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On the Trinity: Augustine, the American Revolution, and my Jehovah's Witness friend

I have a friend in a nursing home whom I visit regularly. Her name is Dinah and she is a widow. We met her through providence. A few years ago, her husband came to the house carrying both a friendly smile and Watchtower leaflets. He was a tall, thin and very elderly man. As we were just in the process of slaughtering our chickens, I did not have much time to speak with him. He was Dutch too, as it turned out, and told me that he was dying of cancer and therefore trying to witness to as many people as he could before he died. A heartbreaking confession! We visited his home, my husband and I, later that month before he and his wife moved into an old-age home where he subsequently died - died, as far as we know, still denying the Trinity. We have continued calling on his wife - on Dinah - and I have great conversations with her. That is to say, we get along fine on almost every subject except on that of the Trinity. The Trinity is a difficult concept. Yet, the Trinity and the Gospel are one and the same. God saves us by sending his Son and His Spirit. As Galatians 4:4-6 explains:

"But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'"

To know God savingly is to know Him as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit. The Hymn to the Trinity There is a hymn known as "The Hymn to the Trinity." The earliest publication of this hymn was bound into the 6th edition of George Whitefield's 1757 Collection of Hymns for Public Worship. It is not known who wrote the words to this hymn but the melody was penned by Felice de Giardini. Because Giardini was Italian, this hymn is often referred to as “The Italian Hymn.”

Come, thou Almighty King, Help us thy name to sing, Help us to praise! Father all glorious, O'er all victorious! Come and reign over us, Ancient of days!

Jesus our Lord, arise, Scatter our enemies, And make them fall! Let thine Almighty aid, Our sure defence be made, Our souls on thee be stay'd; Lord hear our call!

Come, thou Incarnate Word, Gird on thy mighty sword - Our pray'r attend! Come! and thy people bless, And give thy word success, Spirit of holiness On us descend!

Come holy Comforter, Thy sacred witness bear, In this glad hour! Thou who Almighty art, Descend in ev'ry heart, And ne'er from us depart. Spirit of pow'r.

To the great one in three Eternal praises be Hence - evermore! His sov'reign Majesty May we in glory see, And to eternity Love and adore!

My friend Dinah could never sing this song. As a matter of fact, because she is such a devout Jehovah's Witness, my belief in the Trinity makes me something of a polytheist in her eyes. I continually pray that God will open her eyes to the truth, beauty, and necessity of believing in the concept of our Triune God because only He can do that through the Holy Spirit. Italian, British, and American The mentioned "Italian Hymn" first appeared anonymously in London, England around 1757. It was about this time that the singing of the anthem "God Save Our Gracious King" was also coming into fashion. The "Italian Hymn" could be sung to the tune of "God Save Our Gracious King." Perhaps that is why the author of the words of the "Italian Hymn" did not want to be known. The stanzas, you see, seemed to be somewhat of a defiant substitute for the words in the anthem which praised King George III of England. Things were brewing in the war department between the thirteen colonies and Britain and were leading up to the American Revolutionary War, (the war fought between Great Britain and the original 13 British colonies in North America from 1775 until 1783). The words to "God Save the King" were:

God save great George our king, God save our noble king, God save the king! Send him victorious Happy and glorious Long to reign over us God save the king!

