Kingdom Thermodynamics 1: Introduction

I should start this series of posts by suggesting that perhaps it does not really belong at Speaker of Truth. For I cannot presume to call what I intend to write here, at least after this introduction, “truth”. I hope that it is an exploration in the direction of truth, but some might prefer to write it off as “speculation”. On the one hand, these are preliminary thoughts on this subject, and are liable to be refined at any time. On the other hand, although this is, I think, the first time I have gone public on this, I have already been thinking it over on and off for about 30 years. Yes, really: I remember doing some research on this when I was a student in Cambridge, it must have been 1976 or 1977, in the library of the Cavendish Laboratory.

As a student of physics at that time, and as a young Christian, I was fascinated by time, and I still am. I learned that almost all of the fundamental laws of physics are time-invariant, that is to say, they work exactly the same when time is reversed. If you watch a film which only shows things operating according to these laws, you cannot tell whether it is being played forwards or backwards. This applies, approximately, to such things as swinging pendulums and heavy objects travelling through the air; it also applies, perfectly, to all process on the atomic scale (technically, if charge and parity are also reversed).

There is just one fundamental law of physics which is not time-invariant: the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law in its most basic form states that the entropy of a system always increases, which means that the system gradually become more disordered. This may explain the state of my desk! It also explains why heat always flows from hotter to colder bodies, and why moving objects, unless in a vacuum, slow down and stop unless a force is applied to keep them moving. These are all processes which are not time-invariant; if you see a film which shows systems spontaneously becoming more ordered, heat flowing from colder bodies to hotter, or moving objects speeding up without a force, you quickly realise that it is being played backwards.

On the face of it this law, that systems will always become more disordered and will tend towards a state of uniform temperature and only random motion, might seem to be a rather negative and useless one. However, biological systems are able to make use of this law to produce effects which seem to contradict it – but do not really do so, for an organism can decrease entropy in one place only by increasing it even more in other places, typically by converting low entropy food into high entropy waste products. Similarly, human ingenuity has contrived various kinds of engines, which are basically methods of creating ordered motion by converting low entropy fuel into high entropy exhaust gases; thus the modern human world can continue its activities by generating huge amounts of waste entropy which (to grossly oversimplify some very complex processes and issues) causes global warming.

There is something rather special about the Second Law of Thermodynamics which goes beyond its breaking of time invariance. The early 20th century physicist Arthur Eddington wrote:

The second law of thermodynamics holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation, well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

What made Eddington so sure of his ground on this one? I am sure that it was not just that the Law fitted so precisely with observation. Eddington’s own greatest claim to fame is that he was the first to confirm Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity by detecting a small deviation from Newton’s laws. But he did not seem to allow that there might be even such tiny deviations from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The reason for this seems to be that, in addition to the experimental evidence, there is a fundamental philosophical and logical basis to the Second Law. It was this basis that I was researching at the Cavendish Laboratory, where Eddington had studied before me.

But my interest in this issue was sparked all those years ago not so much by the physics involved as by what is taught in the Bible. I read (at that time not in this version) and thought about the following:

19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

(Romans 8:19-23, TNIV)

These verses fascinated me. The Apostle Paul wrote that “the creation was subjected to frustration… [in] bondage to decay”, and he was writing 1800 years before physicists formulated the same principles as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But, whereas for physicists like Eddington the Second Law is absolute and immutable, Paul wrote that this “bondage to decay” is ordained by God as something temporary, from which it can eagerly expect liberation.

But how could I, as a physicist at the time and later as a student of theology, bring together these two opposing viewpoints on the same phenomenon? What is the philosophical basis of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and how does this compare with Christian teaching? Could the differences here be linked to the “problem” of miracles, events which seemed to break the laws of physics? And how does it all relate to the coming of the Kingdom of God and our hope of experiencing “the freedom and glory of the children of God”? I hope to deal with these matters in future posts. But I am posting this introduction without having written any more, so don’t expect the rest of the series very quickly!

Update: see part 2: Beyond Causality; part 3: The Boundaries; part 4: The Crunch.

