Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/03/2012 (8:41 am)

…and then listen to this program.

Phil Weingart was interviewed by Backpack Radio on the subject, “Do-It-Yourself Apologetics.” Click the linkie thingie and check it out.

11/02/2012 (8:42 pm)

Read This Book

I have been focusing on Christian apologetics for the last couple of years rather than politics. As part of the fruit of that focus, I have just published my first book, entitled He’s Greater Than You Know: Essays For A Doubting Christian.

A doubting Christian challenged participants in an Internet chat room to answer five questions that, to him, made Evangelical Christianity seem incoherent. I answered him out of my own wrestling with the faith, and the book is the result.

There are no cliches here, and I respectfully decline the pat answers usually taught in Evangelical circles; they are the reason this fellow was doubting in the first place. Instead, I draw on my own experiences with God, and on sensible readings of the words of Jesus and the Apostles. It’s a quick and pleasant read, if I do say so myself, but you may have to pause to ponder; it’s full of ideas worth pondering.

The questions I address are these:

  • Can a person willfully choose to believe and follow Christ even if they highly doubt some major areas of the faith?
  • Why does God not supernaturally differentiate himself from all the other beliefs through easily verifiable displays of His power on a scale that all men can take note of?
  • Why did God primarily choose to reveal his specific nature to humanity through the medium of the written word when the written word is not very easily accessible or provable to all people of all time periods?
  • How is it just for a benevolent God to allow people to be separated from him for all eternity without first giving them reasonable evidence to believe in Him? and finally,
  • Why would a benevolent God choose to design us in such a way that we must now be born spiritually dead and then add to that the suffering of living in a physically fallen planet?

The book is available in trade paperback and Kindle format. Click on the book image in this post or the one in the sidebar to the right, to visit Amazon.com and peek inside the book.

Oh, one more thing: there is no way this book would ever have made it this far without the loving assistance, prayers, and patience of my wife, Shelly. She also gets credit for assisting me with the cover art, and with some editing help.

Thanks, and enjoy!

07/04/2011 (11:03 am)

The Assumption of Governmental Holiness

A Christian friend on an Internet-based public discussion board made the following statement in passing. It illustrates a very common, modern mindset that needs very badly to be addressed.

The history since Christ’s first advent shows that many nations of the world have moved closer to what seems to be a Christian ethic while others still remain behind and the world, represented by the UN, judges the nations accordingly.

The partial truth of this masks a less obvious but far more dangerous error. I’ll call the error the “Assumption of Governmental Holiness.” Modern thought is trending in the direction of this error, and it may be the death of many of us.

I saw the same error in a different form on a blog by a very effective writer named Seth Godin. His blog article discussed the unethical representation of sunblock in modern advertising, observing that 95% of the harmful solar rays are not affected at all by the SPF level of these products. (They do, however, prevent painful sunburn, for which reason they’re still useful products.) After explaining, he piously declared this:

How can consumers look at this example and not believe that the regulation of marketing claims is the only way to insulate consumers from short-term selfish marketers in search of market share, marketers who will shade the truth, even if it kills some customers?

Meet the Assumption of Governmental Holiness. Seth somehow misses the fact, discussed openly in his own blog post, that both sunblock and advertising are already regulated. Worse: he actually states the reason, unwittingly, why regulation cannot work:

New regulations were recently announced, though it’s not surprising that many think the regs were watered down as a result of lobbying.

The truth is, millions, and possibly billions, of dollars have been wasted on regulation that had no impact, and millions more have been wasted on lobbying to ensure that that’s the case. But lobbying only works when the government is involved. Lobbying did not prevent me from learning about the scam. I learned about it by reading Seth’s blog. Seth’s freely-provided blog did more to protect me from being scammed than any regulation, or a billion regulations, ever could.

That, Seth Godin, is how a consumer can look at this example and not believe that regulation is the only answer.

