Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Reaction to Francis Collins' Language or God Part 3

We have considered Francis Collins' views on the 'God of the gaps' argument and his views on the fossil record in
Part 1
Part 2
Now we consider his work on:

Interpreting molecular similarities

Collins shows compelling evidence for similarity between human and mouse DNA, even in non-functional sections. His conclusion is that such similarity denotes common ancestry. But while similarity could denote a common ancestor, it could also denote a common maker. Is it reasonable to assume that God would start from scratch every time he introduced a new order of organisms (assuming this happened)? Or would he begin with existing forms, and alter them in meaningful ways to produce the new order? I don't know how we could answer these questions. Clearly, if the notion that God periodically introduced new forms is true, the evidence suggests that he used existing forms as templates from which to build the new forms. This could explain the data just as well as evolution.

As an analogy, consider the way programmers produce a new computer program. They normally do not begin from scratch, but use helpful strings of code from previous programs they have written for various functions. Likewise, a Bible teacher will commonly include illustrations and arguments he has used in earlier teachings when constructing a new one. These similarities don't imply that the new program or teaching sprang from the former, but that the creator of both used existing material combined with new material to produce the new creations.

Collins admits that these similarities are only found "over substantial stretches" and "in some instances."6 He also concedes that, "one might argue that the order of genes is critical in order for their function to occur properly, and therefore a designer might have maintained that order in multiple acts of special creation."7 But he feels that, "there is no evidence from current understanding of molecular biology that this restriction would need to apply over such substantial chromosomal distances." In other words, the similarity of sequence is longer than necessary for the functions involved. But this observation doesn't rule out the use of even relatively long similar chains by a designer. It only shows that such borrowing would not be necessary as far as we know.

He concludes: "this kind of recent genome data thus presents and overwhelming challenge to those who hold to the idea that all species were created ex nihilo." I think this conclusion is warranted. But it may be a bit of a straw-man as well. Only extreme creationists continue to hold that all species were specially created. I fail to see why believers would argue this extreme position. However, the genome data do not present an overwhelming challenge to the view that God engaged in multiple creative acts at various points, combined with evolution.

Next time: Collins' work on biblical exegesis.

6. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 134.

7. Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 134, 135.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Reaction to Collins' Language of God, Part 2

Read Part 1
In part 1, I argued that Francis Collins' warnings against any "God of the gaps" argument are overdone. If God has ever acted in supernatural ways, there would be gaps. Also, secular science has it's own imaginary phenomena to explain gaps. This time we examine his work on the fossil record.

Macroevolution and the fossil record

Collins' rejection of the distinction between macro and microevolution (p. 132) is based on an overly narrow definition of microevolution. I agree that Christians often err here, by claiming that no new species have appeared through evolution. The evidence is good that many species are the result of evolution. I have always held that in the expression, "after its own kind," (Gen. 1) the word 'kind' is not defined. It could mean species, genus, family, or even phyla or something larger. I also agree with Collins that the idea of macroevolution has no clear definition and is therefore a somewhat vague concept. But I think it is still useful for declaring that evolution has some limits in what it can explain. "Reproducing after its own kind" has to mean something. The rules of exegesis say you can't just ignore language that doesn't fit your theory. If the amoeba gave rise to humans, then what does "reproducing after its own kind" mean? The phrase seems to be saying there were limits within which organisms reproduce. If not this, what does it mean?


Collins never adequately addresses the larger question of jumps in the fossil record. Even the discovery of some possible transitional forms (where formerly there were none) cannot be reasonably extrapolated to mean that all missing transitions will eventually be found, or that they once existed, but were never preserved in the fossil record. This is a faith position without observable backing. It fills the gaps with imagined fossils that have never actually been seen. It also fails to speak to the stability of species in the fossil record, where most species appear relatively suddenly, stay very stable throughout their history (except for minor changes like size) and then often disappear. This picture does not fit Darwinian assumptions. Think of the famous case of the horse. The changes seen in the fossil record are basically a change in size, which is qualitatively different than the kind of changes one would need to see in order to demonstrate macro-evolution.

