Irreducibly Complex Bridges

20100703-bridges7This week, I want to take a break from the series on defining Christian terminology to look at something from the talkorigins website that an atheist friend sent me a while back claiming to show how Michael Behe’s term “irreducible complexity” (IC hereafter) is “plainly silly” using an example of a stone bridge. If you’re not familiar with any of this, Michael Behe wrote a book in 1996 called “Darwin’s Black Box”, questioning evolutionary theory and proposing that some observed biological systems defy evolutionary explanation because they are “irreducibly complex”. Behe has defined this term as “a single system which is necessarily composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”[1]

Think of an engine stripped down of all unnecessary parts. You can’t remove parts like the pistons, the spark plugs, the crankshaft, etc, without making the system nonfunctional. The theory of evolution rests on functioning (specifically, self-replicating) organisms reacting to unguided mutations and subject to natural selection to filter the resulting set for specimens with improved survivability. But natural selection doesn’t work on a nonfunctional system as there’s no improvement to select for. Appeals to “neutral evolution” where a mutation doesn’t have to have an actual benefit are just an appeal to chance, which is already stacked against evolution as most random mutations are harmful.[2] In our engine example, this means that adding a crankshaft to some cylinders won’t fulfill any function that could allow the engine to survive while the other parts like pistons and spark plugs are being gradually added. If you’ve ever had some daunting DIY repairs to do on your own car, you know there are some repairs where you can replace one component each night after work and still get to work the next morning while the overall repair is in progress, and then there are those long weekend projects where the car will be “dead” until the repair is completely done. An IC system is likewise dead until it’s complete.

Now, with that background, the talkorigins site has an interesting critique of Michael Behe’s idea of “irreducible complexity” where the author suggests that a “Mullerian Two-Step” defeats Behe’s entire argument. Is this “Mulllerian Two-Step” a dance move named after scientist H.J. Muller? Well, kind of – it does sidestep the key issue. In the words of the talkorigins author, “Only two basic steps are needed to gradually evolve an irreducibly complex system from a functioning precursor: 1) Add a part. 2) Make it necessary. It’s that simple. After these two steps, removing the part will kill the function, yet the system was produced directly and gradually from a simpler, functional precursor.”[3] The author’s argument is that a bridge composed of 3 stones may have a topping stone added, which does not add any functionality to the bridge, allowing the removal of the original middle stone, making the added topping stone necessary to the function of the bridge (see the illustration from the talkorigins page below).

Mullers Stone Bridge Allegedly, this proves that an irreducibly complex structure can be developed from piecewise addition of parts in accord with evolutionary theory. Yet, if you notice, the original 3 stone bridge in his example is already irreducibly complex. No single stone can be removed from his “functional precursor” without destroying it’s function. All 3 stones are required to be in place and working together to have a passable bridge. So what does this devastating argument actually prove? Simply that one irreducibly complex structure can be transformed into another irreducibly complex structure with stepwise, evolution-like steps. This does nothing to explain away the original irreducible complexity, which is the core objection to unguided evolution.

When you see atheist claims to destroy/devastate Christianity (or anything else opposed to a materialistic worldview, such as Intelligent Design/Irreducible Complexity), step back and carefully look at a) the assumptions, b) the connections between premises, and c) the conclusions, and you’ll likely find the claims of obvious superiority exaggerated. Whether you subscribe to Behe’s arguments or not, this “Mullerian Two-Step” is based on a flawed foundational assumption that the precursor is functional but not irreducible also. Therefore, it simply isn’t a valid defeater for Behe’s theory.  Next contestant?


[1] Behe, M.J. 2004. “Irreducible Complexity: Obstacle to Darwinian Evolution.” In Debating Design: from Darwin to DNA, Ruse, M. and Dembski, W.
[2]
See footnote 2 of the talkorigins article for an admission of this inconvenient truth from H.J. Muller himself: “…for this reason we should expect very many, if not most, mutations to result in lethal factors ….” Other scientists have made similar admissions, and, of course, our own experiences of diseases like cancer seem to confirm this daily.
[3] http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ICsilly.html, accessed 2015/03/03.

Translating Christianese, Part 6

repent sign 2As we roll on through the list of  “church talk”, we come to the word “repent”. Maybe you find that offensive. Maybe that word makes you think of “fire and brimstone” revival preachers or eccentric guys with signs on the street corner saying the end of the world is coming next week. But what does that word actually mean? Let’s look at that today.