House For Sale in High Wycombe

This is a change from most of my posts here, but this is a convenient way to put my advertisement on the Internet:

42 Highwood CrescentI am selling my house in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, UK. This is not where I am currently living. I did live there for my last few years as a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and since then the house has been let. The tenant intends to move out soon, and the house will then be available for purchase.

The house is a four bedroomed semi-detached house, solidly built of brick in the 1950’s, on the western edge of High Wycombe (30 miles north west of London on the way to Oxford), convenient for the M40 motorway and Heathrow Airport. It is in a good position, near to public woodland and with a great view from the back. Downstairs there is a lounge, a dining room, a kitchen and breakfast room, and a shower room. Upstairs there are three large bedrooms, one small one, and a bathroom and separate toilet. Outside there is reasonably large garden, a garage, and off road parking for several cars.

I am offering the house for £215,000, which is a bargain price for a house of this size in this area. I may be able to offer a discount for a private sale. If you are interested, please contact me by e-mail: peter AT qaya DOT org, or by commenting on this post.

UPDATE 14th December: I have now put this house up for sale with agents Philip Green and Partners, and the details are on the Internet. Here is the new picture which the agents took:42 Highwood Crescent

UPDATE 12th January: The house is now sold – at least, I have a confirmed buyer.

UPDATE: The sale was completed on 30th March. The whole process was quite quick by British standards!

Breakthrough: Discovering the Kingdom

I am safely back home from my trip. It was hard work but worthwhile. Maybe I will write more about it later.

BreakthroughBut for now I want to bring you some insights from a book I am reading, Breakthrough: Discovering the Kingdom by Derek Morphew, published by and available from Vineyard International Publishing. Morphew is a South African pastor and the international director of the Vineyard Bible Institute. I bought this book at the Momentum conference, where it was being promoted by the main speakers.

Here is an extract from the chapter The Implications of the Kingdom, pp.80-81 which is relevant to some recent discussions on this blog:

The last days begin with Jesus and in Pentecost. Since then we have been living in the last days.

One hears Christians quoting texts about the special conditions that apply during the last days as though they only refer to the last seven years of world history, or perhaps to our times. This is to miss the point completely. The last days begin with the coming of Jesus. Since then they have just been edging closer and closer to the ultimate ‘last’ day. When Jesus came it was already the end. Perhaps we can speak of the end, the end of the end, and the end of the end of the end. New Testament texts are absolutely clear on this. Hebrews 1 can say, ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (1:2). Peter can say, concerning Jesus, ‘He was chosen before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake’ (1 Pet. 1:20).

This has crucial implications.

  • The last days are one, unbroken continuum, from the first coming of Christ, to the Second Coming of Christ, coexisting in tension with this present world. There is no period of church history that has not been a time of the last days. The last few minutes before the Second Coming will not be some different time, only the climax of the same mysterious dimension Christians have experienced since Jesus first came. This is not to say that history cannot ‘hot up’ or become more dramatic. Revelation shows that it will, but there is no other dispensation waiting to arrive, other than the very end of the end.
  • To grasp this is to understand that all dispensational and cessationist theories and schemes have no substance. Cessationists want to tear the time of the apostles away from the remainder of church history and dispensationalists want to do the same with the last seven years. But there is only one, continued dispensation of the last days. The Bible knows of only two dispensations, or ages: this age and the age to come. The age to come arrived when Jesus came.

Here is another extract, from p.84, which I found helpful in view of some things which have happened to me. I hope that others might also find it helpful:

  • Understanding the kingdom also makes us patient with what fails to happen. It is always here, almost here, delayed, and future. Every promise of God, every prophetic word, every calling, every ministry we engage in, has the mysterious sense of being continually delayed by God and yet just around the corner. We live tasting, yet with our mouths watering; filled and yet hungry; satisfied and yet longing; having all, yet needing all. Get used to it! It will not go away until the very end.

As I continue to read this book I will look out for other passages which might be worth sharing here.

