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The Great Dance Circle of Divine Grace

PDF of this article: Microsoft Word – The Great Dance Circle of Divine Grace

What is grace?  You often hear it defined as ‘unmerited favour’.  When we hear the word ‘grace’, it is almost always as a specifically religious word.  It features heavily in doctrinal debates and theological themes.  However, for the original readers of the New Testament, it was a word and term in the everyday social life of the general non-Christian world.   In this article I want to summarze an important scholarly article that explains this.  It is by a Professor called David A. deSilva and is called ‘Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament.  Anyone wishing to read the lengthy (53 pages) original can do so here.

Today we live in a society where transactions are mostly impersonal and fixed.  We buy an item, enter into contracts, including employment contracts, or are supported by government welfare.  For us the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ smacks of unfairness.  It goes on, but it’s not something to shout about.  In the society in which the New Testament was written, it was very different.  Buying in the market, or renting an apartment was done on a transactional basis similar to ours, but in almost every other way, society was based around patronage.  This was public and expected and publicized, part of the very make-up of society.   Society was governed by the giving and receiving of favours.  This would be how you did business, got ahead, got promoted, or gained emergency help in time of crisis.  Wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few, and to get access you had to have a personal connection with those blessed people.  The patron-client relationship was central to the functioning of society.  These could potentially be long-term relationships, where the patron assists the client, and the client did all they could to praise the patron – publicizing the good deed and showing respect and faithfulness to the patron, and providing services in return whenever they could.  Even if the patron couldn’t help you directly, they could often put you in contact with someone who could give you what you wanted.  There were also similar relationships of mutual help between people of social equals, to help each other, and were called ‘friendship’.   However, the term ‘friends’ was also used by patrons of their clients ‘graciously’ to honour them, even though they were lower socially.  Clients, however, would call openly acknowledge the patrons as such, as superior.   Honour played a great part in this – if your neighbour helped you, but you refused to help others, it would blot your reputation as a ‘good neighbour’.  If you help your neighbour, then it means you are more likely to receive help in a time of crisis.

Patronage could be broad and public – a rich person could pay for entertainment, or a public building or sewerage, or disaster relief, and in return received public honours from the town or city so helped.  In some cases in the pagan world, kings or emperors who acted as benefactors were worshipped.

The term ‘grace’, (charis, in Greek) was used to describe various aspects of this patron-client reciprocal relationship.  It referred to the willingness of the patron to grant a benefit to a person or group – and so means ‘favourably disposed to’ or ‘favour’.  It was the help given to someone in need, for their sake, not the helper’s sake.  In this case ‘unmerited favour’ is a pretty accurate summary.  The word was also used to denote the ‘gift’ that was given.  However, the term was also used to describe the proper response to the patron and their gifts on the part of those who received them, which was ‘gratitude’.  One kind of ‘grace’ was expected to be met with ‘grace’, even if of another kind.  It was described as a circle of grace, beautiful only if unbroken.   Favour must be returned.

There were well defined social rules.  The giver must genuinely give for the benefit of the client, and not to further their own interests, expecting some sort of profit or gain in return.  However, such gifts of grace were to be made strategically – they would aim to give first and foremost to a virtuous person with a record of gratitude and who would maintain a good relationship.  They could and sometimes did give to less worthy people, but the danger was that this was like ‘feeding stray dogs, that snarl at all, including those who feed them’.  On the other hand, such giving could result in a change of heart in a previously ungrateful recipient.  As the article says ‘A reputation for knowing how to be grateful was, in effect, the ancient equivalent of a credit-rating’.  It was about the heart attitude of the recipient.  The grateful recipient would look for ways to ‘be of service’ in the future.

The benefactor could choose to give, but the response of the recipient was not optional – gratitude was a duty.  It made you indebted to respond appropriately, and to think of appropriate ways to give back, to return the favour with interest.  It might simply be that you would publicly praise the virtues of  your patron.  Failing to do so was the worst of crimes, because it discouraged the generosity that was crucial to public and social life.  Those who were grateful were praised by everyone as honourable, but those who didn’t were seen as a disgrace and shameful.   It was considered vital to avoid ingratitude or returning evil for good at all costs.  Yet strangely, the expected response was also regarded as needing to be free and uncoerced – it wasn’t ‘If I do this for you, you have to do this for me’, but there was an expectation of gratitude in some way or other in appropriate proportion.  There was an exchange, but it was put to the background, and mutual favour, good will and generosity brought to the foreground.  The receiver of the benefit would get great profit, but didn’t have the ability to repay in kind, so would act so that the giver would receive great public honour – ‘increasing the fame of the giver’.  The Old Testament says similar things, such as in Psalm 116.12 on – responding to God’s favour by publicly testifying to God’s honour.  You would also be expected to be loyal to the giver, and own to your link to the giver, even if their fortunes turn and it becomes costly to do so, whether that meant exile, or putting yourself in physical or financial or reputational harm to protect and defend them.  In practice, that didn’t happen, but it was supposed to.

The term ‘faith’ fitted into this – it was about dependability – the patron was depended on to give help as promised, and the client had to ‘keep faith’ too in commitment and gratitude.  Each had to trust the other to do their part.  If you gave a gift, you then had to look to the ‘good faith’ of the receiver.  This meant that clients or friends would need to be careful to avoid crossed loyalties.  Multiple patrons were fine, but if they were enemies, then things got dangerous, because you would have to choose one to be loyal too in conflict.

Gratitude was not enough, because you still ‘owed’ an actual gift in return.  It didn’t have to be equal in value if it was with a patron rather than an equal, but it meant offering services when asked or when you see the opportunity arise to be of service.  It was not right to try and give in return as soon as possible to be rid of the obligation, but you were to return the ‘grace’ at the best possible moment, something real and not manufactured – something that will help the personal bond.

The article says that this is a ‘dance of grace’, with different rules for each party, full of creative contradictions.  The giver was to give without expectation of return – to give for the sake of giving, and any return is a bonus, whilst the recipient cannot forget they must make a return and not think they own nothing because the other had given just for giving’s sake.  In the pagan world there was a direct parallel with Jesus urging his disciples to be like their Father, giving to the good and the bad.  Gratitude was expected, but givers are urged to imitate the gods and give even to the unworthy (even though the greater gifts would go to those who were known to be worthy).

At the time of Jesus, Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures were all based on these patronage and friendship networks.  So when Christian preachers taught about God’s amazing grace and how Jesus was the sole mediator, or broker, of that grace, then their audience would have understood it in this background.  God’s grace was greater in quality and degree, but it would be the same kind of grace, which laid them under an obligation, the greatest obligation because they had been shown the greatest grace.  Thus, what the New Testament writers often do is to urge a proper ‘grateful’ or ‘graceful’ response to God’s grace.  Thus when the local Jews come to Jesus on behalf of the Roman Centurion who is seeking a miracle, they praise him as a benefactor, worthy of the miracle and act as brokers on his behalf, seeking the ‘grace’ or benefit of Jesus’ miraculous healing powers.  We can see this patronage system in the letter to Philemon, where Paul says he could address Philemon as one with authority, since he has brought him salvation by his preaching, but prefers to appeal to him as a ‘friend’ and partner, and on the basis of reciprocal benefit.  He seeks to gain a favour from Philemon for his own client, the slave who has run away from the very same Philemon, asking for the runaway slave to be treated as Paul, his patron deserves, not as his own actions do, whilst Paul offers to meet any debts incurred.  He puts Philemon in a corner.

More to the point, the New Testament depicts God as patron and benefactor, the greatest of all, since he is the Creator who has given life to all of us, and yet we have all failed to show the gratitude we should, and thus have insulted God and face his wrath.  And yet, he shows yet more favour and grace by providing Jesus as the way to be restored to relationship with God, giving of his own self, even to dying shamefully on a cross, the ultimate act of grace and favour on behalf of not just ingrates, but enemies.  In the process God shows how reliable a benefactor he is by fulfilling his promises to his client people, Israel.  Now non-Jews too were adopted into this already existing patron-client relationship, as shown by their receiving the gift (grace) of the Holy Spirit, which in itself is a pledge of the future benefits God has prepared.  God has not waited for those who offended him to make an overture of reconciliation, nor has he waited for lesser people to seek his patronage, but has taken the initiative himself to give a means of escape from wrath and dishonour by providing Jesus as a broker or mediator of access to God’s grace and favour.  He does all this for the sake of His own reputation and honour.  Jesus’ death is the ultimate demonstration of God’s righteousness and virtue, far beyond all the normal expectations of grace in society.  God gives public benefits to all, but becomes a personal patron to those who receive Jesus and thus come into his ‘household’.  God gives this to any that will come to him and adopts them as heirs and sons and daughters, unlike in society were patrons were careful who to pick, and would reject some applicants.  How will God refuse us any good thing when he has already given up his only Son to death for us?  We pray and ask God for what he already knows we need so that we can have the opportunity to show gratitude and respond appropriately and thus increase God’s honour and reputation.  Prayer is the means of seeking God’s favour for ourselves or others.  We publicly thank God for how he has grown us as individuals and a body (the church).  People giving to the church are a means of God’s grace and provision, but they are not to be doing it to make the church part of their power base as patrons.

