follow along. That said, this is not an easy book. The argument is heavily scientific and involves an exploration, in extreme detail, of the mechanisms and machines at work in the cell. The book presents a fantastic case for ID, but not at the expense of the details.

Finally, it is important to underscore the reasoning behind Rana’s conclusions. His argument is abductive. He explicitly outlines it:

1) X is observed

2) If Y were true, then X would be expected.

3) There is good reason to believe that Y is true.

In the case of the cell:

1) Design is observed in biochemical systems.

2) If life stemmed from the direct work of a Creator, the elegant design of biochemical systems would be expected.

3) There is good reason to believe that life is the product of a Creator (276, these arguments are an exact quote).

After reading through The Cell’s Design, this reader cannot help but agree with this argument. Over and over again, Rana has drawn out the exquisite design in the cell. The positive evidence is there, life is designed.

The Cell’s Design presents a phenomenal case for a designer of life. Those interested in exploring intelligent design should add this book to their list. It is not an easy read, by any means, but it provides some explicit, positive evidence for the conclusion that a Creator exists. Those wishing to deny this fact will find much with which they must contend in Rana’s work. I recommend it without reservation.

Source:

Fazale Rana, The Cell’s Design (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008).

Disclaimer:  I was provided with a review copy of this book by Reasons to Believe. You can learn more about this science-faith think tank at reasons.org.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Diamonds in the Dust” by Shirley Mowat Tucker

Recently widowed–her husband murdered–and living in fear, Ida Morgan feels utterly alone. Suddenly, a young girl, whom she calls Moses, floats into her life and sets off a series of events that awakens Ida to even more of the horrors of South Africa–horrors often hidden behind the scenes.

Ida’s interactions with Moses (and Moses’ siblings) lead her to a fork in the road: she can either confront her fear and help these children, or she can return to her safe, easier life.

But Ida is not the only character Shirley Mowat Tucker follows in Diamonds in the Dust, there are her neighbors, whose silver-lined lives may just be a facade; a man with a dark past, trapped by his circumstances; and others. Each character feels real. They each have their flaws, but the reader cannot help but be sucked in by their stories.

One tremendous strength of the book is how the reader is shown two worlds. On the one side is the world of Ida and her neighbors, on the other is the world of the children and others. One world needs no hope–it is “normal”; the other world must create hope from the horrible circumstances in which its people seem trapped.

Perhaps most interesting is the way it deals with God. It’s not the kind of Christian Fiction which throws God in the reader’s face every page. God, rather, works behind the scenes. He works through people. It’s a very realistic take on how God works in even the worst circumstances. “He has ears.”

Diamonds in the Dust comes out on December 1, 2011. You can check out the author’s web site: http://diamondsinthedust.net/

Christians looking for a quick, engaging read should pick up Diamonds in the Dust. It will open eyes to the issues of disparity that still exist in South Africa (and elsewhere), and it’s just a plain good read.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of Diamonds in the Dust by the publisher. My thanks to Athanatos Publishing Group for the copy of this book.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “A Carpenter’s View of the Bible” by Charlie March

A Carpenter’s View of the Bible (hereafter CVB) by Charlie March is a unique book. It is part memoire, part Bible study, and part an archaeological/carpentry primer.

Throughout the book, there is a palpable sense of wonder with God’s creation. March delights in the hexagonal patterns found throughout nature, from the bee’s hive to the cowfish (7). Moreover, the book is structured around this sense of wonder; filled with the assertion that God is a “builder” (2-3), and our building reflects His.

There is a diversity of topics within CVB, and this sometimes takes away from the cohesiveness of the book, which at a few points seems to flounder. However, March covers the diversity of topics with a flair and insight that keeps it going despite the sometimes disconnected nature of topics.

On the topic of God’s destruction of the peoples of Palestine in the wake of the Hebrews, March writes “God’s perfect justice and righteousness is defined by his treatment toward disobedience and immorality, for which the typical response is his corresponding punishment. He reacts harshly against sin… (28).” He continues on to discuss how Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant show “divine-human collaboration” which can be seen as a “redemptive act” (29).

The joy of God’s “building” plan interwoven with mankind’s struggles therein is a strand March works throughout CVB. His discussion of the Tower of Babel and idols reflects the kind of interesting interplay between memoir, biblical study, and carpentry I hinted at earlier. The Tower, argues March, can be seen as a kind of attempt at protection from another flood–an attempt to reach above the waters and strike at God. The result is “a humanistic building that challenges God’s law” (41). Rather than reacting with destruction in this case, God confuses the languages, thus resulting in a kind of third chance for mankind as they are forced to rebuild once more. But they fail again, by constructing idols. March points out the strangeness that is an idol: it is something that the craftsman must make himself, and then worship. One might rightly ask, “Dude, how does that chunk of wood you harvested from the forest become a god?” (48).

But humans didn’t always fail. March writes that the construction of altars, ‘heaps’, and standing stones is a “physical act” which serves as a “physical marker in our lives to remind us of the passing of significant events” (49).

The chapter on Jericho is where many of the themes in CVB really come together. March not only makes an interesting argument about the symbolism of the wall, but he also delves into the archaeological research done on Jericho and discusses the faith of Rahab. March argues that the key to the story is the wall (again, the elements of memoir remain as he remembers a show, The Time Tunnel, he used to watch). The wall is a symbol of our lives as well as the kind of barriers we can put up to God (62), but they also symbolize strength. March makes an interesting argument that perhaps the entire purpose of God’s rerouting to Jericho wasn’t so much to eliminate a threat to His people (a plausible argument) as it was a specific salvific act. He  argues that God was rescuing the “little lamb who was caught up in the thicket”–Rahab, among the people in Jericho. “[S]imilarly,” argues March, God would “divert the course of history for you and me” (75). One could draw out the implications here and say God did do this in Christ.

