Monday, January 30, 2012

SB 1418: Christians, Stem Cells, and Low Calorie Soda

When I was young I used to love to watch the television show Connections. In each episode the host, James Burke, would walk you through a series of technological innovations showing how one innovation builds upon another as technology evolved from ages past to the present time. By the end of the show he would have shown that something like an improvement in candle wax was a necessary step in the development of missile technology or something similarly amazing. I was reminded of those unexpected technological connections when I began to look into Oklahoma senate bill 1418.

On January 18th Ralph Shortey, a Republican state senator in Oklahoma, proposed bill SB 1418 intended to prohibit the use of aborted fetuses in food production. The bill states that “No person or entity shall manufacture or knowingly sell food or any other product intended for human consumption which contains aborted human fetuses in the ingredients or which used aborted human fetuses in the research or development of any of the ingredients.”

One may wonder why he felt such a bill was necessary since the use of human cells in food products is already illegal. Senator Shortey was quoted as saying “People are thinking that this has to do with fetuses being chopped up and put in our burritos. That’s not the case. It’s beyond that.” Senator Shortey has no evidence that any actual food products have been sold that were developed using fetuses. He is said to have proposed the bill based upon an online article he read about a pro-life group known as Children of God for Life who were trying to organize a boycott of PepsiCo. The group was trying to pressure PepsiCo over concerns that PepsiCo had partnered with a biotech company named Senomyx to develop a new low calorie sweetener who was using stem cells from an aborted fetus in its tests.

Senomyx and a number of their customers have denied that human cells or tissue has been used in any of their research and there is no evidence (that I can find) that cells or tissue have been directly used.  Although as written senator Shortey’s bill seems to address a problem that doesn’t exist it is not clear if his bill would address what Senomyx is actually doing. The issues are a bit more complicated than the blatant use of cells or tissues.

It seems that Senomyx has developed a process where embryonic stem cells are used to derive certain components used in chemical tests. From what I can understand they have used proteins ultimately derived from the stem cells of a healthy fetus aborted in the 1970’s (HEK 293) to develop chemical signatures for sweeteners. These signatures make it possible to compare the signature of a product under development to the signature of a known sweetener such as sugar to aid in product development (no batching and taste testing etc.).

Although not quite as sensational as the headlines indicate, the issues involved still raise a number of potential ethical questions. It is impossible to accurately predict or control the ripple effects of new technologies once they are unleashed. When arguing for stem cell research most advocates tended to focus attention on the medical potential of developing treatments for paraplegics and other similar uses. I highly doubt that many people would have been motivated to support it in order to have better tasting coffee and soda (though few things surprise me anymore). Of course, Christians find the use of human embryos for research to be a horrible thing but do the ethical considerations for human cells and tissue extend to single proteins and amino acids? If so, do they only do so when they are known to have derived from human cells? Does it matter if the fetus was intentionally aborted or should all fetal material be treated the same way?

As new technology challenges our established paradigms we must decide how to respond. I wonder how many Christians are even aware of the various places that this kind of technology is popping up. Had you asked me last week I would never have suspected that stem cells had any potential connection to artificial sweeteners. A number of well known food companies have a working relationship with Senomyx and we can be confident that there are other firms working along similar lines.
If Christians choose to avoid these products once made aware of them the question becomes how far to take that logic? To what extent are we responsible for investigating all the nuances of the goods and services that we use? Certainly many of the old technology products we use come from companies that support things that we strongly disagree with. Where is the line and what constitutes a reasonable effort to know if it has been crossed?

The problems involved in many of these new technologies are complex and it is very easy to oversimplify them. It is important that Christian thinkers and scientists who understand the technologies and their applications be at the forefront of educating the rest of us so that we are better prepared to examine the issues. The community of faith has a responsibility to bring ethical issues to light and to engage in the cultural dialogue about how to handle them. In order to do this we need to be properly informed.

This bill highlighted two things for me. First, it is really important that Christians are actively involved in the cultural dialogue around newer technologies, particularly those associated with the uniqueness of human life. Second, it is important that we take the time to understand those technologies so that we might be able to contribute to the development of policies that are consistent with our desire to defend the sanctity of life.