Jesus is God’s provision for reconciliation, a Mediator between God and the created world right from the start of creation.  Acts 10.38 tells us Jesus’ ministry was to go about doing good (the word for being a benefactor), in particular healing.  Teaching and good advice that he gave were also considered valuable gifts.  His relationship with God lets him be the mediator, the gateway to God’s grace for us.  Those who received Jesus’ ‘grace’, did as they should (mostly) and spread his fame abroad, even when Jesus had told them not to, possibly because they merely saw his instruction as evidence he was genuine and not a glory seeker.  People also respond by giving thanks to him, whether by words, or by acts of service, such as the women who served and financially supported him, and they also responded by giving praise to God as the ultimate source of the good Jesus had done.  Jesus’ ultimate act as benefactor was to give up his life for others (benefactors sometimes did put themselves at risk to help others), and for this he was deserving of supreme honour, as soldiers who died defending their city were honoured.  As a result, we should live for him who died for us.  However, Jesus made his disciples – and us – mediators of God’s grace, with the authority to do as he did, but emphasized that they – and we – should act in service, not to build up our power bases.  It is not for us to get favours and gratitude, but we should act out in gratitude for what God has done for us, and one way this manifests is to go and help the needy and the unconnected.  This is an ‘obligation of grace’ for us – a proper response.   Apostles and church leaders are a kind of mediator, and so those who benefit from them have an obligation to honour them too, just as leaders are obligated to God for their position.

Through Jesus and the Holy Spirit we can have the ‘grace’ of power to endure and be faithful in the face of opposition, and in the face of the damaging effect of our own sin.  Because he faced temptation and opposition, he knows exactly what we need from God to overcome and be counted worthy of the future benefits he has promised in the age to come, such as resurrection sinless bodies and eternal life.  This is the gift or grace that we can confidently set our hope on, because God is reliable – and so we must be faithful and loyal to him, even in the face of great opposition, and we do so by keeping our hope and yearning for this gift strong – thus it becomes an ‘anchor of the soul’.  (Although the article does not mention this, there is a saying ascribed to Jesus by an early church writing where he says – this is from memory –  ‘Take care of faith and hope, through which is born love for God and humanity that brings eternal life’.)

Also, the term ‘Saviour’ was one that was often used to honour powerful figures who offered help – saving a city from an army or famine and so on.  We have received some aspects of his promised deliverance, such as deliverance or salvation from sin, but we still await future aspects such as deliverance from wrath on the day of Judgement, and deliverance from death at his return.

Just like in the social world of the day, we need to show gratitude, and that is a way to receive more grace.  We need to do our part in the divine dance of the circle of God’s grace.  Grace is never earned, neither in the ancient Roman society nor in our relationship with God, but we do good and keep the door open for grace by responding generously and fully, as God has been toward us.  For instance, Paul almost always starts his letters by praising and thanking God for the churches.  However we also need to make God’s fame glorious and speak his praises out so his virtues are known in the world.  We have this ‘obligation of grace’ to do this, proclaim God’s favours and publicly acknowledge your debt to and association with Jesus – this is the simple beating heart of evangelism.  We are also required to live a life of good works, because that also gives God glory, causing even slanderous opponents to ‘give God glory’.  (One of the complaints of critics of the early church was that they ‘not only look after their own poor, but they look after ours, too!’).

We need to show loyalty to Jesus, no matter how costly, because of the costly price he paid for us, even if it means facing the wrath of powerful enemies.  Jesus needs to matter more than our own personal safety.   In this way, we show the firmness of our loyalty to Jesus, and this too is ‘grace’.  This is how we ‘preserve our souls’, confident that Jesus our patron will do as he promised.  Suffering for Jesus is thus a gift or grace from God, so we can follow in Jesus’ footsteps, and receive the promised deliverance in the age to come.  We should also be careful not to give any sort of allegiance to God’s enemies, in whatever form they manifest themselves.  If we try and find salvation in anything other than Jesus and loyalty to him, we are saying we have no confidence in Jesus mediation with God.  If we truly trust, we will be firm and faithful, and thus in line for even more future grace.  Good works, acts of obedience and the persistent pursuit of virtue are the services we are required to render God and Jesus in return for their grace to us.   (This is why, for instance, Jesus said that eternity will be decided on how we help the least of his brothers, whether that is fellow disciples suffering for him, or Jews or the poor in general – what we do for them, we do for him, and are rewarded accordingly).  Another way is to use our gifts and resources as fully as we can in service of the church of Jesus, and humanity, and not for boasting or power plays.  Obedience leads to ‘friendship’ with the patron Jesus and future blessings, which is why the bible says things like Jesus is the ‘source of eternal deliverance for those who obey him’.  Proper response keeps us in God’s favour.

But there is the danger of failing to attain God’s gift or grace, or receiving it in vain – receiving it with neglect, ingratitude or contempt puts us in danger of being excluded from future benefits of grace.  This treatment of grace means we are likely to turn God’s favour to wrath.  Disowning Jesus by declaration or denial or by denial by lifestyle or unbelief or allying with God’s enemies dishonours God’s name – it publicly proclaims him as unworthy of obedience despite his incredible grace and good will and favour.  It is saying to the watching world that they are right, that Jesus’ great favour is not worth the cost.

Jesus did change some aspects of the cycle of grace for his human community.  He taught that we should give to those who are not in a position to repay us, and instead God will repay us at the ‘resurrection of the righteous’, as he also taught in Matthew 25, as we have seen – eternal judgement is based on how we are generous to the suffering and poor.  Giving within the church is an activity that results in honour and recognition – so Paul honours those who gave sacrificially to help other churches, even out of their own poverty, and praises people for their sacrificial service in other ways, but such giving is part of God’s giving, not a way to use money and hospitality to build up a client base.  The New Testament transforms patronage into stewardship, because the true and ultimate Patron of all is God.  Giving is not, or should not be, a place for competition for honour and power, but a way of honouring God.  It is not a way of placing the recipients under obligation to you, but a way of faithfully serving out your obligation in response to God’s grace.

If we want to understand and appreciate the true meaning of grace, and respond in a true manner, we need to understand grace as it was understood by the first hearers of the good news.  If we want to live in grace, rather than in disgrace, we need to know how to respond in grace as a client or friend of the great Patron.  Ultimately God’s grace is unmerited, at least at the start, but there is such a thing as merited grace, within this ‘cycle of grace’.  If we want to avoid imperilling our access to future favour and grace from God, then we need to pay attention to how we should act.  Our evangelism is not about a contest to win souls, but to spread forth the fame of God and his goodness, and our obligation is to obey in every area of life, giving our all as he gave His all for us, and to be loyal to him without wavering, to fight against our own sins since they are signs of disloyalty.  This is the way of gratitude, boldness and the growth of and in grace, holding on to the promise of the future and thus being firm and faithful in life and in God’s grace, focused on what is true and eternal, and that furthers our friendship with our supremely great and gracious Patron.

Nathanael Lewis (c) 2018



Musical Meditations at High Heaton

      Amazing Grace - Nathanael Lewis

On Sunday 24th September at St Francis Church, High Heaton, a pianist, poet and theologian, Nathanael Lewis, will be offering a free hour long spiritual musical experience, involving improvised piano music and poetic meditations.

‘This will be a chance to come and relax, let the flowing music and the words wash over you’ said Mr Lewis.  ‘I have repeatedly been told that my piano playing is hauntingly beautiful, and that I have a way with words, and so I hope to combine them to great effect’.

Mr Lewis will also be providing some written material for people to read as they listen, relating to what he calls ‘the hidden victims of terror’, including from his recent human rights work exposing the plight of UK citizens who are often essentially internal refugees within the UK.

The event will run from 6:30 to 7:30 pm, at St Francis Church, which is tucked behind Freeman Hospital.  The event is free, but a retiring collection will be held for the work of the International Christian Consulate, a charity that works to help Christian refugees from the Middle East, who face brutal persecution both in refugee camps in the Middle East and in Europe.  http://www.internationalchristianconsulate.com/

Is creationism fundamentally a modern phenomenon?


St Jerome and St Ephraim, early church fathers fluent in Hebrew who taught 6 literal creation days

So, it’s back to battle (ahem, sorry, dialogue) with Professor Bill Clegg!

I described in my last article my challenge to him regarding speciation, his brief response and why his   counterpoint missed the mark rather badly.  After that, he went on to say something like ‘I hope you agree with me that creationism is purely a modern phenomenon’ and pointed to early church fathers allegorical readings of Genesis, and cited a quote from Augustine, the exact detail of which escapes me at the moment.  This kind of line is a common one, and is often expressed by saying something like ‘Creationists are guilty of the fallacy of reading modern science (or modernistic understandings, or similar) into the ancient text of Genesis 1 / the bible’.  Indeed, an earnest older church pastor or priest came up and made more or less that point to me afterwards, along with urging ‘humility’ on my part, so that I could ‘avoid specious arguments about species’ (nice word play on her part, I thought).