Again, March’s discussion of archaeology in conjunction with Sodom is enlightening, and readers will find his discussion there interesting. But March doesn’t leave it with archaeology, he goes on to note that it is important to realize that Sodom was not some ugly town, but a “cool” one which would have the kind of appeal for God’s people that other sinful locales may have for His people today (111-112).

Thinking about Jesus is, of course, a central task of CVB. He is the savior, but we should not forget that “the principle of redemption is not only an event of salvation but an ongoing lifestyle program” (136).

CVB is a fresh, if sometimes disjointed, look at the Bible. March draws from his own life, detailed analysis of archaeology and history, and Scripture in order to weave together an enriching work on the Bible. Interestingly, the book’s central purpose is withheld until it is almost over. March writes that “To live a full life is to build according to the precepts of Scripture drawn to our scale by the Great Architect who set the code from which we should build our lives.” This is the theme throughout the book: our lives are a work in progress, and it is not just God’s work but our own. The book is filled with wonder at God’s creation and insightful parallels between His and our creative acts. Choose wisely how to build.

Disclaimer: I was provided a review copy of this book by WinePress publishing.

SDG.

Book Review: Is There a God? by Richard Swinburne

The purpose of Is There a God? (hereafter ITG) is to summarize and outline a large portion of Richard Swinburne’s corpus of work in a condensed form. Does it work? Fabulously. Swinburne, in the space of 125 pages, manages to sum up many of his books in easy to comprehend, interesting, and thoughtful bits of knowledge.

ITG starts off with a chapter aptly titled “God.” In this chapter (modeled after his longer work, The Coherence of Theism), Swinburne outlines the properties and concept of God. It should be noted that Swinburne’s view of God differs from classical theism in two major ways. First, Swinburne’s conception of God does not involve knowledge of the future. His reasoning is that it is logically impossible to know that which does not yet exist (the future), so God is omniscient, but does not know the future. Going into great detail for an argument against that notion would take me too far away from this review, but suffice to say that I find the argument wrong for at least two reasons: 1) There are many coherent ways to envision the future as possible knowledge; 2) A timeless view of God would definitely entail foreknowledge, because all time would be equally present to such a deity. Second, Swinburne’s view of God differs in that he believes God’s existence is contingent, not necessary (he does believe that God is necessary in the sense that his existence does not cease–the necessity/contingence is the difference between modern and Aristotelian contingency–thanks to Tim McGrew and Chris Reese for pointing this out). Again, I disagree, but I find Swinburne’s view coherent.

Swinburne then turns in chapter two to the nature of explanation and argues that we often take personal explanations as valid even within scientific inquiry. Further, he puts much weight upon the simplicity of a theory, which leads into his third chapter, which argues for the simplicity of theism as an explanation for much of our known data. These chapters  sum up his work in The Existence of God.

Swinburne then turns to other arguments for the existence of God, such as the cosmological argument and the teleological argument. In chapter 6, he provides a theodicy–an explanation of evil on theism. While I’ve read some pretty harsh critiques of Swinburne’s view on the problem of evil in the past, I found his argument here very compelling, personal, and interesting. His argument is largely a “greater good” type of argument–evils allow for things like heroism–but it is the most compelling version of such a theodicy I have read. I’m still not sure about whether I would incorporate this argument into my own apologetic, but I find Swinburne’s account compelling. (More on this topic can be found in his Providence and the Problem of Evil.)

The last chapter of ITG deals with Swinburne’s discussion of miracles and the argument from religious experience. Swinburne has been hugely influential in the field of arguing for the existence of God from religious experience, and this chapter sums up his argument. He argues that “we ought to believe that things are as they seem to be (in the epistemic sense) unless and until we have evidence that we are mistaken” (115). He then goes on to apply this to theistic experiences and concludes that “the overwhelming testimony of so many millions of people to occasional experiences of God must… be taken as tipping the balance of evidence decisively in favor of the existence of God” (120). (Swinburne’s arguments here are developed in his book, The Existence of God.)

I find two downsides to ITG. First, the concise nature of the work means that those interested in his arguments will need to go beyond the book to fully explore the issues. However, this is barely a downside because that is exactly what the book is meant to be: an introduction.

The second is that Swinburne doesn’t offer a very comprehensive “Guide to Further Reading” in his chapter of the same title. For example, about the question for the existence of God, Swinburne only offers two books arguing against God’s existence for further reading. Furthermore, the two books he suggests are heavy philosophical texts not at all comparable to ITG. I would have liked to see Swinburne offer some suggestions for equally philosophical explorations on the positive side of the theistic question. (I recommend the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland and God and Necessity by Stephen Parrish as two “heavier” books on the side of theism.)

Richard Swinburne’s Is There a God? is a fantastic introduction to his huge body of work. His tone is constantly amiable. Reading the work, one may feel as though they are in a conversation with Swinburne himself, which means it feels like one is in the presence of one of the most important Christian theologian/philosophers of our era. I cannot recommend it highly enough either for an introduction or a review of Swinburne’s corpus.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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