I appreciate senator Shortey’s willingness to defend the uniqueness of human life. I wish, however, that he had taken the time to fully investigate the matter rather than simply react to an internet article. Had he taken the time to do that I think he could have started an important conversation about where this technology is taking us. As it stands I doubt this bill will get anywhere and the conversations it will start are not likely to be the kind that will help to bring intelligent attention to the difficult ethical problems associated with this kind of emerging technology.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Unhelpful Answers: "Everything Must Have a Cause"

One of the arguments that I have occasionally heard Christians use to defend their belief in a creator God is that “everything must have a cause”.  I have sometimes heard parents use this line of reasoning with their children and also in general conversation with one another. I suppose that it is not reasonable to expect everyone to be altogether precise in their everyday speech but when engaging in this kind of conversation slight variations in the use of the terms can completely change the conclusions that are drawn. Although we are burdened with many theologians and philosophers who seem to enjoy being virtually incoherent, good theological arguments are built upon clearly defined and consistently used terminology. Clear and consistent terms can often be the difference between a valid and fallacious argument. That is exactly the case when people make the statement that “everything must have a cause” in order to argue for God as the ultimate cause. If you take the time to think about it carefully you will quickly realize that there is a significant problem with this argument. It is an unhelpful answer.

The argument that God exists based upon the premise that everything must have a cause is a form of an argument known as the cosmological argument. Cosmological arguments are an attempt to prove the existence of God (or some other primary cause) by reasoning from the existence of the world back to its origin. The specific form of cosmological argument that is being attempted in this case is known as the Kalām argument which is an old argument that has been given new attention in recent years due to its use by the apologist William Lane Craig. The problem is that the proper form of the actual argument does not start with the premise that everything must have a cause. Rather, it begins with the premise that all effects must have a cause or anything that begins to exist must have a cause.

This may sound like a minor distinction but it is very important because if everything requires a cause then so does God. Clearly Christians do not believe that everything requires a cause. Only effects (caused things) require a cause. If the distinction is not made when using this kind of argument the logical conclusion will not be one that is supportive of the existence of God. In fact, those who argue against Christianity will often attribute to us this misstated version of the argument because it is easily defeated. For example, in his famous 1927 speech Why I am Not a Christian Bertrand Russell said the following:

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all.

Bertrand Russell was an intelligent man so I find it difficult to believe that he lacked basic understanding of the argument. Whether he truly misunderstood the argument or was simply knocking down a straw man I do not know (although Dr. Coppleston did call him on it). What I do know is that the cosmological argument is not the same as elephants and tortoises but only if the argument is stated properly. When stated properly the question then becomes whether the world is an effect. Russell claims that there is no reason to believe that the world is an effect or that it had to have a beginning. Modern science disagrees with him. The evidence for the big bang suggests that there was a point at which the world began (just as Christians had always claimed). If, however, the world is an effect then it follows that there was a cause and so the argument proceeds. Since the consensus is now that the world had a definite beginning most modern atheists have shifted to claiming that energy, matter, or potential matter rather than the world itself are eternal. The debate continues.

We can therefore see that in order for this kind of argument to be useful to the Christian it is important that it be stated properly. Even when stated properly, however, there is a sense in which the argument is unhelpful depending upon what it is being used for. For a number of reasons that would require a separate discussion I am convinced that the argument fails as a logical proof for God’s existence. But even if I am incorrect and it does in fact demonstrate the existence of God, it cannot demonstrate the existence of the Christian God. Even if the argument “works” all it shows is that there is some force beyond the creation and there is nothing in this argument that would demonstrate that this “First Cause” is anything like the Judeo-Christian God.

Though it falls short as a “proof” it does show us some things and may be useful as a supplement to other (better) arguments for Christianity. It is important, however, that when using this argument that the premises are carefully stated. The often stated assertion that “everything must have a cause” actually argues against the Christian God rather than for Him.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Am I a Heretic?

Am I a heretic? I suppose it depends upon who you ask. For example, the Roman Catholic church considers a number of my views to be heretical (i.e. sola fide, sola scriptura). I am quite sure that if I think about it for a few minutes I could give examples of others who feel the same way about my beliefs. Of course most Protestants have a different outlook on such things. Even though conservative Protestants differ on some important issues even those who strongly disagree with me on certain points would generally not consider me to be a heretic.

Heresy is a strong accusation and it is one that should not be taken lightly. I was therefore surprised when a brother recently asserted that I hold to a heretical view of the incarnation. I asked on what basis the charge was made since I have always affirmed the Chalcedonian definition which historically both Catholics and Protestants accept. I would assume based on this that I would be considered orthodox in the widest possible understanding of the term. The brother explained that in my article Unhelpful Answers: Two Wills in Christ, which I posted back in September 2010, I argued for a heretical view. He said that my view was specifically rejected as heretical by the 6th Ecumenical Council in 681.