The English anthem was often used as a rallying cry for the British troops. It aroused patriotism. There is a story associated with this. One Sunday during the war, as the British troops were occupying New York City, and very much appeared to have the upper hand, a group of soldiers went to a local church in Long Island. Known to the people as "lobsters" or "bloody backs" because of their red coats, these soldiers were not welcome. For the church members it would have felt akin to having Nazis sitting next to you in a pew during the Second World War in a city like Amsterdam. People were uncomfortable, glancing at the enemy who boldly smiled and flaunted their red coats as they sat in the benches. They obviously felt they had the upper hand. No one smiled back. Children leaned against their mothers, peering around at the soldiers. The tenseness was palpable. A British officer stood up at some point during that service, and demanded that all of the folks present sing "God Save the King" as a mark of loyalty to Britain. People looked down at the wooden floor, their mouths glued shut. One of the soldiers walked over to the organist and ordered him to play the melody so that the singing could begin. The organist, after hesitatingly running his fingers over the keyboard, started softly. The notes of the "Italian Hymn" stole across the aisles. But it was not "God save great George as king" that then burst forth out of the mouths of the colonists. No, it was "Come, Thou Almighty King," and the voices swelled up to the rafters of the church and it was with great fervor that the Triune God was praised. It's nice to reflect on a story like that – to perhaps ask ourselves if we would rather erupt into singing a patriotic hymn about the Trinity than to buckle under unlawful pressure. Still, the Trinity is a mystery. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law." (Deut. 29:29). Augustine on the Trinity Augustine of Hippo was fascinated by the doctrine of the Trinity. He pondered the mystery of the Trinity over and over in his head and wanted very much to be able to explain it logically. He even wrote a book on it. The book, entitled De Trinitate (which you can download here) represents an exercise in understanding what it means to say that God is at the same time Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Augustine had a desire to explain to critics of the Nicene Creed that the divinity and co-equality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were Biblical. We often, like Augustine, want very much to explain God's tri-unity fully to people such as Dinah. We want to convince Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Muslims of the truth and need for this doctrine. This, of course, we cannot do on our own, even though we should faithfully speak of the hope that is in us. There is a story, a legend, that one day Augustine was walking along the shore of the sea, and that as he was walking he was reflecting on God and His tri-unity. As he was plodding along in the sand, he was suddenly confronted with a little child. The child, a little girl, had a cup in her hand and was running back and forth between a hole she had made in the sand and the sea. She sprinted to the water, filled her cup and then dashed back to the hole and poured the water into it. Augustine was mystified and spoke to her: "Little child, what are you doing?" Smiling up at him, she replied, "I am trying to empty the sea into this hole." "How do you think," Augustine responded, "that you can empty the immense amount of water that is in the sea into that tiny hole which you have dug with that little cup?" She smiled at him again and answered back, "And how do you suppose you can comprehend the immensity of God with your small head?" And then the child was gone. Conclusion It is wonderful to ponder on the character of God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism's definition of God is merely an enumeration of His attributes:

"God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."

Indeed, the benediction from 2 Cor. 13:14, "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all," is a benediction that should fill us with wonder and thankfulness.

Theology

The limits of the “two-books” metaphor

There is an idea, common among Christians, that God has revealed Himself to us via “two books”: Scripture and the book of Nature. The Belgic Confession, Article 2 puts it this way:

"We know [God] by two means:

"First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature, as the apostle Paul says in Rom 1:20. All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse. "Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation." But what happens when these two “books” seem to conflict? This happens in the Creation/Evolution debate, where the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2 conflicts with the evolutionary account of our origins. So, as Jason Lisle notes, that has some Christians thinking that since:

“…the book of Nature clearly reveals that all life has evolved from a common ancestor….we must take Genesis as a metaphor…. we must interpret the days of Genesis as long ages, not ordinary days.”

Analogies have their limits But that's getting things backwards. While the Belgic Confession does speak of Creation as being like a book, metaphors and analogies have their limits. For example, In Matt. 23:37 God is compared to a hen who "gathers her chicks under her wings" – this analogy applies to the loving, protective nature of a hen, and should not be understood to reveal that God is feminine. That's not what it is about. Clearly Nature is not a book – the universe is not made up of pages and text, and it's not enclosed in a cover or held together by a spine. The Belgic Confession is making a specific, very limited, point of comparison when it likens God's creation to a book. How exactly is it like a book? In how it proclaims "God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature." It does so with book-like clarity, "so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). But in the Creation/Evolution debate some Christians extend this book analogy in a completely different, and entirely inaccurate, direction. It has been taken to mean that Creation can teach us about our origins with book-like clarity. This misunderstanding then presents us with a dilemma: if we have one book saying we were created in just six days, and another saying it took millions of years, and both are equally clear on this matter, then what should we believe? We need to understand that this dilemma is entirely of our own making. Creation is not like a book when it comes to teaching us about our origins. As Dr. Lisle has noted, it does not speak with that kind of clarity on this topic. Only one actual book here In contrast, the Bible is not merely like a book, it actually is one! It is there, and only there, that we get bookish clarity on how we, and the world around us, came to be. So, yes, the two-book analogy remains helpful when it is used to illustrate the clarity with which God shows "his eternal power and divine nature" to everyone on the planet. But when it comes to the Creation/Evolution debate, the way the two-book analogy is being used is indeed fallacious. God's creation simply does not speak with book-like clarity regarding our origins. We can be thankful, then, that his Word does!