Basically, to repent is to do a 180°, to think differently after something. But real repentance goes deeper than that, delving into our motivations. When we see various calls to repent in the Bible, some form of the Greek word  μετανοέω (metanoeo) is typically being used. This means to have “regret accompanied by a true change of heart toward God” and indicates regret after careful reflection, resulting in a wiser view of both past and future. [1]  A critical distinction here is between this genuine repentance and another word translated as “repent” in English: μεταμέλομαι (metamellomai). This word expresses “the mere desire that what is done may be undone, accompanied with regrets or even remorse, but with no effective change of heart.” It is often “nothing more than a selfish dread of the consequences of what one has done.”[2] This is the repentance of a man who turns from his criminal ways simply out of fear of of being caught, but given enough assurance of getting away with something, commits another crime in spite of his earlier outward signs of “repentance”. This isn’t meaningful repentance like the first (metanoeo). It’s only when we see our behavior from the perspective of God’s perfect standard that we begin to repent and understand our need for forgiveness. Otherwise, we view ourselves as “not that bad…”, at least “good enough…”, maybe even “pretty good”. Viewed in that light, our sin is simply minor shortcomings and “oopsies”. But in reality, we don’t have to be an ax-murderer or a Hitler to warrant condemnation. Every little lie, cheat, lost temper, every little thought or act contrary to God’s design, condemns us  by His standard of perfection. Understanding then, the magnitude of even our smallest offenses against such an unyielding standard, juxtaposed against the amazing, self-sacrificial grace and mercy  of God that offers us undeserved redemption and adoption as beloved children – repentance is the only logical response. But this repentance is authored by God; we can not work up this change in our own strength. Charles Spurgeon said “The Spirit of God enlightens us to see what sin is, and thus makes it loathsome in our eyes.”[3] It is not a single act, but a lifelong attitude of self-examination and seeking to be more like Jesus that is part of the sanctification process described 2 weeks ago. In the words of Spurgeon, “Repentance is the inseparable companion of faith.”[4]

This then is the repentance we speak of; not a condescending judgment, but rather an earnest plea to join us on the path we daily walk. Nobody’s perfect, and we’ve all said and done things we wish we could take back. We can all shed tears of regret with or without God, but only genuine repentance can provide hope with the tears. For “repentance and forgiveness are riveted together by the eternal purpose of God.” [5]


[1] 3340 – metanoeo, The complete Word Study New Testament, 2nd Ed, ed. by Spiros Zodhiates, 1992, (Iowa Falls, World Bible Publishers), p. 936.
[2] 3338 – metamellomai, ibid., p 936.
[3] Charles Spurgeon, “All of Grace”, Kindle Edition of Christian Classics: Six Books by Charles Spurgeon, location 1399. Also available at The Spurgeon Archive.
[4] ibid, location 1369.
[5] ibid, location 1332.

Translating Christianese, Part 5

With a lot of terms like faith, sin, holiness, righteousness, atonement, grace, justification, and sanctification in our toolbox of terms, let’s look today at 2 terms that incorporate these concepts and see what Christians mean by the terms “saved” and “born again”.

Some people hear Christian pleas for them to “be saved” and recoil from it, feeling that needing to be saved from anything is a sign of weakness. What are we being saved from? Is Christianity just “fire insurance” to save us from a funny-looking guy with a pitchfork in some underground cave called hell with a big lake of fire? Are we to be “saved from ourselves”? From sin? From the “world”? From our present misery? What if we feel like life is going pretty good right now,  and we don’t want to be “saved” from anything right now? But the question shouldn’t be whether we feel like we need saving, but simply whether it’s true that that’s what we need. When I learned to scuba dive in college, one condition we were warned about, particularly in our deepwater class, was nitrogen narcosis, or the “rapture of the deep”. That’s where the diver’s judgment and motor skills are impaired because of pressure effects on dissolved gases in the blood. The primary danger in this often euphoric state is that the diver doesn’t recognize the danger they’re really in. He may, in fact, have never felt better than when he is in the most danger. This is the reason the Bible says “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts…”[1], and this is the reason for the Christian’s urgent pleas. The next breath is not guaranteed to any of us. So while we are saved from our own self-destructive behavior, and the power of sin in our lives, and sometimes from our present troubles, we are primarily saved from getting what we deserve: God’s perfect, unwavering, unrelenting justice. The result of that, apart from Christ’s atonement,  is permanent separation from God, which is what hell is (despite whatever jokes or caricatures you’ve seen to the contrary).  So are we simply after “fire insurance”? The Bible tells us that we were created to glorify God[2], and until we do so with our lives, we will always be missing the mark, missing our life’s purpose. So no, our salvation is tremendously important for this physical life as well as eternity. In fact, we are told that though physically alive, we were “dead in our sins” and only become truly alive when we are saved. How? Simply “that if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” [3] While all of the terms the last few weeks play a part in this work of salvation, this is where the rubber meets the road. 