My primary concern of course is to submit to the teaching of the word regardless of the judgments of particular councils. Like most Protestants, however, I do accept the teaching of those first 7 “ecumenical” councils as having great importance and authority. If I were directly contradicting the consensus of the early church then a cautious re-examination of my position by the Scripture in light of what those early teachers said is in order. As the Apostle tells us, we are to examine all things and hold only to that which is good. That I misunderstood something was entirely possible particularly with regard to such a complex topic as the incarnation. So, I decided to look into it further.

The Sixth Ecumenical Council (a.k.a. the 3rd council of Constantinople) met for 18 sessions in Constantinople from November 7th 680 to September 16th 681. It was not originally intended as an ecumenical council but “everybody” showed up so it is counted as one. The council was primarily concerned with examining a theological position known as monothelitism. An element of the teaching of the monothelitists was that there was only one will in Christ. In my article I also argue that there is only one will in Christ. After examining the subject and the arguments of the monothelitists the council indeed determined that the view that there is only one will in Christ is heretical and that the traditional teaching of the Church was that Christ had two wills, one divine and one human. His human will was seen to be in submission to the perfect divine will at all times.

It seems that on the face of it there isn’t much question that my position in the September article is in fact in direct contradiction to the assertion of this council. Things, however, are not quite that simple. One of the concerns of the council was that the monothelitists view was that the human nature of Christ was subsumed within His divine nature. Christ therefore had only one will because His divine nature had so dominated His human nature that only the divine nature was volitional. It is not clear that any of the monothelitists actually taught this but that is part of what the council was responding to in the charges. In any case, that is certainly not my position. More importantly there is a difference in the way that the council is defining “will” and the way I was using the term.

The council spent a great deal of time in their response focusing on Luke 22:42 which records the words of Christ as He was praying before His crucifixion. Jesus said “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” This verse seems to be the major factor in the council’s response. They explained that since the will of the Second Person of the Trinity has to be in perfect harmony with that of the Father and since there is clearly a difference between the will of the Father and Jesus in this verse then Jesus must have two wills. One divine will that is in perfect harmony with the Father and a human will that is in perfect submission to the divine will though still distinct. They see this verse as a demonstration of both the distinction and the submission of the human and divine wills.

The council seems to be using the term “will” to refer to consciousness and desire. If that is the case then I do not disagree with them. It is clear that Christ had a dual consciousness. I do not have space here to develop why I think this is the case but you can find a fuller treatment of the topic in the DBTJ  HERE. My definition of the will is linked with the exercise of a choice. In my use of the term the “will” is just the mind choosing. The mind will always choose according to the strongest desire acting on it at the moment of decision. In the Luke verse I think that Jesus is using the word “will” in the common sense of “desire” rather than in a technical sense. He is simply saying that His human desire was to not undergo torture and yet His greater desire was to submit to the Father’s desire.

The way that I used the term “will” in my article is necessarily connected to the moment of choice. My point was that there could not be dual decisions that Christ resolved to act upon. As I said, natures do not choose people do. There may have been various desires associated with His dual consciousness but because His greatest desire was to glorify and submit to God I believe there could not be two wills in Christ.

It is possible that I am wrong in my view of the relationship of the natures of Jesus to His will. The theology of the incarnation can be particularly complex and I certainly do not think that I have it all figured out. I also do not think, however, that my view is actually contrary to the view given by the 6th council even though their words seem to clearly reject my view. The discussion they offer on the perfect submission of the human will to the divine will was instructive. If I understand their use of “will” to mean “desire” then this idea of perfect submission is admittedly an improvement upon my statement in the article that the two natures were in perfect harmony. I will be more careful about how I explain that in the future. Though my language contradicts theirs I am confident based upon reading the existing documents related to their decision that if those council members were to examine me they would find my view to be orthodox.

The more important question is if my view is biblical. I believe it is, but if not I pray that the Lord would instruct me more perfectly. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ephraim & Manasseh

“By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff.”     (Heb. 11:21 NASB)

When I was younger I thought it was funny whenever I heard mention of the ½ tribe of Manasseh. I always wondered why Manasseh was seemingly shortchanged. Later on I found out that the reason was that Manasseh and his brother Ephraim were not Israel’s (Jacob’s) children but were his grandchildren. As such they were not originally to participate directly in the inheritance of Jacob but were stand ins for Joseph. Before his death Jacob blessed these two grandchildren and made them direct heirs of his. As a result, those two are added to the blessing of their father Joseph and so each is really a ½ tribe of Israel participating in the double portion due to their father Joseph, but inheriting directly from Jacob himself. Although this answers the question of “how” Ephraim and Manasseh became tribes it does not answer “why” Jacob blessed these two grandchildren to begin with.

