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Naturalism and uniformity

I posted a series of selections from Matthew Stanley’s recent book here. This post is about an article he wrote: “The Uniformity of Natural Laws in Victorian Britain: Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Practice” (Zygon, vol. 46, no. 3, Sept. 2011, pp.536-560). His conclusion in the article is similar to the book: the practice of naturalistic and theistic scientists in the 19th century was the same. Their inspiration and motivation was different but this did not interfere with their common practice. Then the naturalists we able to achieve a position of dominance and deprecate the theists and their theism.

“Uniformity is the claim that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe” p. 537.

“Herschel’s position that the essence of science was the search for and study of universal, uniform laws was accepted by every scientist I will discuss here, whether theist of naturalist. Precisely what uniformity meant, and how one should thing about it, was more complicated.” p. 540

“The term ‘scientific naturalism’ was first coined by T. H. Huxley in 1892, but the ideas, methods, and attitude of naturalism became widespread decades before. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a group of scientists preaching the strict exclusion of religion from scientific matters (for which the uniformity of nature was an important weapon) became influential and rose to prominence in the scientific community. Led by Huxley, John Tyndall, and their allies, these strongly naturalistic scientists portrayed themselves as the vanguard of a truly modern and enlightened science and eventually succeeded in making their visions of a completely naturalistic and areligious science seem obvious and inevitable – precisely how naturalism is presented by scientists today.” p.538

“Scientific naturalism had its most important locus in a group known as the X-Club. This informal network (essentially, a dining club) of young, ambitious scientists sought to professionalize their discipline and increase its social and cultural standing. A critical part of this effort was the exclusion of religion, the supernatural, and the clergy from science: ‘They opposed all suggestions that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically-determined boundaries’ (Barton, 1990).” p.540

“Its leaders spent a great deal of time and energy discussing the foundations of science and explaining how those foundations excluded the supernatural. And the most important idea supporting that exclusion was uniformity.” p.540

“Huxley referred to the order of nature in almost every essay or lecture, and explicitly opposed it to theology.” p.541

“Huxley’s friend and ally John Tyndall also spoke vigorously of the power of uniformity to banish God” p.541

“The subtexts of these claims was that uniformity not only restricts religion from entering science, but that uniformity can only be justified in a world without divine intervention.” p.542

“The claims of Huxley and Tyndall that uniformity demanded a completely areligious science did not drive the theists to secularism. And yet, these theistic scientists (in Britain, almost all Protestants of various flavors) were in total agreement with the naturalists that uniformity was critical to the advance of science. How could they embrace the naturalistic methods but not the naturalistic conclusions?” p.542

“The answer is that the theists saw uniformity as their impregnable position, not Tyndall’s. The consistency of natural laws over time and space was a sign pointing toward God, not warding him off.” p.543

“Natural laws were seen as instances of divine fiat, and they were constant because God is consistent in his actions.” p.543

“Without an ordering force (i.e., God) one would expect the universe to be a mishmash of chaotic events. The only guarantee for constancy of the laws of nature was the intent of the lawgiver.” p.547

“Within the general rubric of uniformity, there are two specific topics that are thought commonly to be exemplars of how uniformity allows no room for religion: miracles, and the origin of the universe.” p.547

“There was widespread agreement among theistic scientists that apparent violations of natural law were illusory.” p.548

“If scientists had total knowledge of all natural laws, then nothing would ever appear supernatural.” p.549

“Some critics of this position claimed it restricted God’s action, saying that a God who could not intervene in special circumstances was no God at all. But, again, it was uniformity, not interruptions of it, that truly showed us the nature of things” p.549

“There is nothing in Religion incompatible with the belief that all exercises of God’s power, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are effected through the instrumentality of means – that is to say, by the instrumentality of natural laws brought out, as it were, and used for a Divine purpose” (Duke of Argyll, 1867) p.549

“So, this move would essentially remove the category of formal miracles and subsume all divine actions under special providence.” p.550

“Lord Kelvin, considering the implications of the laws of thermodynamics, said that science must stop at the point in the past where matter and energy were created” p.550

“Why Did the Naturalists Win?” The X-Club “was able to have an enormous impact on the future of science by focusing on science education.” p.552

“Huxley designed his teaching to stand for what Adrian Desmond calls a ‘distinct ideological faction’ that clearly marked off acceptable (naturalistic) from unacceptable (theistic) ways of thinking about science.” p.553

“A side effect of this is that once the scientific naturalists gained dominance in the scientific community, they were able to rewrite the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science.” p.553

“Concepts like uniformity, which were both theistic and naturalistic in practice, became recast as only naturalistic.” p.554

“Our modern understanding of the uniformity of natural laws as being purely naturalistic, then, is contingent and not inevitable, and a close historical examination of the issues shows that uniformity can be, and was, a tool used both for and against religion. The victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done (despite their claims to the contrary) and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.” p.555

Miracles and uniformity

The week before Christmas is a good time of year to write about miracles because it’s a time to be reminded of the meaningfulness of miracles. But what about their truth? Doesn’t the uniformity of nature make miracles impossible?