If being saved is the result, being “born again” is the start of that process. The term comes from a passage in the Bible where a religious teacher named Nicodemus comes to talk to Jesus at night and admits that God is obviously with Jesus for Him to do the miracles He did. Jesus then tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”[4] If this makes you do a double take, don’t feel too bad – Nicodemus did too. With the brain gears grinding and smoke coming out his ears, Nic asked Jesus how a man could go back into his mother’s womb. But Jesus told him this was a spiritual birth, a regeneration. In the words of Matthew Henry, “to be born again is to begin anew. We must not think to patch up the old building, but begin from the foundation.”[5] Mr. Henry’s analogy is appropriate; not only will plastering over the cracks in our walls not fix the problem, even major structural repairs to the framework of our lives won’t help with a foundation built on quicksand. Our lives apart from God are just pretty house facades covering rotten boards and cracked, shallow footings. It’s a total loss and needs to be gutted and rebuilt, but it all starts with the foundation. Only with new piles driven down to the bedrock that is Christ can our house be built securely.  But this starts with God regenerating us, making us spiritually alive and able to respond to His free gift of salvation. Only God has the power to initiate this in us.[6]

There’s a lot more that could be said about both of these terms (and others have!), but hopefully this has given you some new insight into these 2 common phrases. Questions or comments are always welcome. I may not have all the answers, but I’ll do my best to point you to the One who does. 🙂


[1] Hebrews 3:7 (ESV)
[2] Isaiah 43:7
[3] Romans 10:9 (NIV)
[4] John 3:3 (NIV)
[5] Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, ed. Leslie F Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1517.
[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), pp702-703.

Translating Christianese, Part 4

Translating Christianese 4Last week, in discussing atonement, I quoted Charles Spurgeon, a preacher from the 1800’s who described Christ’s atoning sacrifice as the “just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel”. The week before, I looked at righteousness, which can be defined as justness. What then do Christians mean when we talk of “justification”? Justification comes from the Greek word δικαίωσις (dikaiosis, meaning “the act of pronouncing righteous”[1]),  and can be defined as “an instantaneous legal act of God in which He a) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and b) declares us to be righteous in His sight.”[2] We can draw some important points out of this definition. First, this is something God does, not us. Only the judge has the authority to declare someone condemned or pardoned. The defendant has no say in the decision. Second, it’s a judicial declaration, not based on us earning it by good deeds. Third, declaring someone right is not the same as making them right. We are not made morally perfect people by this action, but rather declared as such in God’s sight because of us placing our trust (faith) in Jesus Christ to save us from the death sentence we were under, by virtue of Christ’s perfect righteousness. But if God is just, how can He ignore our guilt and simply declare us righteous?  One result of Christ’s substitutionary atonement discussed last week is “imputed righteousness”. Imputation is a “transfer of benefit or harm from one individual to another”.[3]  Imputation isn’t a common term, but there are some common examples of it in our daily lives. The actions of an employee breaking the law in the course of his job duties may be imputed to his employer. A friend’s accident in your car can be imputed to you. Below is an example from one state’s laws regarding imputation of driving negligence:

“Any negligence of a minor … when driving any motor vehicle upon a highway, shall be imputed to the person who signed the application of the minor for the license. That person shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for any damages caused by the negligence.”

And so our sins were imputed to Christ, and He was held fully liable for them, while His perfection was imputed to us, in a merciful exchange that satisfied God’s justice even though we deserved punishment.

Going back to that important distinction earlier about God declaring us righteous versus making us righteous, one might wonder if we can simply continue on our selfish, sinful life journey after this atoning, justifying encounter with our Creator. That brings us to the term “sanctification”. Sanctification is “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[4]  This definition brings up several points. First, this is a separate process from justification. While our efforts can never justify us, they do contribute toward making us holy, or “set apart”. Second, this is a cooperative work. We cannot do it without the power of God’s Holy Spirit in us, but He also won’t let us be lazy or apathetic and say that we can’t change or that we’re just waiting on God to change us. Third, it is a continual process. God uses our life events and our responses to them to mold us into who He destined us to be in this life, and to prepare us for an eternity in heaven. So this process won’t stop until the day we die. Fourth, this should not be an abstract concept, but should have actual results that others can observe and see there is something different about us. Read Corrie ten Boom’s account of the behavior of her sister Bessie in the Nazi concentration camps they were at, and you will get a beautiful picture of what someone farther down the journey of sanctification looks like. Fifth, because of our role in it, it will vary from person to person. I have had the honor of knowing some saintly people over the years, who, while not perfect, reflected Christ far closer than I ever have, and likely ever will. My humble prayer is that I could be half the servant of God they were. Sixth, becoming more like Christ will affect every facet of our lives. There can be no holdouts, no secrets, no private pleasures. But when we do yield those up to Him, He takes away our cherished mud pies and replaces them with gems of joy we didn’t think possible.

