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Month: September 2016

Answers in Genesis, Radiometric Dating, and the Denial of Science (I’ll Take David Hume Behind Door Number 3!)

Answers in Genesis, Radiometric Dating, and the Denial of Science (I’ll Take David Hume Behind Door Number 3!)

After a while, there’s only so much you can say about the claims of young earth creationist groups like Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis. As I wrote in my book, The Heresy of Ham, the entire “gospel” of Answers in Genesis (which really is no gospel at all) can be boiled down to five basic talking points that they continually recycle, over and over again:

  1. There are two kinds of science: observational and historical
  2. Evolution is the anti-God religion of atheism
  3. Christians who accept that the universe is older than 6,000 years are “compromised” Christians
  4. All geological, biological, and genetic evidence we see today can all be traced back to Noah’s flood, 4,000 years ago.
  5. When Genesis talks about “kinds,” those are God’s own scientific classification of original animals that came on to Noah’s Ark, and from which all modern species have developed within the past 4,000 years.

Yes, AiG no doubt addresses other things as well, but I’m willing to bet that even those other “things” are somehow connected to these five talking points. That’s why my writing on AiG has gone down over the past month or so—what else can be said? Sure, every now and then Ken Ham takes to Twitter, unleashes 6-7 tweets within the span of two hours, bemoaning about how evolution is a “fairytale,” with no evidence, and that’s because atheists have a blind faith in millions of years, etc. etc.—but after a while, like I said, you just roll your eyes and move on.

Today, though, a friend of mine shared this youtube video from AiG about radiometric dating, and why it is (supposedly) unreliable for determining the age of rocks. Now, I am not a scientist, and most scientific discussion makes my eyes glaze over. My brain is wired for literature, poetry, and Biblical Studies. As I watched this short video, though, a few thoughts popped into my head that I just have to share. First, take 3:18 minutes and watch for yourself.

AiG Explains Radiometric Dating…Fairly Accurately?
As you can tell, for about the first 1:40, the AiG narrator (I’m assuming) fairly accurately explains what radiometric dating is, what “half-life” is, and how scientists come up with the age of rocks. Up to that 1:40 mark, I was somewhat surprised: AiG gave a straightforward explanation regarding radiometric dating and half-life. It actually admitted that this was “observable science” and therefore reliable. And it (by omission) admitted that the motivating factor scientists use radiometric dating isn’t “to deny God,” or “to come up with some justification for evolution.” No, the video pretty much admitted that scientists take what they observe with half-life, then calculated backwards to try to find out how old the rock in question is.

Wow! There’s no sinister atheistic agenda! Thanks AiG, for admitting that and for giving scientists a certain amount of credit and respect.

…but oh, it just couldn’t last. You knew it was coming. Somehow, someway, AiG was going to smuggle in at least one of their talking points. Sure enough…historical science.

Is That All There Is to It?
Oh of course not…if that was all there was to it, AiG would have to issue a retraction to everything it has ever said ever, and then shut the whole organization down. And that just won’t do. There has to be a way to discredit the whole radiometric dating thing of (by their own admission) observational science.

And sure enough, a mere 11 seconds later, AiG’s “historical science” makes its appearance. And how AiG introduces it is breathtaking:

  1. “It is true that we can measure a decay rate using observational science” (Got that? It’s TRUE!)
  2. “But there’s another kind of science that’s required to accurately calculate dates for rocks, and that is what we call historical science. Historical science deals with things in the past, and therefore cannot be repeated and tested.”

checkthisoutAnd right there, AiG’s untestable “historical science” takes center stage. And, as I have said elsewhere, their definition of “historical science” is self-refuting—if it can’t be tested or observed in the natural world, then it’s not science. Think about it, if “historical science” “deals with the past” yet cannot be tested or observed, then how can it deal with the past, and how would you be able to test its claims to determine whether or not its claims were true?

But of course, AiG knows the answer to that—you can’t. That’s why they define “historical science” the way they do—it inoculates their claims from any kind of questioning or testing at all. Therefore, their “historical scientific claims” boil down to this: “Trust us…what we say is correct—God gave us the historical scientific information in Genesis 1-11.”

Getting Accurate Rock Dates…You Know What You Do When You “Assume”!
The rest of the video tries to convince you that radiometric dating and calculating the half-life of rocks isn’t enough to figure out the age of rocks. You need to use that “observational science” in conjunction with some sort of “historical science” to get it right. And, as AiG states, “Since radiometric dating uses both types of science…”

Wait…what? Do you see what AiG did there? They just threw that assertion out there—and this is problematic for two reasons:

  1. The fact is, there is no such thing as ‘historical science’—no self-respecting scientist believes there is a field of science that can somehow tell about the past without appealing to any kind of evidence in the natural world.
  2. Since there is no such thing as “historical science,” it is also obviously false to claim that radiometric dating uses it in conjunction with “observational science.” Simply put, there is just one kind of science—the kind that observes the natural world and makes testable predictions based on that evidence in order to understand the natural world better.

But in any case, AiG’s canard of “historical science” really boils down to their classic line regarding “starting points” and “assumptions.” Or in other words, AiG ends up rejecting radiometric dating because even though scientists today can observe the half-life of rocks, they weren’t there when the rock was original formed, so therefore they have to make assumptions regarding the conditions of the original rock sample. As AiG states,

  1. How do they know those conditions weren’t altered somehow by some other processes in the past?
  2. How do they know that the decay rate remains constant throughout the past?

And with that (and their analogy of the hourglass), AiG confidently declares, “THEY DON’T!” “Since we did not observe the initial conditions when the hourglass started, and since we haven’t been watching all the sand all the time since then, we must make assumptions.”

And (again), with that, out goes radiometric dating!

David Hume, or the Christian Assumption of an Orderly Universe? AiG Sides with Hume!
david-humeSince we’re making assumptions, I’m going to make one here: AiG is the reincarnation at an organizational level of David Hume. If you don’t know, David Hume took skepticism to an absurd extreme, basically saying you can’t know anything for certain unless you actually witness the entire event—but even then you couldn’t be certain, because you can’t really trust your senses either. You see me throw a ball throw a window and the window shatters—but how do you really know it was the ball that shattered the window? Isn’t it possible the window just happened to shatter for some other reason a millisecond before the ball came in contact with it?

How do you know for certain?
Were you there?
Were you able to observe every split second from every angle for all time?
Aren’t you just basing your conclusion on your assumptions?
What if you’re wrong?

ken-ham-picLet’s be honest, the only “assumptions” scientists are making is that there are consistent natural laws in the universe (i.e. half-life, speed of light in a vacuum, etc.). Or simply put, the basic assumption scientists make is that the natural universe is pretty orderly. In fact, that is the assumption the original medieval scientists had as they began to investigate the natural world—and why did they assume that? Because they were Christians who believed God was a God of order—and yes, they read Genesis 1 and realized that one of the messages of Genesis 1 is that God’s creation is one of order.

Based on that assumption, scientists study things like half-life and the speed of light, and come to the conclusion (based on the testable things they observe in the natural world!) that rocks are millions of years old and that the universe is 14 billion years old. Those calculations are possible because we live in an ordered universe, created by God.

And even if one doesn’t believe in God, one can still make the same calculations and come to the same conclusions…except for AiG…for they, quite literally, deny that the universe is orderly. Ironic, eh? In this silly little video, AiG denies the basic assumption that inspired the original Christian scientists to go out and study the natural world. AiG is denying the fundamental assumption that God is a God of order, and that the nature universe reflects that very thing.

By the Way…What Does Any of This Have to do with the Bible, or the Gospel?
The subtitle here pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? AiG makes this huge deal as to why one can’t trust radiometric dating to give an accurate age for rocks (never mind the ludicrous “WWDavidHumeD” mindset of AiG)…and for what reason?

Well, if you’re familiar with AiG at all, you already know the real reason, even though they don’t put it in this video. AiG has an assumption all its own: Genesis 1-11 is scientifically and historically accurate, and if it isn’t, then Christianity isn’t true, for a scientific/historical reading of Genesis 1-11 is the foundation for the Gospel. Never mind that at no time in Church History before the 20th century was that claim ever made. And never mind the fact that everything modern astronomy, biology, geology, and genetics contradicts AiG’s claim that the universe is 6,000 years old.

No, the assumptions of AiG are not even based on anything observable. Quite the contrary, they are literally based on nothing. That’s actually ironic, for in the Old Testament, when the prophets would rail against pagan idolatry, one of the ways they would describe idols is with a word that essentially meant a breath, or vapor, or basically nothingness. And that was the point—even though pagan temples had physical idols, in reality those idols represented nothing that corresponded to reality in any way.

In a similar way, AiG actually prides itself…on nothing. Such is idolatry—the worship of an image that ultimately corresponds to nothing that is real.

We Christians often refer to God as the “Rock of Ages.” In a very poetic and metaphorical way, the radiometric dating of modern science, by showing that there are rocks here on earth that are ancient, “of ages” long past, so to speak, actually can be seen as a reflection of God here in the natural world. It’s just a shame that AiG refuses to see it. They can’t–they’re worshiping their own peculiar idol that cannot hear or see, and hence, they become like what they worship.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 11): Early Christian Philosophers–Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 11): Early Christian Philosophers–Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons

In my last post, I began to look at a number of Christian philosophers from the first couple of centuries of the early Church who proved themselves to be some of the most influential philosophers of their time. I looked at Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria.

In this post, I want to look at two more people: Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons.

Tertullian (160-240 AD)
A fifth key Christian figure of that time was Tertullian. A temperamental and crotchety man, born to pagan parents and trained as a lawyer, Tertullian is often the one held up by moderns as an example of Christian intolerance and ignorance. After all, he is famous for saying, “What indeed as Athens [i.e. pagan scholarship] to do with Jerusalem [i.e. Christianity]?  What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? …Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” If that doesn’t sound like Christianity being hostile to classical philosophy, then what does?

And if that’s not bad enough, then there’s this quote, “I believe because it is absurd.” Ever since the time of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), this quote has been held up as an example how Christianity is, at its very foundations, irrational, and how, in their stupidity, Christians actually hold up such irrational faith as a virtue. The fact, though, is that Tertullian never said such a thing. What he said was part of a larger argument regarding the truthfulness of Christianity. He said:

“The Son of God was crucified: I am not ashamed – because it is shameful.
The Son of God died: it is immediately credible – because it is silly.
He was buried, and rose again: it is certain – because it is impossible.”

What Tertullian said was not “I believe because it is absurd,” but rather, “It is certain, because it is impossible.” But what does that mean? Well, Tertullian was actually using an argument that he borrowed from, of all people, Aristotle. In Rhetoric 2.23.21, Aristotle says this:

“Another line of argument refers to things which are supposed to happen and yet seem incredible. We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true: even that they are the more likely to be true because they are incredible. For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable and even incredible, it must be true, since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible.”

Simply put, the argument is that if something according to convention is considered impossible or ridiculous, but people claim that they actually experienced that supposedly impossible thing occur, one must strongly consider the fact that what they’re claiming really is true, despite what convention accepts.

Convention says, for example, that dead people do not resurrect. If one person came out of Judea, claiming to have spoken to a resurrected Jesus, it would be reasonable to assume that person was insane. But if 5, 10, even 500 people claim to have witnessed the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ, then it would be reasonable to pause and consider the fact that perhaps such an “impossible” thing really, in fact, happened. That was what Tertullian was saying. Agree with him or not, but you cannot misquote the man, and then use that misquote to make the false claim that Christians prize ignorance and absurdity over reason. To do such a thing would be unreasonable to say the least.

