The Ignorant Scientist

Richard Dawkins, never one to be pleasant, made some remarks that hold some truth value and also showcased his inability to research his historical claims. He is criticizing certain Muslim claims about the relationship of their faith to science. 

“Islamic science deserves enormous respect.” There are two versions of this second claim, ranging from the pathetic desperation of “the Qu’ran anticipated modern science” (the embryo develops from a blob, mountains have roots that hold the earth in place, salt and fresh water don’t mix) to what is arguably quite a good historical point: “Muslim scholars kept the flame of Greek learning alight while Christendom wallowed in the Dark Ages.”

Dawkins mentions the Dark Ages as a period in which Christendom wallowed in stupidity, all the while the consensus among medievalists is that the “Dark Ages” were non-existent. Heck,  in 1929 the Encyclopedia Britannica noted this:

[T]he contrast, once so fashionable, between the ages of darkness and the ages of light have no more truth in it than have the idealistic fancies which underlie attempts at mediaeval revivalism.

Or from Rodney Stark:

For the past two or three centuries, every educated person has known that from the fall of Rome until about the fifteenth century that Europe was submerged in the “Dark Ages” -centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery-from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously rescues, first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment. But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, during the so-called Dark Ages, European technology and science overtook and surpassed the rest of the world! –Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, 35

Stark goes on to document the use of the waterwheel an other sources of non-human power because of the Christian belief that slavery was the result of the fall and therefore that it was virtuous to end it. The Greeks and Romans saw it as the necessary condition of lesser humans.  

Just because somebody is a scientist (and Dawkins is one and is fairly smart) does not mean they know what they are talking about. Never forget, E.O. Wilson claims that good scientists don’t even need to understand math, and therefore requiring hard math of science students “has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.” In other words, “Requiring scientists to think hard has made more people want to quit science.”

Anyhow, Dawkins, like Wilson has trouble with things beyond cataloging bats (or Ants). One is bad at math, the other is bad at reading history.

Jesus and the Golden Rule or Academic Imagination

Academics have good imaginations. I am an academic, so I know. J.P. Meier has written an excellent series of historical books on the life of Jesus, but sometimes academic consensus is filled with howlers or at least with silliness. In the case of the Golden Rule (contained most famously in Matthew 7:12), Meier notes that Jesus probably never taught it. But the basis for his assertion is silly. He takes the Golden rule as an example of reciprocal ethics.

  1. Reciprocal ethics: ethics based on exchange. In other words, “You scratch my back, I scratch yours.” 
  2. Golden Rule from Jesus (Matt 7:12): “Therefore, whatever you want people to do for you, thus you should even do for them. For this is the Law and the Prophets.”

One might even argue that the Golden Rule is not consistent with Jesus’ legal/ethical/moral demands. In other words, it cannot even met the criterion of coherence. A number of sayings attributed to Jesus-notably in the Q block mirrored in Luke 6:27-36-indicate that Jesus criticized the ethic of reciprocity (“hand washes hand”) that was common in the Greco-Roman world.
John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Vol IV Law and Love (Yale, 2009), 556

Meier goes on to say that we cannot know one way or the other (p. 557), but I think that one of his main reasons against seeing this teaching as authentic is silly. The Golden Rule has a very important rhetorical function in Matthew 7:12. In it, Matthew’s Jesus summarizes everything that came before (Matthew 5:21-7:11). The Golden Rule, as it appears in Matthew, is a summary of Jesus’ critique of reciprocal ethics in the previous discourse. What this means is that the worst way to interpret the Golden Rule is as a summary of reciprocal ethics. Meier, and some other scholars, take Matthew 7:12 as a statement like this, “If you want people to be nice to you, be nice to them so that they will.” That may happen if you follow the Golden Rule, but it clearly is not the point Jesus is getting at (the Greek Syntax could point that way if the sentence were isolated, but in our source material it is in a whole speech!).* Instead Jesus seems to mean “If you, were you in somebody’s shoes, would want mercy, kindness, help, an apology, respect, dignity, advice, prayer, or forgiveness, give it to them because it is what God desires of us.” Other evidence for us is that the pattern of doing for a neighbor or enemy as though they were us (doing as we would prefer) is part of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere.
Treating Matthew 7:12 or Luke 6:31 as accidental efforts to make Jesus sound less radical is a mistake. That would be like taking the existence of mathematical proofs (summaries of mathematical phenomena) as impossible to ascribe to if you do specific math problems. “The pythagorean theorem cannot be related to right triangle sides because 9+16=25. Duh!”

Anyhow, trying to imagine what Matthew 7:12 could have meant outside of the Sermon on the Mount or the broader context of Matthew’s gospel forces conclusions that do not make any actual sense.

*Πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν θέλητε ἵνα ποιῶσιν ὑμῖν οἱ ἄνθρωποι, οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιεῖτε αὐτοῖς· οὗτος γάρ ἐστιν ὁ νόμος καὶ οἱ προφῆται (Mat 7:12 NA 27) It could be translated, in isolation from its context, “Therefore, if you want people to do anything whatsoever for you, thus do it for them too. for this is the law and the prophets.” But the problem is, again, that the sentence starts with “therefore.” Jesus is using this sentence to summarize a radical ethic that he was expounding for several paragraphs. Also, the syntax of the “if-then” nature of the statement is a third class condition. Such sentences could carry these rhetorical meanings, “The third class condition encompasses a broad range of potentialities in Koine Greek. It depicts what is likely to occur in the future, what could possibly occur, or even what is only hypothetical and will not occur. (Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 696).” My guess is that Matthew depicts this teaching with a 3rd class condition because the obedience of the imperative (the part that is only potential, not definitive) is up to the hearer.

The Right Way to Disagree

Doug Wilson wrote a post entitled “Believing One Half of the Wrong End of It.”

In it he notes: 

A careful opposition to Calvinism, say on the contentment question above, would say something like Calvinism ought to be Stoicism, given the critic’s understanding of the premises, and it is therefore a matter of great curiosity that it is nothing of the kind. That would allow interaction between the views that are actually held by actual people. It is a pity that this kind of thing is so rare — but it must be admitted that it has always been easier to debate with cartoons, especially with the ones you draw yourself.

In other words, ascribing beliefs to another person as a debate tactic is rude and it makes debate impossible. In the understanding of Aristotle, it would utilizing rhetoric (persuasion) but pretending to be using dialectic (using logic and evidence to come to an understanding of the truth). 

This has happened to be before. A girl I worked with once ascribed to me the belief that “women are less human than men” in the middle of a conversation about why the Christian method of peacemaking (love your enemies, etc) is the best method. I was taken aback and just said, “I don’t, Christians in general don’t.” It prevented her from having to think about whether the Jesus way is superior to hating your enemies (the right wing way) or superior to pretending that your enemies are not your enemies (the left wing way). 

If she had said something like, “Even if you don’t believe women are inferior, some Christians think women can’t preach in church services, therefore those Christians implicitly believe that” then we would have had some grounds for a debate. The skill of ascribing beliefs to opponents rather than determining and stating what you think their view should be based on premises is both effective and rude. 

Thankfully this young woman (she might be older than me now that I think about it) and I were friends and I was able to explain things to her afterward. It wasn’t meant, I think, to be an insult. It was a way out of an uncomfortable conversation. 

Back to the topic at hand.

Either Calvinism is broadly true or it isn’t. This or that proposition held by Calvinists is true or it isn’t. And this or that belief or practice ancillary to Calvinism is consistent with its other tenets or it isn’t. But ascribing beliefs, thoughts, or actions to Arminians or Calvinists that they do not explicitly believe, think, or do as though they do is akin to lying.

Christians should not engage in this sort of rhetorical rudeness. It creates a public misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is geared at making it more difficult to weigh the truth value or various claims about the Bible, about other Christians, and ultimately about God. The Bible is clear about this kind of practice: The Lord hates dishonest scales (Proverbs 11:1). Surely this is true in rhetoric as well as in economics. 

What does Acts 2:42 mean?

A favorite verse of Scripture for many (and rightly so) is Acts 2:42. After a whole bunch of people get baptized Luke writes, “They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Act 2:42 NET).” But what did this look like? Was it disorganized hanging out? Or was there more to it?

Well, one of the earliest Christian writers, Justin Martyr, noted this in his defense of the Christian faith

“And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.”

“And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things.  And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given,3 and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.”

Justin Martyr. (1885). The First Apology of Justin. (A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, Eds.)The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (pp. 185–186). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.

Note what occurs:

  1. They gather.
  2. They remind each other of what the Lord’s Supper means (as well as Baptism which is described in a previous passage).
  3. The rich help the poor present. 
  4. They bless God (presumably in song or recited benediction).
  5. They read from the memoirs of the apostles (which in the first paragraph means the four gospels) and the prophets (the Old Testament). 
  6. The president (one who presides) over the meeting exhorts those present to stay true to what was read. 
  7. They pray.
  8. They take the Lord’s Supper as spiritual and physical nourishment (and send it with deacons to those not present).
  9. Those who have extra money give to the president (really like a modern pastor) who gives to those who are needy. 

So, when the book of Acts mentions that they gathered for fellowship, food, and discussing the apostles’ teaching they earliest Christians probably understood the passage to seem somewhat similar to what is described above, but allowing for differences of culture and church polity (things were much more free in Corinth compared to Ephesus). 

Also, the apostle’s teaching was apparently seen as summarized most fully in the four gospels because the early church saw the apostles’ as simply carrying the teachings of Jesus to the world. So the apostle’s teaching at the time of Acts was probably in obedience to Matthew 28:16-20. Their teaching was simply teaching others how to obey Jesus.