Thomas Aquinas said a miracle is ‘beyond the order commonly observed in nature’ (Summa Contra Gentiles III), but David Hume went further and defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ (Of Miracles, 1748). Hume also claimed that scientific induction required the uniformity of nature, so on his telling, miracles undermined science.

However, Hume failed to establish the uniformity of nature on rational grounds. The future does not necessarily resemble the past. The most he could say was that the uniformity of nature is a matter of custom and habit. (There’s a convenient summary of his argument here: Probable reasoning has no rational basis.)

Others have also been unable to establish the uniformity of nature on rational grounds. This failure led to Karl Popper’s argument that induction is merely not untrue, and that one counterexample can falsify any induction. However, the history of science shows an unwillingness to abandon well-accepted science because of one or a few anomalies.

Does scientific induction really require the uniformity of nature? No, that is a misunderstanding of science that goes back to Scholasticism, which was revived in the 19th century by Richard Whately and John Stuart Mill. See John P. McCaskey’s writings on The History of Induction.

Induction is based on classification, not a principle of uniformity. Observation and experiment lead to the definition of a class by a uniformity. Then by definition other objects or events in the same class possess the same uniformity, whether in the past, present, or future. As I wrote here, science studies uniformity but that is far from requiring uniformity everywhere at all times.

It is better to define a miracle by what it is – unique – rather than what it is not – uniform. A miracle is a highly unique event or result, especially one attributed to divine agency. Since science studies uniformity, not uniqueness, it doesn’t have much to contribute about miracles. But uniqueness is studied by other disciplines such as history, philosophy, theology, and literature – that is, the humanities, not the sciences.

Miracles are by their nature very unique and significant. They fall outside of uniformity but since there is no valid principle of uniformity, that is not a problem.

Is All Truth God’s Truth?

“All truth is God’s truth” is a common paraphrase of Augustine of Hippo’s writings, such as On Christian Doctrine, (II.18):

“A person who is a good and true Christian should realize that truth belongs to his Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature, but rejecting superstitious vanities and deploring and avoiding those who ‘though they knew God did not glorify him as God or give thanks but became enfeebled in their own thoughts and plunged their senseless minds into darkness. Claiming to be wise they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for the image of corruptible mortals and animals and reptiles’ [Rom. 1:21-3].”

But that is different from the meaning today that “Christians should recognize that whatever people say is true, must be true for God, too.”

In that vein, I append an excerpt from The End of “Christian Psychology” by Martin and Deidre Bobgan. EastGate Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA, 1997, pp. 45-47:

Is All Truth God’s Truth?

Individuals who want to make psychological theories and therapies available to Christians and who attempt to integrate such theories and techniques with Scripture justify these practices by saying, “All truth is God’s truth.” At first such a statement sounds plausible and even true. However, we need to look at what might be included on each side of the equation of “all truth = God’s truth.”

First of all, what is truth? While there are several definitions of truth, one generally assumes that truth represents that which is true, real, and actual. Truth is the perfect expression of that which is. If what is put into the category of “all truth” is limited to “the perfect expression of that which is,” then that would be “God’s truth.” However, the assortment of ideas, opinions, and even apparent facts under the designation of “all truth” reduces truth to meaning “imperfect human perception of that which is.”

The broad field of psychology at best involves human observation and interpretation of Creation and therefore is subject to human error and the blindness of the unregenerate heart as described in Ephesians 4:18, “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.”

Psychotherapy and its underlying psychologies have the further problem of subjective imagination also proceeding from unregenerate individuals. They represent a further departure from expressing that which truly is. Instead, they present some subjective observation, reasoned analysis, creative imagination, and much distortion. If these ideas are included under the declaration, “All truth is God’s truth,” one must conclude that those who use the expression have greatly misunderstood the nature of truth, let alone God’s truth.

In raising human observation, interpretation, and opinions to the same level and authority as God’s truth revealed through Jesus and in the written Word of God, those who promote psychology among Christians demonstrate their high view of human opinion and their low view of Scripture.