Collins' proposition (that transitions may have occurred during periods when fossils were not deposited) means that such suspensions in fossil deposition would have to happen worldwide even in very different sedimentary strata, deposited in different ways. For instance, some are deposited by oceans, some by rivers, and some fossils come from animals trapped in tar pits or amber, to name a few. These would all have to suspend fossil making for many millions of years at the same time in order to explain why the discontinuous layers we have are really continuous and relatively constant in rate of change, as predicted by Darwin. Why would this happen? I think this is a huge leap of faith, and even atheist paleontologists like Gould use this same data to back up the need for punctuated equilibrium (which is leap of faith in itself).

The last research I did on this about three years ago indicated that only a handful of debatable links have been found, and that thousands of gaps remain as striking as ever. Robert Carroll observes recently in Nature, "What is missing are the many intermediate forms hypothesized by Darwin, and the continual divergence of major lineages into the morphospace between distinct adaptive types." (Carroll, Robert L., "Towards a new evolutionary synthesis," in Trends in Evolution and Ecology 15(1):27-32, 2000, p. 27.) Even in cases where possible transition fossils have been discovered, they are usually far distant from either the parent line, or the line they are supposed to explain, and authorities disagree on whether many of them are really transitional forms at all.

His efforts to argue that fossils are rare and the record extremely fragmentary is unconvincing. At every geological period, millions and even billions of fossils survive. The problem (not acknowledged or discussed by Collins, except in the case of the Cambrian explosion) is that strata containing abundant fossil remains from entire new orders lie immediately adjacent to strata containing none of these organisms or anything similar. This widespread phenomenon remains a major problem for Darwinian theorists. Collins' general statements about the difficulty of making fossils did nothing to answer this problem. Of course only a minority of organisms are ever preserved in fossil form. But as anyone who has studied fossils knows, this minority still usually numbers in the millions for most categories.

I believe his claim that the former view (that there were huge gaps all over the place) has now been refuted, is wrong. Authorities writing recently still argue that most significant gaps remain. The sudden appearance of new phyla, genera, and families is remarkable today as it has been. The only place I have seen such sweeping claims that the problems with fossils are not in the past is on atheist websites with low credibility.

Collins does not demonstrate careful study of the fossil record (geology and paleontology are not his area of expertise), and this is a serious weakness in his argument. Fossils remain the only truly objective, empirical data we have for what actually happened. Mathematical extrapolations from genetics does not stand, in my view, at the same level of credibility as the actual history as seen in the fossil record.

I admit that an explanation could conceivably be found one day for the discontinuities in the fossil record. But I believe the evidence today still conforms to a picture of periodic dramatic changes in plant and animal populations, and these are used to date sedimentary strata, because other strata are missing these forms. This picture is not easily explained by pure natural selection, and could indeed represent creative episodes where God intervened.

Read Part 1

Next time: Collins' work on interpreting DNA similarities and his biblical exegesis.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

My Reaction to The Language of God by Francis Collins Part 1

The Language of God is an interesting read from one of the world's most prestigious scientists. He recounts his own conversion from agnosticism to theism, and goes on to examine how a personal creator accords with the findings of science. This book could be very helpful to non-believers when questioning their own agnosticism or atheism. I found it less useful as a guide to a Christian view of origins.

Collins' Objections to 'God of the Gaps' Arguments

Collins says, "Faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps."1 This is an oft-repeated point in other's work, and has a lot of history behind it. However, there are gaps which should be filled in our understanding by God. Every time a miracle happens, we have something we don't understand. And God is the explanation. Every act of God in history is a gap that, properly understood, is filled with God. While it's easy to err and attribute to God's intervention things that have natural causes, this only means we should be careful. It does not mean that gaps in scientific knowledge may indeed be answered best by divine intervention.