This area is huge – it all depends on how you define terms.  For instance, the current creationism movement is definitely a modern phenomenon in the same way that science per se as it is now practiced is a modern phenomenon.  Both use tools of modern science that just weren’t around in the ancient world.  It is also true, of course, that the culture we are in will inevitably have some effect on how we read the bible – and this, I must hasten to add – is ironically also very much true of many, perhaps most, of those who most emphasize the need to not read the bible from a ‘modernistic mindset’, but treat it as an ancient document.  There are a number of scholars or theologians who write setting out what they believe to be the true meaning of Genesis for its original readers, or in its original context and so on.  I’m not going to even begin to start to engage with those myriad of ideas, but I will point out that modern scholarship is, well, modern, and that it has its own fashions, trends, issues and given that it is based in academic, university settings, it is arguably inevitable that the modern, or modernistic (and now post-modernistic) ethos of such settings would seep into their work and understanding.  I have personal experience of this.  Very often when people like that lady minister who came to me speak of the dangers of importing ‘modern notions’ into our reading of the ancient documents that constitute the bible, they are thinking of some of the ideas from these scholars and theologians.  I’m not, just to emphasize, doubting the sincerity or integrity of these theologians, but, as I said, it is almost inevitably the case that modernistic assumptions and the fashions of their branch of academia creep in.  It’s practically unavoidable.

Professor Clegg in his talk mentioned the 1961 book ‘The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications’ by Americans Whitcomb (theologian) and Morris (hydraulic engineer) – although it is little known that they enlisted the help of 9 theologians and over 20 scientists to check their work.  I don’t remember Professor Clegg explicitly saying this, but I do know that for many, this book is said to be the start of creationism, and that seemed to be the implication in the talk.  Now, it is certainly true that this book was immensely influential, epochal, in relation to the current creationist movement – for many of Professor Clegg’s age it was the only major creationist work.  Many prominent creationists of his age group will point to the reading of this book as very influential in their becoming creationists.  Directly or indirectly it had influence on the setting up of many of the big name creationist organisations, and they freely admit this – for instance describing the work as ‘having worldwide impact in reinvigorating the creationist movement’ or ‘revival of creationism’.  These quotes suggest – correctly – that it would be wrong to think that it was without precedent, and the ideas it contained were completely de novo, which is often the impression you get from some who decry creationism as ‘merely’ a ‘modern fundamentalist movement’ or similar (often with the additional sneering addition of ‘American’).  At least one Creationist research centre was established in the late 1950’s, before the publication of ‘The Genesis Flood’, by Seventh Day Adventists.  Seventh Day Adventist creationist books, and indeed creationist works from other streams of the Christian faith, came out at a steady trickle at least through the first half of the 20th Century, and one of the Seventh Day Adventist works about geology and the flood was instrumental directly for one of the authors of ‘The Genesis Flood’, Henry Morris, becoming a young earth creationist.  It should also be noted that although many of these early 20th Century works were American, the oldest explicitly creationist organisation in the world is in fact native British – the Creation Science Movement, originally entitled the Evolution Protest Movement and founded between the wars, although it has to be said that originally it encompassed old age creationists as well as young earth creationists.  And even that organisation was founded in effect because of a perception that evolutionists had taken over an existing Christian scientific organisation that was broadly although not quite explicitly creationist, the Victoria Institute, also known as the Philosophical Society of Great Britain and which was founded in 1865, explicitly in response to Darwin’s work a few years before.  This brings us on to the ‘Scriptural geologists’, sometimes also called the ‘Mosaic Geologists’, mainly in the UK, who were emphatically creationists in the sense of being ‘young earth’.  What is more, these ‘Scriptural geologists’ were not some new species, but rather an old one – they were building on previous work and in continuity with early scientists who founded many disciples of modern science and who in today’s terms would be described as creationist, including Steno, held to be the father of modern geology with his work on stratigraphy.

I give this potted history, simply to show that the creationist movement was not started in the 1960’s, contrary to the impression given by many.  However, you could still call the 19th century ‘modern’.  However, very often when people talk about creationism being ‘modern’ they are arguing that creationism is a reaction to scientific developments of the last few centuries, and that the issues that concern creationism – the linking of the account of Genesis to the properties of rocks and fossils, or the focus on the age of the world and the length of the creation process – were not of concern in earlier church times.  Let me be blunt.  This is patently false.  Whilst it is true that they arguably may not have been of as much concern as now, the early church did operate in a world where a number of other philosophical or religious positions held that the world was very much longer than the biblical record states, and we have examples in the early church literature of the fossils being ascribed to the flood of Noah’s time. When creationists point to an unbroken tradition of taking what are now called ‘creationist’ positions or interpretations of Genesis and the history of the earth stretching through the Reformers, the Medieval church and the early church fathers, they are essentially correct.  However, some creationists have definitely caused problems by over-stating their case, giving the impression, for instance, that it was universal in the early church to take the days of Genesis 1 – or even baldly stating that as fact.

This then leaves matters open for theistic evolutionists to point out numerous examples where blatantly allegorical, mystical, metaphorical or similarly non-literal interpretations are used in sermons or writings concerning Genesis 1 or creation from the early church, including cases where the notion of six literal days of creation is clearly and explicitly rejected.  In addition, they can point out that such positions or approaches even appear in documents such as Augustine’s work ‘On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis’.

Even better they can use this quote from that work as a weapon against creationists:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [quoting 1 Tim 1:7].

Today’s creationists, they say, are doing exactly what Augustine here condemns, and are therefore deeply dangerous – a few have even said creationism should be described as condemnable heresy .  Of course, creationists disagree that this is generally applicable to them.  Just a couple of observations, before we examine how strong the general theistic evolutionist’s case really is here.  Given that the ‘sure and certain’ knowledge of reason and experience in those days involved all the heavenly bodies revolving around the earth – although there was widespread knowledge that the earth was a sphere in the ancient world, I am not aware that there were any solar-centric views around – if a modern Christian went back in time with the true knowledge and attempted to cite Scripture in support, they would surely fall foul of Augustine’s diatribe, which is ironic.  Also, one could argue that in our day it is those liberals who assert, without any real evidence, but in accord with common beliefs in the world today, that the biblical cosmology was that of some pagan religions – flat square earth with pillars at the four corners supporting the dome, or a three layer universe of heavens, earth and hell or the underworld below, who are bringing the faith into disrepute.  Those images that you often see allegedly demonstrating this ‘fact’ about the biblical view of the world are mostly from or based on the works of late 19th Century proponents of the eternal war between science and religion that Professor Clegg rightly denounced – creationists would completely agree with him there.

Additionally, they can point to one or two early writers who made the not entirely unreasonable point that it was difficult to take all the days as literal days because the first three were created before the creation of the sun, a point that is raised frequently today.  (I have some vague recollection that at least one ancient response was groping towards the modern creationist answer, which is simply that for literal twenty four hour days you don’t need the sun, you need simply a rotating earth and a differential light source – in other words the light only coming from one side or location.  Given that God’s very first act on day one is to create light and then separate it from darkness, the answer is in the text – a differential light source from day one).

Now, if you hear this kind of argument, it can seem very hard to refute, especially if you have got the impression from some creationist sources that before the 18th century there was a pretty universal belief in six literal days of creation.  However, if some creationists have been at fault in this matter, arguably the theistic evolutionists who take the kind of line noted above abuse the truth even more badly.  Out of context quotes, or small quotes that are used to ‘prove’ or argue that some early church fathers taking the days of Genesis 1 then allows for huge swathes of ‘deep time’ are very common, and I have seen this done by individuals at several of Professor Clegg’s meetings (including from several years ago).

