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Christmastime, Christ-mas and the birth of Jesus

by Peri Forrester

This is a summary of a presentation given on the 5th of December 2013 by Peri Forrester on the Case for Christmas. See The case for Christmas for the Power Point slides. See the Case for Christmas Presentation and the Case for Christmas Discussion for the video recordings.

Peri’s transcript is given below:

Is the 25th Jesus birthday?

Is the 25th Jesus birthday? No it’s not. Jesus was probably born in spring since that was the time the Shepherds Luke refers to would have been out.  Matthew’s star may refer to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn whose astronomical effect impressed others. There are a number of suggestions on this point, but even if the Magi visit was strictly historical, which I think it probably was, it did not happen at the time of Jesus’ birth, but rather during his toddlerhood.

Celebrating Christ-mas on the 25th of December was instituted in 385 by Pope Julius 1 as a direct subversion of a pagan celebration.

Some say this is evidence of a Mithra connection but Mithra was not born on the 25th of December either.

The 25th of December simply was (and is) a popular annual festival for celebrating the change of seasons or something like that. It was later changed to celebrating Jesus birth.

Does that mean it is invalid to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Of course not. My birthday was yesterday and I am celebrating it this coming Saturday and I hope people don’t refuse to come to my party just because it is not on the historically correct day.

That said, the spectacle of what we call Christmas has perhaps become sufficiently focused on consumerism and its insatiable drain on world resources and disempowered human producers that we may wonder whether Jesus would likely show up to such a party himself (READ Horsley, 1993 intro). Though of course Jesus showed up to many a party that offended religious sensitivities, to establish and enjoy relationships – so who knows.

While very few Christians would have their world- view rocked by the revelation that Jesus was not born on 25th December, the question of if it is worth defending the date and thereby the cultural power invested in that date as a Christian celebration or not is a much more complicated question.

What we first need to think about, in order to answer those who question or poke scornful fun at our faith, are the historical facts behind the Biblical story and the significance both of those facts and the way they are interpreted and told by the Evangelists Matthew and Luke.

There are a number of questions that are commonly and sometimes sincerely raised about the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth concerning:

  • The narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel are not referred to elsewhere in the NT
  • There are a few differences in what the two narratives tell us about Jesus’ infancy
  • Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (Did it happen, how and what is that all about?);
  • Problems with details about the Census
  • The historicity (or otherwise) and significance of the Shepherds and Magi visiting Jesus, and, those who prophesied over Jesus in the Temple;
  • What was meant by calling the baby Jesus Lord, Savior, Son of God, King and the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy; and is it connected to the titles of savior and son of God that was given Caesar and others?
  • Does the whole story reflect common ancient mythological motifs and is therefore not true?

We can look at most of these, but first let’s think just for a moment about what is at stake

  • Scriptural ‘inspiration’ or ‘inerrancy’?  If there are real historical contradictions in the text that do not harmonize and instead make either Matthew wrong or Luke wrong on a point of historical fact, does that mean that the Bible is not God’s inerrant word? Could your faith cope?
  • The trust worthiness of Matthew and Luke as Evangelists?  Do such contradictions, if found to exist mean that either of the Evangelists were not good history writers?
  •  Key Christian doctrines? If some elements of the accounts are deemed to be more mythological or legendary than historical in genre, does that affect any key Christian doctrines, or does it lend weight to one denominational view over another?
  • More personally, is there a loss of face if some things we have proclaimed need modification or recantation?  I certainly know that I have needed to modify my own truth claims a number of times in my Christian journey as I have continued learning – but none of that has detracted from my core belief in who Jesus is or who his salvation is making me, nor has it changed the good news I have to share with others. God’s gift is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus the Christ. But there may be some people who fear their faith would not survive revision of any belief connected to it- and surely we need to be careful with them even as Paul instructs us in 1 Cor 8

Now I know many of you will be keen to get to the punch lines of: does the Scripture really mean, and is it historically true that Jesus was born without Mary having ever had sexual intercourse before? And, were the Evangelists influenced by mystery religions when they wrote their accounts about Jesus?  Hopefully you will be satisfied with what I have to say about these things. We will start by examining a few terms commonly used as they apply to the narratives.

History and history writing, mythology/ mythological, legend/ legendary, Midrash.

History and History writing

The first point here is that we do not have the past.  We only have the effects of the past. Writings about the past necessarily cherry pick elements of an event or cluster of events and filter out what is not important to the purpose of the writer in communicating with her or his audience. For example, the Evangelists do not tell us if the manger Jesus lay in had clean or dirty straw in it- or if it had some other kind of animal food, or was in fact empty, but, had they told us such a detail we would wonder why they told us- what was meant by their having told us; Getting to what was meant by the writer choosing to tell us something is the literary literal meaning of the text, just as getting to what in the empirical ‘real’ world at the time was the referent of the text is ascertaining the historical reality behind the text- if indeed the text is historical writing. (cf. Vanhoozer, 1998, 303- 308).

It is possible to get so caught up with trying to get behind the text to grab hold of the events referred to that the communicative point of the text is missed altogether- such as when we boggle our brains trying to understand just how God’s Spirit overshadowing Mary put the X and Y chromosomes together in her womb (and yes I have heard people seriously talk about this, as though it matters). It is just as possible to explore the possible symbolic meanings and the essential truths derived from those meanings implied by an account of an event to the extent that one floats away entirely from the historical referent. Much critical scholarship in the 20th C (termed the new hermeneutic and characterized by the work of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, (Longenecker, 1975:52,53) erred in this direction.

To be clear: I understand the narrative beginning Luke and Matthew to be historical writing, that is I believe the main historical referents being actual are important to the meaning and truth of the text, even while I acknowledge that the events are selectively depicted and interpreted and possibly at points embellished by the Evangelists to suit their theological communications to an extent that would not be acceptable in the top end of modern history writing. Even so, the gospel accounts do reflect what really happened certainly above and beyond what we can know about what really happened behind most ancient writings.

Mythology/ mythological and Legend/ legendary

The definition of these terms is relevant because there are many who say that the conception and birth narratives are mythological or legendary.  Often the people who so dismiss the narratives don’t actually know what mythological and legendary even means, and often when we defend the narratives against the allegation and consequent dismissal on such grounds we don’t really know what those words mean either. What is sometimes meant by those terms as they are commonly used in this way is that the narrative does not match expectations about history writing, as we noted, and are by critics therefore deemed to be not true to events at all, such that ‘mythology’ is put on the spectrum between fiction and fact; closer to fiction.

Mythologies, properly understood however, are accepted as true stories about ‘gods’ of various kinds and divine origins of the universe by their believers.  Mythology usually involves the remote past and is often central to a meta-narrative that discerns and integrates meaning for believers in experience and history (Horsley, 1993: 11).  By this definition Genesis one is indeed a creation myth- but that does not mean it is not true.  The biblical nativity narratives are part of the meta narrative of salvation history which I believe to be true, though they are not central to that narrative as is evidenced by the fact that they are not referred to in the rest of the NT (that is not to say that the history behind the story is not important- that Jesus was born is critically important to salvation history- but the stories about his birth are less important to our understanding of salvation- evidently Paul was unaware of them- these stories are not critical integration points of the Gospel of or about Jesus).  The nativity narratives involve a God: Jesus, but they are not primarily about the remote past and the origin of the universe; rather they are about events recorded close to the time of their happening.  So they cannot properly be called myths.

Legends on the other hand usually involve human or human/ divine heroes, and their birth and development from the less remote past, as viewed through adoring eyes (Horsley, 1993:12).  So by such a definition it is reasonable to speak of the conception and infancy narratives as legends if you view Jesus as a hero- and certainly I do.  It should not be surprising that legends develop about the birth and childhood of people who in adulthood become as important as Jesus, as NT Wright notes (1999: 175).  However this does not mean that Jesus fits the mould, or more pointedly is made from the same mould as other legendary persons, or even that such a mould exists (regarding the many parallels made see web site: http://www.rightreason.org/2009/the-virgin-birth-of-buddha/).  As Strobel quotes to us, “those who claim Christianity was derived from these myths manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal mystery religion that never existed” (Schweitzer in Strobel, 2005:43).