Nevertheless, one must admit that Tertullian’s contempt for pagan philosophy seems rather odd, since he actually employs various philosophical methods in his defense of Christianity. So what exactly was his problem with Athens? It wasn’t the method of Greek philosophy, but rather many of its conclusions. For example, Tertullian attacked pagan philosophy for was how some philosophers associated various things in the natural world (i.e. the sun, moon, stars, etc.) with the gods. One can almost hear Tertullian taunt them, “What are you, sophists or sophomores? The sun isn’t a god! It’s a great ball of fire! Only a moron would think it’s a god!”

Tertullian really was somewhat of a curmudgeon who absolutely despised the vanity and materialism of the pagan world. In fact, that was one of the main differences about Christianity that he highlighted in his attacks on the pagan world. He said, “…we Christians have everything in common except our wives.  It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving-kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another.”

He also pointed out that the money that Christians raised was not  “spent on feasts, and drinking bouts, and eating houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house; such too as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons for nothing but the fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become nurslings of their confession.”

tertullian2Eventually, he even grew exasperated with what he perceived to be a growing worldiness in the Church; so much so that he joined the fringe-charismatic heretical group known as the Montanists. Despite that, he nevertheless greatly impacted the growth and formation of Christianity. He was, after all, the first to coin the term Trinity. He, as so many other Christians at that time, spoke out against imperial persecution of Christians. In opposition to the Roman practice of abortion, he even argued that human life begins at conception.

Just as importantly, Tertullian argued that human reason alone was not enough if one was to come to a fuller understanding of the world. God’s revelation was needed. Pagan thought by itself—that famed “wisdom” of the Greeks—amounted to nothing more that sophomoric speculation. Simply put, Christian faith did not negate or oppose reason. It bore witness to the self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ—and that revelation within history fulfilled not only the Jewish Scriptures, but it also provided the answers to the questions and conundrums in pagan philosophy.

Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200 AD)
One more early Church Father who contributed greatly to the formation of Christian philosophy deserves mention: Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John—so what we read in Irenaeus probably gives us the earliest picture outside of the New Testament as to what the apostles themselves taught. Sent to Lyons by Polycarp himself, Ireneaus’ most vital contribution to the formation of Christian philosophy and doctrine would have to be his work, Against Heresies, in which he provides an in depth summary and critique of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was a pre-Christian philosophical worldview that quickly sought to incorporate traditional Christianity into its already skewed view of reality. Much like the general mindset today, Gnosticism held fast to a stark dualism between “the spiritual world,” defined in terms of being pure and good, precisely because it was non-material, and “the material world,” defined in terms of being sinful, corrupt, and just plain icky, precisely because it was material.

Such a view stated that (1) God was so spiritual that he would have nothing to do with the material world, (2) the material creation was bad and evil, (3) human beings were spirits trapped in material bodies, and (4) Jesus was a pure spirit being who only seemed to be a human being, but in reality would never contaminate himself with matter; therefore he was not really born, he didn’t really die, and he certainly didn’t rise physically from the dead; instead, he came to reveal “secret knowledge” to the select few—the knowledge that would unlock the mortal chains of the material world.

Quite obviously, Gnosticism contradicted the fundamental claims of the early Church. It was also very attractive to a culture steeped in Platonic thought. Therefore, Irenaeus took it upon himself to methodically spell out the Gnostic philosophy and claims, and to show how it was a completely anti-Christian worldview. His main means of defense for the traditional Christian teachings was to point to both the authority of Scripture, and to the line of Church Tradition—the teachings and practices that had been handed down from the original apostles to the subsequent bishops of the Church.

irenaeusPhilosophical presuppositions matter—and Irenaeus not only exposed those philosophical presuppositions of the Gnostic movement, he also upheld the traditional Christian teaching, by not only making philosophical arguments, but by appealing to the authority of Scripture and Church Tradition that bore witness to the historical reality of Jesus himself.

One final thing to note about Irenaeus. Given the fact that he was so adamant about preserving the traditional teachings of the Church, it might surprise some people that he openly speculated that Jesus lived to be about 50 years old, and that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2-3 was not so much a story about the first two human beings, but rather about the state of every human being.

Conclusions about Early Christian Philosophy
Although these past two posts have just briefly looked at a handful of early Christian philosophers, one thing should be evident. Contrary to the modern narrative of Christianity, Christianity was decidedly not anti-intellectual or irrational. Just as the moral and ethical convictions of everyday Christians proved to be a counter-cultural movement within the Roman Empire, the philosophical acumen of numerous Christian philosophers proved that Christianity was a formidable philosophical worldview that would eventually intellectually trump the pagan philosophy of the classical period. They taught that reason was a good thing that was indispensable to understanding both the world and God’s will. At the same time, though, they taught that human reason alone was insufficient, for human beings were fallible and limited; only revelation from God could illuminate a limited and darkened human reason, and bring it into the full light of reality.

The early Christians bore witness to the fact that the full light of reality consisted of convictions regarding the equality all human beings, the dignity and worth of women, children, and the unborn, and extending charity and mercy to anyone in need. The Christian philosophical worldview that emerged from the revelation, teaching, death and resurrection of Christ was one that taught the goodness of God, the power of God manifested in sacrifice, the dignity and worth of all humanity, and the goodness of creation. It was a worldview of the Kingdom of God, and it slowly but surely upended a violent and inhumane pagan world.

Early Christian thinkers did not praise irrationality. They did not define faith as “virtuous ignorance and stupidity.” They were men who were well versed in classical philosophy, and they employed all the rationality, reason, and philosophical learning of the classical world in their defense of the Christian faith and their formulation of a broad and dynamic Christian worldview that would impact one’s view of ethics, politics, aesthetics, and ultimately science.

Christian philosophers rejected pagan notions of blind fate, of supernatural deities within the elements of nature, of a cyclical view of history, and the purposelessness of human existence. Instead, they argued for the existence of a rational God who was personally concerned with human beings. They argued that history had a purpose and that human beings were significant. They argued that the natural world is just that—the natural world, and that since a rational God created it, that it was good and worthy to be investigated and studied. Simply put, it was Christian philosophy that revolutionized how human beings understood God, humanity, history, and the natural world itself.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 10): Early Christian Philosophers: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 10): Early Christian Philosophers: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria

As was discussed in last week’s post, not only was Christianity probably the most significant counter-cultural movement in history in terms of practical, day to day morality, Christianity also gave rise to a philosophical paradigm, based on the historical realities of Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, that both challenged and brought down classical pagan philosophy, and provided a blueprint for a truly enlightened philosophical, theological, and ethical worldview.

Getting Past the Enlightenment Con Regarding Christianity
The impact of Christian philosophy in the pagan world is something that has simply been ignored in most history books. It is something completely glossed over by modern academics and philosophers who, damn the actual history, are intent on pushing their particular narrative of western culture. The narrative in question stems from the time of the Enlightenment, when writers like Voltaire and Rousseau (among others) made the concentrated effort to essentially slander the entire history of the Church.

voltaireThus, they and those who followed in their footsteps, proceeded to weave a narrative that looks something like this: Classical Greece and Rome was a golden age of reason, tolerance, and creativity. But then Constantine forced Christianity on the serene pagan world by means of the sword, and western culture was plunged into over 1,000 years of intellectual and creative darkness. The fanatical Christian church was in charge during the “Dark Ages,” and superstition, intolerance and torture for anyone who questioned Church authority. It wasn’t until “enlightened” thinkers, philosophers, and artists during the Renaissance, and the later “Enlightenment,” finally broke the chains of Christian intolerance and superstition, and freed western culture to reclaim the glorious days of classical Greece and Rome. Just look to The Da Vinci Code if you don’t think such a narrative is still alive and well today.

It must be clearly stated, though: that modern narrative of western culture is completely wrong at virtually every turn. Unfortunately, modern western culture has willingly imbibed this self-imposed ignorance of history for the past two hundred years. Such a narrative has as much sense as if someone writing about the Italian Renaissance pointed to Michelangelo, accused him of being the biggest threat to Renaissance art because his sculptures known as “The Captives” were incomplete and ugly. Furthermore, if it wasn’t for Michelangelo, the Italian Renaissance would have probably happened 1,000 years earlier in Denmark! So let’s blame Michelangelo for holding the Renaissance back for over 1,000 years!

It is time for us to come to a firm understanding of Christianity’s true impact on western philosophy, ethics, art, literature, science, and technology.

Now, the attempt to disparage Christianity certainly didn’t begin during the Enlightenment.  The 2nd century pagan philosopher Celsus wrote an entire book ridiculing Christianity. In response, Origen of Alexandria wrote an entire book refuting Celsus—the book was aptly named, Against Celsus. In any case, one of the things Celsus ridiculed Christianity for was that it was a religion only for women, slaves, and children. Well, the fact it, it wasn’t just women, slaves, and children who became Christians.

Hosts of wealthy Romans flocked to Christianity, and the premier Christian apologists for the first 300 years of the Church were the leading philosophers of their day. They were steeped in classical philosophy, and interacted with it on a truly impressive scale. We must get it out of our heads the notion that Christianity was, from the beginning, just a group of wild-eyed, apocalyptic fanatics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did the early Christians take definitive, counter-cultural stances in regards to helping the poor, sick, and needy, but Christian philosophers engaged in vigorous philosophical debate with the leading pagan philosophies of their day, and decisively won the intellectual argument.

In light of how the pagan world sought to ridicule early Christianity, various Christian apologists responded to the charges made against Christianity by arguing that it was, in fact, a better philosophy and more coherent worldview than that of the classical world. Christianity needed to be defended on an intellectual and philosophical level. Defend it, the apologists did. In these next two posts, I will attempt to give an overview of some of the more significant Christian philosophers of the early Church, and then offer some concluding remarks concerning early Christian philosophy in general.

Justin Martyr (100-150 AD)
justin-martyrOne of the earliest Christian philosopher-apologists was Justin Martyr. As his name suggests, he was eventually martyred in Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Having grown up a pagan, and after becoming a philosopher and investigating various philosophical schools like Stoicism, Epicureanism, Justin eventually was convinced that not only was Jesus truly resurrected from the dead, and that not only was he the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures, but that Christianity itself offered a more noble and truth philosophy than that of the classical world. Therefore, after becoming a Christian, Justin did not renounce his profession as a philosopher, but rather he moved to Rome and set up his own Christian philosophical school, where he interacted and debated with both classical philosophers and Jewish rabbis alike.

Justin is most famous for his work, Dialogue with Trypho, in which he engages in a lengthy debate with a Jewish rabbi named Trypho (possibly Rabbi Tarphon, who is mentioned in the Mishna) regarding the Messiah and the Jewish Scriptures. He is also known for his two works, First Apology, and Second Apology, both of which were addressed to both the Roman Emperor and to the Roman Senate respectively, and both of which attempted to clarify Christian belief and practice. In Justin’s writings we learn more about the way the early Church worked to provide care for the poor and needy. He wrote, “What is collected is deposited with the president [of the congregation], and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourners among us, and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need” (1st Apology, 67).

Justin also argued that Christianity provided a truer and nobler philosophy than that of the various Greek philosophies of his day. He claimed Plato got the idea for the Demiurge from the writings of Moses. He also claimed that classical philosophy had the seed of the Logos as the source of truth. The Logos was obviously a Greek philosophical concept, but Justin argued that the Logos had actually become a human being and was revealed to be Jesus Christ. This idea probably can be traced back to the Gospel of John, and certainly turned Platonic philosophy on its head. Finally, in contrast to the classical philosophical notion that human beings were ultimately slaves to impersonal fate, Justin argued that God did not, in fact, predestine human events, but rather only foreknew them. The point here is simple. Justin Martyr was not a wild-eyed fanatic. He was an established and respected philosopher who made his home base in the capital of the Roman Empire. He interacted and debated with the leading philosophers of his day, and his arguments were even presented to the emperor himself.