How did Seth miss the answer? Somewhere in his unexamined assumptions is this one, utterly false notion:

The government represents pure good, or at the very least represents the best we have to offer.

No other presupposition could lead logically from “false advertising happens” to “regulation is the only answer.” But the error is obvious when we drag it out into the open. The government does not represent our best; it represents political power brokers, people who want control. We’re closer to the truth if we presuppose their corruption. They can only represent our best if they are tightly, closely monitored by ourselves, and if their power to control is severely limited. The less we count on government to enforce decency, and the more we count on ourselves directly to do it, the better.

Moreover, Seth’s blog demonstrates that while regulation does not work, there is something that does. The proper corrective to “false advertising happens” is “somebody needs to broadcast the truth.”

With that in mind, let’s revisit the quotation that introduced this thread, and see where the Assumption of Governmental Holiness leads us wrong.

Separate the statement into two parts. Part I:

…many nations of the world have moved close to … a Christian ethic while others remain behind…

This is partly true. The historically Christian nations of the West have had an enormous influence on both conduct and productivity throughout the world, and some of that influence comes from a godly source. There was no notion of individual rights, for example, before the Christian West produced it. The notion that one human being ought not to traffic in the flesh of another is another example. The near-universal disapproval of child labor is a third.

Do not make the mistake, however, of assuming that because a notion has its origin in Christ, that every modern mention of that notion is equally Christian. Take individual rights, for example. In ordinary, human, pendulum fashion, many wicked humans abandoned the old way of domination based on heredity or station, and swung way past Christ’s standard into a sort of egalitarian hell in which every evil thing is allowed and no moral absolutes are acknowledged. They’ve even gone farther than that, using individual rights to ennoble and venerate women leaving their families to pursue “dreams,” and women murdering their children to protect “their rights.” These are just two of a myriad of ways that the godly idea of individual rights has been made extremely unholy. The other godly notions that Christ introduced to the world have not fared better, and have been likewise distorted and overshot.

Wherein lies the error of the Part II of the sentence we’re analyzing:

…the world, represented by the UN, judges the nations accordingly.

Even if it were the case that the UN actually represents the world — it does not — the real, egregious error here is the unstated but controlling supposition that the UN represents the Christian ethic he mentioned in the first part of the sentence, and not the backwardness. He makes the Assumption of Governmental Holiness. The UN has no Christian sanction. Even if the current enactment of the UN were the ideal, it would represent only the current position of the error pendulum.

Worse, the current UN does not come within 3 light years of enacting that ideal, nor can it. It does not represent good; it does not even represent the best of humanity. The UN represents the interests of the corrupt power-brokers who have usurped the power of leadership in their nations.

As such, the UN represents, not the Christ-influenced progress of the world, but the fulfillment of the rebellion Nimrod began way back at Babel, and which the Psalmist describes in opposition to God’s Messiah:

1 “Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.

To assert, without stating it or even really thinking it clearly, that the UN represents the Christianized ethics of the world, is as wrong as wrong can be, and arguably endorses antichrist.

We need also to understand that the Assumption of Governmental Holiness, itself, arises from an even more insidious assumption: the Assumption of Personal Godhood. Ultimately, those who assert the holiness of the government invariably do so by assuming that the government represents ME. The deeper, more evil assertion is that the individual knows what is good for others so well that he or she has earned the right to control their decisions.

We may make ourselves unwelcome, but the Assumption of Governmental Holiness is the central error of the current era, and we need to confront it and dispute it whenever we hear it. But beware the even deeper Assumption of Personal Godhood that is always lurking nearby. And that one actually has a formal name: meet the sin of Pride.

11/23/2010 (8:35 pm)

Hallelujah!

A lone, 22-year-old girl standing in the food court of a shopping mall breaks out with the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Then a couple of other shoppers and a mall janitor join in… and pretty soon, and entire choir is singing the entire piece in excellent form.