Today was a summary of a few of the many things that could be said on these two concepts. Tune in next week as we tie some of these ideas together and look at probably the 2 most common Christian terms: “saved” and “born again”. Enjoy!


[1] dikaiosis, www.Biblehub.com/greek, accessed 2015/02/08.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1994), p.723.
[3] “Imputation”, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Grenz, Guretzki, & Nordling, (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 1999).
[4] Wayne Grudem, ibid., p 746.

 

Translating Christianese, Part 3

Dictionary Entry - AtonementThe last couple weeks, I’ve gone over the depressing situation we find ourselves in with 3 terms: sin, and holiness and righteousness. Not that they’re depressing in themselves, but they are in the context of our sin in light of God’s holiness and righteousness. And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy. But today’s first term is “atonement”, and it brings real hope. Our second term, “grace”, explains why.

If God is perfectly just and can’t lower His standards to accept us in our sinful condition, and we can’t rid ourselves of  this dark stain of sin in each of us – what’s the solution? Atonement is the act by which God’s justice is satisfied by the perfect, voluntary, substitutionary sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. Sin put us in debt to God, a debt that we could never pay, but which a perfectly just God could never overlook. Who can pay this debt? Can one in bankruptcy and without a job  ignore his own creditors and offer to pay off his friend’s mortgage?  Of course not. His own creditors would say he owes them first. Only someone with money can pay off a debt, but we’re all spiritually bankrupt on our own. And so we come to a problem: only man owes the debt, but only God can pay it.[1] However, God did something remarkable: He came to earth as the man Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, the only one able to satisfy His legal demand for justice, and voluntarily offered Himself as the payment for the judgement against us. In effect, the judge stepped down from behind the bench and paid the fine we could never pay. This is the atonement needed for us to be reconciled to God, made available to all through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice.*   Charles Spurgeon once said,

“The doctrine of the atonement is to my mind one of the surest proofs of the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. Who would or could have thought of the just Ruler dying for the unjust rebel? This is no teaching of human mythology, or dream of poetical imagination. This method of expiation is only known among men because it is a fact; fiction could not have devised it.”[2]

(Lest I forget my goal of translating church lingo, the “expiation”  Spurgeon referenced is sometimes considered a synonym for atonement, although it can more specifically mean the part of atonement dealing with the covering of sin by Christ’s sacrifice. In that more specific meaning, expiation is the means of “propitiating” (appeasing or satisfying) God. To recap, “one propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem.”[3])

As Spurgeon mentioned, this idea of atonement is unheard of in human-invented religion. When every other religion says “you must work hard and earn your way into heaven/paradise/nirvana/eternal reward/etc, Christianity says “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”[4] What then is this grace that drives this supremely sacrificial saving gesture? Grace is commonly remembered as “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense, or as “completely undeserved (or unmerited) divine favor”. It is God not asking us to “clean up our act” before we come to Him, because we never could. Ironically, grace isn’t fair. We tend to think about fairness when we feel we’ve been wronged, but not so much when we’ve wronged others. If God were fair, He’d simply say “you failed the perfection test” and obliterate all of us. Yet He lovingly extends credit to the debtor if we only accept. Contrary to performance-based religion, God’s grace frees us from pursuing self-righteousness (and failing), so we may simply accept the free gift of our Creator[5]. This gift is His sovereign love for us before we even could love Him, extended to us by His atoning sacrifice for us, covering our sin and paying the penalty for us that His justice demanded, thus satisfying God, reconciling us to Him, and opening the door to new life, both here and eternally.

What does that new life look like? Accepting God’s gracious offer starts a lifelong process that can be divided into the 2 terms we’ll look at next week – “justification” and “sanctification”. See ya then 🙂


* It should be noted that while Jesus’s sacrifice made salvation possible for each of us, not everyone will automatically go to heaven He won’t force us into heaven; we still must accept the offer.

[1] Anselm of Canterbury, “Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?), 1474, as in “Systematic Theology” by Norman Geisler, p. 833.
[2] Charles Haddon Spurgeon, from his message “Just and the Justifier”, in his book “All of Grace”, (1886) included in the 6 book collection “Charles Spurgeon: Christian Classics Collection”, Kindle Edition, Location 680. To read this excellent sermon from the “Prince of Preachers” online, you can go here.
[3] “Propitiation”, www.theopedia.com, accessed 2014-02-01.
[4] Ephesians 2:8-9 (ESV)
[5] Romans 6:23 (NASB)- “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Interestingly, the Greek word translated as “free gift” comes from χάρις (charis), the  root word for grace.