The Bible records the event in Genesis chapter 48 but nowhere is Jacob’s motivation in doing this clearly explained. There are, however, a few clues in the text that may help us to understand what is going on.

Notice that Jacob begins by recounting the appearance of God to him in Canaan and God’s promise to make him fruitful, multiply his descendants, and to give him the Promised Land as an everlasting possession.  This recollection directly precedes the blessing of the grandchildren and is clearly an important contextual indicator. Why would Jacob begin with a reminder of God’s promise before blessing these children?

There are a few observations that might be pertinent to understanding how this recollection functions in the narrative. The event Jacob is talking about happened in Genesis 35. If we look closely at the original record of this event and compare it to the retelling that Jacob gives here we notice a few differences. Whenever an account is repeated in scripture with slight differences it is often an important clue that something in particular is being emphasized (or de-emphasized). First, Jacob does not mention God’s promise that “kings will come from his own body”. Second, he adds that the land will be an “everlasting possession” which was not mentioned in the original record in chapter 35. Finally, we notice that here Jacob changes the forms of the promise from the simple imperative (be fruitful… a nation shall come…) to an emphasis on the activity of God rather than of Jacob (I will make you fruitful… I will make of you a great multitude…).

That he doesn’t mention the promise of kings is what gives us the best contextual clue. The promise of kings was to come through Judah and not through Joseph so it makes sense when addressing Joseph in preparation for the blessing of the children that he does not mention it. That highlights the fact that this section, though seemingly focused on the two boys, is still part of the broader Joseph narrative. The addition that the land was to be an everlasting possession was implied in the promise to Abraham which Jacob was made a partaker but it also emphasizes another theme from the Joseph narrative. The sovereign working of God through the lives of His people as we have seen over and over in Joseph’s story is carried over here. There is an end to which God is working and these people and events are part of that. The last change is another reinforcement of that same theme. It is God who will bring about the realization of these promises through His people. The restatement of the promises God made to Jacob in Canaan is made to show Joseph’s participation in those promises and reinforces the themes found in the Joseph narrative in general.

Immediately following (in verse 5) is the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh. Israel says to his son Joseph, “Now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are.” Jacob is adopting these two boys as his own and is placing them on the same level as his first and second born sons Reuben and Simeon. These children were born in Egypt and yet now they become direct heirs of the promises of the covenant. The other descendents of Joseph were to be included in the inheritance through Joseph in the name of these brothers (vs. 6).

The key observation regarding this adoption is certainly the one made by the author of Hebrews. Here is Jacob pronouncing these blessings when he himself had no land to give. This is an act of faith. He retains his confidence in the promises of God to the very end and proclaims the fulfillment of promises that he knows he will not see. He is no doubt operating under the spirit of prophesy and is again echoing one of the major themes of the Joseph narrative- that God will keep His promises.

This is followed by verse 7 where Jacob recalls the death of Rachel saying “Now as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).”

It is difficult to be certain about what he intends by mentioning Rachel and her burial here. Like his recollection of the promises it is apparently an important clue as to what is happening in the blessing of these two children. Although it is hard to see how this passage fits with the rest of this narrative there does seem to be at least one potential parallel. Rachel gave Jacob two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, before they reached Bethlehem. Now Jacob is given two sons as he is about to enter Egypt. By elevating these two sons of Joseph to the status of first and second born sons Jacob is honoring not only Joseph but perhaps Rachel as well with the backdrop of the fulfillment of the promise of God.

The record of Rachel’s death in chapters 35 and 48 are essentially the same with both focusing on the geographic proximity to Bethlehem at the time of her death. At some point God will give the land He has promised and these two “sons” born in Egypt will be given a full inheritance in that promised land.
What follows is the actual blessing which has the familiar theme of the younger being blessed in place of the older. Unlike the blessing of Jacob, however, this time it is done prophetically and purposefully. We are reminded that the blessings of God come through grace rather than through natural or earthly inheritance. Why, however, is so much time is spent on the details of this blessing? The tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh do become powerful, especially Ephraim (whom Jacob placed first) but the promised line comes through Judah. Why would Moses spend so much time detailing all of this when the redemptive history flows in another channel?

