Sunday, August 02, 2015

Why so Narrow?

In a previous post I listed the churches we plan to visit. The list is a narrow slice of possible good churches around us. Why so narrow?

First, we have a Reformed perspective. Reformed is a theological tradition that has its roots in the Protestant Reformation, and more specifically, it follows the theological foundations articulated by John Calvin and others from the Swiss Reformation. The major branches of Reformed movement include the Dutch Reformed, the Scottish national church and Presbyterianism, aspects of the Church of England and Episcopal, Puritans, Reformed Baptists, and Congregationalists.

Out of the branches in the Reformed movement, I divide the branches in into church government and the branches that have different views on the sacraments (or ordinances) of baptism and communion. The branches of government versus sacraments are almost independent of each other, but there are subtleties that influence each other. For now I will consider the government versus sacraments issues as independent of each other.

For government, the major forms are hierarchical (Episcopal, Church of England), elder led (Presbyterian), and congregational (Congregationalists and most Baptists). I side on the form of elder led without going into the reasons.

On the sacraments, the major division are those who hold that baptism is to be administered only to professing believers and those that believe baptism should be given to believers and children (and infants) of believing parents who are members of the church. I side with the latter, that baptism should be given to children of believing parents. This is non-negotiable to me because of the theology behind it. Baptism is a sign that those who receive it are members of God's covenant community, the church,  and have the rights of belonging to the covenant community. Baptism does not confer salvation on those who recieve it, nor does it indicates personal salvation for the infants and children it is applied to. But just as circumcision indicated membership in the ancient Israel covenant community, the New Testament also indicates that baptism is to be given to families that are part of the New Testament and post New Testament covenant community, the Church.

The theological differences between the believers only baptism and the covenantal baptism that includes infants of believing families is very significant. Fir that reason, when I have a choice between a good Reformed covenantal baptism church and a good Reformed Baptist church, I will always choose the church that practices covenantal baptism, such as Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed,  conservative Reformed congregational, or conservative Episcopal. The difference is that big to me. It's more important than church government to me.

So, on the issues of sacraments, it's paedo or covenantal baptism. For church government, it's elder or presbyterian. Hence I prefer conservative Presbyterian or conservative Dutch Reformed that adhere to the classic Reformed confessions. And I prefer Presbyterian, PCA first,  OPC second (or other conservative Presbyterian) based on being members of a PCA church and I know and have loyalty to the denomination.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Worship Quality

The previous post discussed sermon quality. The sermon is the most important part of the worship service, but the other parts are also vitally important. This includes the congregational singing, the liturgy, pastoral prayer, scripture reading, responsive reading, confession of sin, and assurance of pardon. What I want to see:
  1. Congregation singing of hymns and spiritual songs - content. The content of hymns and songs must reflect the content of scripture, if not actually taken from scripture itself. It should not be a simple repeating of a phrase but have significant content that bears the gravitas of the scriptural themes.
  2. Congregational hymns and songs - musicality. The music of the hymns and spiritual songs should be musical and support the weight of the content of the songs.
  3. There should be readings of important confessions.
  4. There should be a congregational confession of sin followed by an assurance of pardon.
  5. It is helpful for the hymns, songs, and other parts of the worship service prepare the worshipers for the sermon.
  6. Full congregational participation in singing is helpful.
The first five elements I have listed are the content and quality of the worship segment. Item six is the congregational participation.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Preaching Quality

Important to a church selection is the quality of preaching. Here is what I am looking for:
  1. Is preaching based on entire books of the Bible? An occasional topic series is fine, but the main focus of sermons during the year should be doing entire books of the Bible. The books should be from both the New Testament and Old Testament.
  2. Does the sermon follow the text of the Bible, or is the text more of a springboard into a topic that is superficial or tangential to the biblical text? The sermon needs to be faithful to what the text teaches.
  3. Are the gospel aspects brought out in the passage? The entire Bible points to Christ, although not always to the same degree. Does the sermon point to Christ and how he redeemed us?
  4. How accessible is the sermon to the attendees? There is a balance of preaching so that those who are new to the faith can understand the major points, but also those who are seasoned in the faith are also stretched. 
  5. Polished - is the sermon well crafted and presented well?

The first three points are what I call content. The last two points are presentation. I weigh content higher than presentation, although both are important. As I evaluate churches, I will grade sermons on these criteria of content and presentation.

Monday, July 27, 2015

What am I Looking For?

I have a set of criteria when looking for a new church home. The criteria fall into three major groups: core, important, preferences.