In his discussion of “all truth is God’s truth,” John Moffat says, “I think that, in many ways, this slogan is the verbal equivalent of a graven image; something that appears to represent truth but does not.”3 He explains:

None of the people that use this “all truth” expression actually say that they consider man’s thoughts equal to God’s revealed Word, it just happens to work that way in practice; just as at first the graven images were not meant to replace God, only to represent Him.4

Then to show where “all truth is God’s truth” thinking can lead a person, Moffat says:

I can imagine Nadab and Abihu talking before the early worship service in the wilderness. One says to the other, “All fire is God’s fire. God made all fire; therefore it is all of him.” Or while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel could have said to Aaron, “All worship of God is God’s worship.” These analogies have the same deceptive sound of being logical at first glance, but they are full of the same ambiguity and deceit as the expression “all truth is God’s truth.”5

In contrast to the broad category labeled “all truth” by those who want to include what humans perceive through their senses, achieve through their reason, conceive in their minds, receive from one another, and interweave with Scripture, the specific category of “God’s truth” includes only what is perfectly and flawlessly true. God Himself is true and He has made known His truth through His Son, who referred to Himself as the truth (John 14:6); through His written Word, which perfectly states what is true (John 17:17); and through the Holy Spirit, who is called the Spirit of Truth who will guide believers into all truth (John 16:13). With all that God has provided in His Son, His Word, and His Holy Spirit, one wonders why people are so enamored with the psychological opinions of men.

All humans have partial perception, fragmentary knowledge, and incomplete morality through common grace and general revelation. While these are gifts common to all mankind, they are contaminated by human depravity. Whatever truth people have perceived is contaminated by their unrighteousness. Apart from special revelation and special grace, all stand guilty before God, because they hold whatever truth they have gained through general revelation or common grace in a state of unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Do such people appear to be reliable sources for Christians to seek counsel for godly living? Indeed, general revelation and common grace serve as very weak and even dangerous justifications for dipping into psychotherapy and its underlying psychologies, all of which were conceived and developed by unredeemed minds.

  1. John D. Moffat, “Is ‘All Truth God’s Truth’?” The Christian Conscience (May 1997), p. 27.
  2. Ibid., p. 28.
  3. Ibid.

From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 3

Part 2 of this series is here. This post covers the last section of Chapter Two, which is on miracles. I offer some comments of my own at the end.

p. 71 – Miracles

Building on this reading of uniformity, the scientific naturalists thought they had one attack for which there was no counter. Miracles, they said, were the essence of Christianity. And a miracle, it seemed, must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore a violation of uniformity, and thus cannot be consonant with science. Taking a position on miracles, then, forced one into either the theistic or naturalistic camp. This was a maneuver emphasized repeatedly by Victorian scientific naturalists, many of whom were directly inspired by David Hume.

During and after the Reformation, the general Protestant view was that miracles had been limited to biblical times, and could no longer be found. This was a strategic move to differentiate them from superstitious Catholics calling for their saints’ protection, and also to anchor the Bible’s authority over ecclesiastical tradition–only it had true miracles. This position came under scrutiny for theological reasons from, among others, John Henry Newman and Horace Bushnell, who wanted to abandon the limitation of miracles to biblical times and accept modern ones.

Huxley chose miracles as the subject for some of his famous battles with Gladstone, and developed his ideas further in his book on Hume. He argued that an observation of an apparently miraculous event (say, the unsupported floating of lead in midair) would be no evidence that the laws of nature had been suspended. A man of science would then simply investigate to find the hitherto-concealed laws that allowed such a a thing to happen. Humanity’s limited experience with the world would inevitably lead to gaps, but those gaps could not be used to show divine intervention…

p. 72 – Usually even a small amount of thought could provide naturalistic explanations for otherwise mysterious events, such as miraculous healings. He warned against anyone declaring an event to be impossible on the grounds of natural law, as that would play into the hands of “ecclesiastical apologists” and their worship of absolute statements. One could say an event was improbable, but even the most extraordinary events did not threaten the laws of nature.

Huxley’s typical approach to addressing miracles was distinctly Humean–instead of questioning whether the miracle occurred, or could have occurred, he questioned the witnesses and the reliability of their account. … Only an expert committed to naturalism could be a reliable witness.

The next move was a brilliant use by Huxley of the social context of his listeners. Of course, he said, everyone in his audience was a good Protestant who would never believe Catholic medieval miracles. And yet, “if you do not believe in these miracles recounted by a witness whose character and competency are firmly established, whose sincerity cannot be doubted, and who appeals to his sovereign and other contemporaries as witnesses of the truth of what he says, in a document of which a MS. copy exists, probably dating within a century of the author’s death, why do you profess to believe in stories of a like character, which are found in documents of the dates and the authorship of which nothing is certainly determined, and no known copies of which come within two or three centuries of the events they record?”