Collins is eager to avoid giving God as the reason unexplainable things in natural history. But what is the difference between seeing God in the unbridgeable gap between simple organic compounds and living cells on one hand (which Collins resists), and between the big bang and whatever happened beforehand on the other (which Collins accepts)? Using a God of the gaps argument seems to be okay in some situations, but the rules are unclear.
Referring to inorganic evolution and why it would be unwise to assume God is responsible, he says,

There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation. They are positive reasons based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge."2

He seems to believe that science will soon explain inorganic evolution also, so we shouldn't attribute it to God. I thought this position was way too cautious.

Discussing the Cambrian explosion, he says,

While attempts have been made by certain theists to argue that the Cambrian explosion is evidence of the intervention of some supernatural force, a careful examination of the facts does not seem to warrant this. This is another "God of the gaps" argument, and once again believers would be unwise to hang their faith upon such a hypothesis."3

I see no argument or evidence given here to back this rejection of divine intervention at or around the Cambrian explosion. Whether the theistic position is a 'gaps argument' begs the question and is ad hominem. Ad hominem means "against the man" where instead of refuting one's evidence, you point out he is making a similar argument to a discredited other (like Hitler), or in this case, earlier mistaken Christians. It's an invalid form of argument, because the fact that someone else messed up when using a similar argument means nothing about whether the present case is messed up.

The fact is that our observable data show huge discontinuities in the fossil record appearing in short time spans. Of course we can speculate about possible explanations that would still allow for the slow transitions required by Darwinian Theory, but such speculations have no backing in observable data, and cannot be considered science. This is particularly hard to accept when layers of sediment (like limestone) from the same ocean show change happening between one layer and another. Why would the ocean stop depositing sediment and then start again? In cases where the ocean dried up for a period and re-filled (which has happened numerous times with shallow inland seas) you can see clear signs that this is what happened.

The only argument I could see by Collins was that "The so-called Cambrian explosion might, for example, reflect a change in conditions that allowed fossilization of a large number of species that had actually been in existence for millions of years,"4 How is this explanation for the gap any different or any better than the hypothesis that God intervened at this point in history? I agree with him that we cannot be dogmatic on such ancient issues. I also agree that people shouldn't "hang their faith" on the assumption that God intervened here. But the theistic hypothesis seems far more plausible to me than some worldwide change in fossil formation capability. An appeal to some change in the way fossils form, which formerly allowed microscopic fossils, but afterward allowed larger, complex fossils seems rather desperate to me. Normally larger organisms form fossils most easily. He gives no clear description of how this change would happen, or why.

Atheists argue that people have erroneously used the 'God of the gaps' argument before, and therefore we should never use it again. Similarly, some theologians argue that people have erroneously claimed that the end times are at hand based on so-called 'signs,' so we should never again argue that case. Both of these are fallacious arguments.

Just because God was wrongly blamed for being the cause of certain gaps in understanding (like what causes disease) doesn't mean there are no gaps that should be attributed to God. This would lead to a completely naturalistic worldview. Miracles would be impossible. All apparent interventions by God would have to be left in abeyance in the belief that someday science will explain it.

Collins doesn't deny the reality of miracles, and in fact says he believes in them. But his method makes it necessary to prove something is a miracle before believing in it. Many miracles can't be proven, but are real. I'm not commenting on Collins' beliefs here, I'm commenting on his methodology.

Likewise, just because people argued falsely that the end times were at hand based on signs that were misinterpreted doesn't mean that the end times won't be signaled by signs correctly interpreted, as Jesus clearly teaches in the parable of the fig tree (Mat. 24:32, 33). Such ad hominem arguments would be analogous to saying that since evolution was the basis for National Socialism and communism; we should never appeal to evolution for any explanations.
In a word, the fact that people have used a line of reasoning poorly in the past doesn't mean the line of reasoning is discredited—only their improper use of it. Collins himself has suggested at least one gap that should be attributed to God (the big bang), and grudgingly admits that another (inorganic evolution) could be explained by God. As biblical theists, we believe there are many gaps that should be explained by God's action in history.