Core criteria are the core features, without which, a church is not a church. These include correct essential doctine of the nature of God found in the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the definition of Chalcedon. Further, it includes the Reformation principles recognizing the sinfulness of every human, of being cleansed and justified before God only through faith in Christ's death as paying for all your sin, this is accomplished only by the God's saving grace. Furthermore, the Bible alone is the foundation for knowledge of God and our faith. Finally,  the core features include the practice of worshipping together, administering the sacraments of baptism and communion, and a church government that oversees the congregation and encourages each member's growth through encouragement, and discipline when needed.

Important features are the things that go beyond the bare minimum but are very important to me. Does the church belong to a confessional denomination? A confessional denomination is a denomination which requires its leaders and officers hold to a classic confession of faith and or catechisms. For me, this must be one of the classic sets of Reformed confessions and catechisms. In particular, I am partial to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. A confessional denomination means that there is a quality control exercised on all the churches. Other important features include biblical inerrancy (as defined in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy), not yielding to cultural changes, such as marriage redefinition and holding to the complemetarian view of gender roles, instead of the egalitarian view.

Preferences are the things that I like, but are secondary. This includes worship music. I prefer traditional church music, with a pipe organ,  choir, hymns. However, I will fully worship in a contemporary style with guitars and drums, provided the music and words in the songs are done well with excellent content. I prefer churches that are not in debt, without a large mortgage (preferably none). I prefer churches that stay away from the "church growth movement" with and undue emphasis of small groups, particularly where it seems to lessen the importance of Sunday worship. Small groups are fine, but only in their proper secondary place.

That's my initial thoughts of what I am looking for in a church home.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Searching for New Church Home

I  haven't posted anything for a while. Now,  for reasons I will not go into,  we  are leaving our current church and looking for a new church home. I will post about our search and what we are looking for.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Turing Test for the Imago Dei

Last month was the British mathematician Alan Turing's 100th birthday. If you are a geek or techie, you undoubtedly came across the many of the biographies and legacies of Turing. One interesting thought experiment associated with Turing is the the Turing Test, a test of a machine to exhibit human intelligence and behavior. The test consists of a judge, a human, and a machine that is designed to perform just like a human. Each of the participants are separated from each other. If the judge cannot reliably identify the machine from the human, the machine will have passed the test.

There is an interesting program developed in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum called Eliza. Eliza simulates the behaviour of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Some who have played Eliza were fooled into thinking they were interacting with a human. I have provided a Google Gadgets edition of Eliza below for you to play with. It is supposed to work best with Firefox. Alas, this does not work with Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer.

After playing long enough with Eliza, most people are able to see it is a computer program. I think people these days are more computer savvy than in 1966 and so are not so easily fooled.

The previous post I discussed the theological aspects of intelligent extraterrestrial life. I asked the question of if it is possible for rational intelligent life not to exhibit the "image of God" -- or what theologians say in Latin, the Imago Dei. I said that the Imago Dei consists of rationality, the ability to correctly think, an immortal soul (an essence that carries on even when the physical body dies), knowledge of God, righteousness (moral integrity towards other intelligent life), and holiness (the right relationship towards God). Humans have fallen and thus do not exhibit perfect righteousness nor perfect holiness. In fact, these areas are seriously broken. For some, such as Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, the image was shattered to the point of being gone. For other Protestant Reformers, the image was severely marred but not completely eradicated.

The question I want to explore now is this: Can a Turing test be done for the Imago Dei?

The most difficult part would be the detecting the immortal soul. Ignoring that for now, how would a judge go about asking questions to a machine to determine if it was a human who possessed the Imago Dei? Alan Turing, an atheist, would probably dismiss the question or say this is part of the human nature. But suppose we came across extraterrestrial intelligent life, is there a way to test if it had the Imago Dei? It would probably center around the sense of right and wrong, moral values, if it had those. It might not consist of asking whether the intelligent life believed in God and loved God. While that is a good question, human atheists are thought to have the Imago Dei and would answer they do not believe in God.

What do you think?

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Theological Thoughts on Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

Suppose someday we discover extraterrestrial intelligent life. If it exists, the most probable way we'd discover it is through its signals from a planetary system of a star that is light years away. How would such a discovery impact Christian theology?

In Christian theology, God created the universe for his glory. The Old Testament psalmist writes: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork." The Bible does describe other forms of life that god created. These include angels and demons.  Demons are angels that rebelled against God. It is possible that the Bible hints of some other forms of extraterrestrial life, but that is unclear at best. From the created intelligent beings that the Bible does clearly speak about, humans, angels, and demons, we can gather several principles.