No, it was not spontaneous, it was planned carefully. Last Saturday the Chorus Niagara performed the Hallelujah Chorus unannounced at the food court of the Seaway Mall in Welland, Ontario, CA. Listen:

The shoppers loved it. Some stood, all applauded, and I don’t doubt that a few sang along.

It’s not just good music, it’s faith. You can’t kill it. No matter how hard they try, Christianity will not be bred out of the West.

Have a happy holiday season, folks. Happy Thankgiving, merry Christmas, and Hallelujah!

09/22/2010 (12:26 pm)

A Solemn Assembly: Plymouth, MA, Sept 25

Join with Christians from all over New England to pray for repentance and God’s favor on our land.

9:30 am-11 am: Historic tour by Dr. Paul Jehle and Kirk Cameron at the Forefathers monument, Allerton street, Plymouth, MA

12 noon-4 pm: Solemn Assembly, Plymouth Memorial Hall, 83 Court Street, Plymouth, MA

Join us, also, in fasting in preparation for the event.

09/22/2010 (11:15 am)

Boston Night of Worship

Friday, October 29, at the Agganis arena at Boston University: Boston Night of Worship 2010.

Sponsored by the Greater Boston Vineyard Church, in conjunction with 30 other churches in the area.

05/10/2010 (5:54 am)

Babies Know Morals

I’ve always felt that the only people who say “Babies are born good, and we ruin them” are people who have never tried to raise one. I’ve felt the same about people who say “Babies are born as a blank slate.” Anybody who has seen little Jimmy reaching for an object while looking over his shoulder to see if Mom is watching knows better. But there are an awful lot of people who believe the “blank slate” line, even people who should know better.

A researcher at Yale is finding evidence that very young babies already have a rudimentary moral sense at the age of 6 months, and that this finding is consistent. Listen:

Professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in Connecticut, whose department has studied morality in babies for years, said: ‘A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.

‘With the help of well designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life.

‘Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bones.’

For one study, the Yale researchers got babies aged between six months and a year to watch a puppet show in which a simple, colourful wooden shape with eyes tries to climb a hill.

Sometimes the shape is helped up the hill by a second toy, while other times a third character pushes it down.

After watching the show several times, the babies were shown the helpful and unhelpful toys. They showed a clear preference for the helpful toys – spending far longer looking at the ‘good’ shapes than the ‘bad’ ones.

‘In the end, we found that six- and ten-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual,’ Prof Bloom told the New York Times.

‘This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.’

Two more tests found the same moral sense.

The experiments focused on puppets that cooperated with or hindered some activity — rolling a ball up a hill, opening a box, playing a game. The “good guy” was the one that cooperated; the “bad guy” was the one that hindered the activity, sitting on the opening of the box or running off with the game ball. What the babies preferred might be described as cooperation: “I like the one that helps, not the one that ruins.” Is this really moral thinking? The fact that the plays do not involve the babies themselves suggests that it is; they feel frustration for the characters, not directly for themselves.

Since the experiments all involved the children watching morality plays with puppets, it’s clear that they also have a sense of empathy — they feel for the characters — and that they process abstractions — they know the puppets represent them in some sense. These are also apparently hard-wired in humans, which I find equally remarkable.

Christianity teaches both that human beings are made in the image of God and know good, and that sin is innate to our species, so we do wrong things. Consequently, Christians should expect infants to know what’s right, but on occasion to choose to do wrong. This matches my experience of children — I’ve raised four, and it took conscientious effort to make them good people — and now it matches the experimental results of at least one American scientist.

04/22/2010 (9:29 am)

Anthony Flew To Heaven, Perhaps, On Wings Of DNA

antony-flew_1615344c

The famous skeptical philosopher Anthony Flew died last week after a long illness. He was 87.

When I wrote about miracles last August, I discussed an argument by David Hume, Scots philosopher from the 18th century, and the modern update of his argument by Anthony Flew. Flew was an atheist with an odd specialty, in that he was one of the foremost modern experts in philosophy regarding miracles. He was more than that, though; he was probably the leading living champion of atheism in the world. And then, after an adult lifetime of skepticism, in 2004 he became a Theist.