Next time: Collins on the fossil record.

1 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, (New York: Free Press, 2006), 93.
2 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 93.
3 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 95.
4 Francis S. Collins, The Language of God, 94, 95.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Implications of Divine Election of Leaders

Last time, I argued that God chooses spiritual leaders. If we accept that premise, what are the implications for ministry today?


The implications of this perspective on leadership are profound. If we conclude that God chooses leaders, our goal becomes cooperatiaon with the choice of God in assuring that only divinely appointed leaders are recognized. Therefore:

We should avoid appointing someone as a leader on any basis other than our belief that God has chosen him or her for that role. This rules out leadership based on seniority, on level of scholarship, degrees earned, prestige in the community, personal friendship, etc.
We should exercise caution when giving, or providing ministry to a young Christian. We should provide opportunity to build ministry, but we would not want to install a young worker into a well-developed ministry he or she did not actually build. Otherwise, we might simulate from the human side what God should provide from his side. The result could be that a person appears to be chosen by God, when in fact we have installed the person in their position artificially. Installing a person into a developed ministry will often result in the "turtle on a fence post" syndrome (i.e. the turtle didn't put himself there, someone else placed him there). We may harm both the church and the individual when we interfere with God's election in this way. It makes more sense to offer young workers opportunities to follow up new people and form discipleship relationships than to offer them ready-made leadership roles like existing cell groups or home groups. An exception to this would be cases where a person has proven leadership in one venue, and we call on them to move to a new ministry. This was apparently what Barnabas did when he summoned Paul from Tarsus to Antioch.
We should be very reluctant to remove ministry from a young Christian worker. Such removal could result in a subsequent failure to recognize God's choice of the person for leadership because humans have disrupted his or her ministry every time it begins to flourish. There are important exceptions to this rule of thumb warranted in Scripture. The main exception would be the case where the young worker has disqualified him or herself by recent, serious, and objective sin. Scripture teaches the importance of moral character for Christian workers in passages like the requirements for deacons, (which, if violated could result in disqualification). Although young workers are not deacons, the principle would still apply to some extent, that anyone who serves the Lord needs to live up to minimal standards of Christian character. The the Bible provides examples of leaders removed from leadership due to sin or false teaching (1 Tim:1:20; 3 John 9,10). But these passages indicate that such removal should involve serious sin, not minor slip-ups. We would assume the same thing with young workers--they should not be removed from ministry because of minor slip-ups. All the passages warning against hypocrisy also imply that those trying to lead others, should be doing what they preach to a large extent. (Luke 12:1) "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy."
Whether someone is removed from leadership for disciplinary reasons or removes himself for other reasons, this could be an indication that God has not elected the person for leadership at this time. For this reason, we would not restore one who has been removed from leadership back to leadership unless the signs of divine election are again evident. This usually means the person has returned to the beginning stages of ministry and re-built their following. An exception to this might be situations where leaders have temporarily stepped down due to situations judged to be either outside their control, or unimportant.
Only leaders whose ministry is blessed by God are considered for advancement to higher levels of ministry. If we err in putting in leaders whom God has not chosen for that role, we do better to make such errors at lower levels of leadership rather than higher levels.
The notion that leaders are chosen by God strongly implies favoring indigenous leadership to imported leadership. Leaders imported from another group cannot be realistically affirmed by the local members and leaders, unless they know those in the former location relatively well. Such imported leaders usually have to depend on external credentials or hearsay for their legitimacy. Although we see the example of Barnabas bringing Paul in from Tarsus to Antioch, Barnabas had personal knowledge of Paul and his ability. Paul had also planted more than one church in Syria and Cilicia before Barnabas came for him. (Acts. 15:36,41)