The first principle is that all intelligent creatures owe God worship and reverence. The apostle Paul writes in the New Testament: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:18-21 ESV)".

There are two classes of intelligent beings mentioned in the Bible: (1) humans and  (2) angels/demons. Demons are in the same class are angels. Demons were once angels that worshiped God. At some point, a group of angels, lead by Lucifer (Satan), rebelled against God. These fallen angels are referred to as demons. It is interesting to note how God deals with each of these classes of intelligent beings. With the class angels/demons, God rewards those who follow him by keeping them in his favor. Those who rebel, God casts them out of heaven and their ultimate fate is to be cast into hell. There appears to be no second chances for angels that rebel; they are irrevocably lost. Humans have fallen. The default destination for fallen humans is to be cast into hell. God has provided a means to redeem or rescue the fallen people so they will not be cast into hell. In fact, God has purposefully chosen a select group out of the fallen human race whom he will absolutely rescue. God will rescue any human that desires to be rescued, but unless God changes the mindset (often referred to as the heart) of the fallen person, that person will not desire to be rescued. Not all Christians agree that only God's prior purposefully chosen people will be rescued. Most readers of this blog article are not regular readers of this blog and enter from Google searches. Just so you know, I take a Reformed Protestant view, sometimes referred to as Calvinism. To me it makes the most sense of an omniscient and omnipotent God. It also makes sense out of the Bible, but that is a long discussion. Since this is my blog, this is the view I am running with for me entries.

God is not obliged to rescue anyone. This is demonstrated that with angels, God does not even provide a way for any fallen angel to be rescued or redeemed. With humans, God does provide a means of rescue, that God offers it to all humans, but only those who God awakens with the desire to be rescued will be rescued.

With extraterrestrial intelligent life, I am also making some assumptions:

  1. Intelligent life is able to do symbolic reasoning. This is the ability to represent one thing with another. It includes the capability to relate thoughts or signs to concepts of non-physical ideas.
  2. Intelligent life has consciousness, an awareness of itself.
  3. Intelligent life has a spiritual component to it. There is what theologians call the Imago Dei, the Image of God, in the intelligent life. This includes a sense of right and wrong and an appreciation for the transcendent God. This appreciation for the transcendent God is not just seeing the amazing universe and being struck with a sense of wonder at that, but the sense of wonder, awe, and love for the one who made the universe.
  4. There are objective, universal moral standards that hold across the universe for intelligent life. These would include, but are not limited to: do not to murder other intelligent life, do not steal from other intelligent life, do not covet, love and honor God.

I will expand on the Imago Dei a bit more. My definition of the image of God is not universal among Christians. Again, I am taking a Reformed perspective on this. One of the classic (and Reformed) confessions of faith in Christendom, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), says: "... He created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after His own image; ..." (WCF 5:2). From this statement, which is an attempt to summarize what the Bible teaches, says that the image consists of a number of elements. Rationality, the ability to correctly think, is the first element. An immortal soul is an essence that carries on even when the physical body dies. Knowledge is another essential element. Knowledge, in terms of the the confession understands, foremost is a knowledge of God and other knowledge as well. Righteousness is the moral integrity towards other intelligent life while holiness is the right relationship towards God.  Classical Christian doctrine teaches that God created humans with a perfect righteousness and holiness where there was no rebellion towards God and the original humans were in perfect relationship with each other. A one point, the original humans disobeyed God and they became corrupted as a result. This corruption effected the Imago Dei to where it is seriously distorted in humans ever since. This distorted, corrupted image of God in humans is bent towards rebelling against God ever since. The technical term of this corruption that all humans have since the fall is the often misunderstood phase "original sin".

Is it possible for intelligent life not to have a spiritual component to it? A variety of science fiction books I've read explore the idea. These had intelligent creatures that had no concept of morality, it was a survival of the fittest taken to its logical conclusion. There was cooperation in a group of individuals, like wolves in a pack, and groups would compete and war with each other for supremacy without any concepts of good or evil. Those books were interesting reads. While I assume intelligent life does have a spiritual component to it, I also discuss what if it did not.

Assuming, for the sake of argument that extraterrestrial life exists, here are some possible categories in how they relate to God.
  1. Extraterrestrials with the Imago Dei who have not fallen.
    1. Those who have passed a trial successfully and will never fall.
    2. Those who will have a future test and could potentially fall.
  2. Extraterrestrials with the Imago Dei who have fallen.
    1. Those who have a redemption setup with God.
    2. Those who do not have a redemption setup with God.
  3. Rational extraterrestrials with symbolic reasoning and consciousness without the complete Imago Dei, that is, they do not possess a spiritual component to them.