Not a Christian, mind you, although he claimed he was open to that. A Theist; he became convinced by the evidence available to modern science that some sort of God must exist. To hear him tell it, he was convinced by the extreme fine-tuning science was discovering in the cosmos, and particularly by what was being discovered about DNA. He observed that recent discoveries lend strength to the argument from design.

When I discussed the Teleological argument for the existence of God (also called the argument from design) back in December of 2008, I wrote only about the Anthropic Principle, the study of those variables in the laws of nature the values of which must have been fine-tuned in order for what we call life to have been remotely possible. I wrote that cosmologists have discovered that at the beginning of our universe, the odds against the possibility of life anywhere in the universe were so infinitesimally small that there would have been no life at all unless the singular explosion had been carefully engineered to produce it.

However, the result of 50 years of study concerning the structure and function of DNA is every bit as impressive as the result of 40 years of cosmology examining anthropic constants, impressive enough to convince a thorough-going rationalist like Anthony Flew. So in commemoration of a great philosopher, I’m going to amend my discussion of the Teleological argument by discussing the wonder of DNA.

To talk about DNA, we have to start by talking about language. Bear with me…

Languages contain layers of abstraction. There is no logical or mechanical connection between the sounds we make and the objects we indicate when we make them; they’re completely arbitrary. Imagine I’m an proto-lingual cave man (tough, I know). The first time I encounter that furry creature making a purring sound as it rubs against my leg begging for food, what should I call it? Even if I decide to call it a “purrrrrr” I’ve intelligently mimicked its sound. But why would I call it a “kat” rather than, say, a “hammer,” or a “blik?” What do the sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” have to do with that particular animal? Answer: nothing at all. They’re just sounds. Somebody, or a large group of somebodies operating by common agreement, has to assign the sounds to the animal, in order for the combined sounds “k,” “a,” and “t” to refer to that particular animal. Furthermore, there is no logical or mechanical connection between a semicircle open on the right, “c,” and the sound “k,” or between a vertical stroke with a bottom hook to the right, crossed near the top, “t,” to its sound. Those are also completely arbitrary. Again, somebody, or a group of somebodies operating by agreement, has to assign those shapes to those sounds in order for them to be useful in conveying meanings. Every language contains at least these two nested levels of abstraction — even before we get to syntactical rules, which add yet another nested layer of arbitrary assignments.

It is the abstractions that distinguish languages from mechanical processes like the creation of dunes on the shore. Wave motion can create fascinating patterns on the shoreline, but those patterns do not contain meaning, and they are never abstract; the shapes conform directly to the motion of the waves in mechanical fashion.

The abstractions of language denote intent; and specifically, intent to communicate meaning. And because of these abstractions and this intent, is it simply not possible for a language to arise without some intelligent agent to arbitrarily assign indicators to objects or actions. This is, in fact, a definition. Language requires intelligence and intent, and can never, ever, be separated from them.

DNAAlphabetDNA is a language.

Take a moment to let that sink in. DNA is not like a language; it is a language. Grammar, syntax, spelling, vocabulary, sentence structure… everything. And because DNA is a language, complete with layers of abstraction and arbitrary assignment of unrelated objects to produce meaning, it has to have been devised; it came from a mind. It is simply not logically possible in any plausible world for DNA to arise without a mind.

DNA uses a four-character alphabet to spell out instructions. The four characters are actually proteins: adenine (designated by the letter A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T). These proteins come ordered in pairs, called “base pairs,” and the base pairs are strung together in sequences according to syntactical rules. The sequences of base pairs spell out instructions for constructing protein molecules, which get carried out by RNA molecules within cells. In this way, the cell is very much like an automated factory with several separate assembly lines, like those that build automobiles, and the DNA is like a huge computer program that controls the building process. The amount of information is overwhelming; the DNA in an amoeba contains encoded messages equivalent in length to 1,000 volumes of an encyclopedia. The process is also overwhelming, and involves reading, transport, assembly, timing, and replication; biologists studying the process have resorted to borrowing descriptors from manufacturing engineers to describe what they’re seeing, because it’s so similar to human-built factories.