Translating Christianese, Part 2

Christianese DictionaryThis week, I wanted to look at 2 more examples of Christian jargon: holiness and righteousness. So let’s jump right in.

Holiness means to be “set apart”, to possess “otherness”, or to be “different”.[1] It’s been said that “it’s much more popular to speak of a loving God than a holy God”[2], but it’s important to understand all of God’s characteristics (to the best of our ability) rather than just imagining Him how we want to Him to be. God is holy in that He is completely separate from everything and everyone else. How is this separateness revealed? He is self-existent while all else is contingent (i.e. we need water, oxygen, etc. to exist). He is infinite, while all else is finite. He is perfect, and two or more perfect beings cannot exist simultaneously and be different without one being “less perfect” than the other. Therefore, only one perfect being can exist. In each case, God is in a category of His own, differentiated from all else, and therefore holy.  However, what about where God tells us to “be holy, because I am holy”[3]? This doesn’t mean God expects us to be perfect like He is, but rather that He wants us to be set apart, different from the world. For example, furniture and utensils in the Jewish temple of the Old Testament were considered holy not because they were made of gold or of a certain design but because they were devoted exclusively to God’s service. Likewise for us, to be holy is to be dedicated to serving God, abstaining from anything that would taint that.

Related to holiness is the term “righteousness”, which is simply the quality of being “just” or “right”.  For example, our justice system tries to punish the unjust. In fact, one definition of justice is: (n) “the quality of being just; righteousness; moral rightness.”[4] That doesn’t always happen with human justice, but it is our goal. One thing that differentiates God from us is His perfect justice. Looking at opposing conceptions of deity, the Greek or Roman “gods”, for example, were just as petty, manipulative and dishonest as we are. God, however, is perfectly righteous, for it is an intrinsic moral attribute for Him[5], a part of His inherent character.  His righteousness then provides a set standard of justice that doesn’t change with the latest ideas or fads. We can build on that standard and describe human righteousness as conformance to God’s ethical and moral standards.[6] The Christian view of humanity, on the other hand, is that we are most definitely not righteous. The apostle Paul writes “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one'”[7].  That may sound harsh and too much of a generalization, but is it really? Have you always been perfectly just in all of your dealings your whole life? If we’re honest, none of us can make that claim. Again, Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[8] Generalization? Not really. If the world wasn’t such a messed up place, the nightly news would be a very different broadcast. Evil, malice, ill will, wrongdoing, bad blood – whatever you call it, it’s all sin. We see it the world over. But when the standard is perfection, then it suddenly becomes very personal. It’s not just the serial killers, the rapists, the terrorists, the brutal dictators and warlords – it’s you and me.  It’s the “white lie”, the pirated software, the “padded” résumé, the angry response in traffic, and a thousand other ways we all fall short of the mark of perfection and find ourselves condemned, unrighteous and without any way to fix it.

Last week, we looked at what sin means. This week, we’ve seen what God’s holiness and righteousness means and how we are unrighteous in our sinful condition. This then leads us to a dilemma: how, in our guilty condition, can we approach a just and impartial judge who uses a standard of perfection? What good deeds could we ever do to satisfy that standard? There aren’t any. Justice demands not lowering the bar, yet we can never reach the bar on our own. Understanding the utter hopelessness of this situation is critical to understanding the importance of the next week’s terms: grace and atonement.

[1] ἅγιος (Hagios), www.BibleHub.com Greek Concordance, accessed 2015/01/24.
[2]Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002), p. 568.
[3] Leviticus 11:45 & 1 Peter 1:16
[4] “Justice”, definition 1, www.dictionary.com, accessed 2015/01/15.
[5] Geisler, p. 569.
[6] “Righteousness”, Nelson’s Foundational Bible Dictionary, 1st Ed. (2004).
[7] Romans 3:10, paraphrasing Psalm 14:3.
[8] Romans 3:23.

Jargon, or Translating Christianese, Part 1

DictionariesI took an online class this past fall about designing bracing connections and the instructor mentioned a term I wasn’t familiar with: “column shedding”. I looked online and didn’t see any explanations, so I asked my boss if he’d heard the term before. He hadn’t, so I asked the instructor and learned that it described a situation where 2 braces intersecting a column that should have opposite loads of tension and compression both go into compression because the highly-loaded column “sheds” some of its load into the braces.  Now I know a new engineering concept, and “knowing is half the battle” (anyone else remember that from the old G.I. Joe cartoons?).

