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News, Science - General

Genetically-engineered babies have now been born

Human experimentation has been happening around the world for the past four decades, with research scientists actively carrying out experiments on human embryos. The stated objective, in usually something noble-sounding: to learn more about human biology, or to possibly treat some disease conditions. And while few scientists will admit to an interest in cloning people, or in actually producing genetically-altered individuals, this is the direction our society is heading. Indeed, modern society does not value unborn babies enough to protect them, and at the same time society is terribly afraid of genetic abnormalities. Under these conditions – little respect for unborn human life, and little respect for those with genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome – it would seem human cloning and gene alteration is inevitable. But it isn’t acceptable yet. That became clear when, on November 26, 2018, the scientific and medical world reacted in horror to the announcement by Dr. Jiankui He at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, that he had created modified human embryos. These embryos had been implanted in their mother, and in early November, twin baby girls had been born in China. This was a world-wide first – the first genetically-edited full-term human babies.  What happened Ever since the 1970s introduction of in vitro fertilization of human eggs with sperm outside the womb, the stage was set for scientists to experiment on such embryos. Many people, mindful of the special nature of humans at every level of development, protested against such work. Even some scientists were nervous about the implications of these experiments. However, for many, the concern was only that individuals damaged in laboratory experiments should not be allowed to develop to term. They were okay with the human experimentation – they just didn’t want these babies to be born. As a result, a general understanding was reached between ethicists and scientists, that no experiments on embryos would continue longer than 14 days – at this point these embryos were to be destroyed. The 14-day limit was chosen because it is at this point that the embryos begin to develop specialized tissues and thus becomes more obviously human (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). But as the experimentation has become more sophisticated, scientists have begun to promote the idea of a longer timeline for their investigations. Thus, a conference was held in May at Rice University at which 30 American scientists and ethicists discussed “whether and how to move the [14-day] boundary” (Nature July 5, 2018 p. 22). About the same time, Nature magazine published an announcement concerning such research:

“At present, many countries …prohibit culture [of human embryos] beyond 14 days, a restriction that reflects the conclusions of the 1984 UK Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilization and Embryology (also known as the Warnock Report. Whether this rule should be relaxed is currently being debated” (May 3, 2018 p. 6, emphasis mine).

Scientists are clearly seeking to relax the rules governing their studies. “Germ-line changes” Research on human embryos has continued worldwide since those early days. However, all parties once agreed that on no account should modified embryos be implanted into a mother and be allowed to develop. The reasons included society’s disapproval of experiments on people, but especially because such individuals would carry “germ-line changes.” Changes to most cells in the human body have no impact on future generations – these changes die with that individual. However, changes to the gametes (egg and sperm) are called germ-line changes because these modifications will be passed on to each subsequent generation. It is not that the scientists involved actually object to germ-line changes. The problem is that they want their results to be predictable and “safe.” Any uncertainties could lead to catastrophic results, ensuing hostile public opinion and big lawsuits. It would be far better to proceed cautiously. Thus, it is illegal in the US and many other countries to alter genes of human embryos or gametes. However, within the last decade, another new biomedical technology has appeared on the scene that has drastically streamlined gene editing in numerous organisms. The CRISPR-Cas9 technology has made gene editing much easier and much more precise.* Obviously, it was a mere matter of time before someone used this to try his hand at gene editing in human embryos. The scientific community offered no serious objections when Dr. Jiankui He of China presented an account of such work at a conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York during the spring of 2018. At this conference, Dr. He discussed the editing of embryos from seven couples. However, at that point, this man made no mention that any of these embryos had been implanted into their mothers. Dr. He “edits” babies to be HIV-resistant According to a Nov. 28 news item at Nature.com (David Cyranoski's "CRISPR-baby scientist fails to satisfy critics") Dr. He recruited couples in which the male was HIV positive but the female was normal. Individual sperm cells were washed to remove any viruses and the cells were injected into eggs along with CRISPR-Cas9 enzymes carrying a gene for resistance to HIV infection. A total of 30 fertilized embryos resulted of which 19 were deemed viable (able to live) and apparently healthy. These were tested for the CCR5 mutation which confers resistance to HIV infection. From one couple, two of four embryos tested positive for the mutation. One embryo carried the mutated gene on one chromosome and a normal gene on the other, while the other embryo carried the mutation on both maternal and paternal chromosomes. These embryos were implanted into the mother who successfully gave birth to twin baby girls early in November. No information was forthcoming on the fate of the other embryos, although Dr. He now says that another woman may be pregnant. The response of the scientific community has been shock and horror. But why are they so horrified? Is this not what they have been working towards? The scientific community is afraid because the risks of this procedure at this preliminary stage of research, are substantial. There are, at present, major questions as to whether the genetic modifications will actually have the desired effect. A well-known problem is that the CRISPR apparatus sometimes cuts the chromosomes at other places as well as/ or instead of the desired location. This off-target effect has been found to be a major problem in some studies. In addition, most genes are known to influence a number of seemingly unrelated traits. This phenomenon is called pleiotropic impact of one gene on other genes. These risks are particularly serious when we consider that these are germ-line changes, that will impact subsequent generations from this individual. Response The same Nov. 28 Nature.com news item declared:

“Fears are now growing in the gene-editing community that He’s actions could stall the responsible development of gene editing in babies.”