Athenagoras of Athens (133-190 AD)
Another Christian philosopher from that time was Athenagoras of Athens. Originally a Platonic philosopher, he originally familiarized himself with the Christian Scriptures in order to disprove them. Somewhere along the line, though, the critic became a Christian, and spent the rest of his life defending the truth of Christianity on both moral and philosophical grounds. Like Justin Martyr, he too wrote an Apology for Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, in which he addressed the false charges of atheism. Ironically, in the same work, he made the philosophical argument for monotheism by citing, above all, pagan writers and thinkers.

Like Justin Martyr, he argued that Christianity was a better philosophy than the other classical philosophical schools. He defended the Christian sanctity of marriage, he proposed a philosophical argument for the Trinity, and he argued against violent gladiator games, as well as abortion. In another work, entitled The Resurrection of the Dead, he provides his philosophical argument for, as is obvious, the possibility of the resurrection of the dead.

Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)
saint-clement-of-alexandriaAs Athenagoras was making his case for Christianity in Athens, Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Church’s most influential bishops, was making the Christian case in Egypt. He argued that both faith and reason originate from God, and are, in fact, from God. And although he rightly understood that philosophy alone was insufficient for coming to the Christian faith, he argued there is an intricate connection between faith and reason. There were, in fact, philosophical arguments to be made that could make Christianity more attractive to the skeptical pagan eye and show it to be an intellectually sound and reasonable worldview.

When discussing the Christian faith and reason, Clement said, “Do not think that we say that these things are only to be received by faith, but also that they are to be asserted by reason. For indeed it is not safe to commit these things to bare faith without reason, since assuredly truth cannot be without reason” (Recognitions, 2:69). Clement wanted to be clear: the Christian faith was, in fact, reasonable, rational, and philosophically viable. He would have never said, “Oh, you just have to have faith, even though Christianity seems irrational!” I dare say, such a sentiment might have been considered ridiculous by early Church Fathers like Clement.

Clement also argued for the necessity of all Christians to be somewhat well-versed in philosophical matters. As Vincent Carroll points out in his book, Christianity on Trial, Clement wrote, “Both slave and free must equally philosophize, whether male or female in sex…whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman…. And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue” (2). For Clement, part of the duty of a Christian was to be able to give a well-reasoned defense of the Gospel…and that inevitably requires being familiar with the prevailing philosophical thought of the day.

Being a bishop, though, Clement did far more than just make philosophical arguments. He was part of that Christian counter-cultural movement that sought to extend Christian charity to the poor, sick and needy. As with most other Christians of the time, Clement argued against slavery. He said, “I would ask you, does it not seem to you monstrous that you—human beings who are God’s own handiwork—should be subjected to another master, and even worse, serve a tyrant, instead of God, the true king?” Clement argued that since every human being is made in God’s image, that it logically follows that all men and women, regardless of race or gender, are moral equals, and therefore something like slavery was an abomination.

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)
origen-1Perhaps the most influential Christian philosopher of the time was Origen of Alexandria. His father, along with a number of other Christian leaders in Alexandria at the time, was martyred in 202 AD during the reign of Septimius Severus. Origen possessed such a gifted mind, that after Septimius Severus’ persecution resulted in the deaths of many Alexandrian Christians and the decimation of the Alexandrian church’s catechumen school, he was put in charge of that school when he was only 18 years old.

Throughout his lifetime, he proceeded to produce some of the most significant theological and philosophical treatises on Christianity. He is considered to be the first systematic theologian in Church history, the first textual critic of the Bible in Church history, and one of the most prominent Christian philosophers in history. His most famous work, which has been unfortunately lost, was known as the Hexapla—an edition of the Bible in six different translations. The significance of this was that it shows that from the earliest days of Christianity, Christians were concerned with getting the original text of the Bible correct. Origen’s work was a meticulous masterpiece that effected Bible translation and interpretation from that time forward.

Yet not only was Origen a master Biblical scholar, he was also a prodigious philosopher, well-versed with the Greek philosophical schools, and fully capable of interacting with Greek philosophy. In his work, Against Celsus, Origen wrote a philosophical tour de force in which he gave a point by point, detailed response to the work of the pagan philosopher Celsus, in which Celsus savaged and ridiculed Christian beliefs and practices.

When one reads Origen’s work, one will be astounded not only at how so many of Celsus’ attacks on Christianity in the third century sound very much like many of the modern day attacks on Christianity put forth by men like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, but one will also be amazed at the depth of familiarity Origen has with classical philosophical thought. Origen not only showed the ignorance of Celsus in regards to the Hebrew Scriptures and basic Christian beliefs, but he also demonstrated a greater understanding and mastery of classical philosophy than the pagan philosopher himself.

Origen’s other famous work was entitled First Principles. In it, Origen set forth the first true systematic theology of the Church. In doing so, he attempted to use Greek thought and philosophical categories in his attempt to explain Christian belief and thought. It is such an extensive and thorough work, I confess it took me two years to read through it, and I readily admit much of it was simply over my head. After reading Origen’s First Principles, I became fully convinced that, compared to early Christian philosophers like Origen, I am an utter novice.

In hindsight, Origen probably went a bit too far with some of his explanations, and had the tendency to interpret Christianity a little bit too much through the lens of Greek philosophical thought—and that led to some views that were far too speculative and not rooted in the Bible. We must remember, though, that the early Church didn’t have everything “spelled out” at that point. In fact, in Origen’s day there wasn’t even yet an officially agreed-upon New Testament. So yes, Origen got some things wrong, but without his pioneering work, Christianity would not have developed in the way it did.

One final thing should be mentioned about Origen. In light of much of my writing about Young Earth Creationism this past year, it is worth noting that Origen’s interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is nothing like that of Ken Ham. He did not believe Genesis 3 was about a historic space-time “fall” into sin by the first two human beings. Instead, he argued that it was a pre-cosmic myth that pointed to the reality about the condition of all people. In fact, many early Church Fathers (like Irenaeus) held similar interpretive views of Adam and Eve.

In my next post, I will look at two more early Christian philosophers: Tertullian and Irenaeus of Lyons.

The Way of the Worldviews (Part 9): Christianity in Ancient Rome–The True Counter-Cultural Movement

The Way of the Worldviews (Part 9): Christianity in Ancient Rome–The True Counter-Cultural Movement

In my last post, I took a brief look at life in ancient Rome. Simply put, despite the impressive monuments we love to “ooh” and “ahh” over, the fact is that daily life in ancient Rome for the majority of the people was harsh, cheap, and brutal. Rampant pornography and promiscuousness, the subjugation of women and children, slavery, and let’s not forget the brutality the Roman army inflicted on the peoples it conquered—it was not “the best of times.”

It was within this very world that Christianity was born when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and God’s Holy Spirit was poured out on Christ’s followers. These two historical realities not only proved to be a formidable challenge to classical philosophy, but they had a profound impact on the surrounding pagan culture. Simply put, Christianity was the ultimate counter-culture movement that attacked the prevailing pagan immorality at every turn.

Christianity and Slavery (No, Paul was not “pro-slavery”)
In a culture where there was the institution of slavery, it was the Christians who preached for the equality and dignity of slaves. In his book, The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark tells us that in his work entitled Divine Institutes, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (240-320 AD), who eventually became an advisor to Constantine, the first Christian emperor, stated, “Since human worth is measured in spiritual not in physical terms, we ignore our various physical situations: slaves are not slaves to us, but we treat them and address them as brothers in the spirit fellow slaves in devotion to God” (77).

paul2It has been argued that Christianity actually supported slavery from the very beginning, after all, just look at what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22, “slaves obey your masters.” Such arguments, though, are as over-simplistic as they are dishonest. We must remember that Paul was not the head of state—he was a travelling tent-maker and evangelist. He had absolutely no power whatsoever to free slaves. When one looks at the overall context of what Paul was saying to those Christians who were, in fact, slaves, it becomes quite clear. He essentially said, “Your real master is Christ, just like my master is Christ—we are both slaves of Christ, therefore, we are equal. But as long as you find yourself a slave to an earthly master, serve him as if you were serving Christ, for when you do what is good, you ultimately serving Christ, no matter what situation you find yourself in.”

In addition, it must be pointed out that in those very passages where Paul addresses slaves, he also addresses masters, and tells them to treat their slaves justly and fairly, because after all, they too have a master in heaven. Then there is the entire letter to Philemon, where Paul is appealing to Philemon to not only forgive a runaway slave named Onesimus, but to in fact accept him back as a brother in Christ. Furthermore, far from endorsing slavery, Paul makes it clear (as in I Corinthians 7:21) that if you are a slave and have the opportunity to obtain your freedom, by all means, get it.

Christianity, from its very inception, found slavery to be deplorable, and the early Church lived this conviction out and, in that ancient Roman society, it was reviled for treating slaves as equals, and claiming they were worthy of dignity because they were made in God’s image. Nevertheless, over the course of the first 300 years of Christianity, Christians lived out this conviction so faithfully that by the time Constantine became the first Christian emperor, and the Christian worldview came to influence the Roman Empire at an even greater degree, it was actually Christianity that brought an end to the ancient institution of slavery. Justin Martyr opposed it, St. Patrick rejected all forms of it, and, as Vincent Carroll tells us in Christianity on Trial, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) echoed the centuries-old conviction of Christianity when he said, “God did not intend that His rational creature, who was made in His image, should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation—not man over man, but man over the beasts” (26).

Christianity’s Impact on Ancient Society: Equal Rights for Slaves and Women
Christianity’s gradual impact on pagan society was truly tremendous. First of all, it was because of Christianity that the ancient institution of slavery was all but extinct by the 7th Century. This feat cannot be minimized: nowhere before in human history had the institution of slavery ever been even questioned (even in ancient Israel). It was Christians who subverted the accepted practice of slavery and tirelessly worked to rid the ancient world of it.

ancient-catacombsSecond, in a culture where most women had very little status or dignity, it was the Christians who preached for the equality and dignity of women. For, just as they argued that slaves, being made in God’s image, deserved dignity and equality, Christians also argued the same for women. In fact, as Rodney Stark points out in The Triumph of Christianity, “…there is overwhelming evidence that from earliest days, Christian women often held leadership roles in the church and enjoyed far greater security and equality in marriage” (125). And again, “But recent, objective evidence leaves no doubt that early Christian women did enjoy far greater equality with men than did their pagan and Jewish counterparts. A study of Christian burials in the catacombs under Rome, based on 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions” (124).

Ironically, it was precisely because they treated both slaves and women as equals, and declared them worthy of dignity and honor, that Christians were decidedly mocked in the ancient world. Celsus, a famous pagan critic from the second century, derided Christianity as being “a religion of women, slaves and children.” That comment alone shows not simply how cruel ancient Roman society was, but also where such ideas of equality originally came from: the Christians.

But the Apostle Paul was a Misogynist, Right?
But what about Paul? It has long been argued by modern critics that Paul was a raving misogynist who commanded wives to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24; Col. 3:18-19), who said that women were forbidden to even speak in church (I Cor. 14:34-35), and who said that he didn’t allow women to teach men, because it was Eve who was deceived, not Adam (I Tim. 2:12-13).

As with the argument against Paul regarding slavery, this accusation is also naïve and dishonest. First of all, as Thomas Cahill states in his book Desire of the Everlasting Hills, it was Paul who made “the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible—and [was] the first one ever to be made in any of the many literatures of our planet” (141). And A.N. Wilson says in his book, Paul, that at that time in the ancient world, “…you would have been hard put to find anyone who believed in ‘sexual equality’ in the modern sense, and the person who comes closest to it is, strangely enough, Paul” (140).

How can such claims be made in light of the above verses, you ask? First, one just has to look at the broader picture of Paul’s corpus of letters, where he commends Phoebe as a deacon in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1), where he praises Junia as someone who was “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), and where he openly talks about women who prophesy (I Cor. 11:5).

Second, one must consider that immediately after Paul tells wives to be subject to their husbands, that he commands husbands to love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Furthermore, both comments to both wives and husbands are said in the context of Paul telling Christians in Ephesus to submit themselves to one another (Eph. 5:21).