Extraterrestrials with the Imago Dei who have not fallen.

Extraterrestrials who have the Imago Dei and have not fallen would those beings who never do any moral wrong and worship God as he desires. These beings would enjoy God's favor. There may be two subcategories on this group. Those extraterrestrials who went through a period of testing, did not fall and will not fall in the future. These creatures will, in my take on theology, continue to live in God's favor and will enjoy God in heaven. It might be that they will not suffer a physical death, but it is also possible that individuals will die, but death will not hold an unpleasant or terrifying aspect to them. Instead it would be a natural and welcome event for each of them.

The second category are extraterrestrials who have not gone through critical testing and may yet fall. If they do not fall in that future trial or testing, they would become like the extraterrestrials who passed through their trail and did not fall, and will enjoy the same characteristics as that first subcategory. For those who fall, then we go to the next category.

Extraterrestrials with the Imago Dei who have fallen.

Extraterrestrials who have the image of God and have fallen are creatures who are in some state of rebellion with God. This is the state of humans, even those who have become Christians, who are God's chosen people, still struggle with an inner rebellion against God. There are two subcategories: those whom God has a plan of salvation or redeeming, and those who God does not plan to redeem. Remember, from the Bible's description of God's activity with respect to fallen angels, who are intelligent, rational, conscious beings with a sense of right and wrong, God does not provide a means of redeeming them. (As a side note, it is possible that theologically angels are not considered to be created in the image of God -- but I am ignoring that possibility for this discussion.)

For those extraterrestrials that God does provide an means of redemption, what would that look like? This is speculative theology (which all of this is), but I will brazenly make speculations. It might be that someone like Jesus Christ, the second person of the Triune God, entered or will enter into the extraterrestrial civilization and die for their sins, taking the punishment that each one of them deserve. As with humans, those who place their faith in that Christ-like being will be redeemed. One interesting variation would be that Jesus' death and resurrection here on Earth covers the fallen extraterrestrials who place their faith in Christ.

For those extraterrestrials where God has not provided a means for redemption, there are a few things to consider. If we were to ever come across them, we may not be able to distinguish these from the category where God will provide in the future, or where Jesus from Earth is the means of their redemption, or that these simply will not be redeemed by God at all just as the fallen demons have no provision for redemption. Just as with people we encounter who do not know God, it is possible that God will redeem them sometime in the future, so it may be with these fallen extraterrestrials. Further, I am assuming it will not be simple to understand completely alien extraterrestrials, and judging their condition with respect to God may be very difficult.

Intelligent Extraterrestrials without the Imago Dei

Finally, is it possible that are extraterrestrials without the image of God? They do not have a spiritual nature to them. They do not have a sense of moral integrity with each other. They do not have a sense of God or any duty towards him at all. They are not immoral, the are amoral. Perhaps the same could be asked of what happens to a wolf, a lion, a dog? These are creatures who do not exhibit a sense of morality. Well, many dog owners will tell me otherwise, but there is a distinction in Christian theology that differentiates these animals from humans in the sense of the image of God. Humans have a much greater degree of righteous integrity than dogs do, a much greater sense of God. To me, this last category of intelligent extraterrestrials would contain the biggest unknown in my mind. I am not sure it is even possible that an intelligent, rational, self aware, conscious being is possible without a sense of righteous integrity and an awareness of God and duty towards him. If such creatures exist, when they die, they just go out of existence -- period. I don't see anywhere in the Bible that demands that intelligent extraterrestrials without the image of God cannot exist. It just seems that it is unlikely. Neither does the Bible make a direct reference on what happens to such creatures.


These are some of my guesses. If you read all they way to here, I am amazed, since most come here in a one-shot click from a Google search, having not read this blog before, and not having my background. I welcome comments from Christians and non-Christians alike. For non-Christians, this may look a bit heartless in its analysis and arrogant. Many non-Christians think this kind of analysis is arrogant, because  I claim to know that God shows partiality to one type of belief I personally hold. What hubris! I understand. I only offer this. If Christianity is true, I cannot claim any credit in becoming a Christian. God is the one who made me a Christian, not based on anything good that I've done or had to offer. Quite the contrary, God chose and made me a Christian because I am bad and have nothing to offer. I would not come to God on my own in any way. In this way Christianity is a humble religion of bad people who did not seek redemption that God redeemed. If this is true, I had no part of making this true. Quite the opposite.

Thanks for reading.