Indeed, a commentator on one website reflected that “if this experiment is unsuccessful or leads to complications later in life … [it could] set the field of gene therapy back years if not decades.” In view of these concerns, many individuals and medical and scientific institutions released statements expressing condemnation for this gene-editing work. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, declared that the NIH “does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos.” The Chinese Academy of Sciences declared that Dr. He’s work “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law." A colleague and friend of Dr. He suggested that the gene-editing work lacked prudence, that it could, unfortunately, serve to create distrust in the public. Obviously, an important concern on the part of the scientists was that the promise of this technology not be rejected by the public. Dr. David Liu of Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute (heavily involved in CRISPR research), insisted of He’s work: “It’s an appalling example of what not to do about a promising technology that has great potential to benefit society.” Dr. George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, summed up the feelings of many colleagues when he said:

“It’s possible that the first instance came forward as a misstep, but that should not lead us to stick our heads in the sand and not consider [a] more responsible pathway to clinical translation.”

In other words, many scientists seek to continue to pursue the goals also sought by Dr. He, only the rest of them will proceed more slowly and carefully. Conclusion It is largely Christian objections to treating human embryos as things, rather than as persons (made in the image of God), that has led to the ethical rules that control this research. It is a vestige of our Judeo-Christian heritage which limits scientists from just doing whatever they want. They have to obtain permission from ethics committees to conduct their particular research program. Of course, Christians want to see this work made completely illegal, but if political realities make such a ban impossible, then we can still seek to restrict this work as much as possible. It is interesting that a news feature in Nature (July 5, 2018 p. 22) articulated the fascination and unease that some scientists derive from this work. Bioethicist Dr. Jennifer Johnston of the Hastings Center in upstate New York, reflected on the respect that the human embryo commands even in secular observers:

“That feeling of wonder and awe reminds us that this is the earliest version of human beings and that’s why so many people have moral misgivings …..  It reminds us that this is not just a couple of cells in a dish.”

Are there any good results from this controversy over genetically-engineered babies? Perhaps there is one. The event may cause more people to pay critical attention to the experiments that are, every day, conducted on human embryos. Let the whole world know that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, from the very first cell onward, and manipulation in laboratories should have no place in our society. For further study * For more on this topic, see: Dr. Helder’s book No Christian Silence on Science pages 32-39 for a discussion on Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (ie. CRISPR). Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg’s book  A Crack in Creation: the new power to control evolution, page 281. Dr. Helder's article, providing further background to CRISPR, Natural Firewalls in Bacteria

Family, Movie Reviews

Two DVD series teach Science the way kids love to learn it . . . and from a six-day perspective

When it comes to science, some of the most compelling material for kids will have scattered evolutionary references throughout. More importantly, secular texts don't give the Creator his due, and are lacking when it comes to awe. I suspect that's because it's hard to express awe and not direct it upward – awe expressed is worship. So when a scientists won't acknowledge the sheer Genius at work behind the wonders around him (and instead credits it all to thoughtless evolution) that's going to cut into his bubbling appreciation. So what a treat it was to find two DVD science series that are not only Christian, but compelling. And both are crafted from a biblical perspective that acknowledges God made it all in just six days: Biology 101 is intended for teens and up but parents will love it too. Meanwhile Newtons' Workshop is aimed at the younger set, Kindergarten up to maybe Grade 6, but the whole family can enjoy it together. BIOLOGY 101 Curriculum / Documentary 2012 / 277 minutes RATING: 9/10 Wes Olson's Biology 101 DVD series proceeds from a young-earth 6-day-creation perspective, but this high-school curriculum resource isn't so much a specifically creationist resource as a solidly biblical one. What I mean by that is that Olson only rarely specifically mentions creationism and evolution, but he's always talking about how great God is. That awe shows up in all he says. But while the term "creationism" is seldomly heard, a literal understanding of the Bible is integrated throughout this series. For example, in talking about genetics Olson throws in the quick comment that there are only three people who have not come about by the combination of their parents' DNA: Adam, made from the earth, Eve, made from Adam, and Jesus, made from Mary's DNA and the Holy Spirit. The creationist perspective also comes out in how this look into earth's various lifeforms is broken up. Olson has ordered the segments by what day in the creation week that the organism was made. So, we start with plants on the third day, then look at aquatic and avian creatures which were made on the fifth day, and so on. It looks good Production values are solid throughout. There are piles of pictures and film clips of the creatures being discusses, and Olson, as narrator, has a delightfully dry wit. This is evidenced in the many short extra bits of information he includes, such as this:

"Ostriches are the largest birds, standing over eight feet talk, and the fastest two legged runner, sprinting nearly 45 miles per hour. Roadrunners, on the other hand, have a top speed of only 17 mils per hour, chasing lizards and snakes. Coyotes have a top speed of nearly 30 miles per hour, almost twice the speed of a road runner. Just in case you were wondering."

And sometimes it is the extra bits of trivia that serve to make his points more memorable. In talking about recessive and dominant genes he noted how dark hair was dominant over light, and,

"...incredibly the gene for having 6 fingers on one hand is dominant over the gene for having only five fingers on one hand, but practically everybody carries two copies of the five-fingered gene, which is why you almost never see someone who has six fingers on one hand."

Six fingers is dominant? I'm going to remember that. And in remembering it, I'm going to remember the difference between recessive and dominant genes. Contents This is meant as a high school biology course. However, it is only 4 and a half hours long, and while it comes with a 118 page textbook (on pdf, stored on one of the DVDs) it is less comprehensive than a high school biology course would need to be. So this would make a wonderful foundation for a course, but other materials would be needed to supplement it. The 9 episodes vary in length from as short as 15 minutes to as long as 44 minutes. DISK 1 1. Introduction: Defining life and an explanation of organism classification systems 2. Plants DISK 2 3. Aquatic creatures 4 Avian creatures DISK 3 5. Land animals 6. More land animals 7. Mankind 8. More on Mankind DISK 4 9. A brief history of the study of biology, the origins of genetics, and the moral questions involved in remaking our own genome Audience The course material is for ages 15 and up, but the content is appropriate for all ages. This focus on all-ages appropriateness does mean the discussion of our reproduction system is done in the broadest of strokes. We learn about how children are a combination of their mom's and dad's genes but no mention is made of exactly how those genes get mixed. I'd highly recommend this to any Christian high school science teacher – whether they use it in whole or part, there's sure to be lots of it they will want to show their classes. It would also be an excellent supplement for any Christian child attending a secular high school; this is the perspective they'd be missing. Families with an interest in this subject matter will also find this worth buying. I should note that while I gave this an 9 rating, that was for how it rates as an an educational resource – I can't think of any better. But from a solely entertainment focus, this would only score a 7. If you want to learn biology, this a wonderful method. If you want to be entertained, there are more entertaining films out there. You can find out more at the Biology 101 site and check out the 14 minute first segment and introduction down below. The 4-DVD Biology 101 set is $70 US on the website, but seems to be cheaper at Christianbooks.com and Amazon.com. Chemistry 101 is even better Wes Olson has also produced a Physics 101 series and a Chemistry 101 series. I haven't seen the Physics 101, but have had a chance to look at the Chemistry 101 series. I thought it was even better. Olson's approach to teaching chemistry is to lay it out as it was discovered – we go through it historically, learning about one discovery after another. I was rather surprised about how much of our knowledge of chemistry has only been discovered in the last 150 years. This historical approach is brilliant and fascinating. I watched this one simply because I couldn't stop. But at 11 hours long it is a little over twice the material of the Biology 101 series....so I'm not done it yet.   NEWTONS' WORKSHOP Children's TV series 1997 / 226 minutes Rating: 7/10 That stars of this children's "edutainment" show are most certainly Grandma and Grandpa Newton, who have more spare time and are quirkier than any grandparents you know. Over the course of this 8-episode series, this set of seniors is ready to help any time their grandkids have a question or a problem. What kind of help? Well, in Episode 1, when granddaughter Trisha and her friend Megan decide to do a science project on "world building" Grandpa Newton just happens to have a workshop full of mechanical models that show how wondrously God has designed this planet. And in Episode 4, when an astronaut's visit to her school has Trisha curious about space, Grandpa helps puts the solar system in perspective by creating a scale model in which the Sun is the size of a beachball, and Earth is almost a soccer field away. It's fast-paced, funny, and has my 4 to 8-year-old daughters' attention even after repeated viewings. This is a conservative Christian perspective on science, put out by the (generally Calvinist) Moody Bible Institute. And, while I'm not up for quite as many viewings as my kids, these are entertaining enough that I don't mind seeing the repeats now and again. Cautions That said, I did have a caution to share. In Episode 8, "The Pollution Solution," Grandma and Grandpa tackle the problem of pollution, and while most of this episode is sensible and helpful, there is a dash of confusion and a spoonful of tokenism mixed in. It begins with Dad calling a family meeting about the way everyone is wasting water. But he misrepresents the problem: he make it seem like long showers can contribute to drought, but a shower's water heads down pipes that will eventually return it right back to the lake or river it came from. Long showers can be wasteful, but they aren't contributing to any drought – what's going down the drain, never to be seen again, is mom and dad's money, paying for water and heat that isn't needed. The tokenism comes in when Tim and Trisha end up having a trash contest to see who can generate the least amount of trash over a week. What isn't addressed is that recycling costs money – it takes resources too – so recycling isn't always the responsible choice. We see a similar sort of tokenism when the Newtons briefly address global warming. This episode was made 20 years ago so, compared to anything today, the doom and gloom is a lot less pronounced. But we do get fed today's typical non-solutions: Tim and Trisha suggest global warming can be addressed by "walking on short errands, or riding your bike, or carpooling to work." Sounds good, and you'll hear suggestions like that made today too. But it misrepresents the radical nature of the changes global warming proponents are really after. It isn't a matter of more bikes, but fewer children. Now, if the show's producers had heard that sort of argument 20 years ago I think they might have seen through it. They'd know from the Bible that children are a blessing to be embraced, so when the world says the opposite – that they are a curse to be avoided – that gives Christians reason to be skeptical. That said, Grandpa Newton has some good things to say in this episode too, and I think it can be watched to some benefit so long as mom and dad are there to talk their kids through it. But if you aren't buying this as a package set, then DVD #4 might be worth giving a miss. Conclusion So who would like this best? While the producers recommend this for 7-12, I'd lower that on both sides by about 2 years. This is best suited for 5-10, although Mom or Dad can enjoy it too. Overall this is just a fun, clean, biblically-based, science lesson wrapped up as family TV series. It entertained our family and educated them too - not a bad combination! You can pick it up at Christianbooks.com or Amazon.ca. Both of these reviews first appeared on Reel Conservative.   