Thirdly, in regards to I Cor. 14:34-35, there is a very strong and convincing textual argument that those verses were not written by Paul and are not part of the original letter. And finally, in regards to I Tim. 2:12-13, Paul is specifically addressing the issue of wives and husbands, and not women and men in mass. And, lest it be overlooked, Paul is actually encouraging women to learn and study, so that they won’t be like Eve who was deceived. I discuss N.T. Wright’s take on the issue of women in Church leadership here.

Christian Charity: An immoral practice by Roman standards (but one that changed the world)
As shocking as it may sound, in a culture that viewed charity, pity, and mercy to actually be immoral, it was the Christians who preached that these qualities lay at the center of Christ’s teachings, and that just as God showed mercy to us, that we are to show mercy to others. As Stark tell us, in Triumph of Christianity, “In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice” (112). Nevertheless, in true counter-cultural fashion, not only did Christians practice mercy and charity, they declared that such actions were not only moral and good, but they lay at the heart of salvation and the redemption of the entire created order. This changed everything.

But let’s tease this out a bit. In Greco-Roman culture, the reason there was so little humanitarian outreach for the sick, the poor, the dying, or the disadvantaged, was that such actions were not deserved by the recipients. What was considered a morally good thing to do in Greco-Roman culture was the concept of liberalis: the act of giving to someone who would later return the favor. After all, liberalis was considered “fair”—and certainly it was. But by contrast, what “good” is there in caring for a leper, or someone dying of plague? Such people would probably die anyway, and would not be able to return the favor. Such actions were considered, therefore, just stupid and immature—it was a waste. It was, at best, simply allowing oneself to succumb to childish sentimentality; at worst it was positively immoral.

But by contrast, Christians valued caritasgrace—which by definition is giving to someone who doesn’t deserve it and probably cannot return the favor. And that is why, when epidemics and plagues would from time to time sweep through cities and wealthy Romans fled the cities with no regard for the sick and needy who were dying, it was the Christians who stayed in the cities to care for the victims of plague. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria from 248-264 AD, described how pagans acted during times of plague: [The pagans] “pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to aver the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; be do what they might; they found it difficult to escape.” By contrast, by staying in the cities and caring for the victims, Christians gained considerable numbers of followers from those who survived the plagues, thanks to the help of the Christians.

It was because of Christian mercy that Christians regularly searched through local garbage dumps for infants that the pagans had discarded and exposed, and who then took them home and raised them as their own children at their own expense. It was because of Christian mercy that Christians established orphanages and hospitals, and other charitable organizations aimed to help those whom Roman society so cheaply discarded. Their charity was even noted by prominent pagans. The satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. 170 AD) remarked, “…the Christians were unbelievably generous with their money and preferred to be open-handed rather than inquire too closely into the recipients.”

Christian charity had to be noted by pagans by the sheer fact that it was so immense. Stark tells us that in 251 AD, the bishop of Rome mentioned in a letter to the bishop of Antioch that the Christian congregation in Rome “was supporting fifteen hundred widows and distressed persons” (113). Indeed, as Paul Johnson states, “The Christians…ran a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (quoted in Triumph of Christianity, 113).

A fresco of a female holding the chalice at an early Christian agape feast

And it wasn’t simply for their own did Christians extend charity—keeping in line with the tradition handed down by the apostles themselves, Christians extended charity to everyone. There really was “no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free” in the eyes of the Church. Grace, mercy, and charity was extended to all, regardless of gender, race, status, or creed. This was a truly revolutionary principle that changed the world: extending mercy and grace to those beyond traditional boundaries.

It was this kind of radical, counter-culture movement lived out in the daily lives of the early Christians that slowly but surely transformed the Roman Empire. And it wasn’t simply a social gospel. It was a social gospel that was firmly rooted in the historical realities of Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and fully sustained by the philosophical and theological worldview stemming from those realities. Even thirty years after the death of Constantine the Great, during the reign of Julian the Apostate (360-363 AD) he complained about the growth of Christianity with these words: “It is generosity toward non-members, care for the graves of the dead, and pretended holiness of life that have specially fostered the grown of atheism” (a common term, ironically, for Christianity at the time). Julian, in an attempt to revive paganism, wrote to the pagan high priest of Galatia and urged him to distribute grain and wine to the poor because the Christians were making the pagans look bad: ‘the impious Galileans [Christians], in addition to their own, support ours, [and] it is shameful that our poor should be wanting our aid’” (quoted from Triumph of Christianity, 118).

Now, I know that there are thousands of churches throughout America who do a tremendous amount of charitable work, whether it be food kitchens, or any number of things. And I know that such good work doesn’t always get the press or attention it warrants. But I have to think that in the places where such work is done, lives are being changed and little pockets of our society are experiencing healing. But one thing should be clear and obvious: it is through acts of charity and over-flowing grace that Christianity most affects society and culture.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 8): Early Christianity within Roman Society–When in Rome (prepare for a horrible life!)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 8): Early Christianity within Roman Society–When in Rome (prepare for a horrible life!)

goodinfectionAs the apostles of Jesus made their way out into the pagan world, they preached and lived out something entirely new that would ultimately change the world. Now one thing must be made clear: Christianity’s impact on the Greco-Roman world was not revolutionary. There was no catastrophic revolt or upheaval within the Roman Empire because of Christianity. To use a more modern term, Christianity’s impact on the Greco-Roman pagan world was evolutionary. Or to quote C.S. Lewis, it was more like a “good infection” that slowly but surely worked its way throughout the Roman body politic.

In How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer made the claim that the reason why the early Christians faced persecution was because that they claimed to have an “absolute” by which they could judge the emperor. Well, that might be partly correct, but the reality of the early Church’s impact on the still-pagan Roman world is much more multi-faceted and complex.

To put it in as simple terms as possible, Christianity was essentially a “fulfilled Jewish messianic movement” that:

  1. Inherited the fundamental theological outlook of Judaism,
  2. Re-vamped that Jewish theological outlook in the light of the historical realities of the resurrection of Christ and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and thus
  3. “Translated” the Gospel to speak to the pagan world of the Roman Empire.

Therefore, the mission of the early Church was not achieved through some slick empire-wide political or advertising campaign. It was achieved by living out and practicing truly revolutionary convictions, but in a slow but sure, day to day, evolutionary manner.

We can see how Christianity impacted the Roman Empire by looking at it through three primary lenses:

  1. The lived-out, daily acts of charity, mercy, and equality among all walks of Roman life,
  2. The interactions of Christian apologists with classical philosophy, and
  3. How the early Church dealt with opposition (in the form of persecutions) and false teachings (by means of heretics).

When in Rome…do as the Romans do: Worship Anything (but just include Caesar)
templesThere are basically three things one must remember when trying to understand ancient Rome. First, it was thoroughly pagan, meaning it was a polytheistic culture, with countless different gods throughout the empire (Corinth alone, for example had 26 different temples). What this meant was that in the Roman Empire, religious tolerance ruled the day. It didn’t matter who or what you worshiped, it didn’t matter what practices you indulged in, in the name of your particular god—no one’s religious observances were any better or worse than any other’s. As long as your religious practices didn’t purposely hurt others, everything was tolerated, with one caveat.

This leads us to the second thing to remember about ancient Rome: Its attitude toward the Roman Emperor. Worship anything you want, just make sure you honor the emperor, make sure you offer incense to him, swear by his genius, and acknowledge that he is worthy to be worshiped as a god. If you did this one thing (and it was the one thing of which Rome was decidedly intolerant), it didn’t matter what other religious practices you observed. After all, “religion” in ancient Rome was not a matter of mere private taste—it was a decidedly public and societal obligation.

That is why the worship of any and all gods was tolerated: the more the gods are placated, the better off society will be. The one “god” you could not ignore, though, was Caesar himself, for to fail to worship Caesar was a thoroughly treasonous act. It was an unpatriotic, un-Roman threat to Roman society. A Roman citizen could worship whatever he wanted, it didn’t really matter. But the one act of worship that did matter was that which was directed toward Caesar. Slight Caesar, you slight Rome, and if you slight Rome, you are an enemy of Rome. Pure and simple.

The final thing to remember about life in ancient Rome was that it was a thoroughly immoral culture. The ethics in ancient Roman society were a direct result of the prevailing pagan worldview that viewed the gods as dangerous, petty, and immoral, and human beings as being under the constant threat of the gods, doomed to the inevitability of impersonal fate, and therefore ultimately worthless. Life was cheap, so enjoy whatever you can, however you could, as long as you wanted before you died—the only thing waiting for you was the shades of Hades anyway.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do…Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!
templeprostitutesIf one was to get into a time machine and go back to the Roman Empire of the first century, what would one experience? First, sex—unrestrained sex…really unrestrained sex. Far from being desirable, though, it proved to be positively diabolical. Prostitution was not merely legal, it was seen as morally acceptable—the very pagan temple system promoted “sacred prostitution” as an act of worship, not to mention a considerable money-maker for the local temples. In that sense, pagan temple priests were akin to pimps, employing both men and women, both girls and boys, as temple prostitutes. And no, those girls and boys didn’t join voluntarily—sex-trafficking is the same yesterday as it is today.

pompeiiPornography was also rampant in ancient Rome. It wasn’t confined to essentially the “magazine rack behind the counter,” so to speak; pornographic paintings actually were common decorations in many homes. Many of these “art works” were found in the city of Pompeii.

In the highly sexualized Roman culture, it should come as no surprise to find that homosexual practices were widely accepted, although to call them “homosexual practices” is a bit misleading for the following reason. In ancient society, there was no concept of “sexual orientation.” The very word “homosexual” was not coined until the 1800s. People did not define themselves according to their self-perceived “sexual orientation.” Having sex was either for conceiving children or for pure pleasure.

Therefore, a man could be married, have a few kids, and regularly go to his local pagan temple and engage in sex acts with any temple prostitute he wished, women, men, girls or boys. So when we say that homosexual practices were widely accepted, we are not saying that “homosexuals were accepted” in Roman society, for the very concept of “being a homosexual” did not exist. Same-sex sexual encounters, though, were an accepted part of the culture. The attitude was simple: it’s just sex, so it doesn’t really matter if it’s with your wife, an adolescent boy, or a temple prostitute—anything goes.

It must also be said that undoubtedly part of the reason for such promiscuity was that such behavior was seen in the Roman leaders, most notably men like Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero. When Tiberius essentially retired to his private island, he had young boys to dress up as nymphs and play in his royal gardens. Then, when he would go out for his strolls, these “wood nymphs” were to then come to him and pleasure him in a variety of ways. Caligula was a pathological sadomasochist. He would host imperial banquets, and then in the middle of the feasting, he would take a guest’s wife back to his bedroom and proceed to beat and rape her. When he was finished, he would then come back out to the dining hall and proceed to tell about the sexual encounter in graphic detail. Nero was just as depraved. In fact, it was during Nero’s reign that something akin to same-sex marriage was allowed (Worshipping the State, 337).

When in Rome…well, I hope you’re not a woman or a child!
roman-womanSuch a sexually promiscuous culture undoubtedly had horrible consequences for women and children. After all, it was free men who were given free rein to their lusts…and it was the women and children who suffered for it. Such a promiscuous culture meant that men often simply wanted to indulge in the pleasures of sex without ever having to be burdened with families. And so, ironically, despite Roman promiscuity, there was an extremely low fertility rate in Roman society. Men simply took the needed steps to prevent conception and birth, namely sex with prostitutes, or anal sex with their wives (or with other men and women, for that matter). They would also force their wives to use various means of contraception. In addition, as Rodney Stark points out in The Triumph of Christianity, if their wives still conceived and got pregnant, “pagan husbands also often forced their wives to have abortions—which also added to female mortality and often resulted in subsequent infertility” (131).