Although the great line of promise in Scripture comes from Judah through David and finally culminates in Christ, Joseph and his descendents are not forgotten. His position of honor extends into his line. From a structural standpoint chapter 48 appears to be the conclusion of the main Joseph narrative before shifting to the blessings of the sons of Jacob. The blessing is a counterpart to the blessing of the other “sons” in the next chapter and is an honor to Joseph. The themes that are emphasized in chapter 48 closely align with the major themes of Joseph’s story as it fits into the overall development of the promises of God throughout Genesis. The blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh are an expression of Jacob’s faith in God, the exultation of Joseph, and ultimately of God’s faithfulness to His promises. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Horse of a Different Color: Non-Dispensational Premillennialism

Although it isn’t a topic that I usually spend a lot of time discussing, over the past couple of weeks I have ended up in a few different conversations about the end times (eschatology). Those conversations have me thinking about some assumptions we often make when discussing theology. We all have a tendency to try and fit the people we are talking to into categories that we are already familiar with. Sometimes this causes us to jump to conclusions that may or may not be correct.

I noticed that in at least a couple of these conversations some of the people were only aware of one premillennial position. They assumed that all premillennialists were dispensational and held to something similar to the Left Behind kind of scenario for the end times. This is incorrect on multiple accounts.

First, there are a number of differences within the dispensational school, many of which do not hold to the particular view popularized in the Left Behind series. Second, it is true that the most common forms of premillennialism in our time have been dispensational varieties but historically there have been forms of premillennialism that are not dispensational. In fact, non-dispensational premillennialism is one of the oldest documented millennial positions in church history. This is why many people who hold to this view refer to it as historic or classic premillennialism.

I knew that non-dispensational premillennialism was a minority position but I did not realize how many people had simply never heard of it. This is surprising to me because although it is a minority position it has been very well represented by a number of influential teachers. Of course, you cannot assess the truth of a theological position by counting noses but the fact that these teachers are from various denominations and that many have been recognized as capable Bible scholars should at least call the view to our attention. The following is a list of a few of the more recognizable names throughout church history that have taught non-dispensational forms of premillennialism (in order of birth year):

Papias                                                 (Early Father) 60’s - 155
Justin Martyr                                       (Early Father) 103-165
Irenaeus                                              (Early Father) ?-202
William Twisse                                   (Puritain) 1578-1646
Jeremiah Burroughs                            (Puritan) 1600-1646
John Gill                                              (Baptist) 1697-1771
Benjamin Wills Newton                      (Brethren) 1807-1899
Henry Alford                                        (Anglican) 1810-1871
Charles Spurgeon                                (Baptist) 1834-1892
James Oliver Buswell                          (Presbyterian) 1895-1977
Gordon H. Clark                                   (Presbyterian) 1902-1985
R. Laird Harris                                     (Presbyterian) 1911-2008
George Eldon Ladd                              (Baptist) 1911-1982
Francis Schaeffer                                (Presbyterian) 1912-1984
J. Barton Payne                                   (Presbyterian) 1922-1979
John Warwick Montgomery                (Lutheran) 1931-
Walter Kasier Jr.                                  (Baptist) 1933-
James Mongomery Boice                    (Presbyterian) 1938-2000
John Piper                                            (Baptist) 1946-
Al Mohler                                            (Baptist) 1959-

Of course just like dispensationalism and any of the other eschatological system there is a wide variety of particular views. For example; there are major differences between the dispensationalism of Scofield vs. Ryrie vs. Bock. Likewise, the covenantal premillennialism of George Ladd, for example, is different from the historical-redemptive system taught by Walter Kaiser Jr. They all share, however, the essential elements of a premillennial theology. That is; the recognition that Christ will return to defeat Antichrist and usher in a literal earthly reign of peace and righteousness.

Unlike the dispensationalists, however, non-dispensational premillennialists tend to see a greater unity among the people of God in the Old and New Testaments. Whereas dispensationalism stresses the discontinuity between Israel & the Church the non-dispensational view tends to stress the unity (although many still hold that there is an important distinction). The second major difference is that the dispensational view is that God will rapture His church so that they will not suffer the Wrath of God in the Great Tribulation. Non-dispensationalists typically teach that the Church will be present on earth at that time and that the “catching up” is a description of the events that occur as part of the events at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. They tend to see the rapture and the second coming as simultaneous events at the end of the tribulation. There are other distinctions but these two tend to be the major differences.

My purpose in this article is not to argue for the correctness of this or any other particular view. I just want to point out that there are various views within the broader “end times” categories, each of which must be judged on the basis of its own harmony with the scriptural data. This cannot be done, however, if we are unaware of the various views and how they are supported biblically. I was surprised how many Christians interested in “end times” issues were unaware of one of the major historically held views on the topic. Anyone interested in the doctrine of eschatology would do well to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major views including this one, even if only to better understand their own.