Book excerpts, Book Reviews, People we should know, Teen non-fiction

Edith Cavell: a brave guide

Some 150 years ago, on December 4, 1865, English woman Edith Cavell was born. And 100 years ago, on October 12, 1915, during the First World War, she was executed. Instilled with a desire to please her Creator God, Edith Cavell became a nurse; she lived what she professed, and died bravely at the hands of German soldiers. Her crime? Assisting Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. In a seemingly hopeless situation, she persevered and did not shun the victor's crown. She was a gift given by God to His Son Jesus Christ and, as such, saved for eternal life. Throughout the fifty years of Edith Cavell's life, she was content to work hard and live humbly. She was a godly woman and, therefore, a godly historical example. The Bible instructs us to teach our children about such historical examples. Psalm 78:4 reads: "We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord and His might, and the wonders that He has done." At a time in history when examples of godly women are few and far between, much needed strength and encouragement can be drawn from the life of this lady who put all her trust in Jesus Christ, her Savior. 
 The following is an excerpt from the Christine Farenhorst historical fiction novel of Edith Cavell’s life, called A Cup of Cold Water, (P&R Publishing, 2007). At this point Edith has been helping many Allied soldiers escape out of German territory.

***

December 4, 1914 - Brussels, Belgium Breakfast was generally served at an early hour in the L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, the Belgian School of Lay Nurses. Too early some of the nurses said. “It is actually 7 o’clock, you know,” José said at 6 o’clock one morning, as he bit into a thin piece of toast. Puzzled, everyone stared at him and he went on. “The Germans changed our time yesterday. We are now on German time and no longer on Belgian time. All the public clocks have been put ahead.” “Well, I’m not going to pay the slightest bit of attention,” Gracie said, glancing at her wristwatch, “That’s just plain silly.” “Well maybe,” Pauline added hopefully, “we should get up later.” She eyed Edith but Edith was looking at cook in the doorway. “Excuse me, Madame,” the cook said, “there is someone to see you in the kitchen.” Edith got up, wiped her mouth on a napkin and left the dining room quietly after glancing at Elisabeth Wilkins. Elisabeth nodded to her, indicating that she would supervise while Edith was gone. Two more Louise Thuliez, one of the resistance workers Edith had come to know, was waiting in the kitchen. She had come in through the back entrance. Brown hair hidden under a kerchief, the young woman was obviously relieved when Edith walked in. Ushering her through the hall towards her own office, Edith could feel the woman’s tenseness. As soon as the door closed behind them, Louise spoke. There was urgency in her tone. “I have two men waiting to come to the clinic.” Edith nodded. “Fine. Direct them here. I’ll see to them.” Louise nodded, brusquely put out her hand, which Edith shook, and disappeared. Left alone in her small office, Edith passed her right hand over her forehead in a gesture of weariness. Running a hospital in peacetime was not easy, but running it in wartime, with mounting bills for food and medicines which would never be paid by the patients, was next to impossible. She had received some money from Reginald de Cröy and Monsieur Capiau but the men who had been sent to her regularly since Monsieur Capiau’s first appearance all had hearty appetites. Resources were at the breaking point. With a glance at the calendar, she saw it was her birthday and with a pang she realized that it would be the first year she had not received letters from Mother, Flo, Lil, Jack and cousin Eddie. She swallowed. Jack growled softly and she looked out the window. Two men were approaching the walkway. Bracing herself, she smoothed her hair, patted the dog and went out into the hall to await their knock. Although most of the men sent to the school only stayed one or two nights, some of them stayed a longer. As Edith awaited the arrival of the new refugees, she wondered how long she would need to provide them with shelter. If they were ill, they would be nursed right alongside German patients. Many of the nurses in the school were unaware of what was going on. All they saw were extra patients — bandaged, limping and joking patients. The Café Chez Jules was situated right next to the school. To recuperating soldiers, as well as to idle men with nothing to do for a few days, it became a favorite gathering place. The Café served watered-down wine and at its tables the men played cards, chatted and lounged about. But even if the Germans were not yet suspicious, word quickly spread around the Belgian neighborhood that Allied soldiers were hiding in the nursing school. Once again, as she had done so often, Edith opened the door. A short, thickset man looked Edith full in the face. “My name is Captain Tunmore, sole survivor of the First Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.” He spoke with a heavy English accent. “And this,” Captain Tunmore went on, indicating the man at his side, “is Private Lewis of the Cheshire Regiment. Password is yorc. We’re both looking to get across to border.” Edith shook their hands. They were a little nonplused that this small, frail-looking lady whose hand totally disappeared in their grasp, was rumored to be so tough. Captain Tunmore, noting a picture on the wall, remarked, “Hey, that’s Norwich Cathedral!” “Do you know Norwich?” Edith asked. “It’s my home. I was born on its outskirts.” Edith took another look at the man. The fact that he said that he was Norfolk born, gave her, for just a small moment, the feeling that she was home, that she was looking into her mother’s face. “Well, gentlemen,” she smiled, “I’m afraid you’ll have to spend Christmas here with us as there is no guide to take you until after the twenty-fifth.”