So, yes we can say the birth narratives are legendary in one sense, but understanding them as historical writing is a more helpful and robust rubric for understanding what their authors intend them to mean and signify. If you are interested in reading in depth on these issues of the genre and meaning of the infancy narratives you may like to refer to Raymond Brown’s comprehensive and widely respected book “the Birth of the Messiah” (1993).

Midrash

Midrash is an interpretive reading of a text which goes beyond the primary literal referents and seeks a deeper meaning (Longenecker, 1975:32); it seeks to actualize the past as a lesson or fulfillment for the present (Bloch in Brown, 1993: 558).  As I understand it, it is entirely reasonable to say the infancy narratives involve Midrash intentions on the part of the Evangelists, and it is true to say that modern history writing tries to rid itself of such, though of course it cannot and if history could be known without relevance for the present it would be of questionable value to know any anyway.

When Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth is foretold by the text in Isaiah talking about a child being born to us, this is a kind of Midrash interpretation of the OT text.

Let me give you an example of a different kind of Midrash: I am currently a member of a volunteer acting team taking a theatrical interpretation of the nativity into schools.  Today we preformed at two primary schools in the western suburbs.  The play is set in “grandma’s house” where family members are dressing up as characters from the nativity for Christmas.  In explaining the shepherds’ role to her family ‘grandma’ says that shepherds were looked down on in Jesus day, and the Midrash point she derives is that the Good News is that Jesus is for everyone including the poor and marginalized (she words it differently).  Now I entirely agree with ‘grandma’s’ interpretation and it reflects a proper Christian interpretation about the role of the shepherds in the story. This interpretation goes beyond the empirical facts of history, however, and from the text we cannot be sure whether this interpretation is true- it is possible that the shepherds being appeared to first, was just because they were close by and that it had nothing to do with their social status and the universality of the Gospel. So while the interpretation goes beyond the facts, the facts are important to the interpretation.  If the shepherds were not historically real, and Luke told us they were real in order to get to point to the truth that the Good News is for everyone, that would go beyond Midrash and rightly be taken as pious fiction.

Virgin Birth

Ok so let’s talk about Mary’s (lack of a) sex life and the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception.  Whatever differences there are in the two nativity accounts both Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary was a virgin and the context makes it clear that, in this case, virgin means not having had sex.

Matthew 1:18-25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before Joseph and Mary had come together and that she gave birth before they consummated the marriage- we can have no doubt that Matthew intends his reader to believe that Mary was a virgin in that she had not had sex, and not simply that she was a young woman.  This is an instance of history writing and while there are arguments out there that depend on a symbolic meaning divorced from the referent of an actual virgin birth, they ignore the basic and first meaning of the text.  Such interpretations, therefore, are not faithful to the text. It is possible that Matthew was mistaken about Mary’s sexual history- but- that he believed her to be a virgin needs to be affirmed.

Matthew explains that the events concerned are connected to the OT text Isaiah 7:14. Often critics and defenders of the historical virginal conception of Jesus assume in their arguments that the main point of prophesy in the Isaiah 7:14 as it applies to Jesus’ birth is Mary’s virginity and so they play a game of who knows more about ancient language use.  A game that in my view Christian linguists win when both sides are heard, but not a game I think worthy of getting into tonight. (Brown, as referenced before is THE scholarly and fairly considered book to read, http://www.frontline-apologetics.com/Virgin_Birth_Jesus.html a credible, well researched website favoring the view that the Isaiah text is indeed prophetic of Jesus). Suffice to say the word Isaiah uses can mean virgin as we understand it and it can simply mean a young woman without reference to her sexual status.

In the first instance Isaiah was predicting that a series of political events were going to take place in his own context and would take place in the time it would take a child, not yet born or even conceived, to grow to such an age as to be able to tell right from wrong, and that his prediction coming true would be evidence of God’s being present and active in those events. Isaiah was not telling us that the young woman would remain a virgin until the birth of her child. While there is a possible connection with the word virgin which applies to Mary in a way beyond what Isaiah intended in the first instance, for those of us, and I include myself, willing to believe that God super-intended that meaning, the connection between the name Immanuel (God with us) and God’s actually coming to us through the body of any woman seems the grander and more important fulfilment of the Isaiah prophesy as Matthew applies it to Jesus.  The point is that Jesus is the ultimate evidence of Immanuel because in his very self Jesus is God with us.

Let’s look at the only other biblical account we have of the virgin conception of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

Luke 1:26-38

New International Version (NIV)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

We can first notice that Luke’s describing Mary as a virgin like Matthew’s needs to be read as literally meaning that Mary had at the time the angel appeared to her not had sex.  Unlike Matthew though, Luke makes no reference to OT prophecy.

Instead Luke tells us (and just maybe we will allow that he was roughly paraphrasing the angel’s communication to Mary based on Christian theological reflection) that the child would be called the “Son of God”.  This could be understood as conveying much of what Matthew says by referring to the Immanuel prophesy, but to Luke’s audience who did not know the OT the way Matthew’s did.  Each of the four evangelists develop the theme of Jesus being the Son of God in their own way: Mark tells us Jesus was always the Son of God but was only publically recognized as such after his crucifixion, John develops the theme by focusing on Jesus’ pre-existence and relationship with God, and Matthew and Luke use these infancy narratives to demonstrate Jesus is Son of God.

Of course other lords of the time of Jesus were given the title of Son of God and savior and I think that it is fair to say that calling Jesus the Son of God did serve a counter-cultural, implied revolutionary purpose just as calling Jesus Lord and savior did.  We forget this when we read that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can call Jesus Lord (1 Cor 12:3) and imagine that just saying “lord, lord” (cf. Matt 7:21) without any courage of conviction- against the cultural grain and sometimes worldly gain- is truly Spiritual. Horsley (1993) develops this theme, I think too far and way beyond the facts of the matter, but though he makes too much of it I think that the basic tenet is true- Christians did know that in saying Jesus was savior and lord, the true Son of God they were calling Caesar, where he took on such designations, a fraud.  Certainly spiritual courage was required on their part when they did so. In a way these titles are counter- revolutionary rather than revolutionary though because the ‘Powers’ of this world first usurped God’s own divine authority before Jesus reclaimed it.  In any case, these reasons and purposes do not detract from the truth, if it is true, that Jesus is the Son of God, because and primarily, as John shows, he had pre-existent relationship with God as his Father, but also it is consistent with his earthy conception being by the creative and miraculous intervention of God as Matthew and Luke say and his recognition as divine by many through his life, death and resurrection as Mark shows. The fact that others were called such things does not at all detract from the validity of the truth claim that Jesus is the true Son of God, the True Lord, the true Savior of the world- it only puts those claims in context.

Now outside the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke there are no historical evidences that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. So if we believe in the virgin birth as history we do so because that is the literal meaning of the text; that is what Matthew and Luke believed- and unlike us they were around the people who were around Jesus. I am willing to believe in the virgin birth on the strength of the testimony we have, especially since it is God’s book and even apart from that, but at the same time, it is not crucial to my faith.  The main thing for me is that Jesus is Immanuel, not that Mary was a virgin.

However there are theories within some Christian communities that depend on the virgin birth, one being that since the fall sexual conception itself is the means of original sin being passed on so it is because of the virgin birth that Jesus was sinless (theologians as diverse as Augustine and Carl Barth affirm this) (Brown, 1993:530). It seems a bit down on sex but maybe that is right, I don’t know, but it does fit into the category of religious speculation and is beyond my own call to defend the gospel. Biblical theologians are usually hesitant to base doctrines on isolated texts and so it surprises me many do in this case. (The Immanuel theme of course is anything but isolated, but the virginity of Mary as we understand virginity is).