Even with these principles, the business of determining God's calling remains subjective. We are often reduced to guesswork when naming leaders, because there are so many variables involved. We usually are faced with compromise in at least some areas with every leader we recognize. Pray often that God will clearly indicate his choices for leadership.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What Makes Someone a Christian Leader

In the New Testament God used human leaders to bring blessing and feeding to the church. From the day of Pentecost, the apostles acted as de facto leaders. They preached, taught, (Acts 2:42) and ruled on issues that came up for debate (Acts 6:1,2). They were able to delegate leadership to others (Acts 6:3,4).

After the period of the Jerusalem church, attention shifts to Paul's missionary journeys. Paul, too, was an apostle, and an obvious leader. He served in Antioch with a group of men who were said to be "prophets and teachers." (Acts 13:1) These were probably the elders in Antioch, though never says that. It does record that "they" [probably the same men] laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them off on the first journey." The reason they chose Paul and Barnabas was divine election (see below). On that first journey we see them appointing elders in the new churches they planted. (Acts 14:23) The fasting and prayer that preceded these appointments suggests they were seeking God's choice for leaders. These appointments ware made during their return trip through these cities, indicating that some time had passed (probably only weeks) since their original visit.

During the second journey, Paul added Timothy to his band, likely leading to Timothy's eventual recognition as an apostle. Although this is never actually stated, Timothy acts in the role of an apostle in appointing elders and overseeing elders according to 1 Timothy. (Ch. 3; 5:17ff) The only criteria given in Acts for why Paul chose Timothy is that "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him." (Acts 16:2) However, in 2 Tim. 1:6 Paul refers to bestowing gifts on Timothy by the laying on of his own hands (most likely the gift of apostleship). This is also referred to in 1 Tim. 4:14 where Paul reminds him of his gift, "which was bestowed upon you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of hands by the presbytery." Thus, if a prophetic utterance was the occasion of Timothy's choosing, we again have a case of divine election.

Both Timothy and Titus are given the job of appointing elders. Of interest is the fact that Paul has left them behind to do this work, implying that it was not possible to select elders when he was there. This suggests that they wanted to see these men actually living out leadership roles before making the choice to recognize them as elders. Likewise, Paul cautions Timothy about deacons: "They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons." (1 Tim. 3:10)

Overarching these observations about leadership in the early church, we see evidence of divine election in the selection of leaders. This should be clear for the following reasons.

The Apostles were chosen by Christ. The correct context of John 15:16 (You did not chose me, but I chose you) is not unconditional election or irresistible grace, but election to the role of apostle. Likewise, God's choice is evident in the story of Paul's conversion (where God refers to his future ministry) and in the story of the Spirit speaking to the leaders at Antioch in Acts 13 (saying, "Set apart for me Paul and Barnabas..."). Timothy was apparently named an apostle by a prophetic message from God. (1 Tim. 4:14) We find, therefore, that when it comes to the role of leadership in the New Testament, the key is whether or not God has chosen the person.
Paul comments on his own credentials for leadership in the book of 2 Corinthians 3:1-3: "Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts..." Here, Paul contrasts human credentials (letters of commendation) to his own credentials, which are nothing less than the marks of divine election. Instead of humans writing his letter, he says the Spirit of God wrote it on human hearts.
Notice Paul's reference in 2 Cor. 10:12 to "the field God has assigned to us." God apparently assigns fields of ministry, and Paul's proof that he was assigned the field in question is that he had done the work there, as the context makes clear.
According to Rom. 12:8, there is a gift of leadership. Likewise, Eph. 4:11,12 says, "It was he [God] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up." This is in harmony with the notion that God "has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be." (1 Cor. 12:18) In other words, these passages seem to say that God chooses who should lead his church. We believe leaders can serve even without a gift of leadership, although we should seek out and include those with such a gift if they have good character.
We see in the waiting period between the planting of churches and the selection of elders an apparent effort to discern who God wants to serve as leaders. This is also the best explanation for why deacons are tested before they are ordained. The existing leadership seems to assume that God has certain people whom he wants to lead, and their mission is to discern who those people are. Paul warns Timothy not to be too hasty to lay on hands [i.e. to chose leaders 1 Tim. 5:22 context].