***

Captain Tunmore and Private Lewis had come without identity cards. Edith, consequently, took photographs of the men herself and had contacts make identity cards for them. After Christmas, she arranged to have them travel towards Antwerp in a wagon but they were discovered and barely made it back safely to the clinic a few days later. Edith, therefore, prepared to guide them out of Brussels herself. “Gentlemen, be ready at dawn tomorrow. I’ll take you to the Louvain road. From there you’re on your own.” “I was thirsty…” At daybreak, Edith taking the lead and the men following her at a discreet distance, the trio made their way to a road outside of Brussels. Once there, Edith passed the soldiers a packet of food as well as an envelope of money. “In case you need to bribe someone – or in case you get a chance to use the railway,” she said. Shaking their hands once again, she turned and disappeared into the mist. On the walk back, Edith reminisced about how she had walked these very paths as a young governess with her young charges. It now seemed ages ago that they had frolicked about her, collecting insects, drawing, running and pulling at her arm to come and see some plant which they had found. Now she understood that God, in His infinite wisdom, had used that time to intimately acquaint her with this area. How very strange providence was! At the time she had sometimes felt, although she loved the children dearly, that her task as a governess was unimportant – trivial perhaps. Yet it had equipped her for the role she now played. Smiling to herself she thought, “Why am I surprised? After all, does not the Bible say that it is important to be faithful over a few things. A noise to her left interrupted her reverie and she slowed down. A German guard suddenly loomed next to her. “Halt! Papieren, bitte — Stop! Papers, please.” Silently she took them out and waited. He waved her on after a moment and she resumed her way. What would her father have thought about these activities, she wondered? “Out so early, my Edith?” she imagined him asking. “Yes, father. Just a little matter of helping some soldiers escape to the front lines. If they are found, you see, they’ll be sent to an internment camp somewhere, or they might be shot.” “What about you, my Edith?” “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. And besides, what else can I do? These men, these refugee soldiers, father, they just come to me. They arrive on my doorstep and look so helpless, so afraid that I will turn them away.” “Well, my Edith, you are doing right. Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, child: “I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in.” “I remember, father. I remember.” “And in the end ... in the end, Edith, He will say ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” “I know, father.” No time for childhood Throughout the spring of that new year, 1915, Edith continued to rise early on the mornings that soldiers were to leave for the frontier. English, French, and Belgians – they were all men eager to leave so that they could help the Allies. Between five and seven in the morning, she would accompany the men to the planned rendezvous point with the next guide, generally a tramway terminus or a point in some street. Arriving back after one such venture, in the early days of March, she found Elisabeth waiting for her in her office with a very guilty-looking Pauline and José at her side. “What is the trouble?” Edith asked as she took off her coat. “Would you like me to tell her, or shall I?” Elisabeth’s voice was angry. José shuffled his feet but he met Edith’s gaze head-on. Then he spoke. “I encouraged all the families on Rue Darwin to set their alarm clocks at the same time. I told them to set it for six o’clock in the morning, the time I knew a single patrol would be passing.” He stopped. Edith sighed. “And,” she encouraged, “what happened?” “Well, when all the alarms went off at the same time, the soldier jumped a mile into the air. You should have seen– ” “Was anyone hurt?” Edith interrupted him. “No, no one,” Pauline took over, “everyone only let their alarms ring for five seconds exactly. After that they shut them off at the same time. It was deathly quiet in the streets and all the people watched the silly soldier through their curtains as he looked behind him and around corners and pointed his silly rifle at nothing. We laughed so hard.” Edith sat down. “Do you have any idea what could have happened if that soldier had shot up at a window? Or if he had kicked open a door and ...” She paused. They really had no idea about the seriousness of the times in which they were living. She sighed again and went on. Pauline looked down at the floor and José appeared fascinated with the wall. “You ought to know better than anyone, José, how dangerous it was what you did. After all, you have come with me many times to help soldiers find their way through and out of Brussels so that they can escape to safety. War is not a game.”

***

After they left her office, thoroughly chastened, Edith sat down at her desk, put her head into her hands and wept. Childhood seemed such a long way off and the Germans were stealing much more than blackberry pie. [caption id="attachment_11944" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Edith Cavell's death was memorialized on propaganda posters like this one.[/caption]

Theology