So are we all happy to affirm with Matthew and Luke that Mary was indeed a virgin?

Some may still wonder at other stories, many of them wild and clearly not written with the historical intention and care of Matthew and Luke who refer to virgin conceptions, but they have little, probably no connection to the story about Jesus, Raymond Brown, who I spoke of earlier tells that the “validity of the parallels hinges on three points…read 1993:522). Lee Strobel says much the same thing on p 43, as we’ve already read.

Jesus Birth at Bethlehem

Some critics say, following C Berger, in 1970 that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem was a historicized theoloumenon- that is it was made up by some and come to be believed by others because of the prophetic tradition it supports. It needs to be remembered that bold, attention getting statements of refutation can be made about any point of history (there are those who deny the holocaust) and likely will be when the issue is attached to such a widespread faith.  Maybe it seems funny, but most critics who say Jesus was not born at Bethlehem say he was born at Nazareth, but there are critics who say Nazareth as Jesus childhood home also is a historicized theoloumen.

Differences and Possible Contradictions between Luke’s And Matthew’s Narratives

I read a passage before that identified the points of agreement between Matthew and Luke, and I have photocopies of the page available. Brown tells us that “Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, without knowing the other’s work, agreement between the two infancy narratives would suggest the existence of a common infancy tradition earlier than either evangelist’s work- a tradition that would have a claim to greater antiquity and thus weigh on the plus side of the historical scale” (p.34).  Brown also notes that “it is striking that all but the last [nativity events told of by both evangelists] are found in one section of the Matthean narrative (1:18-2:1), and the last is something that could have been known by both evangelists from [Jesus’] public ministry” (p. 35).

Possible contradictions suggested are that while Luke tells us Mary lived in Nazareth, Matthew makes no mention of that fact.  This presents a real problem for some, but not for me.  If that was something Luke knew but Matthew did not, what is the big deal? More difficult is understanding how the family ended up back in Nazareth.  Matthew tells us they were refugees in Egypt for a time, avoiding Herod, having been visited by Magi but Luke (2:22-39) tell us they went to the temple and then back to Nazareth.  It seems from my reading that scholars seem more inclined to question Matthew’s account than Luke’s.

Matthew does have a ‘this is that’ approach to drawing allegorical meanings from history recorded in the OT and Raymond Brown, whose scholarship is so profound, says that it is possible Matthew is embellishing the story for theological effect.

Brown writes “The two main lines in popular scholarly thought about the Magi story are that it is history or that it is a product of reflection on OT themes.”  The usual OT theme recognized in this story is the Balaam story in which King Balak, who equates to Herod, wants an occultist seer to curse Israel, but the seer who is identified with the magi, having perceived the situation rightly from God despite his pagan background, refuses to (p193).  Horsley (1993) in his liberation theology reading of the narratives develops these themes, characteristically taking them further.

Brown raises questions about the historical likelihood of Matthew’s story because the explanation of a star coming to rest over a house is problematic, because there is no hint of these events in Luke and because Herod’s surviving son has no knowledge of Jesus later on, which Brown reflects seems strange if his father had been so stirred up at the report of Jesus’ birth.  Brown goes on to point out plausible resolutions to these questions noting that there were a number of strange astronomical happenings reported in the period around Jesus birth, and Magi with a special interest in them may have drawn leadings from them not perceived by most (Brown 1993:165-201).  Even so Brown favors the theory that Matthew made some bits up. As a scholar of historical writing who has analyzed the text, we need to respect his expert if not his religious opinion – it is not to be dismissed with so many internet rumors. However, as to Matthew telling a story Luke does not it seems fair to ask why might Luke have left it out as well as why might Matthew have put it in. And one very possible reason for Luke’s omission is space.  We need to remember they wrote on scrolls, not computers or reams of paper.  Luke’s Gospel is as long as it possibly could be and still fit on one scroll.  Maybe, since the story added nothing for his audience and purpose he left it out.  Maybe the themes were relevant to Matthew’s audience because of OT motifs, and Matthew’s twin message that Jesus fulfills the OT religion, even as he manifests the universality of Israel’s God.  In this understanding the Midrash is vital to Matthew’s message, but the history is still important. There is no problem with Luke saying the family offered sacrifice at the temple during the period Matthew places the family in Bethlehem because the city of Jerusalem and its satellite village, Bethlehem were only 8km apart.

Personally my view of Scripture does allow for one or other of the evangelists to have been mistaken on minor points, but if, as a matter of fact the family never went to Egypt that would  seem to be a major point.  Not Gospel killing major, but major like if Mary conceived in the natural way.

Similarly it also seems that when Luke writes the songs of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah, he is drawing on OT themes to elaborate on the actual historical content of the Spirit filled outbursts of joyful communication he reports Elizabeth and the others having.  My view of literary literal meanings and of Scripture has no problem with that understanding of the Evangelists’ poetic license here in these instances.  As Howard Marshall tells us “the hymns attributed to some of the principal actors are unlikely to be spontaneous compositions, but serve, like the speeches in ancient histories, to express the significance of the moment in appropriate language” (p.46).   However, that poetic license would be mightily stretched for me if, for example, the wise men were only representative figures and not actual ones.

Conclusion

So now let me tell you the story of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy as I understand it to have happened, adding in possible expletory details, remembering of course that none of it has anything to do with the time of year we call Christmas except as the public consensus continues to make it so.

Mary was a young girl of about 13 when she learned from God, through an angel that she was going to have a special baby, by a miracle of God and not involving any kind of sexual intercourse. Embarrassed though she was, she told her betrothed, Joseph, who was about 18.  He assumed that Mary had had sex with someone until an angel told him in a dream that Mary was telling the truth. Then the couple, embarrassed though they were, told their parents, and, what their parents believed we do not know.  But Mary was sent to stay with her aunt away from the eye of the townsfolk for much of her pregnancy, and her aunt, who knew from personal experience that God can do miracle pregnancies, did believe her and sensed the import of their auspicious unborn babies.  Later in Mary’s pregnancy she and Joseph were sent away to Bethlehem- probably again to escape the notice of those who may be able to add up the months and realize conception came before marriage- this was likely the real reason for the move even if a coming census was the ostensible reason, the family justification for a move.

Mary and Joseph, when they arrived in Bethlehem, camped out the back of someone’s house in something like a sleep-out where animals were let in during the cold until 40 days after Jesus was born (the full period of Mary’s ritual uncleanness- and recovery). Shepherds, who had seen a host of angels, came prophesying just after Jesus birth. After 40 days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem and in the crowded court of women at the temple at least two people came and prophesized over the baby. When the couple went back to Bethlehem they intended to settle down there and they became established in a house- probably the house of relatives- rather than the animal’s sleep-out.

Star-gazers from Babylon or Arabia came, because God told them to, not through means of angels as conceived of generally, but through astronomical and astrological means.  They were sufficiently bold enough to seek an audience with King Herod, though, while they were from the intelligentsia of their own people, they were not kings. They found the baby Jesus in the small village of Bethlehem and avoided Herod on their way back home after hearing from God in a dream (it is possible they also heard from other humans what Herod did to his own son, and others, in defense of his throne).

After a prophetic dream Joseph took his family to Egypt, which was beyond the jurisdiction of Herod. Herod did something quite in keeping with his character having all the male infants in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to get rid of the child he was told might be a rival to his kingship.  There were probably only 20 or so male infants and compared to his regular brutality such a murder did not even warrant a mention in official records.

Though presumably Joseph had intended returning to Bethlehem after Herod died, he was led by God to move back to Nazareth- which was in a more politically stable region.  It would seem likely by then that enough time had passed that most people would not be able to figure out that the conception of Jesus happened before the marriage of his parents- but it also seems clear from later rumors of illegitimacy that some people did still wonder.