We need to make several distinctions here.  Firstly, just because an ancient writer interprets a passage allegorically or symbolically does NOT mean that they did not ALSO take it ‘literally’, in the sense of the bible providing a reliable history of the world.  For instance, I could write a sermon or pamphlet that goes through Genesis 1 and makes each numbered day symbolic of something.  The first day involving light and dark could be about the first principle that there is just one true God, who is the light of the world, day two could indicate the two eternal destinies of heaven and hell, day three could be about the fruitfulness of the divine nature as Trinity, day four could speak of the natural world – the four seasons and the four points of the compass, and so on.  If someone hundreds of years later, aware of the disputes in the church on this issue, came across this work and no other of mine, they would likely conclude, wrongly, that I was not a ‘literalist’ (a term I and many other creationists don’t like, because we have never advocated the universal wooden ‘literalism’ that their opponents like to mock, as, for instance Professor Clegg did by pointing out that taking the bible ‘literally’ would mean thinking that trees had hands – we would prefer ‘plain sense’ or the more academic ‘historical-grammatical’, precisely because we know full well that poetic material and parables and apocalyptical literature are not to be taken ‘literally’, but read according to their forms, and even historical material needs to be understood against the various literary and social contexts it was written in and for).  In the same way, just because an awful lot of allegorical interpretation went on in some of the early church writings we have, that does NOT mean that the same writers didn’t ALSO have a belief in a ‘young earth’ (even when they didn’t take the days of Genesis 1 literally).  In several cases, writers who engaged in lots of allegorical interpretation indicated elsewhere in the writings, however briefly, that they also took it ‘literally’, in the sense of describing actual history, even though they were primarily interested in more mystical meanings they believed were hidden in the plain text.  (There developed within the first couple of centuries of the church two approaches or schools in Scripture interpretation.  One, the Antioch school, was more interested in the plain, historical meaning – although even then they would sometimes offer interpretations that we would find strange or very hard to justify – whilst the other, the Alexandrian school, based in one of the major intellectual centres of the day, used allegorical interpretation very extensively, at least in part to try and make the faith more compatible with or attractive to those holding various philosophical and religious belief systems – these are the ones I mainly had in mind that often still on occasion noted the ‘literal’ truth of historical sections of Scripture, including the early chapters of Genesis).

What this means is that it is very illegitimate for someone to take these points and then try and claim that because of them there is historically and theologically no reason to deem long ages as incompatible with the Genesis account.  The fact that some writers at some point held that the days of Genesis were not literal (Augustine, for instance, appears to have changed his mind, and at some point have taken them literally, at another not) does not mean that they would therefore be OK with long ages.  Those who took the days as not literal, but as rather a literary framework accommodating to human limitations in some way, held the belief that God created everything instantaneously, only a few thousand years before their time.  Not only that, but they were not doing so in an environment where that approach was accepted by the surrounding ‘secular’ or pagan opinion – the Christians were often mocked by philosophers and others due to the widespread belief that the earth was very old, and the awareness that some major ancient civilizations claimed history going beyond the biblical timeframe of the flood or creation.  Some also had a belief that the earth was essentially eternal.   In other words, belief in ‘deep time’ is by no means a modern phenomenon.  In fact, even if we set aside the Jewish-Christian contributions(it is fair to say that both synagogue and church in general held to what today would be called ‘young earth creationist’ positions), there was a form of creation vs evolution / naturalism debate in the ancient Greek and Roman world, some of whose basic outlines were very similar to today’s battle-lines.

We have observed that there obviously can’t have been such a thing as ‘creationism’ in the early church in terms of the use of modern science, but it should also be noted that there are early church writings which do explicitly take the basics of modern creationism when it comes to interpretation of the natural world, particularly geology and fossils.  Almost all forms of modern ‘young earth creationism’ hold that most of the fossil bearing rocks found on earth are the result of Noah’s flood, and the fossils are animals that died in the flood, and we have several early church writers who made the same basic point.   Thus young earth creationism cannot legitimately be called a purely modern phenomenon, except in the most narrow definitions, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither can belief in long ages and uniformitarian or naturalistic interpretations of the natural world.  Oh, and I guess it is germane to point out that the New Testament itself prophesied that a view would arise that dismissed the flood of Noah and maintained a form of uniformitarianism – that everything just goes on as it has from the start of creation – and it is quite clear that such a view was held to be false – check out the first few verses of the third chapter of Peter’s final chapter, written just before he was martyred, as a reminder to the recipients to keep firmly to the faith.

  1. It is also very telling that arguably the most prominent old-earth proponent today, Hugh Ross of ‘Reasons to believe’ has been shown by one of his own supporters and web writers to have grossly misrepresented the church fathers on this issue, with his claims of their holding to an ‘old earth’ position. He has been forced to retract many of his claims, and the ones that remain are still very dubious.  The following quote from the website by that writer encapsulates the reality of what the early church fathers believed about the age of the earth:

Based on my own research, no early church father taught any form of a day-age view or an earth older than 10,000 years. In fact, the first people that I can clearly identify as teaching the old-earth view are Isaac Newton and Thomas Burnet in the late seventeenth century.

Now, the author does go on (for four more articles) to explain why he thinks this fact isn’t that significant for the modern debate, but at least some of his reasoning is rather dubious: for instance, he repeatedly points out that the early church fathers were for the most part not fluent in Hebrew and worked from Greek or Latin translations, which is true enough, but then says or strongly implies that this means they couldn’t really have taken Genesis 1 ‘literally’ and missed out on something essential in the original Hebrew language, but he NEVER says what this actual missing vital understanding is, he just asserts it, and implies that this mystery ‘Hebraic understanding’ would mean they would not have taken the positions they did about Genesis and creation.   He also, as a leading creationist, the Jewish Christian Dr Jonathan Sarfati, pointed out to me very recently, ignores the fact that those few early church fathers who did know Hebrew, such as Jerome and Ephraim the Syrian, as well as the Jewish historian Josephus, believed the days of Genesis 1 were ordinary days.



A concert of Autism – Public

So, this is quite a personal article, inspired by one particular situation and some of this article is very personal.  Some of it is meant for only one or two people, who will get the password to the private version!  But others might find much of it useful, and not just those who know me, so I’ve made this edited public version. It concerns autism and being autistic.  I’ve been formally diagnosed only quite recently, but I’ve known for over two decades.  There are lots of stereotypes about autistic people out there, but if you have some knowledge, you should be aware of the saying that autism affects each individual uniquely.  I only know about me and my experience, but what could make what follows useful for others is that I know from reading that a good part of my experience is shared in one way or another by others with autism, so if you know someone who is autistic, this might help you understand their patterns of behaviour and interactions.  Much of the article is extensive quotes from ‘The Autism Discussion Page’ on Facebook, also available in book form where I first found them.

I happened to pick up and open the book more or less at random and found some articles that had great resonance, hours after going to a very good concert where a particular facet of my autism jumped out and bit me, and several others, I think, including a small, sensitive person.

So, about autism, what actually is it.  Here, I think some quotes from that discussion page are in order.  Although the page is specifically for helping carers and parents with children, and I am a high-functioning adult who has mostly worked out how to survive and even thrive in the ‘normal’ world, in one or two areas I am still kind of at sea, particularly in relation to the individuals in question at that concert.  I’m pretty sure that if the person in question reads this, they will know who they are!  For those of you who don’t know, by the way, when it comes to this issue, people with brains wired in the regular way are often called ‘Neurotypicals’ (NT), whilst people with autism of some sort are usually said to be ASD (on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder).  The author is writing from the perspective of ‘NT’.  So, some quotes (there is lots of repetition, even after I’ve done some editing –  the nature of social media posts, but hey, isn’t repetition at the heart of education?.  On the issue of practical application, the last paragraph quoted is the one to keep in mind particularly):

Interacting is mentally draining!

I think what neurotypical (NT) people (especially teachers and parents) need to realize is that part of the main reason why children (and adults) on the spectrum have difficulty interacting and relating is their neurological differences. Our neurotypical brains have strong neurological connections between the different brain centers …  This is what allows us to process multiple information simultaneously, most of which is at a subconscious level, requiring minimal mental energy. On the other hand, for people on the spectrum, the neurological pathways between the brain centers are not well developed, making it harder… difficult to process multiple information simultaneously. Whereas NT people can multitask, rapid information at a subconscious (intuitive) level, people on the spectrum have to process this information “sequentially”, a little at a time, at a conscious level. They have to think through what we do intuitively without thinking. Now, they can eventually arrive at the same understanding, but it takes at lot longer (delayed processing) and require a lot more mental energy (since they have to consciously process it).

This is similar to what we (neurotypical people) do when placed in a social event for which we have never experienced before. Like being in a different country; not understanding their language and social customs very well. Without understanding the social rules, we watch and read what others are doing, appraise what is needed and then try and copy it. This requires us to concentrate, analysis and appraise what is expected, act based on that information, and then evaluate how successful we are at doing it. This concentration is exhausting. What usually comes naturally with little conscious thought, now requires concentrated effort. This is what it is like for people on the spectrum on a day to day basis. Just trying to regulate a typical day at school can be so draining for them. Spending two hours at a birthday party can be totally exhausting for children on the spectrum….This inability to process multiple information simultaneously is a major reason for many of the social struggles people with ASD experience.

This social processing issue is common across all members on the spectrum. They can be very bright, but still have these processing problems. This is hard for people to understand. They assume that since the child is very verbal and bright, that they must “intentionally choose” to misinterpret instructions, and act differently than others. For the more verbal and cognitively able children, this disability is more hidden; masking their difficulties. That’s why awareness training for significant people in the child’s life can be important.

Simultaneous vs. Sequential Processing

it also results in delayed information processing, sometimes requiring 30-60 seconds (or more) to process what we may process in a few seconds. Not only is this very draining, but it often leaves the person struggling to “keep up” with the speed of information. Frequently they are left processing only bits and pieces of the total information, since much of it came and went before it could be processed. So, when you are acting on only pieces of the information, your interpretation and resulting behavior often is out of sync with the rest of us. This is often why the person on the spectrum seems to be a little off beat with us when interacting.