If that didn’t work, and the wife gave birth, and if for whatever reason the husband decided he didn’t want the child, he would simply throw the newborn baby out with the trash—the practice was called “exposing infants.”

Now you might be wondering, if a pagan husband could force his wife to have an abortion, why would he wait until she gave birth, only then to expose the newborn infant? The answer is simple: men wanted to have sons to carry on the family name and to receive the family inheritance. Daughters, on the other hand, were a nuisance. Women had little or no rights in Roman society, so why would a man want the added burden of raising a daughter? And so, if a woman gave birth to a daughter, oftentimes the man would expose his infant daughter, for she was unwanted. Stark tells us that we actually have a letter from ancient Rome, written by a man to his wife concerning the upcoming birth of their child. He wrote, ‘If (good luck to you!) you should bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is female, expose it’ (126).

Not surprisingly, another common practice arose out of this practice of exposing infants: the sex-trafficking of children. People would often go through the trash to find these exposed infants, and would then raise them for one purpose: to become sex slaves and prostitutes. We’ve already touched upon the reality of prostitution—most of the women and children involved in prostitution were forced into it. This meant to call them prostitutes was really skirting the issue: in reality they were sex slaves with no rights, dignity or worth.

There is yet one other thing that must be mentioned: forced marriages. Because women had little or no rights in Roman society, many girls were forced into marriages. Stark tells us that 50% of pagan women were married by fifteen; 20% were married off by twelve; and 4% were only ten. Yes indeed, in Roman society life was cheap, unrestrained sex was a privilege of free men, and women and children suffered truly horrific indignities.

It must be pointed out that such an immoral culture stemmed directly from the pagan worldview of the day. As Rodney Stark points out, “In his Republic, Plato made abortions mandatory for all women who conceived beyond the age of forty (in order to limit population growth) and Aristotle agreed, writing in his Politics, ‘There must be a limit fixed to procreation of offspring, and if any [conceive] in contravention of these regulations, abortion must be practiced’” (132).

Any given culture will effectively live out the implications of the philosophic worldview of the day. The “big ideas” of the philosophers will trickle down and find their way to the general populace, and hence be effectively lived out on a daily level within that culture. So it was in ancient Rome. Simply put, the Greco-Roman philosophy and worldview shaped the horrific, brutal, and inhumane culture that was the pagan world.

Ray Comfort, Answers in Genesis, and Baraminology…It’s Kinda Ridiculous, Exegetically and Scientifically!

Ray Comfort, Answers in Genesis, and Baraminology…It’s Kinda Ridiculous, Exegetically and Scientifically!

About a week ago in one of the “creation/evolution debate” Facebook groups I am in, a young earth creationist (I’ll call him “Bob”) asked the question, “Can anyone point any example that proves evolution can change one kind of animal into another kind?” I have heard this question (or variations of it) many times before. If you want to get a taste of what this question looks like in real time, just watch a Ray Comfort video (pay attention around the 7-9 minute mark). In the one I’ve linked here, he goes around asking various people, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” And time and time again, Comfort emphasizes, “Kindskinds…a change in kinds.”

Well, there’s more going on with this question than I previously realized.

Kinds…Kinds….a Change of Kinds…
If you’re like me and have heard this kind (whoops…let’s say “type”) of question before, you have probably assumed the question is getting at something like, “Is there evolutionary evidence that a monkey has turned into a human, or a whale has turned into an elephant?” And, if you’re like me, you want to say, “That’s not how evolution works…it doesn’t happen all at once.” And that’s correct—that’s not how evolution works.

But when “Bob” asked this question last week, a light bulb went off in my head. This question, however ridiculous it may seem on the surface, is actually another YEC shell game, much like AiG’s “explanation” of the difference between “observational science” and “historical science.” What I realized was that the very way the question is framed makes it impossible for anyone to come to any other answer than the one young earth creationists want. There’s only one possible answer to that question, and young earth creationists know it: there is no example that proves evolution can change one kind of animal into another kind.

“A-ha!” young earth creationists will then triumphantly declare, “You see? Evolution can’t show one kind changing into another kind! Therefore, evolution is a lie!” And from there, they take (to put it kindly) the “highly questionable leap” and declare, “Evolution is the anti-god religion the government is using to indoctrinate our children into atheism and moral degeneracy!” Score one for the young earth creationists!

hamcomfortFor the purposes of this post, I’m going to ignore that “highly questionable leap” that often happens in YEC and instead focus on the problematic question itself. To cut to the chase, this typical YEC question, whether it comes out of the mouth of Ray Comfort, Ken Ham, or any young earth creationist for that matter isn’t asking the question you think he is asking.

Current Answers in Genesis literature readily acknowledge genetic mutations and natural selection can happen between various species. What they deny is that there can be genetic mutations and natural selection between various “kinds.” The whole young earth creationist scientific enterprise is based on it, actually. Answers in Genesis will say, “We believe natural selection occurs. We believe speciation occurs. We believe adaptation occurs. But none of that is evolution, because evolution states all life came from a common ancestor, and no one has ever observed one ‘kind’ evolve into another ‘kind.’

I think we need to get some clarity on what YEC means by “kinds.” And yes, I’m sure many who are familiar with YEC will know what they mean by “kinds,” but I’m wondering if we have really thought about the deeper implications of this YEC claim. So let’s first take a clarifying glance at what YEC means by “kinds.”

No, that’s not a typo. It’s a real word—well, not really. It’s a made-up word YEC has created to try to make their really bad exegesis of Genesis 1:11-12, 21, 24-25; 6:19-21 and 7:14 sound “scientific” and therefore legitimate. (In reality, you can’t truly call what they do with these verses “exegesis” in any way, shape or form. In reality, it’s simply Scripture-twisting).

baraminologyNow, the Hebrew word translated as “kinds” in these verses is min. The Hebrew word meaning “to create” is bara, so therefore bara-min would be “created kinds.” And hence, YEC then adds the -ology and (oh the irony) creates its own scientific-sounding word, baraminology, and claims that their baraminologists scientifically study the biblical/scientific category of animals of “kinds.”

You can read some of AiG’s explanations here. For that matter, you can simply google “Answers in Genesis, kinds, baraminology” and find more than enough articles and posts to read. Allow me to save you the trouble, and simply sum up their main points. They say the modern scientific categorization of animals is “man-made,” and, in fact, the modern categories of genus and species were originally used in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate to translate the Hebrew word min. Later, secular scientists changed the meaning of the words genus and species from referring to the “biblical kind” to now referring the modern, man-made scientific classifications, and this somehow paved the way for the acceptance of godless evolution. (I’ll be honest, I still don’t get the logical coherence in that argument, but that is not the point of this post).

In any case, the fact is that the modern classification system is Kingdom–Phylum–Class–Order–Family–Genus–Species, and there is (obviously) no “kind” or min. Why not? That’s simple—AiG claims those are man-made classifications, and God’s scientific classification of animals is that of min…the “biblical kind.” According to AiG, God’s classification of “kind” would be akin to the current man-made category of “family.” Hence, there was an originally created “cat-kind,” “dog-kind,” and “elephant-kind” (we’ll overlook the fact that the category of Elephant is actually that of “order,” and not “family”—AiG isn’t known for being consistent).

In any case, YEC claims that natural selection does indeed happen at the genus and species level—there’s clear “observational” evidence for that. But natural selection doesn’t happen at the level the “biblical kind”—there’s no “observational” evidence for that.

So what baraminology basically claims is:

  1. In the early chapters of Genesis, the Hebrew word min was God’s scientific classification of animals
  2. The biblical classification of “kind” corresponds to the modern classification of family
  3. Natural selection, speciation, and adaptation only happen  within the categories of “kind.”
  4. Therefore, there can be no “common ancestor” of all life because the Bible tells us that God created everything “according to their kinds,” and “kinds” is God’s scientific classification of animals.

So What’s the Problem?
Everything. And this is why Ray Comfort’s question, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” is actually quite insidious.

First, let’s start with those verses in Genesis that talk about plants and animals being made “according to their kinds.” AiG would have you believe that those verses are telling us about God’s scientific classification of plants and animals. They just throw it out there, move on, and hope that you don’t pause and ask a really basic question, “How do you know that Genesis is trying to give a scientific classification when it says, ‘according to their kinds’?”

Indeed, let’s play the game AiG insists we play with the Bible, and ask, “What is the ‘plain reading’ of the text?” I am willing to bet that if someone who had never read YEC literature had just picked the Bible and read Genesis 1:25 (“God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds…”), that person would interpret Genesis 1:25 as simply saying in a plain and general way, “God made all kinds of animals.”

Let’s be honest, the only person who would think those verses are conveying God’s “ancient-scientific classification” of animals is a person who had already been told by groups like AiG that those verses are conveying God’s “ancient-scientific classification” of animals.

In a similar vein, the only way someone would come to the conclusion that I Thessalonians 4:16-17 is about a “secret rapture” right before a literal seven-year tribulation period at the end of history would be for that person to be told ahead of time “this is about a secret rapture.” There’s absolutely nothing in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 that would indicate such a thing, and there’s absolutely nothing in Genesis 1:25 that would indicate “kind” is some sort of scientific classification.

Second, if it is clear that min is not God’s scientific classification of animals, but is rather used much in the same way we use “kinds” in everyday language (i.e. God made all kinds of animals), then it is obvious that YEC is, in fact, misinterpreting the biblical text. Simply put, such a claim about “kinds” isn’t biblical. And since it isn’t biblical, and YEC claims that min is the scientific classification of “biblical kind,” then it goes without saying that such a claim isn’t scientific either…in any way, shape or form.

So Let’s Go Back to the Original Question
With all that said, let’s go back to the YEC question at hand: “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?”

Do you see why the only possible answer to that question is, “No”? It’s simple. Of course there’s no “observable” evidence for Darwinian Evolution producing a “change of kind”…because there’s no such scientific category of “biblical kind.” It would be like asking, “Is there any evolutionary evidence for ogres changing into goblins?” Of course not, because there are no such things as ogres and goblins.

Even if we were to acknowledge (for argument’s sake) YEC’s definition that “kinds” were some sort of original animals from which modern species have come about via natural selection, the fact would still be that those “original kinds” no longer exist. Even if there was an original “dog kind,” that “original kind” is long gone, and all that is left are the varieties of species that natural selection has produced. Therefore, still, there would be no “observable evidence” for evolutionary change of “kinds,” because the “kinds” that YEC is talking about no longer exist, and therefore it is impossible to “observe change” in the present of something that doesn’t exist in the present.

If there is one thing I’ve realized as I’ve researched the YEC of AiG over the past two years, it is this: they are very clever in their presentations. What often happens is that they throw something out, make some claim that sort of sounds right, but also seems a little off, but then quickly jump to another point or topic, never allowing you to take a breath and actually think about the claim they have just made. If you do, if you subject their claims to a little bit of critical thinking, you will soon be able to unravel the twisted tales they spin.

So next time, if you’re in a conversation with a young earth creationist, or find yourself in New Zealand talking to Ray Comfort, or in Kentucky talking to Ken Ham, and they ask, “Can you think of any observable evidence for Darwinian Evolution where there is a change of kind?” You can now respond with:

What are all these SPECIES doing, getting on the Ark? Ken Ham has assured us that only KINDS went on!

“Of course not, because your claim that min is God’s scientific classification of animals is not only not supported by the Bible, it isn’t a recognized scientific category, period. And even if somehow you were to make the exegetical case that min really is God’s ancient-scientific classification of animals (but of course you can’t), the answer to your question would still be ‘of course not,’ because you define ‘kinds’ to mean some sort of ancient animals that no longer exist—and given your (false) distinction between ‘observational’ and ‘historical’ science, and your definition of ‘observational’ science as being something that can be tested, observed, and repeated—you’re asking for ‘observational evidence’ for evolution changing one sort of ancient ‘animal-kind’ that no longer exists into another sort of ancient ‘animal-kind’ that no longer exists is fundamentally dishonest and misleading, for you are asking for supposed present observable evidence of evolutionary change of past extinct (and therefore unobservable) animals.