References:

Brown, R.E., (1993), “The Birth of the Messiah, a commentary on the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke”, Doubleday: New York

Horsley, R.A., (1993) “The Liberation of Christmas, the infancy narratives in social context”, Continuum: New York

Longenecker, R.N., (1995), “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period”, Paternosta: Carlisle

Marshall, I.H. (1978), “The Gospel of Luke, a commentary on the Greek text”, Paternosta: Exeter

Strobel, L., (2005), “The Case for Christmas, a journalist investigates the identity of the child in the manger”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids

Vanhoozer, K.J. (1998), “Is There a Meaning in this Text, The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids

Wright, N.T., (1999), “The Meaning of Jesus, two visions” Harper Collins: SanFrancisco

Should we argue for God’s Existence?

On Thursday the 21st of November Mike Russell spoke on “Should we argue for God’s existence?”  Mike believes that we should presuppose God’s existence in apologetic discourse. He calls his apologetic approach ‘no-excuse intuitionism’. The dividing line between what we should argue for using evidence and what we should presuppose is governed by the principle of no excuse. Any element of moral truth that a person needs to know to live a blameless life, he ought to know, and can know by intuition. However, the Holy Spirit works through the arguments and evidences from the Scriptures. Thus any other element of truth that a person needs to know to be saved through Jesus can and should be argued for using evidence and arguments.

So, according to Mike, if you do not believe in God, then you ought to, without requiring any evidence.

Some were convinced and others were not. Mike has provided us with his Power Point Slides and the presentation and discussion has been recorded on You Tube. The full content of his talk is the subject of his current Master’s thesis and so cannot be published. However, he is happy to provide the full text through Reasonable Faith Adelaide, provided that it is not published or passed on. Please email me if you would like a copy. We are also hoping that Mike will provide a brief summary that we can provide with this post.

mikeally

Mike is married to Ally, and they have four children.  He has been a Christian for around 20 years, and is Associate minister at St. George’s Magill. He is currently writing an MTh thesis in the area of apologetics.

Why I Am Not a Creationist

On Thursday the 7th of November Dr Ian Saunders, a CSIRO scientist, spoke on “Why I am not a Creationist”.

Christians are divided on the issue of evolution and the age of the earth. Many of our own members are supporters of Creation Ministries International (CMI), which promotes Young Earth Creationism (YEC). On the other hand, many of our members are not YECs. Ian is one of those.

Ian has been a Christian and a professional scientist for about 40 years. He recently retired from a position as Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO. The publication of his first scientific paper coincided with his conversion to Christianity and he has endeavoured since to keep the two sides of his life thoroughly entwined, each being a part of the search for truth. His talk is summarised briefly as follows:

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In his talk he spoke about the development of the scientific method as a response to dissatisfaction with a wholly philosophical view that sought to deduce everything from first principles. As an example of the method, he described the rise and fall of the phlogiston theory of combustion, which initially seemed to explain the facts, but became less and less tenable as more experiments were done until after 70 years it was abandoned. The scientific method seeks to avoid reliance on authority and to take an impartial approach to evaluating theories against observations: “Love your colleagues’ results as your own”.

The danger with accepting prior authority is that it encourages looking for evidence to support a position rather than to discover the truth. So Ian is neither an evolutionist or a creationist in the sense that he squeezes his data to match his preconceptions. He illustrated the way in which modern biological research papers promote an evolutionist position even when there is no need to go beyond the observed phenomena.

However, he does not accept Genesis 1-11 as accurate history. He gave some examples from geology and astronomy that cast severe doubt on a literal interpretation. Instead he sees them as parables teaching spiritual truth about the relationships of God to the Universe and to Mankind and about the existence of evil. He spoke also about evolution, acknowledging that he sees it at the  most likely explanation of a range of phenomena, though without direct evidence one way or the other at this point.

He quoted with approval St Augustine “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture” [De Genesi ad Litteram, I, xviii, 37]

Ian’s view is that the Bible contains unique knowledge about God and his purposes, while science can tell us about what is (or was) but not about meaning or purpose. The fine details of creation are not key to our relationship with God and it is possible to combine a strong faith in Jesus with an acceptance of scientific research. We should avoid placing stumbling blocks in the path to Jesus by insisting on matters of secondary importance. Ultimately, Jesus is the Truth and one day we will see Him face to face.

******

Ian’s talk may be accessed from the following links:

Did we resolve the issue once and for all to everyone’s satisfaction? Absolutely not! However, (for the most part) we were able to discuss the issues in an open, friendly and respectful manner.

Reasonable Faith Adelaide currently does not officially endorse any particular view, but encourages discussion on the relevant issues so that that people are better informed to develop their own opinion. So, I encourage you to come and hear Ian and participate in the discussion.

During the course of discussion we decided to cover a couple of additional topics in future meetings:

  • Radioactive Dating Methods – What are they, how do they work, how accurate are they, and are they reliable?
  • On the 20th of February 2014, John Hartnett (Associate Professor of physics at Adelaide University) will speak on “Cosmic Mythology: Exposing the Big Bang as Philosophy, not Science

The True Origins of Christianity – A Sceptical View

On Thursday the 24th of October Laurie Eddie, the founder of the SA Skeptics, presented his views on the “The True Origins of Christianity”.

Laurie Eddie is a joint founder of the South Australian branch of the Australian Skeptics in 1983. Laurie was formerly the president of SA Skeptics and is the current vice president.  Prior to retirement Laurie was a clinical psychologist and also worked for the Department of Correctional Services.

Laurie gave a one hour Power Point presentation on The Origins of Christianity, which was then followed by discussion. His main thesis was that:

  • The early church in Jerusalem was Jewish and mainly followed Jesus’ teachings but did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God or that he rose from the dead.
  • Paul took the gospel to the gentiles and introduced the divine aspects of Jesus, based on Gnostic teachings and influenced by Roman mystery religions. It was Paul who taught that Jesus was Son of God and that he rose from the dead. The majority of the New Testament is largely unhistorical, contradictory and reflects Paul’s views.
  • The Jerusalem church was nearly completely wiped out during the Jewish Wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The survivors moved to Pella (across the Jordan) and subsequently declined in influence.

After his presentation, we had an open discussion. Laurie also invited a number of his friends from the SA Skeptics and so we shared a diversity of views. Laurie’s presentation and the subsequent discussion is now available on You Tube. There was insufficient time to fully engage with all of Laurie’s material; so we will be reviewing his material in subsequent meetings next year.

Laurie’s views are not the same as ours. However, Reasonable Faith Adelaide wishes to engage with people who disagree with us. We encourage dialogue and it is our full intention to listen carefully to and honestly evaluate the opinions and arguments of those with whom we disagree. Laurie previously participated in a debate with us on the existence of God. He takes an interest in what we do and has attended a number of our meetings. Thus we welcome his participation.

Kevin Rogers

Did NT writers copy pagan religions?

On the 10th of October Dr Stephen Spence presented the current status of comparative religious studies and especially the influence of pagan myths on the New Testament.

During the debates between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, Krauss claimed that Jesus is nothing new. Krauss claimed that Dionysus, Perseus, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury and Romulus were also born of a virgin. In particular, Dionysus (the Greek God of wine) was born of a virgin mother, fathered by the king of heaven, returned from the dead, transformed water into wine and was the liberator of mankind. Krauss also claimed that Osiris (the Egyptian God of life) rose from the dead and all mortal men could be resurrected if they followed the correct religious rituals.

The claim that Jesus is a copy of pagan deities is a common ploy from sceptics. However,

  • Are the parallels real?
  • Are these claims supported within academic circles or are they just believed within populist, non-academic sceptical circles?
  • What are the implications of these parallels?
  • Is Jesus of Nazareth really unique?

In response, Dr Spence provided a background on Comparative Religion and the historical background and current status of the School of History of Religions. This also included an assessment of the degree of influence of pagan religions on the NT. He also provided an assessment on the plausibility of the virgin birth and the nativity narratives.