Jon Dykstra also blogs on Creation at CreationWithoutCompromise.com.

Apologetics 101

One simple question: "What do you mean by that?"

In the May 17, 2016 Breakpoint Daily, John Stonestreet shared a few questions he uses when he finds himself in a tough conversation. The first and most helpful is:

“What do you mean by that?"

The battle of ideas is always the battle over the definition of words. Thus, it’s vital in any conversation to clarify the terms being used. For example, the most important thing to clarify in the ongoing gender discussions is the definition of "gender." So when the topic comes up, ask, “Hold on, before we go start talking about personal pronouns, puberty suppression, or surgeries, I want to ask, what do you mean by gender?” Often, when it comes to these crucial issues, both sides are using the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary. So to present the antithesis – to speak God's Truth to a confused culture – we have to begin by defining our terms. Defining terms can also serve as a good defense when you're getting attacked, not with an argument, but simply with an insult. When someone tries to dismiss you by calling you a name, the best response is to question the insult.

"You're just a homophobe!"

“What do you mean by that?”

“Um, I mean you hate gays.”

“But I don’t hate gays. I do disagree with their lifestyle – I think it harms them by separating them from God. Is disagreeing the same thing as hating?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“But you’re disagreeing with me? Wouldn’t that mean you’re hateful?”

"Well...um....but you deserve it!"

As in this dialogue above, defining the terms might not win you the argument, but it can expose the vacuous nature of what the other side is saying. And even when you don't win over your debate partner, clarifying the terms is one way to help bystanders see through the name-calling. However, the most important reason to lead with this simple question – "What do you mean by that? – is because showing the anthesis, making plain what the two sides actually are, brings glory to our God. And who knows how He might use the seed we plant?

Science - Creation/Evolution

"Inferior" design: a proof of evolution?

"Suboptimal" design in nature is supposed to be the result of, and evidence for, evolutionary trial and error

*****

Everybody loves to hear about wonderful living creatures with their amazing talents. It is certainly uplifting to learn about Monarch butterfly's continent-spanning migration, and the toe pads of the gecko that allow it to walk upside down, and the amazing strength of spider silk. Christians enjoy discussing the wonderful designs that we see in nature. And among scientists, these creatures have their fans too. Indeed, there is an entire field in science called biomimicry where scientists try to learn from living creatures in order to produce practical designs for modern application. But not everyone is equally enthusiastic about the implications of these amazing talents. Prominent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) in 1978 wrote:

"...ideal design is a lousy argument for evolution, for it mimics the postulated action of an omnipotent creator."

Dr. Gould thus said that everyone should ignore examples of wonderful design and concentrate on phenomena that are below par. He continued:

"Odd arrangements and funny solutions are the proof of evolution – paths that a sensible God would never tread but that a natural process, constrained by history, follows perforce."