Many people on the spectrum actually think in pictures, and not in words. For them, they have to rapidly translate our words into pictures, before they can interpret meaning. This further slows down and delays the processing….

People on the spectrum are going to have problems multi-tasking, and filtering out distracting information. They either will hyper-focus on specific, sometimes irrelevant details, or get distracted by too much information struggling for attention.

Seeing the Big Picture (Central Coherence)

For many people on the spectrum, their brains tend to … focus on the detail, and not the overall picture. They struggle to see the invisible relationships between the parts, and have to search for overall meaning by piecing together the details. They are more acutely aware of the fine detail, and do not immediately get pulled into seeing the relationships (hidden meaning) between the parts. They first scan the many details and then put them together to form the overall meaning. They tend to think “specific to general” rather than “general to specific”. They see the parts literally, with less bias, and then piece the parts together to form the overall picture.

… when it comes to interacting and relating, this weak ability to rapidly interpret the overall picture (central coherence) can leave them struggling.

It is very important to keep in mind the difficulty people on the spectrum have in understanding the invisible cues, relationships, and context that provide meaning to much of what we interpret. This is why we cannot “assume”, provide information very literally, and clarify then verify understanding. Do not assume!

Social Anxiety and Central Coherence

The label “central coherence” is our brain’s ability to see the relationships between the details of our perceptions, to give meaning to what we are experiencing. It is the brain’s ability to immediately look for the “hidden meanings” and “see the big picture” that allows us to smoothly interpret what we experience and dictates how we respond. This perceptive ability allows us to apply meaning to a flux of detail, read what is expected, and stay coordinated with world around us. Seeing the “big picture” gives us the reference point for interpreting what we are hearing and seeing.

This process, central coherence, is what gives us the ability to “read” two main invisible ingredients necessary for understanding the world around us: (1) reading the invisible “context” (situational meaning) for which events are occurring, and (2) reading the “thoughts, feelings, and perspectives” of others to apply meaning to what they are saying and doing. Both “context” and “perspective taking” are the invisible relationships that provide the backdrop to how we interpret and act upon what we are experiencing. All our actions and words change meanings based on the invisible background of the context of the situation. What is said and done has different meanings in one situation as compared to the next. ….We have to be able to see the big picture to get the “gist” of what is going on. Without the ability to read the context, we would often be lost and confused.

This ability to read the context (backdrop) also allows us (neurotypical people) to predict the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of others. The meaning to what we see people saying and doing is determined by the context of the situation. …. People’s actions and words have multiple meanings for which we would not understand if we could not effectively read the context around them. A smile can have multiple meanings. Your friend smiling at you in the hallway means something different than when the bully smiles when he catches you alone in the hallway, or the pretty girl in sitting in front of you turns, makes eye contact with you and smiles. When interacting with others we immediately read the “context” and “perspectives and intentions” of others to interpret what is going on and what is expected of us. This ability, central coherence, is so important for daily living and sense of security. It is central in relating in our social world.

Without this central coherence (seeing the big picture) we would often be lost and confused, stumbling through a maze of detail, without good meaning. We would not have the “hidden backdrop” that we apply meaning to all the details. The world would be “literal”, what you see if what you get. However, since our social world is not literal, there will always be “uncertainty” that we cannot grasp. We would not be able to immediately “connect the dots” and read the plot behind what is going on. This ability to see the big picture is what gives us our sense of “safety and security.” To immediately understand what is going on, and predict what will occur. Without this ability we would be anxious and insecure; unsure with what is going on and needed from us. Always reading things literally and misunderstanding what is needed. Never really knowing if we “get it” or “fit in.” Our basic sense of “safety and security” is vitally contingent upon our ability to “read the big picture” and match our thoughts and actions to it. Without this ability we would have strong “generalize anxiety!” This is often the experience for those on the spectrum.

People on the spectrum are said to have weak central coherence. Their brains do not immediately read the big picture. They clearly see the detail, but without intuitively reading the invisible relationships between the details, they are often missing the hidden backdrop that gives meaning to what they are observing. They have difficulty reading both the “context” and “perspectives of others” that are required to adequately interpret what is going on, and what is needed. Their brains want to read things literally, and become anxious with all the hidden meaning that is invisible to them. The fact that our words and actions change meaning based on when and where they occur (situational context), makes it very confusing and anxiety provoking for them.

This lack of certainty creates strong anxiety and insecurity. People on the spectrum often misread and act out of sync with what is going on. They cannot predict accurately what is intuitively inferred and expected. Our social world is so dependent on this ability to read context and perspectives. Without strong “central coherence”, the brain is frequently unsure and anxious in our social world. Social anxiety is very high, as well as task performance anxiety (worrying about meeting expectations). These two together often create ongoing “generalized anxiety” that permeates their daily living. They are frequently unsure and “on guard”. The only time they can relax is when they are by themselves and controlling everything around them. The world has to be “literal” to be safe. Unfortunately, there is very little in our social environment that is literal and predictable for them. So, when you wonder why people on the spectrum are so anxious in social situations, remember they are not reading the backdrop that allows them to make sense of what is going on! Slow down, make it more literal, and clarify the context that they are missing.

{People} on the spectrum get overwhelmed when there is (1) too much detail, (2) too much flux (constant change in the detail) , and (3) too much uncertainty! …. As you might expect, this uncertainty creates strong anxiety and apprehension. The brain panics when it doesn’t know what it is walking into.

To lessen the anxiety, you must lessen the uncertainty (increase understanding). …. WE automatically understand the “plot” which gives meaning and understanding to all the detail. This gives us security. {Autistic people often don’t} grasp the plot, so life always represents uncertainty and insecurity. So you have to provide the plot, so the details make since, and he can feel more safe and secure. Hope this helps.

Connect the Dots, Define the Plots!

How can we assist them in understanding, predicting, and responding to a world that misses the “gist” of what is going on? How can we help the “literal” see the “invisible?” Plain and simple, we have to connect the dots, and define the plots for them. We have to make “visible” that which is “hidden.” Lay out concretely what is abstract. We have to concretely interpret what they do not see. We have to make obvious what is taken for granted by us.

Fact vs Inference!

Socially, when relating with others, this inferring helps us read the thoughts, feelings, perspectives and intentions of others (theory of the mind).  This inferring allows us to share mental states and experiences with others, and allows us to think about how others are thinking and predict how they will respond.  It helps us pattern what we say and how we act.  It also allows us to stay connected both mentally and emotionally during conversation.

The brain wiring for people on the spectrum (ASD) makes it difficult to look past the detail for the overall picture.  It is more focused on reading the concrete details (facts).  What you see and hear is what you get.  ….  Since they do not immediately infer hidden meaning, they also are not looking at subtle cues (facial expressions, body language, voice fluctuations, etc) to infer what is meant when something is said.  Consequently, our communications move too fast and at a different level from theirs.  We are processing inferentially, and they are processing factually.  They are looking at the detail, and we are looking at the global meaning.  Although they may eventually get to the meaning we infer (by piecing together the detail and facts), it will be delayed in relation to the social processing we are doing.  They often have to think through the detail, while we intuitively infer.

Now, when communicating with people on the spectrum, it is easier for us to interact at their level of processing (factual) than to expect them to relate at our inferential level.  Whereas we can communicate more literally and factually, it is more difficult, and sometimes impossible, for them to think inferentially.  Hence we need to say exactly what we mean and mean exactly what we say!  Leave little to be inferred.  Say what your thoughts are, explain your feelings concretely, as well as your perspectives and intentions.  Do not assume the person is reading your thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and intentions.  Spell everything out correctly, and verify understanding when possible.  Clarify what you want and what is expected.  Since this processing can be delayed, make sure to pause and give the person time to process.  In all areas of life, when sharing information, we need to make sure we respect the factual method of processing.  When we do, relating becomes much easier.

As I said, that last paragraph is key.

For me, most social situations I’m in at the moment, I’m mostly fine with.  I do get paranoid, but can usually work through it.  And as they say, just because you’re paranoid…..  sometimes I’m pretty sure I spot things that are really going on, things that aren’t coincidence.  Sometimes. But there is one situation that always seems to get to me, and that’s the one that jumped out at the concert.  All that stuff about the delays, that’s what applies.  I know I must seem to move – do move – slower than a zimmer-frame wielding geriatric snail stuck in jello.  I know that something is going on.  …..  So, I am watching closely to try and understand.  There’s all these signals coming in from family, all big smiles….

…. the seemingly simple and light issue of whether to come over and just say ‘Hello, how are you?’ becomes weighted with heavy significance, a matter to consider with care.  ….  It is indeed all very emotionally draining for me, which is why I so often resort to writing.  But even writing stuff like this is emotionally draining and is stretched out over days….