Steve went over his time budget, but he is forgiven. It was a really interesting talk and well worth viewing the video recording on You Tube. Stephen provided us with Overhead slides and handouts as well as a Review of Kyrios Christus by Larry Hurtado. Kyrios Christus was one of the key publications from the School of the History of Religions, which first proposed that the divine view of Christ was derived from pagan sources.

sspence_large

The Reverend Dr Stephen Spence is the Deputy Principal (Academic) of Tabor College in Adelaide.  He is also the Professor of New Testament and Theology. Dr Spence has international theological training, including a PhD from Fuller Seminary, and has also been a pastor in several churches in Victoria. Stephen is married to Colleen (who is also on staff at Tabor), and has two children. He supports the Richmond Tigers, and won the 2008 Tabor football tipping! – See more at: http://taboradelaide.edu.au/schools/school-of-ministry-theology-culture/faculty#spence.

Krauss Versus Craig

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Introduction

On Thursday 26th of September, Reasonable Faith Adelaide reviewed the “dialogue” between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss on the topic “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This dialogue was held on the 13th of August in Sydney.

William Lane Craig is the director of Reasonable Faith in the US and is a leading apologetics debater. He spoke at two functions in Adelaide via the City Bible Forum and many of us had the opportunity to hear him and meet him personally. However, his main activity in Australia was the series of “dialogues” with Lawrence Krauss.

Craig

Lawrence Krauss is a high profile New Atheist. He has spent a significant time in Australia and has appeared on Q&A on two occasions.

 krauss

There were 3 dialogues held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Krauss chose a dialogue format rather than a debate. This enabled a highly interactive discussion that was quite volatile. For instance, in Brisbane Krauss launched a personal attack on William Lane Craig. He accused him of being a dishonest charlatan. He later softened his line a little and admitted that Craig was a gentleman who sincerely believed in his cause but still accused him of presenting deliberate distortions to bolster his arguments.

I highly recommend that you watch each dialogue and judge for yourself who the honest man really is. They are all now available from the City Bible Forum site at:

http://citybibleforum.org/city/melbourne-brisbane-perth-adelaide-sydney/news/videos-life-universe-and-nothing

The topic “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is closely related to Krauss’ most recent book “A Universe from Nothing”, which was reviewed by Mark Worthing on the 15th of August.

The dialogue format consisted of a 15 minute talk by each speaker followed by a discussion, moderated by Rachael Kohns, the presenter of “The Spirit of Things”, which is an ABC radio show.

Krauss’s Presentation

Krauss spoke first and his main points were:

  • Craig presents deliberate distortions
  • We are not the centre of the universe. There is no special place.
  • We live in flat universe, which has a total energy of zero. This suggests that the universe could come into existence from nothing without any “divine shenanigans”.
  • The Bible claimed that the universe had a beginning before science did. However, so did many other creation myths, so what is unique about the Bible? It is often claimed that the Bible is not a scientific book so why suddenly make a switch and claim that Genesis 1:1 is a scientific statement?
  • The fine tuning of the laws of physics is a source of fascination. However, a multiverse may explain the fine tuning and the fine tuning could be better. So the fine tuning is not evidence of divine design.

One of Craig’s commonly used arguments is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. He uses this argument to show that the cosmos had a beginning, which requires a transcendent cause by a necessarily existent being. One of the evidences to support a physical beginning is the Borde, Guth and Vlenkin (BGV) Theorem. In response, Krauss’s displayed the following personal email from Vilenkin:

Hi Lawrence,

Any theorem is only as good as its assumptions. The BGV theorem says that if the universe is on average expanding along a given worldline, this worldline cannot be infinite to the past. A possible loophole is that there might be an epoch of contraction prior to the expansion. Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton and by Carroll & Chen…Jaume Garriga and I are now exploring a picture of the multiverse where the BGV theorem may not apply. In bubbles of negative vacuum energy, expansion is followed by contractionHowever, it is conceivable (and many people think likely) that singularities will be resolved in the theory of quantum gravity, so the internal collapse of the bubbles will be followed by an expansion. In this scenario,… it is not at all clear that the BGV assumption (expansion on average) will be satisfied… Of course there is no such thing as absolute certainty in science, especially in matters like the creation of the universe. Note for example that the BGV theorem uses a classical picture of spacetime. In the regime where gravity becomes essentially quantum, we may not even know the right questions to ask.

Alex

Krauss used this email to argue that the BGV theorem did not necessarily indicate a beginning. Krauss reused this email during the Melbourne dialogue.  In Melbourne Craig questioned Krauss on the missing bits indicated by the ellipsis markers. Krauss claimed that these were “technical bits”.

Subsequent to the dialogues, Craig wrote to Vilenkin, who supplied the full text of the email, as given below. The sections in bold are the “technical bits” that Krauss omitted.

Hi Lawrence,

Any theorem is only as good as its assumptions. The BGV theorem says that if the universe is on average expanding along a given worldline, this worldline cannot be infinite to the past.

A possible loophole is that there might be an epoch of contraction prior to the expansion. Models of this sort have been discussed by Aguirre & Gratton and by Carroll & Chen. They had to assume though that the minimum of entropy was reached at the bounce and offered no mechanism to enforce this condition. It seems to me that it is essentially equivalent to a beginning.

On the other hand, Jaume Garriga and I are now exploring a picture of the multiverse where the BGV theorem may not apply. In bubbles of negative vacuum energy, expansion is followed by contraction, and it is usually assumed that this ends in a big crunch singularity. However, it is conceivable (and many people think likely) that singularities will be resolved in the theory of quantum gravity, so the internal collapse of the bubbles will be followed by an expansion. In this scenario, a typical worldline will go through a succession of expanding and contracting regions, and it is not at all clear that the BGV assumption (expansion on average) will be satisfied.

I suspect that the theorem can be extended to this case, maybe with some additional assumptions. But of course there is no such thing as absolute certainty in science, especially in matters like the creation of the universe. Note for example that the BGV theorem uses a classical picture of spacetime. In the regime where gravity becomes essentially quantum, we may not even know the right questions to ask.

Alex

The missing bits don’t seem all that technical to me and they do throw a different light on Vilenkin’s views. A more extended record of the discourse between Craig and Vilenkin can be obtained from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-bgv-theorem.

If you have been reading this summary carefully, you may have noticed that Krauss’s arguments are not particularly relevant to the topic. However, he did show a short video clip that explained how nothing is more complicated than previously thought. Craig subsequently provided a summary of Krauss’ claims about nothing, which I have listed below.

In 1922, William Hughes Mearns published the following poem.

The other day upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh, how I wish he’d go away

Mearns is guilty of calling nothing something. However, Krauss seems to be guilty of the opposite sin. He calls something nothing; and this was the main thrust of Craig’s argument.

Craig’s Presentation

“Nothing” is not a different type of something. It is “not anything”. However, Krauss defines something to be nothing. Here are some quotations from Krauss:

  • There are a variety of forms of nothing, they all have physical definitions
  • The laws of quantum mechanics tell us that nothing is unstable
  • 70% of the dominant stuff of the universe is nothing
  • There is nothing there, but it has energy
  • Nothing weighs something
  • Nothing is almost everything

The above quotations were almost identical with Krauss’s video clip. They all illustrate that Krauss is being misleading in his use of the word “nothing”. In all instance his use of nothing is really something, whether it be a quantum vacuum or quantum mechanical systems.

Craig further supported Krauss’s misrepresentation of nothing with a quote from “On the origin of everything” by David Albert, a philosopher of science.

Vacuum states are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff…the fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings…amount to anything even remotely in the neighbourhood of a creation from nothing. Krauss is dead wrong and his religious and philosophical critics are absolutely right.

See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 for the full text.

Craig then presented Gottfried Leibniz’ argument for the existence of God based on the Principle of Sufficient Reason:

  1. Every existing thing has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 and 3).
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God (from 2 and 4).

I suggest you watch the video to see how Craig supported this argument.