The instructor in that class had used a bit of jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders“. Why do we use jargon in the first place? Because it’s a shortcut. If everyone in the conversation understands the terms, you can condense a big concept or a whole series of concepts into a short statement and not lose any of the meaning of your message.  And when that’s the case, it makes for efficient communication. The pitfall is in the assumption that everyone understands the concept represented by these specialized terms. We often learn on-the-job via “trial-by-fire” scenarios where we learn just enough to accomplish the task at hand, but never go back to learn the theory behind the application. So sometimes even when people know the terms, they may not understand the entire concept behind them.

Have you gone to church or listened to a preacher on the TV or radio and heard what sounded like jargon? Insider talk? “Christianese”? Church lingo? Maybe it was your first (or only) time in a church and it sounded pretentious, like they were trying to see how many impressive seminary words they could squeeze in. Maybe you’ve been attending church for a while, and feel embarrassed to ask now. Either way, some definition of terms might help clear up the muddy waters. So in this series of posts, I’ll try to define a couple of common church terms in non-“churchy” terms each installment. Since I went over faith in detail last week, we won’t rehash it today. You can read that post here.  Now, let’s look at another term: “sin”.

Sin is one of those terms that none of us really like. Being told you’re a “sinner” or “living in sin” or that what you’re doing is “sinful” sounds so judgmental. But much like going to the doctor, it’s better to get the bad news and learn how to treat an illness than to be told you’re fine when you’re really dying from a curable disease. Just as with the doctor’s judgment of our physical condition, God looks at us and tells us we have a problem we can’t fix on our own, and what’s worse is that it’s fatal. Our shorthand terminology for it is sin, and it can mean falling short of the mark, disobedience, rebellion, or ignoring a command. The Bible’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) may sound harsh at first, but it really is a true diagnosis of humanity. Turn on the TV news, open the newspaper, go to any news website; the world is a messed-up place. Something’s wrong and it affects all of us, from the poorest villagers to famous celebrities to the most powerful world leaders. That’s because the problem is inside us and no amount of money, fame, plastic surgery, or respect and adoration can fix it. Our current “me generation” is simply an acting out of the pride and rebellion against God that Milton summed up so well over 300 years ago in Paradise Lost when he wrote Satan saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[1] Whether it’s open rebellion or simply falling short of God’s perfect standard, the effect is still the same: separation from God. In the end, that’s what hell is, eternal separation from God because of our sin. And when Christians talk about sin, it’s not to be condescending, but more like a former drug addict saying “I got help, and you can too!” Despite our often flawed delivery, we are to speak the truth in love and humility, knowing that we’ve “been there, done that” (and often still do err in willful disobedience to God even though we know better).

Atheists say there are millions who are “good without God”. The problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it when the standard is perfection and “nobody’s perfect”. But to learn more about God’s standard, tune in next week for a look at “holiness” and “righteousness”.


[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (1674), Book 1, Line 263.

Blind Faith?

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic at FreeDigitalPhotos.net“Blind faith”. I’ve heard atheists use the term as an insult to Christian opponents – “I believe in science and not blind faith like you.” Surprisingly, I’ve heard some Christians use it almost as a badge of honor  that they had such complete blind faith.  So what is the biblical perspective on faith? Is it really “believing something strongly in spite of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary” as atheists would claim? Is it a step into the unknown, taking God at His word, so to speak, with no reason whatsoever, as some Christians would claim? Or is there another option? What does the Bible itself say?

Hebrews 11:1 is the most famous definition of faith in the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Here, and in most other places translated as “faith”, the Greek word used is πίστις (pistis) or one of its related forms. This word can be translated as faith, belief, trust, confidence, or proof. Looking at secular Greek sources, Herodotus used it to refer to a pledge or military oath[1].  Other secular authors such as Aeschylus, Democritus, and Appian used the word to denote evidence from the senses or from eyewitness testimony, or proof of intent deduced from observed actions [2].  The Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo used the term pistis in his writings 156 times with the sense of evidence in over 50% of those instances [3]. Aristotle used the term to describe various “proofs” for convincing someone of your case through reason and logic [4]. This word for faith sounds like it was often used by secular sources as a justified belief based on observation, logical or philosophical reasoning, or testimony and solemn oaths. But we can dig a little deeper yet. The word pistis is derived from the Greek word πείθω (peitho), meaning “to persuade”. Are you persuaded blindly by any assertion you hear, or by evidence, by sound reasoning,and by common sense? It makes sense then that Aristotle would use pistis to describe the proofs of the art of rhetoric (persuasion).  It seems that Biblical faith is anything but blind. Rather, it is “God’s divine persuasion” [5]. It is also interesting that the word translated in Hebrew 11:1 as “conviction” in the NASB translation is ἔλεγχος (elegchos) which means proof, and is derived from ἐλέγχω (elegcho), a verb meaning “to convince with solid, compelling evidence; to expose, refute or prove wrong.” [6] Faith could be said to be God’s divine persuasion of the reality of the supernatural things we can’t observe with our natural senses.