Whom Do You Serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power

Children are often told to obey many different folks. Listen to your mom and dad. Listen to the policeman. Listen to your teacher. Listen to the pastor. Adults too are encouraged to obey various authority figures. Which raises a question: what happens when demands of the State and demands of other authorities clash? Whom do we obey? The Dutch philosopher, theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper developed a system of thought to assist in understanding the authority structures in the world. The system is called “sphere sovereignty” and it helps answer the question, “Who do we obey when various demands on us and our behavior clash?” GOD OVER ALL Kuyper argued and demonstrated from the Bible that God has created in society a number of different institutions or spheres, each with their own respective roles and responsibilities. Three of the most important institutions created by God are: the CHURCH– starting with Adam, and continuing through Noah, Abraham, the people of Israel and the New Testament church the STATE– whose role is set out in various places including Psalm 72 and Romans 13 the FAMILY – begun with Adam and Eve In the Bible, God gives each of these spheres a distinct task and role. So, for example, the sphere of State is sovereign in matters properly within its jurisdiction as given and defined by God. Some of those matters would include criminal law, national defense, and maintaining a fair and impartial justice system. The sphere of Church (or synagogue/mosque/temple/monastery, etc.) is sovereign over areas within its jurisdiction: theology and doctrine and church discipline and membership. And within the sphere of family lies responsibility for issues of child education and discipline, religious instruction, sexual ethics, moral development, etc. In the graphic accompanying this article, you’ll notice other spheres: a larger sphere of Society and smaller spheres which are each sovereign in their own right: the market, the academy, charities and the individual. Academics will argue over how many separate spheres there might be, but while the number and boundaries of the smaller spheres is a source of debate, there is agreement about the obvious biblical basis for the first three. God has instituted the Church, the State and the Family and invests each with its own specific sphere of authority. There is, of course, some overlap from sphere to sphere. Fraud can’t be limited to the market sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the consumer. Physical assault of a child can’t be limited to the family sphere; it requires the State criminal law power to protect the child. Restorative justice can’t be limited to the State sphere; it requires the family sphere and the church sphere to mend broken relationships. However, there are also boundaries between the spheres. These boundaries are critical. History has taught us that great harm can be done when one sphere takes over the role of another. For example, problems abound when the State interferes in church doctrine issues. This was the greatest problem during the bloody Reformation era. The State used the sword to enforce church doctrine, which was a total abuse of its power, and a violation of the principles of sphere sovereignty. A modern example would be the Ontario human rights tribunal ordering a Roman Catholic bishop to explain himself to the Tribunal for not allowing an openly gay man to serve as an altar boy (this occurred in Peterborough, Ontario in September 2009). A similar violation of the boundaries between the spheres happened when the Ontario Minister of Education, standing outside the Ontario Legislature, declared that Christian schools could not teach that abortion is wrong, since such a teaching was “one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.” (That statement was made by Minister Broten in October, 2012.) And in the not too distant past, churches and families tried to keep certain criminal acts (child abuse, for example) quiet and internal, when it ought to have been reported immediately to the State. Having shown the boundaries that exist between these spheres, we need to turn our attention to the key of Kuyperian sphere sovereignty: over each and every sphere reigns Christ as sovereign. Kuyper’s famous saying applies here: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” As a Christian country, we once recognized this, and it wasn't even that long ago. The preamble to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (added to our Constitution in 1982) still states, “Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law…” Recognizing the supremacy of God is necessary in public policy because, when we fail to do so, someone or something else will take God’s place as supreme authority. THE STATE/LAW OVER ALL For example, take a look at the concept of sphere sovereignty through the eyes of our former Chief Justice, the Right Honorable Beverley McLauchlin. We can see in some or her statements a recognition that there are some spheres in life which are distinct: the sphere of society, spheres of religious communities and families and the sphere of the State. But we should take careful note of where, in her mind, the State sits in relation to the other spheres. In a speech delivered in October 2002, Her Honor stated that