And, although this article was triggered by one situation involving a concert and a piano, on a more general note for any reader in the local area, I’m an autistic pianist, poet, author and theologian.  If you have a piano in your living room, or venue, and want me to play, and talk, though perhaps not at the same time, then drop an email to nathanaellewis (at) hotmail.co.uk.  I can talk on numerous issues.  Another ‘just a suggestion’.

Does Genesis 1 describe fixity of Species?

Herring or Black-Backed Gulls or…?

Image from http://birdingnewfoundland.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/

At a recent talk by Professor Bill Clegg about science and faith (‘Age Old Enemies or Natural Allies’) I challenged him over his equation of creationism with fixity of species, which is something I have done previously in a talk he gave at Newcastle University a few years back. Now, he is far from alone in making this wrong equation. Creationists will often get particularly annoyed at this type of straw-man argument because even the most superficial perusal of creationist literature, whether popular level or peer-reviewed technical level, will reveal that this has NEVER been a position of modern Young Earth Creationism, right from the (putative) start in the 60’s (and indeed, from before then). I challenged Bill to cite any example of creationist literature that took this position, noting that I could easily find hundreds to thousands of articles proving otherwise. The trouble is that all too often opponents of creationism don’t ever actually read or engage with the argument, but rather feed off the most superficial of denunciations or their own side’s straw men (or, to be fair, occasionally the profession of creationist laypeople who haven’t fully grasped the basics – I remember being handed a pamphlet by one such which did indeed more or less describe creationism as involving fixity of species). In biology especially this is a repeated complaint of creationists. Bill Clegg cited the 1960’s book ‘The Genesis Flood’ and that was indeed a pivotal moment in the emergence of the modern ‘Young Earth Creationist’ movement, but creationism has moved on massively in pretty much every field since then. Now Bill’s talk was a popular level guide on a very broad topic, so his citing that book and nothing else didn’t bother me particularly. However, the trouble is that opponents of creationists only citing a couple of old and sometimes out of date creationist articles and ignoring huge swathes of more recent work happens in the technical literature too, and is completely inexcusable. Sure, to read every article there is isn’t possible, but it is dishonest not to make some attempt to engage with the best – or even more, simply the most basic and ubiquitous – arguments of your opponents.
So, you get a situation where, for instance, biologists in the field are amazed to find rapid speciation happening in a lizard or fish over a decade or two, and the ardent evolutionists will go ‘Hah, more proof creationism is wrong – in your face, creationists, show how you get out of this one’. Creationists find this very frustrating for one simple reason – their model not only allows for this, it also requires that rapid speciation happen, not always, but under certain conditions. Biologists are surprised at the speed with which these speciation events are observed to happen (although the uber-flexibility – non-falsifiability, dare I suggest? – of the evolutionary model allows them to adjust it to fit in speedy speciation), but creationists are emphatically not. But because of the strawman fallacy about creationism, such discoveries of observed rapid speciation are generally assumed to be logically the death-knell of creationism, except for the certainty that those darn fundamentalist religious nuts will just ignore ‘hard scientific fact’ yet again.
In the limited time I tried to explain again to Bill that creationists do not equate the ’kinds’ of Genesis 1 with species at all by saying that creationists seek to find out the limits of kinds in large part by which creatures can breed with other creatures, and he seemed to grasp, finally, that creationists usually place the ‘kind’ at higher taxonomic levels of classification, but he then said that whilst biology was not his field, he understood that whether creatures could breed was mainstream sciences’ definition of ‘species’, and I had to say yes, but had no chance to explain the issues that mean this seemingly sound counter-argument misses the mark. (For those readers unfamiliar with the issue, Genesis 1 repeatedly refers to plants and land, air and water creatures as being created to ‘reproduce after their kind’. Put simply, in creationist thought this means that living beings have certain limits beyond which they don’t change. Within those limits all kinds of significant variation and change can and do happen. A major issue for creationist biologists is seeking to establish scientifically where those boundaries of the original ‘kinds’ are.)
Perhaps one of the better ways to get into why it misses the mark is to examine the question of ‘ring species’, a concept that has been used to try and bash creationists over the head in the past (and indeed you can still find many articles online that still do this). To explain, a ‘ring species’ is one where a species, say of bird or butterfly, or whatever, reaches an effectively impassable large obstacle – say a large, high mountain plateau, an inland sea, or indeed, the polar ice-cap. As they spread out, parts of the population go to the left and right around this obstacle, and as each wing encounters different environmental pressures the populations change. If you take either wing, each neighbouring population around the obstacle can interbreed with each other, even though they are slightly different. However, when the two wings meet on the other side of the obstacle, they are just sufficiently different that they don’t interbreed, and therefore would normally be taken as a separate species, and yet there are two unbroken chains of interbreeding populations going back to the same original species. One of the few examples involved a Green Warbler around Tibet. Let’s have a bit of fun and say the original species was the Green Tibetan lesser-spotted Frog-throated Warbler and that at the other side of the Tibetan plateau we find the Blue-Green Tibetan lesser-spotted Frog-throated Warbler and the Yellow-Green Tibetan lesser-spotted Frog-throated Warbler who maintain separate populations and don’t interbreed. In mainstream biology there is some debate as to when something is a sub-population or sub-species and when it is a species, but given that the two types don’t appear to interbreed but maintain separate breeding populations in the same location then most would consider these to be two new species. Now, a main part of the reason ‘ring species’ were supposed to be a weapon against creationists is precisely because of the straw-man that creationists don’t believe in speciation, but in actual fact, creationists have never had a problem with such concepts and arguably would expect something like that.
However, as they say, the devil – or in this case, perhaps the divine – is in the details. There were only a handful of supposed ‘ring species’ to start with, but it turns out that every single one of them has been proved not, in fact, to be a ‘ring species’. Probably the classic example is a global-wide ring that ends and starts here in Great Britain. If, like me, you have been a bird-watcher at some point and have a book listing all native birds, you will find Herring Gulls and Lesser-Black Backed gulls as two separate species. If you head west from the UK, through Iceland, North America, Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia you will find that even though each population of Herring Gulls can and do interbreed, they progressively get more and more like Lesser-Black Backed gulls as they go, until we get to the two UK species, who maintain their distinctions. At least, that was the idea. It turns out that whilst generally the two species do not interbreed, there are numerous reports of cases where they have interbred and produced offspring (and, in fact, as I understand it, there are also indications that at some points in the ‘ring’ that these gulls have also interbred with still other gull species, but we’ll leave that to one side for now and just focus on this pair of species). Now, creationists have no problem with these two types of gull being labelled as different species (their ability to interbreed definitely means to creationists, though, that they are of the same ‘kind’ in the biblical sense.)
So what is going on? Well, it looks like, at least in part, this is an example of ‘sexual selection’. For the most part Herring gulls prefer to mate with gulls with the same ‘Herring gull’ characteristics, and so can, by our modern scientific system, be classified as a separate ‘species’. They mostly don’t interbreed with the other end of the ‘ring’, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t. In fact, it is fairly common for scientists to say that two otherwise indistinguishable (to the non-expert eye, at least) populations are separate species, because they don’t interbreed whilst still being in the same geographical location and ecological environment. For creationists, when it comes to finding the limits of ‘kinds’, whether two types of creatures typically do or don’t interbreed isn’t of interest – what is of interest to them is whether they can or can’t interbreed. And even then, it’s not quite so straightforward, because creationists recognize that creatures descended from the same original members of a ‘kind’ can develop so far from each other that those at the far ends of a chain of species can’t interbreed. But if there is an unbroken chain of interbreeding, then they still belong to the same kind. So, for instance, lions and tigers are separate species within a ‘big-cat kind’, but they can and do interbreed and produce viable offspring. But if another cat of some sort has been shown to breed and produce offspring with one of the species within the ‘big-cat’ kind, then you have established that that type of cat is within the same ‘kind’. Simply put, if you have a nexus of various species that form part of the same ’kind’ because they can interbreed with at least some of the other species, and you find just one example of another species that has successfully interbred with one of those species, then you have established that that species is of the ‘same kind’, even though it may not be possible now for it to interbreed with all of those creatures.
This is not the whole of defining what is or isn’t a ‘kind’ in the creationist sense, but it is a major, major part of it. Also, creationists face the same limitations as evolutionists when dealing with extinct or effectively extinct creatures where we have only fossils to go on and so can’t even begin to consider interbreeding ability – all there is to go on, in effect, is the shape and form of the fossil remains. The basic difference would be that evolutionists would be interested in establishing as far as possible species, family and genus classifications, and whilst creationists would not have a problem per se with that, they would want to try and discern where the original ‘kind’ level might be, whether at family, or genus level, for instance, in any given set of fossil creature types. (I should also note that when it comes to bacteria and viruses, then there are special considerations at play. The basic concept of biblical ‘kinds’ still applies; however I think it fair to say that creationists generally argue that the great flexibility in the bacterial world, including mechanisms such as direct transfer of genetic elements, are part of a designed function where bacteria in particular are a mechanism to allow the biological world, creatures like us, elephants, birds and whatever, to interact with the inanimate world in ever-changing environments.)
The bottom line is, that despite both the evolutionist and creationist positions having the superficial similarity of using ‘whether something can breed’ as a major defining criteria for species and ‘kinds’, respectively, they are emphatically NOT talking about the same thing, and therefore evolutionists of all stripes should stop using straw-man arguments like the one that Professor Bill Clegg uses, and actually understand the basic differences in approach. Some do seek to do this to varying extents, but all too many do not, even after they have been told. I realize that, as came out from several scientists at the talk, one of the major problems in science is the incredible level of specialization, and so scientists are effectively non-scientist or lay-people when it comes to areas outside their own focus, and thus that, for instance, Bill is not a biologist, as I am not. However, what I have written should give anyone a clear guide to understanding just why the type of argument Bill used is a straw-man argument that is a ‘what evolutionists would like the creationist position to be so they can decisively demolish it’ rather than an actual reflection of creationist reality. Despite the similarities at a very superficial level, modern biological ‘species’ are emphatically NOT the same ‘species’ of concept as creationist biblical ‘kinds’ and creationists do NOT hold that Genesis 1 teaches anything like ‘fixity of species’ as most evolutionists apparently commonly believe.