These “stories of a like character” were, of course, the Gospels. Huxley stressed that knowledge of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was essentially zero when compared to knowledge of Eginhard. He thus trapped his audience into either siding with Catholic superstition or admitting the unreliability of the New Testament.

p. 75 – There was widespread agreement among theistic scientists that (as with Huxley) apparent violations of natural law were illusory. Many other Christians agreed–Frederick Temple declared, “There may be instances where this Order is apparently broken, but really maintained, because one physical is absorbed in a higher.” That is, an event that appeared to be outside the laws of nature actually was lawful, but it simply obeyed a law of which humans were not yet aware.

What, then, of the supernatural? Would not religious believers need violations of natural law to be assured of the existence of supernatural forces? One of the prices of this strategy was that, in an important sense, the category of the supernatural faded away (or was at least redefined).

p. 76 – So far, these theists were in almost complete agreement with Huxley and Tyndall. Did that not hem them into precisely the dilemma of choosing between uniformity and divine action? They replied strongly in the negative: God could still watch over his creation and enact his plans, but through natural laws, not with interruptions of the natural order. … The deity could manipulate natural laws in a variety of ways without violating their essence, and could produce any of the fantastic events recorded in scripture. This idea had a long genealogy in Christianity going back to Augustine.

p. 77 – Frederick Temple argued that even if science were to someday give an explanation of all the miracles in the Bible, it would not at all change their role in revelation. The miracle could be in their timing, or intent, or effect, rather than in the breach of uniformity. This fit well with a traditional Protestant distinction between miracles, which required an objective witness to provide proof of supernaturalism, and special providence, which appeared to be normal events–excepts when viewed through the eyes of faith. So this move would essentially eliminate the category of formal miracles and subsume all divine actions under special providence.

Discussion: The theists lost the debate on miracles by either (1) accepting Hume’s definition of miracles as violations of the laws of nature, or (2) accepting that God’s laws for creation were all “natural” with no supernatural laws or no supernatural laws that could affect the natural world. I think the solution for theists is to reject Hume’s definition of a miracle, and emphasize that God has laws for all of creation, which includes both natural and supernatural/spiritual worlds.

Miracles should be defined as of two types: (a) transcendent miracles, such as the creation of something from nothing, which exhibit the transcendence of God, and (b) the operation of supernatural laws that affect the natural world. We divide creation into natural and supernatural worlds but there is one reality, and what happens in one can affect what happens in the other. These supernatural laws are beyond the purview of empirical science, but empirical science can and should recognize that theology based on revelation provides legitimate knowledge of supernatural reality.

Part 4 is here.

Christianization of the world

In Mt 13:33 reports of Jesus: He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Christianity is the leaven of the world. Put it into the world and gradually the whole world is leavened. This is the Christianization of the world.

Note that leaven works from the inside out, not the outside in. Christianization does not mean the world is given a coating of Christianity in hopes that it will penetrate further down. Rather, it means that the leaven of Christianity is put into the middle of the world and gradually works its way throughout.

When this is done, the outside at first may look as if nothing much has changed. But if the inside has changed, then sooner or later the outside and everything in between will change. That is what genuine Christianization means.

Christianity is a meta-religion: it “comes after” religion because it takes a religion and transforms it. The first religion Christianity was applied to was Judaism, as recorded in the New Testament. After that, the pagan religion of the gentiles in Europe was Christianized. Many of the customs associated with Christianity today come from Christianized Judaism and paganism. For example, Easter is a Christianized spring festival (the name comes from the Teutonic goddess of spring) and Christmas is a Christianized winter solstice festival.

Other religions have not been Christianized as much, but they could be. Music is one aspect which has been Christianized. There are Christian songs in every music tradition. Converts from any religion should be able to retain parts of their culture with a new focus and interpretation. Christianity is not about replacing the cultures of the world but about redeeming them.

The kingdom of God is the Christianization of the world. Where the kingship of Christ is, there is the kingdom of God. The world in all its diversity can be redeemed — and preserved — through Christ.


Gentile Old Testaments

It is remarkable how the Apostles denied that Gentiles needed to follow the law of Moses, and put only a few restrictions on Gentile believers (Acts 15:28-29):

28 For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: 29 that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.

In short, there was no need to follow the law of Moses but four practices would go a long way to smoothing relations between Jewish and Gentile believers. In the West we don’t think of the first three but the fourth is affirmed. So much for the rest of the Old Testament.