This system of programming and executing protein construction has to have been present in the very earliest life forms on earth, whatever they were, as this process is the basis of all life on earth. Consequently, while it is likely — proven, according to some — that life evolves on our planet, it is not logically possible that life arose in the first place without an intentional designer. What we call “evolution” is a process in our biosphere that begins with organisms that already possess the power to reproduce; it does not, and cannot, explain how the first living organism came to exist, or how the process of reproduction came to exist. Charles Darwin actually admitted this in On the Origin of Species, and now that we understand how DNA works, we can consider it a scientific fact: evolution cannot explain the beginning of life. The DNA/RNA manufacturing process is far too complex to have arisen on its own. Briefly put, we’ve opened up the earliest life form, and found a 5 million line computer program in it. The implication is obvious.

alphabitsFrank Turek, the author of the seminar on which this series is based, uses a breakfast cereal from his childhood to illustrate. The cereal was called “Alpha Bits,” and consisted of ground-up grains formed and baked into the shapes of letters of the alphabet. Imagine you’re 10 years old, and you wake up one morning and come down to breakfast. You find a box of Alpha Bits lying on its side on the table. Letters have spilled out and are lying in this pattern: “TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE – MOM”. If Mom comes home later and finds that the garbage has not been taken out, and comes to you to find out why, will she accept as an excuse “I just thought the cat had knocked over the box, and the letters spilled out?” Of course she won’t. The coherent message clearly indicates intent. DNA spells out similar messages, only they’re a bit longer.

It was learning about processes like DNA/RNA manufacturing that eventually convinced Anthony Flew that a God of some sort must exist. Flew’s God was deistic; that is, he imagined that he/she/it constructed the universe and stood back to let it run. He had some issues about the personal God of Christianity or Judaism; Flew was raised a Methodist, and eventually left the faith over the Problem of Evil. Though he spent the last 20 years of his life debating publicly with Christian apologist Gary Habermas, and they became good friends, it is not clear that he ever resolved this problem for himself.

It is God’s job to judge departed souls, not mine. Theological purists will surely insist that unless Flew prayed a specific prayer of repentance, he’s consigned to hell. I’m fairly well convinced that God is not such a stickler as to demand specific words, and that he’s more inclined to look at what direction a man is facing, and what he’s moving toward; but all judgment rests with Him, and for better or worse, He does not communicate His specific decisions to those of us who remain. I can only hope, and note, with sadness and admiration, the passing of a mind uniformly acknowledged to have been great.

04/16/2010 (3:09 am)

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Is the New Testament True?

idhefcoverbigIt was just before Thanksgiving that I last updated this ongoing project of blogging the seminar, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. I had just finished the last of a three-part discussion of miracles, which is relevant to the discussion because deciding which of the theistic religions is the true one requires that one accept the possibility that God has, in fact, acted in our 3-dimensional-plus-time world, and that we humans can detect it if He has.

The argument of the seminar goes like this: (1) Truth can be determined by reason and investigation; (2) Reason and investigation prove to us that God exists, and tell us some of His/Her/Its necessary characteristics; (3) If God acts in our universe, it is possible for us to detect it; and (4) God has, in fact, acted in our universe in such a way as to identify which of the theistic religions is the true one. To put it more simply:

  1. Does truth exist?
  2. Does God Exist?
  3. Are miracles possible?
  4. Is the New Testament true?

Here, for the record, are the links to the earlier posts in this series, in case you would like to review any part of it. So far, I have established:

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here);
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here);
  • that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here);
  • that Hume’s objection that we can never accept any event as a miracle proves too much, and leaves us questioning every event in history (see the post here);
  • that context determines when an event should be called a miracle, and that God uses miracles for signs, but also for anything that effects our redemption (see the post here.)