Piano Peace Prayers for Times of Turmoil and Terror

I will be playing at Ovingham Parish church, Saturday 1st July, 11am to 3pm.

It is a ‘drop in’ (enter and leave when you want) musical event for peace, and to raise awareness of ‘the hidden victims’ of terror.  Children welcome, but must be supervised.

The event is free, but donations are welcome – 10% will go to the Parish church, 90% to the Charity ‘International Christian Consulate’ (Charity number 1170909) who help Christian refugees who are badly discriminated against and persecuted, even in Europe.

If you can’t make it, but want to support them, you can also donate to them via their website http://www.internationalchristianconsulate.com/ .

You can hear a sample of the style of music in the tracks below.

      Amazing Grace - Nathanael Lewis

I realise that this is short notice, but in the light of recent events, it seemed like a good idea do it as soon as possible.  In this country we face at least three kinds of extremism – the far left, the far right, and Islamic extremism.  All of them in their own way seek to have what the far left have taken to calling ‘Days of Rage’.  We as the church need to counter that with times (and a lifestyle) of reconciliation.

The purpose of the event is two-fold – firstly to provide an environment for peaceful reflection, primarily by my improvisational piano playing (which I have repeatedly been told is beautiful and peaceful), and secondly to raise awareness of ‘hidden victims’ of terror, that don’t make the headlines, and secondarily, to raise funds for a charity helping one of those groups.  These ‘hidden victims’ include Christian refugees from the Middle East, who suffer discrimination and violence at every stage of the process, from not being able to be in refugee camps in the Middle East to be given asylum because Islamicist groups run the camps or send in hit squads to assassinate them, to suffering severe and often violent persecution within camps or the refugee system within Europe.  The other group of ‘hidden terror victims’ who virtually never make the headlines are UK citizens who have converted from Islam to Christianity (or to atheism or humanism or Buddhism) – and sometimes even Asian Christians who are not converts but can face similar hostility, including death threats and murder attempts.  I have recently worked on a report into this issue for a Christian charity, interviewing such individuals and families, some of whom could accurately be described as ‘internal refugees’, forced to live underground in fear of their lives or to move out of their homes to avoid persecution.  The report has been submitted to the Parliamentary Committee on Hate Crimes, but you can view it by clicking on the link on this page: http://www.britishpakistanichristians.org/blog/our-apostasy-hatred-report-as-submitted-to-uk-hate-crime-inquiry  .

We are commanded in the bible to do ‘good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith’, and as such I encourage people to come along if they can, but in any case, to become aware of these issues surrounding those brothers and sisters suffering in this country and continent.


Evolution or Creation – why we do have to choose: Part I Natural Selection’s Antidote?

The opening hymn in my village Anglican church last Sunday started:

God is love: His the care, Tending each, everywhere, God is love – all is there!

Jesus came to show Him that mankind might know him.

Sing aloud!  God is good!  God is truth! God is beauty!  Praise Him.

The image is of God as a caring nurture, wholly good, as demonstrated by the tender and merciful character of Jesus.  The gospel reading in the service was from John 14.  It has the famous passage where Jesus says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one can come to the Father except through me.’   But he goes on to say rather more.  Jesus is not just the way to the Father: ‘If you had really known me, you would know who my father is.  From now on, you do know him, and have seen him!…. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’

Earlier in the week, I had been to hear a talk entitled ‘Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?’ by Dr Dennis Alexander, Christian bio-chemist and author of a book by the same title.  As a theologian who is a creationist, and has a strong interest in science, this was a chance to listen to a Christian scientist whose answer was the opposite to mine – he as a theistic evolutionist says ‘No, you don’t have to choose’.  I took copious notes, but there wasn’t really anything new for me.  I had a question which I have never seen remotely satisfactorily answered by those who take his kind of position, but I waited to hear what other questions he was asked at the end.  My question is simply this: how can the good God as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ have chosen to create in a manner that necessarily involved millions of years of suffering as part of that process?  In all his talk about how, in his opinion, there was no contradiction between biblical theology and evolution this topic of the moral character of the Creator was not touched on in the slightest, and yet it cuts to the very core of Christian doctrine and faith.

The last question Dr Alexander was asked before time meant no more questions could be asked was not one I would have expected would have led straight to this issue.  A young man got up and asked Dr Alexander to speculate as to what humans would look like in a million or so years from now.  After a bit about how any creature that lived in Jupiter, for instance, would have to adapt to totally different conditions, Dr Alexander said that assuming humanity stayed on earth, there was good reason to believe that there would be no substantial changes to the human species.  He gave two basic reasons, both to do with natural selection.  The first was because of global travel – there is now basically no room for isolated populations and associated genetic bottlenecks that would lead to developments.  The second was the one that leads directly back to the issue of God’s character.  He said that as the teaching of Jesus was obeyed more and more, so natural selection in humans would slow and stop – in particular Jesus’ teaching to care for the weak, and the disabled, and so on.

At this point, my hand went straight up, because right there was a colossal theological contradiction, and Dr Alexander just didn’t even to be aware of the problem, but unfortunately, no more questions were allowed.  At the heart of both the Jewish and the Christian faith is what is called ‘the Shema’ in Jewish thought.  In Mark 12.29-31 Jesus affirmed it as the greatest of all commandments:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  No other commandment is greater than these.”

Now, the first part of the ‘Shema’ can equally well be translated ‘Hear O Israel.  The Lord our God, the Lord, is one.  Among other things, it holds in it the notion that God’s character is whole and undivided.  His character is constant.  This is expressed in relation to God as creator of the Sun, moon and stars in James 1.17 as follows:

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.

Or as one translation puts the last part: ‘with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.

James, of course, was the (half or step) brother of Jesus.

In the talk, at one point Dr Alexander rightly pointed out that creation is ‘Christological’ – that it has to do with Jesus Christ.  The New Testament affirms over and over that Jesus is the Creator, is somehow God.  It does so in many ways.  That reading from John’s gospel sums it up where Jesus says ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’.  In fact, in at least one place it clearly links Jesus being the exact likeness of God specifically with Jesus as Creator, in Colossians 1:

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything  in the heavenly realms and on earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.  Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.

So there is the inescapable problem – contradiction in fact.  Jesus was called ‘the Lamb of God’ for various reasons, partly to do with his role as God’s Passover Lamb, but also because of the gentleness of his character.  Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus healing all the sick, in 12.15 on, and says it is the fulfilment of Isaiah 42, which he quotes.  Part of it, v3-4 reads:

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.  He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth.

In fact, that passage goes on to talk of the fact and act of creation too.  So the problem is that if God, if Christ, chose to create using millions of years of suffering, sickness and death, then this the complete opposite of the character of God as revealed in Christ – who heals, relieves suffering and the like.  This is one of the reasons that young earth creationists so rigorously oppose any notion of millions of years, when they point out the bible describes a ‘young’ (in relation to the standard view today) world.  Proponents of long ages, such as Dr Alexander will typically assert that God’s glory or power as Creator is not diminished because he took billions of years, rather than the 6 days of Genesis 1.  Let us put aside for a moment the obvious reply that a gradual process of creation over vast ages might as well be specifically designed – arguably was indeed developed – to remove the need of the notion of a Creator.  A long slow gradual process does not obviously need a Creator – a very short process does.  Young earth creationists’ objection to millions of years has not been just about the time frame, but even more about the moral implications of the method that is inextricably bound up with that time frame.  Since all old earth positions take the fossil record to contain animals from millions of years before humanity and their fall, which the bible says – at least very strongly implies – is what brought suffering and death into the world as a whole, this applies to pretty much any old earth position, but especially to theistic evolution which involves a process of creation that at its core involves intrinsically and unavoidably creation by a process of death and suffering.  Regardless of whether you call it ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘reproductive success’, the process necessarily involves ‘nature’ ‘selecting’ by means of death and suffering.  The fossils contain dinosaur remains with cancer, and evidence of other diseases, and carnivory – healed wounds and the like.  There is a total reversal of character here.