I’m pretty sure if you gave that answer, Ray Comfort or Ken Ham would probably just walk away, convinced that you were a “scoffer.”

Now, is that a little convoluted? Probably, but the arguments and claims of YEC are (I believe) designed to be convoluted, making it hard to follow them, and therefore catch them in their manipulative shell-games and double-speak. But it’s something you have to do if you ever hope to call them on their manipulation.

So to sum up: the typical YEC question regarding “observational evidence that evolution causes a change in kinds” is a bogus question for two reasons:

  1. The Hebrew word min (“kind”) is not some ancient-scientific classification of animals, therefore the question (not to mention the whole supposed field of baraminology is a sham;
  2. Even if you grant YEC the existence of these supposed ancient “kinds,” the question is asking the impossible: present, observable evidence for evolutionary change in past, extinct “kinds” (and again, the fact that in reality there were no “original kinds” make the question even more impossible…as if that were…possible!).

Yes, the notion of “created kinds”—it’s kinda ridiculous.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 7): Early Christianity–a Fulfilled Judaism

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 7): Early Christianity–a Fulfilled Judaism

It was into this world of Greek philosophy, Roman imperial might, and rampant paganism that Jesus of Nazareth was born. Of course, the “genesis-point,” if you will, of the Jesus movement was in backwater Palestine…Galilee to be specific. This Jewish Messianic movement that emerged around Jesus of Nazareth eventually grew beyond its Jewish roots and then evolved by taking on, addressing, challenging, and eventually defeating the ancient pagan world of Greece and Rome.

In order to understand this, though, we must first understand what Jesus’ message to Judaism was and how his followers came to be convinced that it was in Jesus that all the messianic hopes within Judaism were fulfilled. After that, we can then seek to understand how this “fulfilled messianic movement” was translated to speak to the larger Greco-Roman world.

The Jewish Worldview: God, Creation, Mankind, and History
All too often, in their attempt to talk about Jesus and his Gospel, people gloss over the critical worldview of Second-Temple Judaism. Instead, far too many Christians reduce the concept of Jesus’ fulfillment of Judaism to nothing more than, “There were a bunch of predictions in the Old Testament about a coming Messiah, and Jesus fulfilled those predictions! Now you can accept him into your heart, get saved, and go to heaven when you die!” Such a depiction should be deemed over-simplistic to anyone who takes Jesus and Christianity seriously.

The Jews of the Old Testament were not just people sitting around, trying to keep God’s rules, and waiting for a future god-like superman to take them away to heaven. They viewed themselves as the people with whom the Creator God of the universe entered into a covenant, with the sole purpose of working through them in order to redeem His creation from sin, death, and decay. That one sentence opens the door to a radically different worldview by the standards of the ancient world. This is extremely important to know: the Jews viewed God differently, the natural world differently, and mankind differently than any society or culture at the time.

Abraham CovenantPerhaps the most basic difference between the Old Testament Jewish worldview and those of the ancient world is that it declared that there was one Creator God, and that He had revealed himself within history. Unlike the polytheism of the ancient world, Judaism declared that there was only one God, and that He was all-powerful, above nature, and the creator of a good created order. There were no warring gods of nature whom human beings had to appease in order avoid their petty and vindictive punishment. YHWH was just, righteous, merciful, compassionate, and good, and He cut a covenant (i.e. made a deal!) with Abraham and his descendants.

Therefore, the sacrificial system outlined in the Torah was not aimed at appeasing an angry god, but rather highlighting YHWH’s compassion and love: the worshiper would sacrifice, let’s say, a lamb, by offering it to YHWH. This act, done as a confession and admission of sin, would then be accepted by YHWH and turned into a celebratory meal: one which the worshiper would eat in the Temple, in the presence of YHWH. The meal would signify and celebrate the restoration of the worshiper’s relationship with YHWH.

TabernacleThe revelation of the purpose of not only the sacrificial system, but also the Torah itself, coupled with YHWH’s redemptive actions during the Exodus and throughout Israel’s history, testified to YHWH’s power, compassion, justice, and intention to redeem, remake, and transform, not only all of mankind, but the entire creation. Therefore, the Jewish worldview was radically different than what was found in other ancient societies, for it declared a number of things:

  1. There was one God, YHWH, the Creator of the natural world. He was good, just, and compassionate.
  2. Furthermore, He was also a personal being who revealed Himself in history and communicates with mankind.
  3. Creation itself—the natural, material universe—declares the glory of God. Creation is good, and worthy to be redeemed from death and decay.
  4. Mankind, being made in God’s image, has dignity and worth. He is not just a part of the natural world; he is unique and has a purpose: to act as God’s king, priest, and custodian of creation, to rule over God’s creation by caring for it and offering it back to God. He is to reflect and live out God’s justice, mercy, compassion, righteousness, and love in his creation.
  5. History, therefore, has a purpose, for it is in history that we see the Creator God communicate with mankind and empower the one He has made in His image to care for and ultimately redeem His good creation.

But if this is what Old Testament Judaism taught concerning God, mankind, and creation, the actual history of ancient Israel revealed something else: things weren’t as they should be. Corruption, sin and death seemed to rule the day. In fact, no one was immune from it, not even God’s people. Despite God’s self-revelation to His people, something obviously wasn’t right. This leads us to the fifth tenet of the Jewish worldview:

  1. Yes, YHWH was working through history and was in the process of bringing mankind and creation itself to their full fruition. Old Testament Israel, though, had failed to be the kind of people God wanted. Nevertheless, despite the inevitability and reign of sin and death throughout creation, YHWH was still in control. He was still building everything up to what he purposed all along. He was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, and somehow He would work through Israel to accomplish His purposes.

Indeed, everything in the Old Testament, everything in the history of ancient Israel, looked forward to God’s revelation as to how He would actually fulfill his purposes for mankind and creation itself. By the time of Jesus, the Jews, therefore, develop these views into the general, over-arching worldview of Second Temple Judaism.

The Jewish Worldview and the Two Ages of History
The Jews of Jesus’ day viewed history in terms of two distinct ages. The present age in which they currently found themselves was under the rule of Satan, and it was evidenced by the presence of sin, death, demon-possession, sickness, the oppression of pagan rulers, and the general absence of the Spirit of God among his people. The future age that they looked forward to was an age in which God would fulfill his purposes for mankind and creation. It would be, in fact, the Kingdom of God, and it would be characterized by righteousness, eternal life, health and peace, the rule of God’s anointed Messiah, and the out-pouring of God’s Spirit on His people.

The “turn of the ages,” so the Jews believed, would happen all at once: the Messiah would appear, defeat the pagan rulers and purify the Temple. There would be a resurrection of the righteous dead into eternal life, and God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh—and thus, the New Creation, the Kingdom of God itself, would be ushered in. Now obviously, there is a lot more to the Jewish worldview, but for our purposes, this general outline will suffice in order to lay out precisely what the proclamation of the early Church (which was, don’t forget, essentially Jewish) really was.

The Christian Proclamation: The turn of the ages has happened (just not how we thought!)
The early Christian proclamation that we see being declared throughout the New Testament was that the long-awaited “turn of the ages” expected in the Jewish Worldview had, in fact happened…just not in the way they had been expecting. In a simplified fashion, here’s what the earliest Christians in the first century declared:

  1. The Jewish worldview declared the present age to be evil; the early Church agreed.
  2. The Jewish worldview looked forward to the coming of God’s Messiah; the early Church declared that Jesus was, in fact, God’s Messiah. But instead of coming to defeat pagan rulers like Rome, Jesus had come to defeat Satan himself, because evil was not just among the pagans, but among the Jews as well. And shockingly, instead of coming to purify the Temple, Jesus had come and condemned the Temple as being hopelessly corrupt. Much like Jeremiah 600 years earlier, Jesus had prophesied that God would destroy the Temple, ironically, by the hands of Rome.
  3. The Jewish worldview looked forward to an instantaneous “turn of the ages,” signified by the resurrection of the dead. The early Church declared that the “turn of the ages” had begun, but that it was not a one-time instantaneous thing. It had begun with the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the only true righteous one. And that the power revealed at his resurrection (which was, in fact, the power of God’s Spirit) was now given to Jesus’ followers. And they, as God’s people, as God’s true Israel, were given a mission: to bear witness to God’s power and God’s Messiah throughout a world still in subjection to the “Old Age.” There would be a future full resurrection of dead, and that would signal the consummation of God’s purposes.
  4. The Jewish worldview believed that the dawn of the Kingdom of God and the New Creation would be evidenced by the outpouring of God’s Spirit on all flesh. The early Church declared that that very outpouring of God’s Spirit had happened at Pentecost, and part of their mission as God’s Messiah/Kingdom of God people was to further that outpouring of God’s Spirit, indeed, on all flesh…throughout the world, even among the Gentiles.

resurrection2007Simply put, the early Church proclaimed that in Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the long-awaited “turn of the ages,” the Kingdom of God, the New Creation itself (as evidenced in Christ’s resurrection) had begun. It is in that sense that we must understand the idea of Jesus “having fulfilled” the Jewish hopes and worldview. It is not simply a matter of a number of predictions finally happening. It signaled the culmination of all the Jewish hopes (albeit in a way they had not envisioned), and the end of that “chapter” in God’s story.

But when the followers of Jesus went out to the Gentile world, complete with all its polytheism, superstition, and pagan philosophy, the question became, “How does the fulfillment of the Jewish worldview now translate to the pagan world?” Although what lay at the heart of the Christian proclamation was, in fact, the declaration that certain things really had happened (i.e. the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit), how those things affected our understanding of the natural world and mankind itself had to be worked out. In short, the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit changed everything. And the mission of the Church was thus to explain and effect that change.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 6): Ancient Rome (and how the USA is its reincarnation)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 6): Ancient Rome (and how the USA is its reincarnation)

With the rise of the Roman Empire, there is yet another aspect to the ancient world that is relevant to understanding our world today. It was within this world dominated by the various Greek philosophical schools that the ancient Republic of Rome began to expand, grow, and eventually develop into the Roman Empire. Now, even though the Roman Republic (509-31 BC) had been around since roughly the birth of Athenian democracy, it is the Roman Empire of which we must be most mindful. The Roman Republic, much like the Athenian democracy, was constantly fraying at the edges.

Amplified Humanity
Francis SchaefferThe reason for this, as Francis Schaeffer pointed out, was pretty obvious. Whether the government system was a democracy or a republic, regardless of the citizenry involved, when it came right down to it, both the Greek and Roman societies were founded on their gods—those very gods who were nothing more than “amplified humanity,” complete with all the pettiness, jealousy, and violence that characterized humanity. No matter how much a society might want to flourish under a democracy or republic, if that society is, in fact, based on power-hungry, pretentious, violent gods, that society will ultimately reflect those very gods. The prophets of the Old Testament got it right—you become what you worship.

In reality, the Greco-Roman gods were nothing more than projections of humanity onto the various forces of nature. That was why they were so violent—nature is often violent. That was why they ultimately displayed the worst of humanity—human beings, when given power, will often be inhumane and beast-like to others. And, as the failure of Athenian democracy and the Roman republic demonstrates, it was beast-like rulers who established their power by often savage means, all the while paying homage to the violent Greco-Roman gods, who brought about the destruction of those democratic systems.

That is not to say that every ruler was bad. Absolute power in the hands of a beast-like ruler will bring about much death, evil, and destruction to a society. Yet absolute power in the hands of a noble ruler will allow that ruler to do much good. Nevertheless, basing an entire society on the rule of one man is ultimately a recipe for disaster, for no man, no matter how virtuous and noble, is a god.