Discussion

The interesting part of the discussion was on Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument. The central point of discussion was premise 2, “If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.” During Craig’s talk, he had presented arguments to support premise 2. Krauss’s question was, “If there is an explanation, why does it have to be God?” More importantly, what type of explanation are we talking about? Is it a causal explanation or is it about purpose? This is extremely important to the argument and Craig was about to explain. However, at this stage, Rachael (the moderator) was obviously out of her depth and so interrupted the argument with a silly question about aliens. So, all was lost and now we will never know. Thank you Rachael.

Conclusion

Some of the discussion was confusing and difficult to follow. In all 3 dialogues the discussion was hindered by Krauss’s frequent interruptions and shouting over the top of Craig to prevent him from completing his explanations. However, in my opinion one observation was clear from the Sydney dialogue. Krauss is equivocating in his use of nothing. He is confusing something with nothing to argue how the universe could arise from nothing, when it is really something. He has conceded that it is likely that the physical cosmos has a beginning, but has not in reality provided any explanation for its origin or the reason why it exists. Science attempts to explain how the physical world can be transformed from one physical state into another. However, it always presupposes a prior physical state. To explain how the physical world can arise from absolutely nothing is inherently beyond the scope of physics. That is what “meta-physics” is all about.

Kevin Rogers

Miracles, Weeping Statues and Aliens

This is a summary of Brian Schroeder’s talk on miracles, presented at Tabor College on 12 September 2013. The video recording is available on You Tube. His power point slides are available at Miracles.

Purpose/Aim

There are people who believe in miracles and people who don’t. There are people who want to believe in miracles and people who want to disbelieve in them. Many others – both denying and supporting ‘miracles’ – have come before me and produced much greater and more thorough efforts than me. (eg. see Kevin Rogers’ article on the RFA website).

The purpose of this article is to:

  • demonstrate that non-belief in miracles is a philosophical decision, not a rational or scientific one
  • define what “miracle” is
  • promote rational scepticism – a guarded open mind
  • differentiate between atheist and Christian apriori rejections
  • demonstrate the belief in miracles is perfectly rational

I will not look in detail here at specific Biblical miracles. My aim here is to promote rational thinking, to show that a proper examination of the evidence (and of the accounts of witnesses) is reasonable, rational and worthwhile. If miracles are real they can stand rigorous examination. If the are not then they need it. The claims, ramifications, and evidence are great enough that they deserve it and leave no basis, wishful thinking aside, for simply burying heads in the sand and chanting the mantra ‘miracles don’t exist’.

Issues

  • Are miracles possible?
  • Can miracles happen?
  • Have miracles happened?
  • Do miracles happen?
  • What exactly is a miracle?
  • What do we mean by the word?

What are Miracles?

Are they:

  • Something that cannot happen?
  • The least probable explanation for any given event?
  • A happening contrary to the laws of nature?
  • A highly unlikely good event (eg. winning the lottery)

Chambers Concise Usage Dictionary

  1. Something which man is not normally capable of making happen and which is therefore thought to be done by a god or God: Christ’s turning of water into wine was a miracle.
  2. A fortunate happening that has no obvious natural cause or explanation: It’s a miracle he wasn’t killed in the plane crash

David Hume

Of Miracles” is the title of Section X of David Hume‘s An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding (1748).

Hume starts by telling the reader that he believes that he has “discovered an argument […] which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion”.

Hume first explains the principle of evidence: the only way that we can judge between two empirical claims is by weighing the evidence. The degree to which we believe one claim over another is proportional to the degree by which the evidence for one outweighs the evidence for the other. The weight of evidence is a function of such factors as the reliability, manner, and number of witnesses.

Now, a miracle is defined as: “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.” Laws of nature, however, are established by “a firm and unalterable experience”; they rest upon the exception-less testimony of countless people in different places and times.

“Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happens in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country.”

As the evidence for a miracle is always limited, as miracles are single events, occurring at particular times and places, the evidence for the miracle will always be outweighed by the evidence against — the evidence for the law of which the miracle is supposed to be a transgression.

There are, however, two ways in which this argument might be neutralised. First, if the number of witnesses of the miracle be greater than the number of witnesses of the operation of the law, and secondly, if a witness be 100% reliable (for then no amount of contrary testimony will be enough to outweigh that person’s account). Hume therefore lays out, in the second part of section X, a number of reasons that we have for never holding this condition to have been met. He first claims that no miracle has in fact had enough witnesses of sufficient honesty, intelligence, and education. He goes on to list the ways in which human beings lack complete reliability:

  • People are very prone to accept the unusual and incredible, which excites agreeable passions of surprise and wonder.
  • Those with strong religious beliefs are often prepared to give evidence that they know is false, “with the best intentions in the world, for the sake of promoting so holy a cause”.
  • People are often too credulous when faced with such witnesses, whose apparent honesty and eloquence (together with the psychological effects of the marvellous described earlier) may overcome normal scepticism.
  • Miracle stories tend to have their origins in “ignorant and barbarous nations” – either elsewhere in the world or in a civilised nation’s past. The history of every culture displays a pattern of development from a wealth of supernatural events – “prodigies, omens, oracles, judgements” – which steadily decreases over time, as the culture grows in knowledge and understanding of the world.

Hume ends with a new theme: the argument from miracles. He points out that many different religions have their own miracle stories. Given that there is no reason to accept some of them but not others (aside from a prejudice in favour of one religion), then we must hold all religions to have been proved true — but given the fact that religions contradict each other, this cannot be the case.

(Wikipedia Article: “Of Miracles”)

Refuting Hume

According to the naturalistic view of the age and size of universe – human observations are minuscule in comparison (both time and space), negligible Þ not relevant. Thus Hume’s definition of natural laws coming from “the exception-less testimony of countless people in different places and times” is rather suspect.

Looking at the assumption that a miracle is something that is contrary to the laws of nature (David Hume) – how do we know?
We can define a law of nature as a repeated observation that something always happens the same way. For example, the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. But just because we have never observed something different does not of itself make that something different impossible.

The Fremantle Football Club has never been known to win an AFL premiership. Does that mean it is contrary to the laws of nature for them to do so? That it would be a miracle (ie. an impossibility) for it to happen? “Maybe” you may think. But none of us truly believes that. Even if they never win a premiership, we still believe it is naturally possible for them to do so.
Similarly, according to our observations dead people are not resurrected. That observation by itself is not proof that it cannot happen. It could be that it simply requires a specific set of (natural) circumstances for it to happen.

Another problem with Hume’s argument is that if any ‘miracle’ IS proven to have occurred then, according to his definition, it automatically ceases to be a miracle and becomes an intrinsic part of ‘nature’. Thus his argument distils down to: Anything that is impossible is impossible; anything that cannot happen will not happen. A tautology we can all agree with whole-heartedly. It is, however, meaningless and fails completely in its purpose.

Atheist Miracles

Despite all that, atheists believe in miracles too. According to Hume’s definition, the following examples are miracles:

  • “big bang” – once-only, unobserved creation of everything from nothing – all by itself and contrary to the laws of physics (ignoring attempts by some to redefine “nothing”)
  • spontaneous generation of life from non-life
  • the ability of randomly generated aggregations of matter to develop consciousness with the capacity to observe and reason validly
  • quantum mechanics – “spooky” action at a distance. Schrödinger’s cat… ? ERP Paradox
  • The greatest believed miracle: a material impersonal random non-rational universe created itself out of absolutely nothing and then, through totally random unthinking means created personal thinking rational sentient beings able to make sense of it all.
  • That the random arrangements and movements of material objects (eg. electrons, atoms) are able to provide objective trustworthy truth.
  • That there is actually believable meaning in our existence from all this.

If ‘miracle’ is the least likely explanation of any given phenomenon, then if the only available explanations are all miracles – the least unlikely miracle would seem to be the logical choice. Creation by an intelligent personal being seems the best such option.

Trusting our faculties

Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion.” (CS Lewis – Miracles). Which leads to the obvious question: What basis do we have to trust our senses on anything?