Now it is time to begin to examine the specific evidence that God has created in human history to enable us to know which of the theistic religions is the correct one. There is no particular reason, so far in the argument, to imagine that God must have provided such evidence. However, it does seem consistent with some of the things we’ve said so far. For example, we determined from examining the Teleological Argument that God is intelligent and has a purpose for what He/She/It creates, and from the Moral Argument that God cares about our behavior and is personal. So it seems reasonable to expect that God has provided us the means to determine how best to conform ourselves to His wishes.

Since the argument has established the likelihood of a Theistic God, we can exclude claims that do not fall into the set of theistic religions. The main, remaining candidates are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. From a logical standpoint it’s attractive to approach Judaism first, because if it turns out to be flat-out false, we’ve also ruled out Christianity. By the same token, proving Christianity true also proves Judaism true (albeit incomplete); Christianity presupposes the historical truth of Judaism.

I’ll make no bones: I choose to address Christianity first because I’m Christian, and it’s what I know best. However, Christianity also commends itself as a starting point because of convenience. Christianity contains historical claims that are testable, and about which a veritable flood of reliable data exists. This makes it comparatively easy to either confirm or dismiss. Islam makes very few claims about deity that are unique or testable; Judaism’s historical claims are lost in far antiquity. Christianity is by far the most historically testable theistic religion, and for that matter, the most historically testable religion of any stripe, because it makes a remarkable historical claim: Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God by rising from the dead.

In this, Christianity is unique. It’s based solely on a single, historical event. If, in fact, the New Testament is historically accurate and contemporary to the events it reports, and if Jesus actually said what the New Testament writers claim He said about Himself, and if Jesus actually rose from the dead, then it appears virtually certain that Christianity is true.

That’s a lot of “ifs”, but they turn out to be at least partly testable “ifs.” Those “ifs” will be the focus of the rest of this series.

No part of my argument relies on any notion that the New Testament is “the Word of God” or any similar theological notion. I am going to be examining the New Testament documents — 27 separate writings by 9 separate authors — as historical documents. Accepting the New Testament as Holy Writ may be the outcome of the exercise, but it will not be one of the premises. Nor is the New Testament the only set of documents I’ll be discussing; but the gospel accounts and the letters of the Apostles contain most of the detail we know about Jesus and the events surrounding him, so they are central.

When examining New Testament writings as evidence, I have to establish first whether the English-language versions I use are trustworthy. After all, nobody thinks that the original manuscripts of any of the individual books of the New Testament (called by scholars “the Autographs”) have ever been found. One of the problems I hear most frequently when talking to non-Christians about Jesus is that the New Testament is a translation of a translation, a copy of a copy, and so far removed from the original documents that scholars have no idea whether what we’re reading is anything like what was written.

This is not an objection usually raised by scholars who are familiar with the subject, though. Historians of the ancient world know how unusual it is for the accuracy of a document to be as well supported as are the New Testament writings. There is not anything from the ancient world for which anywhere near the level of support exists as for the New Testament.

The following graphic illustrates why. It shows the New Testament compared against 7 works from the ancient world (represented by the names of the ancient authors) and reports two things about each work: how many copies or fragments historians have of the primary work, and how far removed the oldest copy is in years from the time the work was originally written. For example, if you’ll look at “Homer,” you’ll see that historians know of 643 copies or fragments of The Iliad by Homer, and that the earliest known copy is about 500 years removed from the time the stories were first written down. Homer’s work is the 2nd best-established work from the ancient world. More ordinary are works like The Republic by Plato, of which scholars have 7 ancient copies, the earliest dating from 1200 years after Plato lived.

