The Limits of Science Concerning Human Nature (Moreland/Rae)

 Since I’m doing a sermon series on image and identity, I picked up Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey.  I’ve mentioned it here several times in the past month or two.  I also recently picked up Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics by J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae.  Body and Soul is a biblical and philosophical study of the human body and the human soul: what they are and how they relate.  It’s a rather difficult read, to be honest, since it is a philosophical look at these topics.  I’m learning some new things such as metaphysical distinctions relevant to anthropology, degreed and nondegreed property, mereology, and so on.

The main thesis of the book is that, in the authors’ view, human persons are not property-things, but substances.  They back up their thesis with Scripture and with logical arguments from philosophy.  The last three chapters are application chapters where the authors discuss beginning of life ethics and end of life ethics based on their biblical and philosophical view that humans are substances, not property-things.

One part I appreciated was where they discussed science’s input on human persons:

In our view, when it comes to addressing the nature of human persons, science is largely incompetent either to frame the correct questions or to provide answers.  The hard sciences are at their best when they describe how physical systems work, but they are largely incompetent when settling questions about the nature of consciousness, intentionality, personal identity and agency, and related matters. Recently, philosopher and scientific naturalist John Searle have argued that 15 years of focused on philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence and cognitive psychological models of consciousness have been a waste of time in a number of ways…

… We do not agree with everything Searle says here, but he is correct in claiming that various disciplines studying the nature of human persons have been mired in chaos and confusion for at least a half a century. In our view, the reason for this chaos has been the assumption that science is the best way to approach the relevant questions.

The authors go on to give some assertions that are very difficult, if not impossible, for hard sciences to explain (e.g. mental states, the human soul, thoughts, etc.).  I agree with Moreland and Rae in that science can do much to help our understanding of humans, but science has its limits.  Thankfully we have God’s Word, which not only tells us about him, it also tells us about ourselves, humans, made in the image of God, body and soul, male and female.  And Scripture gives us a teleological outlook: the chief end of man is to glorify and enjoy God forever!

The above quote is found on pages 41-42 of Moreland and Rae, Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Early Attacks on the Christian Gospel

One of my favorite sources for studies of the history of Christianity is Jarsolav Pelikan’s five-volume set, The Christian Tradition.  Reading through volume 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), I appreciated the section on how the early church apologists answered some critics’ attacks on the person and work of Jesus.  Specifically, the opponents of Christianity attacked the gospel of grace and the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two paragraphs on these two topics.

“Sometimes the pagan attacks struck at the very heart of the Christian gospel.  Despite the ambiguity that seems to be present in the fathers of the second and third centuries on the questions of justification, grace, and forgiveness, they did have to deal with these questions in the attacks of their pagan opponents.  Celsus was the spokesman for much of paganism when he attacked the gospel of forgiveness as cheap grace: ‘Those who summon people to the other mysteries make this preliminary proclamation: ‘Who has pure hands and a wise tongue.’ …But let us hear what folk these Christians call.  ‘Whoever is a sinner,’ they say, ‘whoever is unwise, whoever is a child, and in a word, whoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him.’  Julian expressed a similar judgment about the promise of forgiveness in baptism.  Such attacks prompted even some fathers whose doctrine of grace was not very profound to see that if ‘you compare the other deities and Christ with respect to the benefits of health [or salvation] given by them,’ it would be recognized that ‘aid is brought by the gods to the good and that the misfortunes of evil men are ignored,’ while, by contrast, ‘Christ gave assistance in equal measure to the good and the evil.’  More perhaps than they themselves could recognize, these spokesmen for Christianity pointed to the distinctive character of the Christian message as a promise of health and rescue based not upon worthiness but upon need; here as elsewhere, the pagan critics of Christianity seem sometimes to have been more profound in their identification of this distinctive character than were the defenders of Christianity.”

“In the same way, the pagan critics acknowledged the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ in a manner that was sometimes more trenchant than the theology of the Christian apologists and that thus called forth a more profound statement of Christian doctrine than would have appeared without the challenge.  It was not only the story of the resurrection of Christ that drew the fire of pagan critics as a fable or the report of a hysterical woman, but the significance attached to the resurrection by Christian theology.  Nowhere is that significance more unequivocally expressed than in the polemic of some Christian theologians against the pagan doctrine of the immortal soul.  ‘The soul is not itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal.  Yet it is possible for it not to die.’  In these words Tatian voiced the doctrine that life after death was not an accomplishment of man, much less his assured possession, but a gift from God in the resurrection of Christ.  Even when the apocalyptic vision had been eclipsed and the immortality of the soul had become a standard element in Christian teaching, this stress on divine initiative in the achievement of life everlasting continued to act as a check on the more drastic implications of these changes.  In these and other ways the attacks of pagan authors on the Christian message left their mark on the church’s doctrines long after their external challenge had lost its effectiveness” (p. 29-30).

These are some great observations.  In God’s providence, the attacks upon Christianity forced Christians to better formulate their doctrines from Scripture and explain them clearly.  Sometimes the opponents of Christianity actually understood what Christians were teaching, which means that the church was getting the message out.  Also, it means that the church needed to be able to not only stand firmly on the truth, but to defend it as well.  Thankfully there were many good apologists in the early church and their work still benefits us today.  It is good for us to know our Christian past.  This set by Pelikan is a good set to have to help keep us historically minded.

shane lems

sunnyside wa