the rule of law exerts an authoritative claim upon all aspects of selfhood and experience in a liberal democratic state… influenc[ing] local, community, and familial structures. The authority claimed by law touches upon all aspects of human life and citizenship… It makes total claims upon the self and leaves little of human experience untouched.

These “total claims” on us as legal subjects, she said, “flow from a conception of authority rooted in the sovereign [State].” Invoking Kuyper, one could paraphrase what the Chief Justice said in this way: “There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which the Law, which is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” Admittedly, Her Honor does believe that Law must carve out space for religious communities to live according to their particularities. However, it’s Law (and the State, as the authors of the Law) who makes space and accommodations for religion. For our chief justice, law remains the supreme authority. So there remains a tension between the Law of the State and religious precepts, familial obligations, and individual responsibilities. THE ROAD TO TYRANNY Without something (or, more properly, Someone) over all spheres, tension breaks out between the spheres, and a struggle ensures to see which sphere will reign as supreme. Now, of all of the spheres (the State, the Church, the Family, the Market, etc.) which has the most power? Quite obviously, the State does. As the Apostle Paul once wrote, it “bears the sword.” It has unlimited financial resources, it has coercive powers, it writes the laws, and it has lethal force. So, if God is removed as sovereign, who becomes sovereign? The State does. This is absolutely evident in every officially atheist country from the last century: the USSR, China, North Korea, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy. When the State raises itself above God, then God becomes a problem for the State. And know this: as the State replaces God, or makes itself god, then it naturally also begins to compete with the family, substituting itself for the family. (It’s no coincidence that the leader of North Korea is referred to as “father.”) And when we, free citizens in a free country, begin to think that the State will provide everything for us, not just national defense or a fair justice system (as it ought to) but also total healthcare, education, food, clothing and shelter, unemployment wages, settlement of petty disputes with our landlords and employers, and on and on, then we are looking to the State not just as god, but also as savior. Lord Acton once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” That dictum is true for all of mankind because of our innate sinfulness and our covetous lust for more. This may be why the LORD never allowed all three offices of the Old Testament to be vested in a single person, though there were exceptional cases where a single person was both a prophet and a priest. Think, for example, of the punishment of King Uzziah when he tried to act as priest and burn incense before the Lord (2 Chronicles 26). Applying this anecdotal evidence for division of power to our civil government, we see a three-fold division of power there too, between the judiciary, legislature, and executive. The Canadian Constitution holds all three branches of government in check – each have power to limit the powers of the other. But if that balance is ever upset such that one person (or one small group of people) becomes lawmaker and law interpreter and law enforcer, we will have tyranny. Expanding out from the Biblical offices and expanding out from civil government, we see that there is a natural protection against tyranny in the dispersion of power. Lord Acton also wrote, “Liberty consists in the division of power. Absolutism, in concentration of power.” So we see that for mankind’s good, God gives some power to the church, some power to families, and some power to the State. But if the ultimate power concentrates (as it is tending to do these days) in one of these spheres, we also have tyranny. One example would be in the realm of education: God gives authority over education of children to parents, with the church assisting parents in that calling historically. But in the last century, the State took over, first from the church, and now more and more from parents, such that even the most intimate and personal educational material is being taught by State bureaucrats, often without parents knowing (think of some of the graphic sex education curriculum for grade 3 and 4). REMINDING OUR NEIGHBORS OF GOD'S PLACE One of our responsibilities as Christian citizens in a free country is to keep the State in its proper place, and to remind fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State. This is where you come in. Use the graphics in this article to show your friends and colleagues that we all must be under some ultimate authority. The question is simply, which one? Are we willing to submit ourselves fully to the State? Isn’t the Lordship of Christ infinitely better? We must remind our fellow citizens of what their responsibilities are apart from the State, and explain to them the effect of subjecting everything to the ultimate authority of the State – it means losing the freedom to live as we ought to live. Failure to understand this important concept means subjecting our institutions, our businesses, our families, our churches, subjecting even our very selves to the sovereign will, not of God, but of the State. So, to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this philosophical discussion – who do we obey when demands of the State and demands of parents or pastors or professors conflict? The answer is: it depends. It depends on whether the parents or the professors or the pastors or the State are authoritative in the sphere in which they are making the demands. This approach to understanding the very limited authority of the State should not be interpreted as a proposal for anarchy. I once swore an oath of allegiance to the country I love, my Canada, an oath which I stand by to this day. I pray for her leaders every day. I strive to obey all her laws. But here’s the rub: when those in power begin to legislate in areas over which they have no jurisdiction, my trust in the government plummets. And when those in power dare to legislate in such a way that I must either obey the State’s law or violate my conscience, then I say loudly with the Apostle Peter, “I must obey God, rather than men.” One key to a free, prosperous, democratic society is for the State to back off from taking authority unto itself that was not its to begin with, to not arrogate unto itself powers which are not its own. When the State learns restraint, we can and do enjoy freedom. When our society and culture recognizes a Sovereign high above the State, as we once did, then we certainly will enjoy freedom.