Away for three weeks

I will be away from home from Wednesday 4th to Wednesday 25th October, working on my Bible translation project. I will be staying in a major city in a country where the infrastructure is not quite up to western standards. I should have Internet access, but only dial-up and not always reliable or fast. I will also be rather busier than I usually am at home. Therefore I will not have as much time as usual to spend on blogging. So don’t be surprised if you don’t hear from me for a few weeks. But then I may find time to post something. Also I will continue to receive comments, by e-mail, and will try to respond to anything significant.

I don’t want to say too much about my project here for various reasons. I can say that I will be working with a team of local translators and two other outsiders on the final stages of checking a new translation of the New Testament. I may say more on my return.

PS: I have now worked out how to blog by e-mail, so maybe I will keep in touch that way.

The non-negotiables of the faith, including gender distinctions?

Adrian Warnock has been reporting on the Desiring God 2006 conference, entitled “Above All Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World”.

Now let me first say that I have a lot of respect for the ministry of Desiring God and its leader John Piper. They are doing a great work by emphasising the importance for Christians of desiring God and seeking “a passion for the supremacy of God in all things”. I also greatly appreciate Piper’s support for exercise of the gifts of the Spirit in a properly balanced way.

But Piper is not as careful as he should be at distinguishing between biblical standards and the cultural norms of conservative America. I am not the only one to suggest this. For example, Suzanne McCarthy has referred to a list of roles which Piper considers as suitable for women. I commented as follows on her posting:

Are these rules supposed to be Christian and derived from the Bible? It sounds to me as if they come from a 19th century manual of etiquette. That doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, but nor does it make them right. Piper, Grudem and friends need to distinguish between Christian values and old-fashioned conservative cultural ones. A good course in cross-cultural evangelism, or some in depth first hand experience of a very different culture, would do them a world of good.

and also:

I just read the first half sentence of Piper’s book, and I think this gives the real key to his thinking. That first half sentence is “When I was a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina“. It was in that conservative environment, around 50 years ago (according to Wikipedia he was born in 1946, actually in Tennessee), that his cultural values were formed. In the second paragraph we learn that they attended a Southern Baptist church, and that of course further explains the formation of his cultural values. He goes on to describe supposed differences between men and women which he claims “go to the root of our personhood“, but which it seems to me are at least very largely conditioned by the specific cultural and religious context in which Piper grew up. …To summarise, Piper is making the mistake which I am afraid is so common among Americans, especially conservative ones but not only Christians, of simply assuming that their own cultural values are objectively and absolutely right, … There is a woeful failure to understand the distinction between cultural norms and absolute morality.

So, I was really interested to see that Desiring God was taking on the issue of relating to a postmodern world whose cultural norms are very different from those of the conservative South in which Piper grew up.

And what do I find? I am basing this mainly on Adrian’s rather brief summaries of others’ reports, but these are the points which some have considered significant. I have also looked at some of Tim Challies‘ more detailed first hand reports.

The controversial preacher Mark Driscoll spoke about: (as summarised by Adrian, condensing a report by Ricky Alcantar):

Nine issues to contend for:

1) The Bible.

2) The sovereignty of God.

3) The virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

4) We must argue against pelagianism, a denial of original sin.

5) We must contend for penal substitutionary atonement.

6) The exclusivity of Jesus.

7) We must contend for male and female roles.

8) We must contend for hell.

9) We must contend that kingdom is priority over culture.

John Piper, in comments on Driscoll’s talk, spoke as follows about these nine issues (as reported by Josh Harris and quoted by Adrian):

He referenced a point Driscoll had made in his talk about the importance of holding certain unchanging truths in our left hand that are the non-negotiables of the faith while being willing to contextualize and differ on secondary issues and stylistically (these are “right hand” issues).

In principle Piper is making an excellent point here on relating to postmodern culture. But I find it very interesting that what Piper affirms as “the non-negotiables of the faith” are apparently these particular nine points listed originally by Driscoll. Most of these nine points I can accept as important and non-negotiable (although I would want to ask for clarification about point 4, and I would argue that penal substitutionary atonement is only one among several good biblical models of the atonement). But this list is revealing both for what it includes and for what it omits.