Gould was telling us that he knew how God should act if, that is, God really existed. God, according to Gould, would make everything perfect. And since we know that everything is not perfect in nature then, said Gould, this proves there is no God. This kind of argument, based on assumptions of how God should act, continues to be common in science today. There is thus a lot of interest among scientists, in suboptimal (less than perfect) design. Let us look at some examples to see what the implications are. THE PANDA'S THUMB The example Gould discussed in 1978 was the thumb of the Giant Panda. These animals, native to China, eat almost nothing but bamboo shoots. They use their hands to strip off the leaves, leaving the nice tender shoots on which to munch. Their flexible hands are unusual – they have a thumb of sorts, an extra structure produced from an enlarged wrist bone, with associated muscles and nerves. Gould declares that this extra finger is a "somewhat clumsy, but quite workable solution…. A contraption, not a lovely contrivance." Here he was declaring that the panda's thumb was of suboptimal or inferior design, which thus constituted proof that the source of the thumb was evolutionary trial and error rather than from a "divine artificer" (supernatural designer). A major argument employed by many evolutionists, even today, is to point to suboptimal (inferior) design and to declare that this proves that evolution was the source rather than God. However, what makes something "suboptimal" is an open question. Sometimes a phenomenon that appears less than ideal actually displays superior and unexpectedly sophisticated design. Gould might not like the panda's thumb, but there is no denying how wonderfully this thumb gets the job done. INFERIOR EARS? Another example: the inner ear of humans includes a spirally coiled structure called the cochlea. Lining its interior are very fancy hair cells which, by their motion, amplify the sound. The whole cochlea functions as a remarkably sensitive and finely tuned sound detector. However, at the same time, it also distorts the sound. Might these distortions be considered inferior design? A study in 2008 (Nature, Nov 13) demonstrated that the distortions actually contribute to clarity of sound. The distortions come from a particular structure connecting the top of the various hair cells. Mice without this connector in their cochlea became progressively deaf. Who knew distortions were so useful? STABLE vs. MANEUVERABLE A recent article published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (November 4-8) discussed another counter-intuitive (contrary to our expectations) situation. The study was conducted by engineers trying to build efficient robots. This is a large field of research. The designers want systems that are not only stable but maneuverable. The problem is that these are opposite objectives. In general, the more maneuverable a robot is, the less stable it is. If your robot tips over, clearly it is not going anywhere. Alternatively, the more stable a robot is, the less one can fine-tune what it does – the harder it is to make sudden changes of direction. Thus your robot may be able to proceed briskly straight ahead, but what if you need it to turn a corner or climb over an obstruction? Will it be able to turn, or will it instead tip over? Animals obviously have no such problems. That's why engineers have turned their attention to animal locomotion. They ask themselves, how do animals achieve the "impossible" combination of stability and maneuverability? How indeed do actual insects like cockroaches manage their excellent locomotion skills? Biologists may have already observed the solution without recognizing its significance. Why, many biologists have wondered, do animals move in directions that are different from their desired destination? Why, for example, do cockroaches and lizards tilt from side to side as they run forward? An engineer would most likely eliminate these motions, which seem to waste energy, as they do not obviously contribute to the forward motion. Lately, however, mechanical engineers have begun to research how unexpected, "inefficient" movements may benefit these animals. Insight into this mystery recently came from studies of a tiny fish from the Amazon basin. In order to avoid predators, this fish prefers to hide in various shelters such as tiny tubes. Scientists used slow-motion video to study fin movements of this fish as it finessed its way into its hiding places. At 100 frames per second, a strange situation became apparent. The fish was using one part of the lower body fin to push water forwards, and the other part to push it backwards. This was definitely against common sense since it was like two propellers fighting against each other. When scientists built a fishy robot, they found that the opposing forces actually improved the stability and maneuverability of their model. The assumption of the engineers that it is wasteful or useless to employ forces in directions other than the desired forward motion had now been proven wrong. Apparently, the same principle applies to the motion of many other creatures. The take-home lesson is that what, at first glance, appeared to be inferior design (opposing forces) actually turned out to be superior design! PENGUIN ROCKETS  Another recent robotic study which shows promise is one inspired by the talents of emperor penguins. While these creatures look pretty inept on land, in the water they can accelerate from 0 to 7 meters/second in less than a second (a veritable rocket). One student at Caltech's Aeronautics Department set out to create new propulsion technologies with high maneuverability and improved hydrodynamic efficiency. The new mechanical design is based on the penguin's shoulder and wing system and features a spherical joint with various other technical features. Concerning the promise of the study, the student declared that the manner in which penguins swim is still poorly understood. Nevertheless, by accurately reproducing an actual penguin wing movement, he and his collaborators hope to shed light on the swimming mysteries of these underwater rockets (ScienceDaily.com November 14, 2013). THE FLY EYE There are many other examples of unrecognized excellence in design. For example, the compound eye of insects and other invertebrates is often considered to be less ideal than our own camera eyes. However, a recent study that modeled the compound eye found that it does offer some advantages over the camera style eye (Young Min Song et al. Nature. May 2, 2013). Specifically the compound eye provides for an exceptionally wide field of view, and secondly such an eye has a nearly infinite depth of focus. As an object recedes away from the eye, the object becomes smaller, but it still remains in focus. It is apparent that in the case of eye design, there is no such thing as inferior design. There is instead good design that is more applicable to certain applications than to others. GOD TELLS US TO EXPECT "INFERIOR" DESIGN Obviously however there are many situations in nature that are less than ideal. This is a fallen world and there are many cases where we see distressing phenomena. The secular argument that a good God would never mandate inferior design is simply not valid. God cursed nature as a result of man's sin, so we have no reason to expect wholesale perfection, and the former "very good" creation now displays many inferior design choices. For example in Job 39:13-17 we read: The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,    but are they the pinions and plumage of love? For she leaves her eggs to the earth    and lets them be warmed on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them    and that the wild beasts may trample them. She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;    though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear, because God has made her forget wisdom    and given her no share in understanding. Clearly, the breeding behavior of the ostrich is suboptimal but nevertheless designed by God. Yet "when she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider" (Job 39:18). The strong legs of this bird and her running prowess also come from God. These gifts are a strong contrast to the behavioral deficits of the ostrich. The evolutionists think they have proven that God did not work in nature. However, since their argument depends upon a discussion (however faulty) of the nature of God, this is a religious argument. Since they claim to have ruled out all religious arguments, then how can they use arguments concerning what God would or would not do – arguments touching on the character of God – to prove evolution? They need to make up their minds. If they want to explore the character of God and why He'd allow brokenness in the world, then let's open our Bibles. As for Christians, despite the fallen condition of the world, we can still enjoy and benefit from, and give thanks for, the many wonders of creation as coming from God's divine wisdom.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 issue under the title " Upon further reflection..." Dr. Margaret Helder is the author of “No Christian Silence on Science.”