This article first appeared in the November 2014 issue under the title "Whom do you serve? Sphere Sovereignty and the need for limits on power." Illustrations were created by Lynn VanEerden. André Schutten is the Director of Law and Policy for ARPA Canada.

POSTSCRIPT: QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER While sphere sovereignty is a helpful tool, like any other tool it has limitations. For example, while the first three “spheres” of Church, State and Family are quite clearly instituted by God, we could have endless debates about just how many other spheres there might be. In Canada we could list the federal government as one sphere, and the provincial governments as another, but what about towns and cities? Do they get their own sphere? Is Academia a sphere? What about the Market? Also, while the spheres are a helpful concept, defining the exact borders between each of them is hard to do. So the author wants to emphasize that this is not meant to be the Reformed paradigm through which Christians ought to view the world, and he welcomes feedback on the ideas expressed here. What is helpful about this model, and how might it be improved? André Schutten talks about the sphere of the Church as separate from Family and State. Where does a mosque, synagogue or temple fit in? God instituted the State, the Church, and the Family, but did He institute the mosque? We don’t think the State should interfere with mosques, synagogues and temples so they do seem to exist in a separate sphere apart from the State, but is that separate sphere grouped with the Church, or is it, perhaps, under the Family? Or might it be something else entirely? In Western countries it often seems the State that is trying to take Christ’s supreme position. What might the interloper be in countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran? And if a libertarian were going to make their own sphere sovereignty model, who would they put in place of Christ?

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New study: Universe may be younger (or older) than scientists previously thought

The Associated Press headline read, “Study finds universe might be 2 billion years younger.” While that wasn’t a complete come-to-creationism capitulation – even running with the new estimate would leave secular science more than 11 billion years off the biblical timescale – it seemed an encouraging development. Hey, they’re moving in the right direction!

But it turns out the headline, while technically accurate, should have had the “might” underlined, italicized and bolded since there was quite the margin of error. Yes, Inh Jee and his team from the Max Plank Institute in Germany think the universe might be 11.4 billion years, which is down 2 billion from the conventionally held 13.7.  But her margin of error is so large that the upper range of her team’s estimate would actually make the universe even older.

Shucks.

What’s still noteworthy, though, is simply that the age of the universe is still being debated. Did you know that was happening? Secular science is represented in the press and classrooms as having it all figured out. But this is another instance in which they’ve been left looking for their erasers, readying themselves for another correction to their ever-changing textbooks.

In contrast Christians can be grateful for, and confident in, the unchanging source of truth God has given us in his Word.


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