ntreliability

Scholars know of more than 5000 New Testaments, either complete or fragments, from the ancient world, and one fragment dates from as little as 25 years after alleged date that the book was written of which the fragment was found (the John Rylands fragment, in the British Museum, is from John 18). That’s New Testaments in Greek, the language in which the books were first written. There are another 18,000 or so ancient copies in Syriac, Egyptian, or Latin. Beyond that, most of the New Testament appears in quotations written by various church fathers between 80 and about 200 years after the death of Jesus — so many, in fact, that if all the known New Testament manuscripts had been gathered up and burned (which the Roman Emperor Diocletian attempted in 300 AD.) scholars would have been able to reconstruct the entire New Testament from the letters of the church fathers, except for 11 verses. There is no shortage of manuscripts from which scholars can compare New Testament versions in order to determine the accuracy of the copies.

The accuracy is remarkable even for the culture in which they appeared. Uninformed critics like to harp on the fact that there are 200,000 variants in the existing New Testament manuscripts; that’s true because there are so many manuscripts, and is an indication of how well-supported the New Testament manuscripts are, not how poorly. More than 90% of these are mere variations in punctuation or spelling, and hardly any of the remaining variations affect even the meaning of the sentence in which they’re found, let alone bring into question any event or doctrine. Moreover, the sheer volume of manuscripts available for comparison leaves little doubt about the original construction of any passage.

An example of one of these variants appears in the account of Peter visiting the Centurion’s house in Acts chapter 10. Peter was praying on his roof one noontime, and received a vision. Verse 19 says “While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.” The marginal notes in the New American Standard version I use inserts a note by the word “three” that says, “One early mss reads ‘two’.” This is actually one of the more serious variants in the New Testament manuscripts; most are so insignificant they require no comment in translation, or they can be resolved easily because the bulk of the manuscripts agree and the variant occurs only a few times. This particular variant, relating a detail that could only have come from Peter himself, remains a question only because the one manuscript that says something different is a very old one. The variant brings into question only the number of visitors he expected to see when descended from the roof.

Moreover, comparison frequently allows scholars to identify where or when a variant occurred. To help you see why, let’s imagine a slightly modified game of “Telephone,” the game where somebody whispers a phrase into the ear of the person next to him, who whispers it to the next, and so forth around a circle of friends. The game should be modified to represent the transmission of texts in generations: one person whispers the phrase to two others, who each whisper it to two others, and so forth. After 4 generations, we have each person write down what they heard. I’ve illustrated below:

telephone2

As you can see, six of the participants repeat exactly the same phrase, “Jesus is Lord.” Two, however, recite an assonant phrase, “Cheese is abhorred.” Is there any question what the original phrase was? Of course not; not only do we have a clear indication of the original phrase, we can actually pinpoint the repetition in which the error was introduced. The culprit has the profile of a little boy wearing a baseball cap, in generation 3 on the right. We know this because everybody who heard the repetition from him made exactly the same mistake.

In this manner, scholars can use particular errors along with locations and contextually inferred dates to produce histories of how the various manuscripts were reproduced. Neil Mammen of NoBlindFaith.com created an illustration that I’ve reproduced below, showing how scholars can infer the pedigree of copies of ancient documents like books of the New Testament.

telephone4

Bruce Metzger, well-known New Testament documentarian from Princeton University, computes based on known manuscripts and variants that the textual reproduction of New Testament manuscripts in the ancient world was 99.5% accurate. This figure, which is higher than the accuracy of reproduction of other ancient documents, reflects the veneration of the copyists, and the care that they took in reproducing the words of the Apostles. Consequently, we can be sure that historical compilations of the New Testament texts are substantially faithful to the Autographs. There are enough manuscripts reproduced with sufficient accuracy to give scholars confidence that the texts in our hands do not vary from the Autographs in any substantial way. We do have to be careful to compare one modern translation against another to make sure we understand what the original writer meant by particular turns of phrase, and it is helpful to study what is known of the culture in which the Autographs were produced in order to interpret the author’s meaning as he intended it; but there exists no reasonable claim that the modern Bible is an inaccurate copy of the original.