Election was evident with Old Testament leaders as well. God often made a personal appearance to choose leaders, as with Abraham and Moses. To David God says, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be leader over My people Israel." (1Chron. 17:7) Indeed, all the legitimate kings of Israel were anointed by prophets as chosen of God.

Mature Christian character is a prerequisite for leadership in all cases. Even highly gifted leaders who lack the needed character qualities may not be named as leaders. This is implied in the requirements for elders and deacons, which focus on character qualities.

We conclude that God, not humans, makes a person a spiritual leader. As existing church leaders, our mission is not to create leaders out of non-leaders by naming them or ordaining them. On the contrary, our mission is to discern whom God has chosen to be a leader, and to ratify, or recognize that choice. In naming leaders we are indicating that we believe God has shown this person is already chosen to be a leader because he or she is already doing the work of a leader and has the character of a leader.

Read about raising up leadership in the church in Organic Disciplemaking.

What are the implications if God chooses leaders?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Human Leaders Part 2

In Who Needs Human Leaders Part 1 I argued for a balanced view of human and divine contributions to ministry. Consider some of the implications that flow from this understanding of leadership:

    1. It would be pointless to formulate plans, exert effort, take risks, or spend money on a ministry project that is not empowered by God. Any such project is doomed to fail spiritually, no matter how much outward "fruit" it appears to bear.
    2. Humans can do tasks, including attracting a following, without any help from God. However, for those of us with a biblical perspective, such a following would be not only unimportant, but actually dangerous to our own spiritual lives and the health of the church. Those who understand the divine component in ministry don’t want any more following than what God has in mind for them.
    3. Leaders who understand God’s part in leadership become more watchful, and less forceful. They realize the futility of sociologically-based change (changing because of group pressure or manipulation) and instead realize that the key to successful ministry is finding out what God is doing. Then the leader can cooperate with God’s direction and often maximize results.
    4. Leaders who see their roles as God does are less shattered by failure and less elated by success. Years of serving God as leaders teach them that what appears a great success is often not as great as people think, and what seems like failure may not be as bad as supposed. In the face of failure, God always seems to find a way through eventually. At the same time, nothing is ever as easy as we thought it would be. The realization that ultimate responsibility for the kingdom lies with the king leads to stability and consistency in leadership.
    5. The nightmare of presiding over a huge, carnally motivated ministry may haunt spiritually-minded leaders, while leading a small flock in the true power of the Spirit seems increasingly appealing. Of course, a spiritual leader will go where God calls him or her, whether to large or small flocks.
    6. While techniques and scholarship can be increasingly mastered in our lives, discerning the hand of God in leadership never gets all that easy. As a result, long-time leaders develop an increasingly careful and circumspective approach when deciding on direction, while carnally motivated leaders tend to become "know-it-alls." Of course, all good leaders know how to move strongly and decisively once God’s direction has been discerned.
    7. Biblical leaders are constantly scanning the people in their sphere of influence, watching for signs that God is moving someone ahead. They know the divine election plays key a role in leadership development. God’s gifting of believers is an indication of his plan for them in the body, according to 1 Cor. 12. Likewise, people often have underlying personal problems that are secret to all but God. These issues often come out only after a person is in leadership and may cause widespread damage. In retrospect, we sometimes realize the signs were there all along. Godly leaders see that the key to leadership replication involves a combination of faithful feeding of the flock on the one hand, while trying to discern who God is designating as his chosen leaders for the future.
Next time: What makes someone a spiritual leader?