The failure of the Greco-Roman gods to provide a suitable foundation for society eventually resulted in the destruction of Athenian democracy and the end of the Roman republic. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and the ensuing civil wars, first between Brutus/Cassius and Octavius/Mark Antony, and then between Mark Antony and Octavius, it was Octavius, thereafter known as Augustus Caesar, who lifted the Roman republic from the ashes and established the Roman empire. Among his many achievements, Augustus established a common empire-wide currency as well as a postal system; he orchestrated massive building projects throughout the Roman Empire that constructed roads, aqueducts, bridges, and thereby united and strengthened the infrastructure of the empire; he was a huge benefactor of the arts; he built public baths, he expanded the Roman Empire to Spain, Gaul (modern day France), Egypt; he established laws aimed to promote marriage, discourage adultery, raise the birth rate…the list can go on.

The Rise of Caesar, the “god”
AugustusAugustus Caesar was so successful during his reign (27 BC-14 AD), that after his death he was officially recognized as “a god.” Not “God,” as in the creator of the universe; but “a god”—for it was acknowledged that only a god could have brought peace to the Roman world, and that was exactly what Augustus Caesar had done. Once such a precedent had been set, though, it was bound to be abused by later emperors. Declaring a great leader like Augustus Caesar a god after his death was one thing—it was pretty much a ceremonial honor that didn’t have any practical impact. After all, Augustus was dead. But as the first century AD unfolded, more and more emperors would be declared, or declare themselves, “gods” during their reign. When that happens, there is bound to be an egregious abuse of power, as the reigns of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian demonstrate.

It was precisely because of Augustus Caesar’s success that the Imperial Cult was established, and later abused. Being a polytheistic society with many gods, the Roman Empire didn’t care who or what you worshipped, just as long as you also took the time to go down to your local Temple to Caesar, offer a pinch of incense, and swear by the genius of the god Caesar as well. Acknowledging Caesar’s divinity meant that you showed yourself to be a good citizen of Rome. In that sense, the “official religion” of the Roman Empire was, in fact, the worship of Caesar as a god; and therefore, the “official religion” of the Roman Empire was a political religion. It was the worship of the state. Religion was never a “private affair”—it was always part of public life. Once this is understood, it becomes much easier to understand why the early Christians were often persecuted within the Roman Empire.

On a much more practical level, when one man (like Caesar) is not only the supreme ruler of the state, but on top of that is declared to be a god, it should come as no surprise that along with such absolute power comes the inevitable consequence that whatever happens to be the will of Caesar becomes the basis for society—the whim of one man become the “absolute.” Now, what would be the ultimate goal of such a ruler, other than to maintain his power, and how would he go about maintaining his power? The answer can be found it what happened in ancient Rome.

The Politics and Religion…of Keeping Power
First and foremost was maintaining power through military dominance. The one with the most weapons is the one who calls the shots, so if you want to continue to call the shots, you continue to demonstrate to everyone that you are the one with the most weapons. And one thing was certain: Rome’s military might was unrivaled in the ancient world.

Secondly, in order to maintain power, you must demonstrate that you can exercise that power in every area of life. Consequently, under the rule of the Roman emperors, the imperial government continued to expand and essentially take over every area of Roman life. By doing so, it ensured that everyone was dependent on the government for their survival. Thus you had a system where the ruling elites, through the mechanisms of an ever-expanding, costly, and highly bureaucratic government, reduced the majority of the populace to virtual servitude and slavery. Such a system inevitably leads to abuses of power and tyranny.

But the trick, of course, is to make sure the slavish majority of the populace don’t really catch on to how much they have been reduced to servitude. This brings us to another characteristic of Roman society: bread and circuses. Keep the masses entertained and occupied: horrifically violent gladiator games, the wide-variety of sexual perversions that were practiced in pagan temples and encouraged throughout Roman society, went hand in hand with the overall lack of any kind of intellectual life, or quality of art and music. Who has time to discipline oneself to become truly accomplished and creative when the roar of the coliseum, the sexual delights of the pagan temples, and the bombastic music of the cult of Dionysus called one to a life of apathy and hedonism? The emperor was in charge anyway—let him take care of everything.

And thus, any semblance of true individual freedom was sacrificed for security. When government takes care of everything, people have nothing to strive for, so they turn to pleasure and perversion to keep themselves occupied. Ultimately, the result is a hedonistic and lazy society allowing themselves to be tyrannically ruled by a “god-Caesar.” Ironically, not only was it not free, it also was not truly secure either. It was a society enslaved…to Caesar, to violence, to perversions, and to apathy. It was a society that became like the immoral gods they worshipped.

Summary of the Greco-Roman World
And so, what we see in the Greco-Roman world was an ancient society that was in many respects much like ours. In both ancient Greece and Rome, regardless of whether the government be a democracy, a republic, or an authoritative empire, underlying the form of government was a worldview that was based on belief in violent, petty, immoral gods—and that, in turn, led to a violent, petty, immoral society. The attempts at democracy or a republic, since they still were ultimately based on ‘the gods,’ were doomed to fail. Those societies ultimately led to chaos, fighting, and the eventual take over by military dictators. Power ultimately ruled the day…for that the way of the gods.

At the same time, though, there still was the underlying fear of impersonal fate. It didn’t matter which gods you sacrificed to, or how many times you swore to the genius of Caesar, you would ultimately be a victim of the fates. From the plebian to Caesar himself, ultimately chaos and Hades stole any ultimate meaning from human existence.

The structure of the ancient city-state was centered around the polis, which in turn was centered around pagan temples. In other words, what brought people together was something fundamentally religious, and that religion was intimately wrapped up in politics.

The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle opened doors to ways of understanding reality that have an impact up to the present day, particularly the “spirit-matter” dualism. What that means is that, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans up to modern day America, there has been a tendency to view “the spiritual world” as something good and completely detached from the material world, and “the material world” as something bad and dirty and undesirable (i.e. the longing to “shed this mortal coil” and be “pure spirit”).

Put all that together, and the impact it had on daily life was an oppressive society to the majority of the people, particularly to women and slaves, with no value for human life. Abortion, infanticide, and the exposure of infants were just an acceptable part of life.

Indeed, in seems that ancient Rome and the modern United States certainly share a lot in common, don’t they? Just look at the way our society is today:

  1. The practical deification of political leaders (depending on your party, of course)
  2. The ever-increasing power of a massive centralized government
  3. The massive industrial military complex and hyper-nationalism
  4. The glorification of violence in our society
  5. Yes, we don’t have pagan temples encouraging promiscuity and prostitution, but the pornography industry and sex-trafficking is at an all-time high, creating modern-day examples of sex slaves
  6. Abortion on demand also dehumanizes human beings

Ancient RomeThe list can probably go on. But the point is simple: despite it’s great military might and impressive monuments and buildings, daily life in ancient Rome was anything but glorious. Life was cheap and disposable…and then you die. Indeed, in many ways, modern America is just ancient Rome 2.0.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 5): Classical Greek Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics…Oh My!

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 5): Classical Greek Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics…Oh My!

The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle ended up having a great deal of significance throughout Church history (as we will eventually see). Yet our understanding of the philosophical outlook of the Greco-Roman world would be dreadfully incomplete without at least a few brief words about Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism. As should be obvious, no society is a philosophical monolith. In fact, every society, no matter how predominant a particular worldview might be, consists of a number of competing worldviews, and most people, in actuality, derive their particular worldview by treating these competing worldview as essentially a smorgasbord, and simply picking and choosing from each one what suits their particular tastes. It is true today just as much as it was 2500 years ago in Greece. That being said, let’s briefly (and I mean briefly!) familiarize ourselves with the three other schools of Greek philosophical thought.

Zeno and the Stoics
ZenoStoicism gained its footing during the Hellenistic period. The philosopher most associated with Stoicism is Zeno of Citium (350-258 BC). At the risk of being too simplistic, Stoicism viewed the natural world as the only reality, governed by an ultimate natural law. Therefore “God,” for the Stoics was essentially nature itself, or more properly, the divine will in nature, which was the natural law—Stoicism was fundamentally pantheistic.

In any case, the Stoics taught that the purpose of man is to live a virtuous life, “virtue” being that which is harmony with nature. Living in harmony with nature took precedence over everything else, even any particular pleasure or desire for that matter. Stoicism meant to simply accept life as it came to you—pain, heartache, tragedy, etc. were all part of the way of nature. The Stoic’s ethical outlook was to accept those things, and live in harmony with them.

Here’s an example: My grandparents were Swedes, and if you know anything about typical Swedes, you know that they are very Stoic in a lot of ways. They never get too down (or if they do, they certainly don’t show it), and they never get too excited (and if they feel excited inside, they certainly don’t show it). They just accept what comes along and keep doing what they’re supposed to do, whether it be raise that family or work that job. You do your duty, and let nothing upset that balance.

Epicureanism was found, not surprisingly, by Epicurus (341-270 BC). If Stoicism taught that the highest good was to live in harmony with nature, Epicureanism taught that the highest good was the pursuit of one’s own personal pleasure and happiness and the elimination of pain. Oftentimes this is misunderstood as pure hedonism, but Epicurus would not have encouraged anyone to just stay in their basement and smoke weed for their entire life, because that “made them happy.” Epicurus, in fact, held wisdom to be the supreme virtue, for the wise man would be able to discern what was truly beneficial or harmful to him. The wise man would reason that a little wine is good for the heart and it brings joy, but an all-night drinking binge would result in a massive hangover, and probably a number of poor decisions in the process. The wise man would reason that it is good to be kind and generous and to work with others, for that would bring about a greater possibility for happiness and pleasure for all

EpicurusNot surprisingly, Epicurus had very little need for “God” or “the gods.” They might exist, Epicurus reasoned, but they have no interest in human affairs. He is the one who first reasoned that if God was willing to prevent evil, but couldn’t, then he was not omnipotent; if God was able to stop evil, but chose not to, then he was malevolent and evil himself; and if he was able and willing to prevent evil, then why is there evil? Simply put, Epicurus was much like an ancient Deist, who gave a cognizant nod to the existence of the gods, but who then really preached that the goal of mankind was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Sound familiar? Did you know that Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean?)

The Cynics
Diongenes of SinopeThe founder of the school of Cynics was Diogenes of Sinope (400-325 BC). Like the Stoicism and Epicureanism that was to follow Diogenes, he taught that true happiness was to be found in living in harmony with nature. But for Diogenes, the main obstacle to living according to nature was the structures of society itself. Therefore, the Cynics often railed against societal conventions—they were, in fact, some of the first “anti-establishment” anarchists in history. Politicians? Temple priests? The gods to which both politicians and priests made much of? Screw them all! Therefore, the Cynics would often ridicule the political and religious conventions society, and even stage public demonstrations in which they would purposely do vulgar things just to mock the social mores. (Diogenes, for example, would publicly masturbate in the marketplace, and then mock the people who decried it as shameful).

For the Cynics, the “morality” of society was neither reasonable nor in harmony with nature. Nature itself should dictate morality, certainly not society.

Conclusions About Ancient Greek Philosophy
As one can see, the philosophy and culture of ancient Greece has much in common with our modern world. We have our Stoics; we have our Epicureans; and we certainly have our Cynics.

Although the masses undoubtedly cowered in the shadow of the powerful and unpredictable Olympian gods, the educated and the elite of Grecian society debated and philosophized on the existence of the gods, the nature of reality, and what constituted the ethical life. And even though many of the philosophers doubted and ridiculed the existence of the Olympian gods, they nevertheless maintained the social customs involving temple sacrifices, for those customs were not seen as simply “religious.” They were seen as part of the societal fabric that held their culture together. For many of the Greek philosophers, “the gods” might not be real, but religious observances were just good societal traditions that helped the cohesiveness of society.