Part 2 : Mental and Moral Gymnastics

Evolution or Creation – why we do have to choose: Part II Moral and Mental Gymnastics


(This is the middle part of a three part series: Go back to the start, or skip ahead.)

So, how do people deal with this issue, once they become aware of it?  I have found that the responses typically come into several categories.

  • 1) ‘Total rewrite’.
  • These are typically the more liberal end of the church. They may not even recognize the moral problem here, per se, but they argue that we should totally rewrite Christian doctrine to fit with the ‘facts’ of science, which typically involves removing any doctrine of ‘original sin’ or similar and totally re-working the significance of the cross, sometimes saying it is a transformative moment – but that doesn’t address the issue of the fundamental problem of a God whose nature flips 180 degrees.  However, many would reject such approaches (rightly, in my opinion).
  • 2) ‘The mystery Fudge’.
  • One friend, a lay reader in a nearby Anglican church, and an archaeologist and amateur geologist, took me out into the field to try and persuade me why a young earth position was incompatible with the local rock record (and was surprised by the written reply I gave, including experimental evidence that would explain much that he thought impossible to explain other than by long ages).  When, on the trip, I raised this moral issue, he said something like ‘Well, that’s just a mystery we have to live with, isn’t it?’  I can’t remember whether I said to him what I thought, which was ‘That’s a complete cop-out’.  This is an issue of fundamental and unavoidable contradiction – it’s not a mystery in the sense of the ‘two natures of Christ’ or the interplay of human free-will and divine predestination, or of how God can be Trinity, all of which, although paradoxical, can have actual answers.  It has to do with the deepest moral character of God.  I would also (loosely) include in this category approaches such as that of NT Wright in a youtube video answering a similar question, where he partially answers, and then does a kind of sidestep-shuffle around the core of the issue.
  • 3) Gap-theory or ‘ruin-reconstruction’ theories.
  • These place millions of years between Genesis 1.1 (creation of heavens and earth) and verse 2, which in this view is held to be the start of a re-creation process, the most recent one, after a period of destruction.  This approach is not as popular as it used to be, and is mostly held by some religiously conservative people.  Typically, it involves a series of creation, which are then destroyed by God, who re-starts, and the record of these periods is found in the rock record (a period of creation of dinosaurs who are then destroyed, etc).  Apart from logical problems (eg, recognizable bird species in the ‘dinosaur’ rocks), this isn’t really compatible with theistic evolution, for sure (a continuous and unimpeded process).  More to the point, it still leaves the question of why God would create in such a ruinous way.  Some versions have the ‘ruin’ as God’s judgement because of ‘violence’ in the natural world, but that still leaves the question wide-open – why judge creatures for operating in the way that God created them to be.  A few versions speculate that there were sentient beings equivalent to humans in each ‘age’ who are the reasons for judgement, but that seems rather like an ad-hoc justification to try and rescue the theory, and how can God justifiable judge a creation for violence if he has created in a way that involves violence?
  • 4) ‘Divine Constraint’ theories.
  • These are views that typically say that having created matter to operate according to its own rules, God was somehow constrained to allow it to develop in a particular way, somewhat parallel to the way that God has given human beings free will and the ability to act against God’s own commands.  Aside from there being a huge difference between inanimate matter and the exercise of human free will, there is a far deeper problem here.  If God is the truly Sovereign Creator then he has the power to create matter in such a way that it does not require violation of his own character.  If God is constrained by something to act in a way that is against his nature or first choice, then that something else has at least equal power to God, and therefore is also a deity of some sort.  In other words, logically, we must abandon monotheism and thus violate the ‘Shema’, the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith.  This takes us straight back to the point in question – that we must violate God’s ‘oneness’ in a different way if we are to ascribe to him a creation method that involves immense ages of suffering.
  • 5) ‘Back-flip links’.
  • One area of the young earth creationist position that – even by the admission of many (religiously conservative) non-creationists – is especially strong and internally consistent is the way that it maintains a causal link between human sin and dysfunction and suffering in the natural world, which is the basic message of the bible on the issue.  The Genesis account explicitly puts humankind in a position of stewardship over life on earth, of sub-rule under God.  Because of this, in some way their rebellion affected all of life, in much the same way, for instance, that a parent being put in prison for criminal activity or losing their job for misconduct has a knock on effect on children in their care.    Concerning, not fair, but a logical effect due to the interconnectedness and inter-relatedness of life.  For this reason, some have tried to keep this link whilst also keeping belief in millions of years.  Typically the starting point can be that God is outside of time, and so, fore-knowing human rebellion, the effects of that rebellion are felt back in time for life on earth that is affected millions of years before humans even existed to rebel.  Typically, such approaches are certainly ingenious, and I admire the intellectual gymnastics and efforts that go into trying to make them work, but at best they are extremely problematic.  For instance, it still doesn’t get round a point that creationists have been making for a long time – that where the bible promises restoration of creation to a former state, as it does in both Old and New Testaments, then if right from the start creation has been marked by suffering and so forth, then is restoration by God to an original state really the huge hope the bible portrays it as.  This applies as much to the Old Testament (the lion will lie down with the lamb) as to the New (Romans 8.21: ‘the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’).


But let us put it another way.   We find the medieval practice of ‘whipping boys’ morally repugnant.  Someone, usually a commoner, would be whipped for the misbehaviour of a prince, who was not to be punished by anyone other than the king, who was often away.  (No analogy is perfect, so we leave aside the fact that in that society it was often a desirable position in spite of the pain, because it could give you an unrivalled education you would otherwise not have.)  Someone being deliberately and directly punished for another’s wrongdoing just seems wrong (unless it was entirely voluntary, such as Jesus being punished for our sins to redeem us, and even then, many still find it problematic).  Even if humanity is a ‘prince’, made in the image of God, it seems especially morally wrong to have a situation of hundreds of millions of years of suffering by a huge number of animals relates back to moral wrongs done in a relative snap of the finger (in the long age scheme, if we just take from the start of amphibious creatures around 370 million years ago, and even if we assume the earliest possible date for ‘human ancestors’ at about 3 million years past – very generous – then we are still talking about a ratio in purely time terms of about 123 to 1, and if as most people taking this position believe that ‘sin’ came much later, say about 1/3 of a  million years ago, then it is about 1000 to 1, not even counting the huge numbers of species involved at every time period suffering for the sin of just one future species).  We are told that God’s love and redemption was brought about by engineering the suffering and death of just one for many billions of souls, so how is that compatible with creating by a process that involves the sufferings of countless trillions of creatures for the sin of a relative few billions.  God may be outside of time, but we creatures aren’t, and surely a God of love and mercy would not set things up in such a way that a link between cause and effect only applies to him, and not to the creatures he cares for, but involves them in endless suffering?


I have worked in human rights, and in places like Pakistan, Christian families are placed in bondage generation after generation because of the dead of an ancestor, a father or grandfather long before.  We regard this, rightly, as an affront to human rights, and deplore it because people are forced against their will to live such a life.  It is indeed antithetical to the teaching of both the Old Testament, which only allowed perpetual bondage within God’s community if it was voluntary, and the teaching of Jesus.  Passages like Romans 8 talk of creation being in bondage, but looking forward to future freedom from death and decay.  However, if death and decay is bondage, then that means that millions of years and generations of animals have been bonded slaves due to the debt incurred by a species that will only come into being millions of years later, which is at least as deplorable.  It also cuts across the pattern displayed in the bible, where even the hostile high priest at Jesus’ time stated the principle that ‘It is better for one man to die, than the whole nation perish’.     We also find in Romans 5 a sustained contrast between how specifically Adam’s sin led to death for many people, since all sinned, but that God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ leads many to life.  Specifically Romans 5.16 says this:

Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.

In other words, in God’s way of doing things, one act of grace in Jesus covered over the many sins that came before.  Earlier in the passage, Paul notes that God didn’t count some sins as sin (v13), consistent with what he said everywhere about God overlooking sins committed by Gentiles in ignorance (Acts 17.30).  The point here for our purposes is that God is portrayed as – yes allowing consequences of sin to go on – but also overlooking things, so that God’s mercy overrides – one act of grace comes after many sins.  This is the opposite pattern to that required by the kind of position described here – where the one act of human sin is anticipated by a punishment inflicted on a great many beforehand.

  • 6) ‘Pain Denial’
  • I haven’t really seen this as a stand alone, but sometimes people will try and minimize or relativise the animal pain and suffering involved. This leads us on to:
  • 7) ‘Pot-pourri’ positions
  • These try and mix a number of the above positions in such a way as to try and minimize the problems associated with each. I don’t have space to engage with them here, but suggest that they only combine the problems inherent in each position, not reduce them.

Move on to Part 3.