So after viewing some optical illusions we face the question: what basis do we have to trust our senses on anything? From a purely naturalistic point of view – none. “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” ? J.B.S. Haldane, Possible Worlds

Scepticism

Scepticism is a good thing! The problem with most sceptics is that they limit their scepticism to a collection of their pet hates or personal biases. They rarely, if ever, question their own pre-suppositions. It is important that we question everything. That doesn’t mean we never accept anything, but it does mean we have good reason for what we believe, that we are less likely to get taken in by scams, less likely to be swayed by every glib-talking charlatan, “every wind of doctrine”, …

Sceptics criticize those who choose to believe in God because they (desperately) want a God to believe in; who cling to their belief despite all evidence to the contrary; who will not consider the evidence; who will not countenance any challenge to their deeply held beliefs/position/dogma.

Personally I agree. That is simply not a good enough attitude, or basis for anything. BUT most sceptics seem to cling to their position in exactly the same way. They so desperately want their beliefs/position to be true that they refuse to honestly consider the evidence.

In any society there are prevailing dogmas which one must believe, and which being sceptical of can be dangerous and bring swift retribution. Eg. (1) 14th century Europe: Christianity; (2) 20th century Iran : Islam; (3) Us here and now: global warming, evolution; etc.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge that we all have incomplete knowledge & evidence.

Christian De-mythologising

Some theologians have been convinced by the naturalists that miracles are simply not possible. They have therefore created a new theology to conform to that belief by ‘de-mythologising’ the Bible. Thus any miracle recorded there must be interpreted in some other way – eg.

  1. fiction with a moral,
  2. a later insertion by someone wanting to “sex up” the story,
  3. Primitive superstition from people who didn’t know better.

Unfortunately the Christianity they are left with bears little resemblance to historical Christianity, and contains very little to differentiate it from pure naturalism. It thus poses the question : On that basis, why associate themselves with such a religion? Why call/consider themselves Christians?

Apriori rejections

Atheists (and others) dismiss out of hand any possibility of miracles. They refuse to even consider the evidence. “Why waste time and effort on something when there is only one possible outcome anyway?”

Christians tend to take offence at such an attitude, But – What about:

  • fairies at the bottom of the garden?
  • “The Great Pumpkin”
  • Easter bunny?
  • Perpetual motion:
  • Horoscopes?

Are we any different? It is very important to examine our motives and our reasons. The approach of many (most?) Christians is no more valid than that of atheists, based on unthinking unexamined biases (whether or not those biases be true or false is another matter, and requires proper examination.) An open mind combined with proper scepticism is needed. (‘guarded open mind’)

False Miracles

There have been many false claims from both ‘Christians’ and others. Some have been outright frauds, some genuinely believed. Eg.

How on earth do they know it is Mary? How do they know what she looks like? Etc.

(Mostly of Mary – Why? If it is of God then why not Jesus? Good questions!)

Miracles and Magic

Any god we can control is, to some extent at least, acceptable. The big problem with the Christian God (and Muslim and Jewish) is that he wants to be in charge. He thinks he is God! And we can’t handle that.

The difference between miracles and magic is that miracles are done by this divine being who acts as if he is in charge. Magic, so we believe, is done by ‘me’, under my control, as I choose.

For Miracles the power resides in God. For Magic, the power resides in me.

Miracles are always presented as being good (even, for example, the plagues of Egypt are presented as an exercise of justice and the gracious offer of salvation). Even in popular thinking: ‘It is a miracle he survived the plane crash’. ‘It is a fluke he was killed in that freak accident’ – only the good is a miracle. Magic can be good or evil (“black magic”?) because it comes from the human heart. And “magic always comes with a price” – Once Upon A Time (TV series) – comes with a sting in its tail.

Magic, ESP, psychic powers, etc. are similar in nature to miracles, and so official scepticism is very high. But since they are believed to be intra-universe (if real) then the imperative to deny or debunk them is less. Thus some genuine scientific attempts to study these have been made.

Christians and Magic

God is Spirit (“Spirit” – not nebulous and less than real, but a whole other dimension > physical existence) {consider the analogy of 4D beings in a 3D world}

Christians also believe that God created other spirit beings, some of which rebelled against God. Like sceptics, Christians believe that magic is not a part of this naturalistic universe, and so, if it exists, must be due to the actions of these malevolent spirit beings.

Aliens

It is those who are most eager to find extra-terrestrial life who seem to be the most opposed to believing in God or in any sort of supernatural. They are so keen to define man as the measure of all things. They are at the forefront of the fight for equality – animals, the sexes, homosexuals, the disabled, and so on.

How would they feel if we discovered real aliens and they turned out to be genuinely superior to us in every way? Intelligence, strength, knowledge, wisdom, skill, appearance. Would ‘we’ worship them: Try to drag them down to our level? Try to destroy them? Fight to be accepted as equals, despite not being? Live in denial? What? How would they cope?

UFOs

Many people believe in UFOs – spacecraft piloted by aliens who come to visit our planet. There are stories and pictures (always blurry, never clear) of such incidents. Most such cases can be easily explained away (eg. weather balloon, meteorite). Some people, however, refuse to believe the simple explanations and continue to insist aliens are real and that official denials are just a cover-up. All this is despite the fact that according to the best physics at our disposal, if aliens DO exist they would/could never come here.
Do Christian (and other) claims of miracles fall into the same category?

Christians and Aliens

Christians who believe that God created the universe and us in it would readily accept that such a God could also have created other beings on other planets. However for various reasons not worth discussing here we consider such a possibility HIGHLY unlikely. According to all we know of science (incomplete as that is), one inter-stellar alien visit would be impossible, thousands on a regular basis even more so.

Still, Aliens if they do exist are a part of this naturalistic universe. So once again they do not present so significant a challenge to the sceptic. In fact the whole idea of aliens, despite their incredible unlikelihood, has so gripped popular imagination that SETI has garnered plenty of support, and anything that can be even vaguely interpreted as pointing to aliens is eagerly grasped at.
Aside from the general belief in aliens and UFOs, there is also a very small, but not insignificant, group of people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens for various purposes (strangely, such people all seem to belong to so-called “western” nations – esp. USA – where alienism has a cult following – in contrast to belief in ‘miracles’ supposedly being predominant in primitive cultures). Not every such report, however, can be dismissed as insanity, hallucination, drug-induced, deliberate deception, or the like. Christian belief in malevolent spirit beings (as applied to magic above) would then be appropriate here too.

Miracles, God, Christianity

Performance magic (ie. illusions created by performers) appear impossible; appear to be magic; but that is only because we don’t know the trick, how it was actually done. Similarly miracles which appear to violate (what we think are) the laws of nature may just be so because we don’t know what is actually happening behind the scenes.

Note: this does not in any way deny the miraculous nature of the ‘event’, merely the claim that it is contrary to ‘the laws of nature’ and thus that it is unreasonable/unrational/wrong to believe that they can/do/may occur.

If you define ‘miracle’ as something that cannot happen, then miracles don’t happen. Simple. But that’s not what people mean by the word. A ‘miracle’ is generally considered to be a rare event (irrespective of the probability), a good event, and something requiring external input of some sort – where “external” => beyond the control of anyone involved.

If God exists, he may or may not perform “miracles”. Ie. He may or may not intervene to alter the course of events such that they are (noticeably) different to what would have happened anyway. BUT if miracles are real, then this implies that God must be also (since miracles come from God).

Just as atheists cannot countenance ID – irrespective of the evidence – because it implies an intelligent designer, so miracles must be rejected because they imply a (supernatural) miracle worker. Thus if your position is that “God does not exist” – that being one of the basic apriori assumptions on which your world view is built – then miracles MUST be rejected out of hand, no matter what the evidence.

Even one genuine miracle is enough to obliterate the foundation of everything you believe in, causing the entire structure of all you have built to collapse. Since this cannot be allowed, miracles must be denied no matter what.