For example, it omits any mention of several things which are clearly taught and commanded in the New Testament as norms for all believers, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I refer not to the details of how these are to be administered and what they mean, but their very existence. If such things are not listed as non-negotiables, does that imply that they are secondary issues on which we can differ and which we can abandon for the sake of “contextualisation”, in other words in order to make our Christian faith more palatable to, for example, a postmodern generation? Or are they simply additional non-negotiables, thus implying that this list nine points is to be consider as incomplete?

But my main point here is the inclusion in this list of one item, “7) We must contend for male and female roles”, which seems to me totally out of place here. Tim Challies‘ version of this is “6) We must contend for gender distinctions”, but he actually lists this before “7) We must contend for the exclusivity of Christ”, as if gender roles more important than the exclusivity of Christ! Well, what exactly are the “male and female roles” or “gender distinctions” which we must contend for? Ricky Alcantar’s report says a little more here:

7) We must contend for male and female roleswe’re different. Male elders are to govern. We do not endorse homosexuality.

If Driscoll and Piper’s main point is that Christians should oppose homosexual practice and same-sex “marriage”, I would not disagree with them. But I would wonder why opposing these is listed as a “non-negotiable of the faith” when there is no mention of opposition to any other sins, such as heterosexual sex outside marriage, or greed, or pride. Why is homosexuality considered to be a much worse sin than these others? Is there really a biblical basis for this, or is this a case where (despite “non-negotiable” 9) cultural values are being put before kingdom values?

But it seems that what Driscoll and Piper largely have in mind is gender distinctions in the church, that “Male elders are to govern.” Now it is well known to regular readers here and at Better Bibles Blog that I differ from Piper, and implicitly also from Driscoll, on such issues and on the principles of interpretation of Bible passages which are alleged to teach this. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will restrict my comments to wondering why they make such a big thing out of this. After all, there are in fact only a very few passages in the New Testament which teach about such gender roles. There is probably more teaching which favours slavery, but I don’t see “We must contend for slavery” among the non-negotiables! It might well have been on similar lists in the early 19th century, but anyone looking at such a list today would recognise how dependent it was on cultural norms which have now been abandoned.

There are many issues which are given far more prominence in the Bible than gender roles but have been omitted from this list of non-negotiables. For example, Paul devotes two long chapters of 1 Corinthians to spiritual gifts, and commands elsewhere

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject whatever is harmful.

(1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, TNIV)

But Driscoll and Piper do not list acceptance of spiritual gifts including prophecy as a non-negotiable. Why not? Piper accepts these gifts himself, but maybe he is afraid of upsetting a large part of his audience, cessationists who disagree on this, by stressing their importance. But he doesn’t seem afraid of upsetting those who reject his approach to gender issues. Or is it because he accepts that cessationist arguments are strong enough that this should be considered a legitimate area for disagreement among Christians? Well, the cessationist arguments, largely an indefensible interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:10, seem to me much weaker than the arguments for alternative interpretations of passages on gender roles in the church. So why can’t Piper and friends accept that here too there is a legitimate area for disagreement among Christians?

It seems to me that Driscoll and Piper are picking and choosing among biblical commands, and not to find issues which really are central to the Christian faith and should really be considered non-negotiable. Instead they have selected a list of points which fit with their personal presuppositions about what is central to the faith, based on their culture as much as on the Bible. Their approach on such matters seems to be similar to that of the scribes and Pharisees of Mark 7, who no doubt justified their teachings from Scripture, but of whom Jesus said:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.

(Mark 7:8, TNIV)

So, what should we do? I nearly finished this post here, but decided that this was too negative. I would challenge Driscoll and Piper (if they would listen to me!), and others who might agree with them, to go back to the drawing board and reexamine what really are the central non-negotiables of the Christian faith, the points which are not culturally relative and which are also central to the Good News of Christ. And these are the things which I would recommend them to concentrate on in their preaching to a postmodern generation. Then there will be other things which they will also hold as non-negotiable in principle but in practice might allow to take a less prominent position; here I might include baptism, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and (from Driscoll’s original list) the virgin birth and hell. Finally, I would remind them to base their contextualisation on Paul’s biblical model:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:19-23, TNIV)