Next time: how we know the New Testament is contemporary to the events it reports.

03/19/2010 (9:04 am)

Why a Christian Base Matters

I was on Amazon.com this morning examining a book written in 1864 that recounts the Christian underpinnings of the American constitutional system, entitled The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States, by Benjamin Morris. My routine, when I’m interested in a book, is to read through the customer reviews. I deliberately seek out both positive and negative reviews, with particular attention to those who have given the book fewer than 5 stars but more than 1. In my experience, most of the 1-star and 5-star reviewers are ideologues who think that the rating of the book is not so much about the quality of the book as it is about how much or how little they agree with its premise. However, I do read some 1-star and 5-star reviews to see what the ideologues are complaining or crowing about.

One of the 1-star reviews asked an uncharacteristically relevant question, and in the 16 comments that followed this review, I only heard the faintest echo of a correct answer to his question. Here’s the question:

So what if some of the Founders were Christian? So what if so-called ‘Christian principles’ were incorporated in the founding documents? …Is the goal to make Christianity the official religion? I suppose some insecure Christians might gain some comfort from the reinforcement of their belief, but the premise was never really in doubt. It might be useful as a collection of historical trivia, but any deeper significance is unclear to me…

That’s the gist of it. Here’s my answer:

The reason it matters that the founders were Christian in their thinking is that ideas have practical consequences. The liberty and prosperity that we enjoy here in America is the consequence of a system that was based on Christian concepts. If we develop laws and practices based on different concepts arising from a different system of belief or thought, we will obtain different results.

This is why examining the history of the 20th century is so important. The 20th century gave us several, clear instances of attempts to build nations on thinking that deliberately and systematically excluded God, allegedly building instead a technocratic state on scientific principles. What became clear in the 20th century is that attempts to build states without God result in states unrestrained by morality. This is the source of the flood of state-sponsored murders: 70 million murdered by the Soviets, 60 million by the Chinese communists, 20 million by the Nazis, 3 million by the Khmer Rouge, 1.5 million by the Vietnamese, Lord knows how many by the Romanians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Cubans, etc. The routine incompetence and corruption of technocrats is the source of the abject poverty experienced by the citizens of these states in every case. These are the consequence of technocratic statism, attempts at Utopia from thought systems divorced from religion.

Meanwhile, the system built on Christian principles, during the 20th century, produced prosperity and activism sufficient to lift billions of the poor of the world out of their poverty, and liberate millions from tyranny and murder. Quite the contrast, eh?

The key concept seems to be the one that recognizes the innate sinfulness of man. Statist systems presuppose the good will and expertise of the State, the Party, or the Collective. The American constitutional system presupposes the good will of nobody, and asserts that the rights of man are inviolable by the state because they come from God. This is a distinctly Christian (and Jewish) notion; if we as a nation dismiss Christianity, we’ll find that the notion of inherent rights that supersede the power of the state will be dismissed soon thereafter.

Actually, let me put that in the past tense. We as a nation generally have dismissed Christianity; and that is why we as a nation are seeing a rise in the power of the state to coerce individuals to live according to some expert-recommended standard. We are fools; having seen the disaster of the technocratic state played out over the 20th century, we are repeating its excesses as though we were somehow immune from them. We’re not immune, and the American version of the holocaust, if it comes about, will be just as bad as all the others. If we do obtain different results, it will have been because we remembered the principles on which the nation was founded — distinctly Christian principles — and applied them to limit the power of government.

That is why it matters that the founders were Christian. It matters because it tells us where we need to look for ideas that produce humane and acceptable results. It matters because if we understand that the benefits of the 20th century were produced by a system based on Christian thinking, and that the horrors of the 20th century were produced by systems that explicitly abandoned Christian thinking, then we know that we need to think like Christians, too.

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