 “Miracle” in the Bible

The Greek words translated “miracle” in our Bibles are ??????? and ??????? (dunamis and s?meion). These are generally translated as “power” and “sign” respectively. Thus what we call miracles were then considered to be acts of power, and/or signs to verify the status or claims of the one displaying them. Thus a miracle is something that would not or could not happen by itself in the normal course of events but requires the input of power from some external source. Similarly we have countless examples of things that require the input of power to happen – whether it be the conversion of small hard corn kernels into big fluffy pop-corn, enabling us to see when it is dark (electric lights), or the sending of men to the moon – contrary to the scientific law of gravity. So a miracle is no more contrary to the laws of nature than any of these ‘normal’ things, it simply has a different source for that input of power.

If God exists (in a theistic sense), then it stands to reason that he would take an interest in his creation (unlike a deistic god) and involve himself in it. It also stands to reason that a God sufficiently powerful to create the entire universe from nothing is not lacking in the where-withal to tweak things here or there. It is also perfectly possible that we may be totally unaware of much of what he does. (Whether or not such a God exists is another subject entirely. I am merely postulating here how such existence would outwork itself if true.)

Some interventions (tweakings) may be apparent to human observation. Some may even correspond to or follow human intercessions or requests. We may call these miracles.

Why he would do some things and not others we may think are equally or even more worthy we do not know. But we do know that his grasp of the big picture must be incomparably greater than ours (by definition), and that he always does what is right and best (see my previous discourse on Good and Evil for more info).

Examples

Multitudes of claims exist world-wide; some written up. Some are very doubtful, some highly credible, some extensively documented. Just because “you” claim to have never seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I personally believe in many things I have never seen (eg. Moscow, Grand Canyon, neutrons, …).

Examining Miracles

According to Stephen Jay Gould the “non-overlapping magisteria” of science and religion must be kept distinct. Miracles would fall into the realm of religion and thus are a valid topic for religious discussion, but should be excluded from any empirical or rationalistic study since they are not a part of the real or material world in which we dwell. Just as fairies (or orcs and elves) may be a valid topic of discussion in literature circles, but not in history or science circles.

Related to this are the claims of the effects of prayer, since prayer is clearly a request to a deity. One problem with the idea of running ‘live’ studies is that it assumes ‘we’ can control God (assuming he exists) with our prayers. But if God is truly God then we can never control him. Consider Aslan in CS Lewis’s “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” – “He is not a tame lion. But he is good!” He is mighty and powerful, and does whatever he pleases.

However Candy Gunther Brown has ignored Gould’s view, and found ways to overcome the inherent problems to conduct successful and rigorously valid clinical trials that have shown much more significant results than expected from such a study. Her book, published by Harvard University Press is called “Testing Prayer, Science and Healing”.

Miracles and Coincidences

Some ‘miracles’ are not so much considered miraculous by their nature as by their timing or high degree of unlikelihood. (Eg. In “Vanya” – story of soldier granted leave contrary to all expectations). Consider the Biblical plagues of Egypt – All of these can be explained naturally (eg. see Immanuel Velikovsky “Worlds in Collision” – I am not endorsing his work, merely using it to demonstrate the possibility) – but for them to happen as and when they did with perfect timing verges on impossibility.

Thus some miracles are dismissed as merely coincidences. And the basic principles behind so doing are generally valid. Christians who believe in miracles also acknowledge readily that many unlikely events that take place are in fact genuine coincidences. Coincidences are real. None-the-less there are definite situations where the circumstances point so clearly to an external influence that, aside from apriori assumptions that this is not possible, “miracle” is clearly the best and most reasonable explanation.

Summary / Conclusion

  • If God does NOT exist and the material universe is all there is, then no matter what the evidence, miracles do not exist / are not real. They are merely natural phenomena which we do not (yet) understand. This is, however, begging the question and assumes the conclusion. (especially since, if true, we have no basis whatsoever to place any faith at all in our abilities to so determine.)
  • If God DOES exist then it stands to reason he has every right and all necessary power to influence/affect/engage with his creation in any way he sees fit.
  • Any such action would be in keeping with the natural order, laws which he created, and not “contrary to the laws of nature”. But, clearly, it would also result in a different effect than if he had not so acted – just the same as when any of us does anything.
  • This is thus (a) an exercise of power and (b) a sign to us of his existence and involvement.
  • Thus for anyone prepared to honestly and with guarded open mind to properly examine the evidence, belief in both miracles and the miracle worker is rational, reasonable, and easily the best interpretation and conclusion.

Post Modernism

Often, Christians are concerned about the dangers of “postmodernism”, while still being unsure what it actually means. On 29 August 2013 Matt Gray took us through the core aspects of postmodernism, including where and how they emerged. This included the high scholastic debates of the middle ages, through to the angry anti-imperial protests of the early 1990s.   A central issue in the discussion is how much of our culture is actually POST modern? What was so bad about modernity that people would want to move away from it? What about modernity are they moving away from? And how much of this cultural phenomena is a movement AWAY from modernity, and how much is it the ultimate fulfilment of modernity’s promises? Is it not POST modernity, but HYPER modernity?   In exploring these questions, we start to understand the cultural underpinnings that uphold many of the conversations we have in our society today, including apologetical discussions, such as sexuality, technology, and relativism.

mgray

Matt is one of Adelaide’s main thinkers on integrating Christian history into contemporary life. He has a wide grasp of the Christian story, and seeks to apply it to the individual Christian’s discipleship, and to the mission of the Church as a whole. In his teaching, he has a reputation for passion, humour, relevance and practicality. He is currently doing a PhD in history with Adelaide University; is a senior member of the missional Christian community of Glen Osmond Baptist; and regularly writes for an apologetics magazine online.

His talk was video recorded and is available on You Tube. The text of his talk can be accessed from Postmodernism PDF. See also his Power Point Presentation on Postmodernism.

On the 1st of August Chris Jolliffe talked on Gay Marriage.

The video recording is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoslZWa12uE.

A number of Chris’s sources came for the  Saving Marriage site. These include:

See also:

The Bible on Homosexuality by Chris Jolliffe

How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships by Mark Regernus

Note: This issue is highly controversial. The above sites represent Chris’s views. For each of the above links there are numerous counter arguments. These can be easily found by Googling the subject title. If you want to get a good feel for this subject then you should research the counter arguments as well.

 

 

Hell Summary

This is a very brief summary of the talk given by Peri Forester on the subject of Hel at the Reasonable Faith meeting held on the 18th July 2013. See Hell Transcript for a full transcript of the talk.

In our RF group we talked about Christian understandings of hell.  We identified three main streams of understanding about the nature of hell:

1. Unending torment;

People are immortal or are universally given immortality in the resurrection and then those separated from God in the judgment exist without him forever: which is hell.

2. Torment ending in non-existence;

People are mortal, though all are resurrected for the judgment. Those separated from God in that judgment then die the second death (hell) which is painful in proportion to their actions and attitudes, but which comes to an absolute end as nothing can survive without God.

3. Universal salvation.

Hell is a warning or a temporary punishment only and ultimately all people will be saved and live in relationship with God.

More attention was given the debate between position one and two based on the Scriptures and on key words related to hell in the scriptures (hell, sheol, hades, death, perish, destroy). The fact that the notion of hell is not a particularly Christian one was highlighted and ‘hell’ motifs from other ancient and medieval mythologies were considered, especially to examine where they have been ‘canonized’ in the thinking of some Christian traditions even where the Scriptures are not in support of those motifs.

The talk was pretty long and detailed and you can read the whole thing if you are interested.

At the end of the talk those present put a sticker on a three way continuum graph to represent the views of the group.  Most in the group tended to agree with the tradition of unending torment though there were quite a few stickers placed along the line towards a conditional immortality opinion and a few in that corner.  There was also one sticker off the chart in that direction indicating an atheist view in which absolutely everyone is mortal and there was one sticker in the Universalist corner.

If you were there, where would you have put your sticker?  Why?  Have you thought about it?

 

Peri Forrester