In that respect, ancient Greek culture was very much like our culture today.  Indeed, this is one of the points I will be making throughout these “Worldview and Western Culture” posts. If you just take a little bit of time to understand some of the basic concepts of philosophy, and if you think about the issues and beliefs that a culture like ancient Greece, you will soon see that many of the issues we are dealing with today are the same issues they were dealing with then, be it political, religious, or moral. And although it might seem tedious to spend time getting a handle on these old philosophers, by the time we get through all this, I believe you will see just how much we can learn from them. Not only that, I also believe you will come to see much more clearly the various contentious and controversial issues that challenge our current society.

In my next post, I will look at ancient Rome.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 4): Classical Greek Philosophy: Aristotle–Finding the Universals in the Particulars

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 4): Classical Greek Philosophy: Aristotle–Finding the Universals in the Particulars

The AcademyAristotle was Plato’s student, just as Plato had been the student of Socrates (He’s the guy in in blue, in the middle of the picture, pointing downwards). Yet, even though he was originally a disciple of Plato (the guy on the left, pointing upwards), he ended up disagreeing with Plato on the most fundamental of philosophical issues. Not only did he split from Plato, he actually founded a rival school in 335 BC to Plato’s Academy, named The Lyceum. Aristotle is also famous for being the tutor of Alexander the Great.

Universals vs. Particulars
Whereas Plato believed that there was essentially a “split reality” (the world of universal, unchanging forms vs. this world of ever-changing and imperfect particulars), Aristotle taught that the forms are not in some other, higher, perfect dimension or world. Rather, they are found within the present, particular objects all around us. “Ultimate reality” is to be found within the particulars, not is some other world of unchanging forms. This view obviously had implications for how one views God. Aristotle described God as “thought thinking itself,” or as “the unmoved mover.” Rather than having perfection as being as “other-worldly” reality that must be imposed on this imperfect world, Aristotle argued, essentially, that the “seeds of perfection,” if you will, are to be found within this imperfect world, and are to be cultivated so they can grow to their fullness.

Therefore, whereas Plato preferred essentially a dictatorship of a philosopher-king to govern society, Aristotle preferred a democracy in which citizens could devote all their time to contemplating philosophy and virtue, and having a say in how society should be governed. One could understand why the two men had their views: Plato actually witnessed the shortcomings and destruction of the Athenian democracy, whereas Aristotle wasn’t even born yet. Instead, Aristotle witnessed the rise of King Philip the Macedonian.

AristotleAristotle’s philosophy (as we will later see) had a tremendous impact on the later “High Catholic Age,” namely in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. For that reason, it is necessary to spend some time explaining as simply as possible some of the most significant aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy. This means delving a bit into philosophical terminology and concepts.

Plato taught that a person’s soul was a completely different entity than the material body in which it was trapped, just like the universal form of something was completely different than the ever-changing particular piece of matter that faintly reflected it. But for Aristotle, such a division between universal-form/particular-matter was wrong. For Aristotle, a person’s soul was the form of the body. Every human being is an intricate combination of universal and particular, of form and matter. This combination of form and matter is what Aristotle called the substance of the individual thing.

To put it more simply, Plato would say that you are a soul trapped in a body (hence the term “body and soul”), whereas Aristotle would say that your body is an intricate part, along with your form, of your soul/substance—perhaps a new term is needed: “body and form = soul.” For Plato, the material world of the senses consists of shadowy distortions of ultimate reality that can only mislead people who trust in their senses, whereas for Aristotle, the material world of the senses, for all its incompleteness and constant change, points us in the right direction of truly understanding ultimate reality; it provides clues to the ultimate reality of the forms that we can piece together with our logic and reason.

In any case, since Aristotle believed that the forms of things are to be found within the particular things in the material world, he believed that we can learn about morality by observing nature. By observing things in nature, we can use our logic to reason our way to understanding the universal forms, and hence our moral obligations. Such moral obligations cannot be “proven” in any scientific sense, but they can be reasoned out from observable things in nature (hence, the concept of “metaphysics”).

Actuality and Potentiality
So what Aristotle reasoned was this: just as everything is a combination of both form and matter, and since form is unchanging and matter changes, that meant that everything is a combination of what Aristotle called actuality and potentiality. Why do things change in the first place? Aristotle said the reason why things change is that within everything there is a combination of actuality and potentiality. Take a blue rubber ball, for example. (I got this example from Edward Fesser’s book, Aquinas). There are certain aspects it possesses that are essential to it being a ball: it’s solid, it’s round, it’s bouncy—those things are part of its essence of being a ball. If it were a square, for example, it wouldn’t be a ball. On the other hand, if it was red instead of blue, it would still be a ball. But in its current form, it is actually a blue, rubber ball.

GumbyPotentially though, the blue rubber ball can become something else. If someone painted it, it would become red; if someone melted it down, it would become a pile of soft goo; and if someone then reshaped it and then painted it green to look like Gumby, that blue rubber ball could potentially become a green rubber Gumby doll. Of course, once that happened, what was once potentiality (i.e. it could become Gumby) is now actuality (i.e. it now is Gumby). And what was once actuality (i.e. it was a blue rubber ball), is now no more.

Now three things need to be pointed out here. First, the blue rubber ball does not have the potential to become just anything else. Its potentiality must be “rooted in the thing’s nature as it actually exists” (Fesser 11). It doesn’t have the potential to grow a tail, start barking, and become a dog. Its potential is limited to what is already contained in its actual nature. Second, whatever change happens to that blue rubber ball, the source that initiates that change has to come from outside the ball. In other words, no potential can “actualize” itself. For that potential to become actualized, something from outside must initial that change. The ball cannot heat itself and make itself gooey, and thus actualize its potential to become gooey all on its own. That change that turns a potentiality into an actuality has to be initiated from outside the ball. Third, Aristotle held that actuality has metaphysical priority over potentiality. What that means simply is this: potentiality cannot exist on its own as pure potential, with not actuality at all (Fesser 12). As soon some potentiality comes to exist, it no long is potentiality.

By contrast, you can have actuality exist without potentiality…well, sort of! You can’t, because as long as you are a living human being, you are susceptible to change and various potentialities that are inevitably initiated from outside yourself. Your genetic code will cause you to go bald, or become near-sighted as you get older; your favorite high school teacher might be the reason you learn French. But there is one being, according to Aristotle, that is pure actuality, in whom there is found no potentiality—God. Human beings, if you will, by virtue of being “souls” comprising of both form and matter, are always in a state of becoming. By contrast, God, by virtue of being pure form, and immaterial, is pure actuality, and thus is in a constant state of actualized being. He isn’t becoming anything; He simply is.

Now, Aristotle’s concept of God certainly is not that of the Christian God. Aristotle’s described his concept of God as “Thought thinking itself.” Aristotle’s God was the fundamental ground of all being that initiated and sustained the constant change we find in this material world of particulars, but he was not “personal” in any way. Nevertheless, as we will look at later, Aristotle’s concept of God—being that he is involved with the material world as its ultimate sustainer—was nearer to the Biblical understanding of God than that of Plato’s concept of God.

Aristotle’s Four Causes
Since Aristotle believed that the ever-changing material world of particulars can provide us with clues to understanding the universal forms, he developed a method to understanding and categorizing the natural world. In effect, Aristotle is the one who really introduced the concept of the scientific method. It basically works like this: Aristotle said that you can take any particular thing in the world and, through logic and reason, categorize what that particular thing is particularly for. He called this the Four Causes. We will use our rubber ball as a way to illustrate this.

Aristotle’s first cause was what he called the Material Cause: what material is the thing made of? In the case of a rubber ball, it’s quite obvious: it is made out of rubber. You can do this with everything: a table is made out of wood; a football is made of pigskin, etc.

Aristotle’s second cause was what he called the Formal Cause: what form, structure, shape, or pattern does the thing exhibit. In the case of the rubber ball, we would say that the ball is in the form of a sphere, it is a solid, and it is bouncy. A table, on the other hand, would be flat, solid, and possible a square; a football would be oblong, bouncy to a degree…you get the idea.

After determining the material that makes up a thing, and the form/shape of a thing, the third cause is what Aristotle called the Efficient Cause: how did that thing come to be what it was (or in Aristotelian terms, what was it that actualized the potentiality of the thing). The efficient cause of the rubber ball would be the workers and machines at the Acme Rubber Ball company; the table’s efficient cause would be the factory and workers at which it was made; the football’s efficient cause would be the workers at the Wilson company.

The final, and probably most important, cause is what Aristotle called (not surprisingly) the Final Cause: what is that thing’s purpose, and what is it for? The final cause of a rubber ball is to be a play thing for a child; the table’s final cause is to be a thing on which one eats dinner; the football’s final cause is, you guessed it, to be used in football games! The final cause was no doubt the most important cause for Aristotle. For it was the purpose of a thing that ultimately defined the thing and gave it meaning. Without a final cause, without a purpose, meaning cannot exist. For Aristotle, everything in the material world had a purpose and final cause, and it is this purpose that points things in the material world to the world beyond the material world.

These four causes, Aristotle argued, provided a complete explanation of any given thing. Although Aristotle’s theories took a back seat to Plato’s for the first millennium of Christian thought, Aristotle made quite a comeback during the High Catholic Age, in no small measure thanks to Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest Catholic theologian and philosopher of all time. We will return to Aristotle, particularly his concept of a final cause, with our discussion of Aquinas and the development of Christian philosophy during the High Catholic Age. For Aquinas used Aristotle’s concept of a final cause in his philosophical arguments for the existence of God. We will then return to this concept again in our discussion of modern philosophy, for many modern philosophers deny the existence of final causes outright. But more on that later.

Equality? Not So Fast
The last thing we should note about Aristotle is that, like Plato, Aristotle did not believe all men were created equal. In fact, he was a full supporter of the institution of slavery. After all, Aristotle reasoned that if the truly enlightened men had to spend their time doing menial labor, they wouldn’t have the time to contemplate, reason, and pursue things like virtue and wisdom. Simply put, the thinkers and philosophers couldn’t be bothered with just base work! Besides, (and this is perhaps the one thing that Aristotle did agree with Plato on!), Aristotle reasoned that slaves were nothing more than ignorant, dumb beasts anyway…nothing like enlightened, free men!

And so, being men of their time, both Plato and Aristotle firmly believed (on philosophical grounds, even) that human beings were not equal, and that some were, by their very nature, simply destined to be slaves to the intelligentsia of their day. Yes, even the famed Athenian democracy was nothing more than a democracy for the intellectual elites. Slavery was still practiced, encouraged, and rationalized by the very philosophy of ancient Greece.

Aristotle Alexander
Aristotle and Alexander the Great

Hellenistic Greece (323-146 BC)
In any case, Alexander the Great’s rapid imperialistic expansion across the known world, and then his sudden death, marked the end of the Classical Greek period. Alexander had taken Greek culture and promoted it in every land he conquered, as far as India. Therefore, when he died, the entire known world was united to a certain degree through Greek culture, but it was a “sham of Greek culture.” Alexander’s empire was soon divided up into four parts, each run by essentially military dictators who were more interested in maintaining their power than they were in cultivating culture and learning.

And so, while these various “Greek-influenced” dictators eventually ran their respective “mini-empires” into the ground, philosophy became less and less concerned with questions concerning an ideal society and government (after all, such topics wouldn’t be too welcomed in a military dictatorship!), and more and more concerned with the inner life of the individual. The result of all this was an odd (but all too strangely familiar) mix within those cultures of the Hellenistic world. There were the philosophers who debated the more “heady” questions of existence; and then there were the masses who were still dedicated to (and fearful of) the many gods. In fact, virtually every city-state, known as the polis, was centered around temples. These temples weren’t built to house large congregations, but rather to actually house that particular god. So even after hundreds of years of philosophical thought stemming from the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, most of the commoners still were essentially slaves to both the gods and to their respective rulers.

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