Daily devotional

January 3 –  Proverbs on anger

“A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger allays contention.” – Proverbs 15:18

Scripture reading: Proverbs 22:24-25

Good anger is a God-given emotion that every Christian must use properly. So be angry when your God is blasphemed and when His people are attacked. Be angry when babies are killed by abortions, when the family is attacked by the state and when covenant youths sin against the Lord. Then respond in the right way, knowing that even good anger can become sinful if your response is improper. For instance, if you are angry, but do nothing when you see Christian young people doing wrong, breaking the Sabbath, for instance, your anger becomes sinful.

But there is also anger that is sinful. Sinful anger has resulted in wives being abused, people being killed in motor vehicle accidents, divorces, broken friendships and destroyed congregations. Men and women can become like volcanoes and blow up, even as Moses, who struck the rock instead of speaking to it for water for Israel. Other people bottle things up until their anger finally explodes.

So when you are properly angry, react properly. Pray, speak and act if you can. When you are sinfully angry, ask God for the cure for sinful anger. Ask Him to make you patient with others in their weaknesses. If you ask anything in Christ’s name, He will give it to you. God has obligated Himself to do so. So stop saying you can’t control your anger. Sin is not able to reign in your body unless you let it.

Suggestions for prayer

Pray that you might learn to control your anger and be patient and kind with others.

This daily devotional is available in a print edition you can buy at Nearer to God Devotional. Rev. Mitchell Persaud is pastor of New Horizon URC in Scarborough, ON, a mission church under the oversight of Cornerstone URC in London, ON. He was born in Guyana, South America, into a Hindu home, baptized Roman Catholic, raised Pentecostal and then became Reformed.


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