Certainly the Apostles weren’t jettisoning the Old Testament. But they weren’t affirming it much either. The Judaizers had it wrong: the Gentiles can become Christians right where they are. There’s no need to accept the Old Testament with its law of Moses, circumcision, rituals, and 613 commandments (according to Orthodox tradition).

When pagans converted to Christianity their pagan practices were reinterpreted as much as possible rather than banned outright. Yes, much behind Christmas is pagan — but it has been given new Christian meaning. The same is true with Easter. Even the pontifex maximus was transformed into the pope.

There is certainly a danger here that Christianity may be influenced by paganism rather than the other way around. But the alternative is a return to the law of Moses, and that has been ruled out. But then what is the tutor or guardian “to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith” if not the law of Moses? The best that paganism had to offer.

When the early Christians approached the pagans, they argued from the Bible but also from the greatest writings of the pagans. What were these? In Europe they were the classics, especially the writings of Plato and Aristotle. These writings, correctly understood, point to Christ in their own way.

Modern pagans today have their classic writings, and Christians need to show the from them why Christianity makes sense. As the Old Testament is not always clear on what it means, so Gentile classics do not always show a clear connection to the Gospel so it’s up to Christians to make it for them.

One-sentence summaries

One could use the common one-sentence summary of the Muslim faith to describe other monotheistic faiths and monistic ideologies; for example:

There is no God but Yahweh and Moses is his legislator.

There is no God but Yahweh and David is his psalmist.

There is no God but Deus and the Pope is his bishop.

There is no God but Gott and Luther is his reformer.

There is no God but Dieu and Calvin is his polemicist.

There is no God but Jesus and Wesley is his evangelist.

There is no God but Nature and Newton is his scientist.

There is no God but Evolution and Darwin is his scientist.

There is no God but Matter and Marx is his revolutionary.


I give thanks

I give thanks that “God exists and rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11:6).

I give thanks that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether (Ps 19:9).

I give thanks to God for providing salvation and life everlasting, even for me, who am not worthy nor able to do the least to begin a new life in Christ.

I give thanks for the blessings of this life — for health, for wealth, for a wife. I give thanks for a mind to think, hands to work, and a spirit to worship the Creator, Savior, and Redeemer of mankind.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you most humble and hearty thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies that our hearts may be unfeignèdly thankful, and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you, in holiness and righteousness, all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


Million-dollar parable

You’re broke. You don’t have enough the pay the rent at the end of the month. If your car breaks down, you can’t afford to have it fixed. Your bank account is almost empty. You’re at the end of your rope.

Then an old friend stops by, someone you knew in school who happens to be very wealthy. He says he heard you’ve been having a hard time so he went to your bank and deposited a million dollars in your name. You can hardly believe it. You thank him and he leaves.

Then you start wondering, Is this for real? So you go down to the bank and ask for your balance. The clerk gives you a slip of paper with the balance and, sure enough, it says there’s a million dollars there. You take that slip of paper home and keep it with you. Sometimes you take it out and read it to remind you this is for real.

It starts to sink in and you tell others what happened. You think of all the things you can do with the money now. You can take your family on a vacation. You can pay for your kids to go to college. You can even give some money away.

You keep in touch with this old friend — after all, friends like this are good to have. You thank him every time you meet. You tell others about this friend’s generosity and how you didn’t earn a penny of it. You’re very thankful that your life has turned around.

This changes your life but it didn’t have to. You could have told your old friend, I appreciate your concern but I believe in earning my own way in this world — I don’t want to be dependent on anyone else. Thanks but no thanks.

Or you could have gone down to the bank and told them, There’s been a mistake — take that million dollars off the account. You don’t want it, you don’t need it, you’re not going to keep it.

Either way, the gift is for you. The million dollars is put on your account. Your finances are secure — unless you reject this gift. And if you keep it, your life will be changed.

Virtue or righteousness

While Aristotle talks about virtue, the Bible talks about righteousness but there are similarities in what they say. Both take an “agent-centered” approach rather than an “action-centered” approach. The way to virtue or righteousness is not via doing virtuous or righteous actions. That doesn’t make us virtuous or righteous. These are qualities, not quantities, as one put it.

Being leads to doing, not the other way around. The virtuous do the right thing, the fine and excellent thing. The righteous do the right thing, the good and godly thing. But one can be virtuous only by a virtuous upbringing and education. One can be righteous only by repentance and faith in the Righteous One.

Moral education has almost been forgotten it seems but has its value in producing virtuous citizens. Children baptized, raised in a Christian family, and confirmed with a confession of faith are righteous in the Lord. Others who repent and believe as adults are, too. That is the foundation of a good and just society.