So then, if our faith is more of an evidentially persuaded trust by definition, are there any supporting passages to confirm that is what biblical writers like Paul understood when using words like pistis and elegchos? Below is a partial list of supporting passages.

 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

“And because of His words, many more became believers. They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’” John 4:41-42 (NIV)

 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” Acts 1:3 (NASB)

 But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good…” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (NASB)

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 1 John 4:1 (NASB)

We are to love God with all that we are, including our mind. Jesus repeatedly appealed to the evidence He presented to people, not the least of which was Him being alive after being scourged, crucified, and having a spear run through His chest.  Paul tells us to  examine everything carefully, while John urges discernment specifically in spiritual matters. In the end, I have to say that we don’t check our brains at the church door, and if we do, we’re not following the example set before us in Scripture. For while blind faith in the truth may still benefit us, it is an accidental benefit that could just as easily be a blind faith in error (such as cults). Thorough, honest investigation only destroys faith in error; but it only builds faith in what is true.


[1] The Histories, Book 3, Chapter 8, Herodotus. Viewable in English or Greek at The Perseus Project.
[2] Pistis as “Ground for Faith” in Hellenized Judaism and Paul, David M. Hay, Journal of Biblical Literature, 1989, 3rd Quarter, p. 461.
[3] ibid. p.463.
[4] Rhetoric, Aristotle, Book 1, Chapter 1:3, 4th century BC, Kindle Edition. The word pistis or one of its forms is translated as “proof” here and throughout the rest of the 3 books.
[5] Biblehub.com word study of pistis (Strong’s #4102).
[6] ibid, word study of elegchos (Strong’s #1650).

Church PDH?

The Cathedral of the Madeleine - Photo by Jason McCool, 2014PDH – Professional Development Hours – both a blessing and a bane for engineers. Some states don’t require any at all, while others have a variety of acceptance rules that differ from state to state. As I filled out the continuing education logs for the last of my license renewals coming due at the end of the year, I found I had accumulated over 60 hours of PDH over the last 2 year renewal cycle, more than twice what any one state required. Despite the inconvenience PDH can be sometimes, I’ve learned a lot of good stuff through various seminars, conferences, webinars, and self-study courses. But as good as some of the more convenient webinars and self-study courses have been, the seminars and conferences I’ve participated in have been especially beneficial. We don’t have the time or resources (or desire, oftentimes) to be experts in every aspect of our profession, so it’s great to hear subject matter experts and be able to actually interact with them and ask that one question you’ve always wondered about. While I can learn about a new design method or innovative product from reading a trade journal or hearing one of those experts lecture about it in theory, talking to other engineers at a conference who have actually used that method or specified that product on a completed project is priceless. We better ourselves and the profession by our participation and interaction with fellow engineers. In fact, that interaction is key to the success of conferences. At one conference you may be the attendee learning something new, while at another one you may be one of the presenters teaching something new to others. Either way, interaction helps stretch us and take us out of our comfort zone enough to grow. Did going to conferences or seminars sometimes interfere with both my business and personal schedules? Yes, but I am a better engineer in the end because of making that investment.

Church is a similar investment. While there’s no commandment in the Bible that “Thou shalt go to church”, there are verses like Hebrews 10:25 that warns against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some….” Acts 2:42-47 provides an example of early Christians regularly meeting to learn doctrine, pray, praise God, fellowship together, and share with each other. They met both in the synagogues and in fellow Christians’ homes. In fact, it’s a little misleading to even talk about “going to church”, for the Bible says that we are the church, whether we meet in a fancy building, a rented gym, our own houses, or in a cave under cover of night like Christians in some parts of the world are forced to do. So besides it being encouraged in the Bible, why should we attend “church”? Like my engineering conferences,  we get the chance to learn from subject matter experts (preachers) that have invested the time in seminary learning Greek, Hebrew, Systematic Theology, Epistemology, and so on. We also can learn from other Christians in the body that may not a have a Master of Divinity degree, but still have a lifetime of powerful lessons God’s taught them that they can share.

For myself, I know that hearing different perspectives stretches my mind and challenges my preconceptions and attitude I might bring with me.  Talking in small groups and classes can expose us to a variety of different readings of scriptures we think we’re familiar with, and force us to prayerfully reason through the different possible interpretations. Just like teaching a session at an engineering conference, leading a Bible study, teaching a Sunday school class, or teaching youth will definitely stretch us and push us to the next level.  Our active attendance provides us a chance to meet with role models to see faith lived out in the flesh. We know we are to be holy even as He is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). We have the pattern of great men like Paul who tell us to follow their example in pursuing God (Philippians 3:17). But we need to “see it lived out”, as John MacArthur says. One place we see that is at church, and so we don’t forsake gathering. Will we find hypocrites there? Certainly, but seek out those who model Christ faithfully, and do likewise. Will church be an inconvenience sometimes? Yes, but that’s the nature of investments of any kind. Just like a good conference gets me to look up from my little problems I’m working through, corporate (i.e. group) worship also takes the focus off of ourselves and lifts our eyes up to God. It makes us look at our priorities, and contributes to our sanctification.

Can we get a lot of these benefits from TV sermons and books and magazines, private prayer time, or Bible studies with friends? Sure, to varying degrees. But Paul tells us that we are each different parts of one body, each with a different role to fill. We can’t all be the eyes, or the hands, etc. When we do “forsake the gathering together”, we are effectively cutting ourselves off from the local body of believers, and in so doing, amputating the Body of Christ. So attend, but don’t just attend – participate, study, grow, mature, train (yourself and others), and never stop learning, for you will never exhaust the limitless library of God’s PDH program.

Hide & Seek

Paul speaking to the Athenians at the AreopagusOver the last couple of decades in the engineering field, I’ve had the opportunity to use several different pieces of software aimed at speeding up different aspects of engineering design. At my current job, I use several different programs for specific tasks like wood design,  steel design, or general purpose structural analysis. When they work like I think they should, life is generally good. On the other hand, when the results aren’t what I was expecting… well…. Deadlines approach quickly as I try to figure out whether the program has a bug in it, or if it is calculating something I’ve been neglecting all these years. Did the software  developers interpret some building code statement differently than I did? Who’s right? I hate not knowing why something isn’t working, and when these things happen, I’ll spend the time to get to the bottom of it. Several times, I’ve found serious program bugs that the developers corrected when I reported them. Other times, I learned I was the one that was wrong. But every time, I learned far more about a particular aspect of building design in the process of researching the issue than if things had gone smoothly. In a deadline-driven world, though, it’s all too easy to do a cursory review and say “Oh good, looks like it worked, moving on.”

Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an interesting point about this: “We investigate what we are surprised by, not what we already know or think we know and take for granted [1].” A common complaint about God is His “hiddenness”. The skeptic says, “If only God would plainly reveal Himself to me, I would believe.” But inherent in that seemingly open-minded statement is a demand housed in the word “plainly”; namely, that God reveal Himself to me in the time and place and method of my choosing. Not only would this be different for each person, but it also would reduce God to some genie working miracles on demand. Our desire for God to make Himself known to us in the way we choose is, in effect, a desire to reverse roles and make Him subservient to us.

Instead, God has revealed Himself in His own way, first through the general revelation of the natural world, with it’s grandeur and design that are apparent to the simple and unlearned, and yet, ironically, even more apparent the deeper we explore fields like astronomy and genetics. Second, through the specific revelation given the various prophets and writers collected in the Bible. So why does He not give us “more”? It might be that He does not reveal Himself to us completely to keep us searching. Like a puzzle, we fill in what we know of Him from general and special revelation, but if He gave us every piece of the puzzle, would we still hunger and thirst for Him? Would we think we had Him all figured out (as if we could figure out an infinite God) and stop chasing after Him to focus on something else we don’t grasp yet? By keeping some of Himself just out of view, does He excite our curiosity and drive to learn? Could a deliberate hiddenness be one way He draws those to Himself who wouldn’t otherwise come to Him, who would be content with where they are? The apostle Paul, in his discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, states that “…[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” The word translated as “seek” comes from the Greek word ζητέω (zeteo), meaning “to seek in order to find; to seek in order to find out by thinking, meditating, reasoning; to strive after.” This isn’t casual skimming here; this is intensive searching, analyzing, studying. This is like the last 10 minutes of an open-book final exam – pages are flying as you frantically search for what you can’t quite remember. The word “find” comes from the Greek word εὑρίσκω (heurisko) meaning “to find, learn, discover, especially after searching” or “to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, hearing; to find out by practice and experience.” To use the college example again, this isn’t flipping the textbook open to the right page and stumbling on the answer. It’s more like the time in college I spent most of the night working one awful thermodynamics homework problem – I was definitely groping for the answer then![2] And if we ignore the collection of direct communication that God has provided, even if it’s maybe not what we want to hear, then we will be groping in the dark, though He is “not far”.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), p. 16.
[2] FYI: if your teacher normally assigns multiple problems and you get an assignment with only one problem, watch out! 😉

At the intersection of faith and design