Einstein: Know your History

I finished reading The Trouble with Physics by theoretical physicist Lee Smolin. In this book Smolin tackles the current state of physics and its lack of progress in solving the five fundamental questions.albert-einstein It was an interesting read, though if you are not someone who tackles popular works of science I would recommend Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe first.

Toward the end of the book, Smolin laments the inability of the scientific community to jump start another series of great discoveries, like those of the early twentieth century, to help move science forward toward finding the grand Theory of Everything (TOE). He attributes this to an academic system that rewards master craftsman who don’t challenge the current theories, while also failing to promote an environment for seers to flourish.

[Seers] go into science because they have questions about the nature of existence that their schoolbooks didn’t answer. If they weren’t scientists, they might be artists or writers or they might end up in divinity school.

Master craftsmen are those who are technically excellent at doing math and science. The are great at doing what Smolin (and Kuhn) call “normal science”. But most are not seers. Seers are typically less proficient than their colleagues in the “technical areas” but possess the ability to dream seeing what others miss. Einstein, as you might have guessed, was a seer. His insights and challenges to Newton provided the fuel for special relativity, general relativity, and quantum theory.

Smolin goes on to write that seers are frustrated with the educational system due to its lack of appreciation for “the historical and philosophical context in which science develops.”

Here is a portion of a letter, Einstein wrote to another physicist that appears in the book.

So many people today … seem to me like someone who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historical and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.

What does this have to do with theology?

Read Einstein’s letter again. This time replacing scientist with theologian and you will probably see what I am driving at.

The “prejudices of our generation” that taint our thinking can lead to Vulcan theology.

One of the ways in which we can combat this tendency is by wrestling with the way a doctrine has formed. In theology all too often the historic formation of doctrine and the history of the interpretations of passages are ignored. But when we stop and ask – what is the history behind a particular point of view and how does it relate back to the  orthodox consensus of the early church – a couple of things happen. We can be exposed to new ideas that we might otherwise miss. And more importantly we may find that the ties to early orthodoxy are sketchy at best. For more on how this might work check out how the early church can be bumpers on the bowling alley of theology.

Another method to combat our tendency to fall into Vulcan theology is to look at our theology as a whole. As we do this we should be wrestling with how consistent our views fit with all of Scripture. And just as important we should be vetting how logically consistent our interpretations are with all the others we hold. It is not uncommon to study various passages and wrestle with the possible interpretations available to us based on the grammar, context, and situation of the writing. But if we don’t look up to see the forest for the trees we may end up adopting a patch work set of interpretations (the trees) that make for one inconsistent whole (the forest). We may not ever achieve the TOE for theology but if can at least identify our assumptions and our logical inconsistencies we will have a better understanding of God as He has revealed Himself.

Vulcan Theology: On seeing what we wish to see.

After reading the title, you might be thinking this post will have something to do with Spock. Maybe you are expecting some interesting twist on how this famous character might be related to some aspect of theology. Neither would be correct.Besides, as any reader of this blog would know, I am a huge Star Wars fan with only a passing knowledge of the Star Trek universe.

I have recently completed reading (actually listening to) The Hunt for Vulcan.  It was fascinating. The book, by Tom Levenson, covers the history, and to a lessor degree the science, that began with the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 and ends with Einstein delivering his lectures describing general relativity in 1915.


Spock spoke these words in “The Tholian Web” which aired in 1968

One of the primary characters in the book is the famous astronomer, Le Verrier, credited with discovering Neptune. He was able to accomplish this after noticing that the orbit of the planet Uranus was not following the path that Newton’s laws of gravity required. Analyzing various data and working through numerous calculations he proposed that the cause of the erratic orbit was another planet.

And he was right.

Years later, while studying the orbits of the other planets in the solar system, Le Verrier noticed that Mercury had a wobble in its orbit. A feature that also could not be explained by Newton’s laws of gravity.

Tom Levenson, in an interview with National Geographic, recounts (emphasis added):

According to Newton’s laws, Mercury’s wobble has to be caused by some source of gravitational energy. There was no other way to think about it. Facts on their own don’t mean anything unless you have a framework to put them in. And the framework was Newton’s laws.

This led to Le Verrier proposing that a planet must exist between Mercury and the vulvanSun. Confidence was so high that this planet existed that it was given the name Vulcan. A half a century of searching, and sometimes finding the non-existent planet, ensued. It did not end until Einstein explained it away with a whole new way of understanding the universe.

People kept discovering Vulcan because the way they saw the world required Vulcan to be there.

Levenson wrote this story, not only because it was interesting, but because it helps us understand the “human capacity to both discover and self-deceive.”

Vulcan is a cautionary tale: it’s so damn easy to see what one wants or expects to find.

As I read through this book, it occurred to me that theology, particularly interpretation, could face the same problems as the 19th century astronomers. How we understand a passage of Scripture, what we see in the text, can be greatly affected by the framework we have adopted and bring with us to that text. We are just as prone to see what our framework and presuppositions require as those in other fields.

A good and challenging example of this would be the warning passages in the book of Hebrews. Are these passages addressed to believers and warning us that we can forfeit salvation if we apostate? Or do these passages admonish unbelievers, who are mixed in with true and thus eternally secure believers, to believe? Do the passages genuinely warn the readers about the possibility of losing out on eternal rewards or eternal life? Or are they only hypothetical. The answers to all of these questions are likely to be driven by prior theological commitments.

It is through alternative frameworks that we can begin to see a  passage from another point of view. In Hunt for Vulcan, the astronomers, possessing only a Newtonian understanding of the world, grappled with the mystery that lay before them. It was a fact that Mercury had a wobble. It was also becoming clear that the solar system lacked a planet Vulcan.

What was one to do?

For years the paradoxes stood until Einstein made them all disappear when he offered a new way of dealing with the mystery. However, his solution required seeing gravity, space, and time in a new way.

Once we are presented with more than one framework with which to assess the facts (or passages) how do we assess which is correct? It is unlikely that we will be able to confirm our theological frameworks by measuring the bending of light around the Sun (see this article for how general relativity was confirmed). But it is interesting to think about how we might go about assessing various theological frameworks. What would you propose? How did you conclude that the system you hold is correct?

As Vulcan’s troublesome history reveals, no one gives up on a powerful, or a beautiful, or perhaps simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion – and a real alternative.

For a detailed look at how we might appraise theological frameworks I recommend the Agile Manifesto for Theology and Doctrine (link) and its sequel (link).




Why doesn’t God present the Gospel so all will believe?

Came across an old post (2006) by Sam Storms today as I was drinking my coffee. Storms, a Calvinist and contributor to Parchment & Pen, notes that the two traditions – Calvinism and Arminianism – “share a considerable amount of common theological ground, even when it comes to the issue of salvation.”

In sum, the Wesleyan Arminian analysis of fallen human nature does not differ fundamentally from the Calvinistic one. So wherein do they differ? Why do Wesleyan Arminians affirm conditional election and Calvinists affirm that election is unconditional? The answer is what is called prevenient (or preventing) grace

Throughout the post Storms is fair and accurate in his presentation. He quotes from several Arminian theologians (Wesley, Oden, Thiessen) as he accurately describes prevenient grace as providing “people with the ability to choose or reject God.”

Presenting prevenient grace properly does not mean Storms agrees with it. As he sees it there are numerous problems. Most are rooted in suspending God’s sovereign work “on the will of man” and giving people a reason to boast about their part in salvation.


As he moves to his conclusion, Storms provides the following quotation from Charles Spurgeon:

What did He foresee about my faith? Did He foresee that I should get that faith myself, and that I should believe on Him of myself? No; Christ could not foresee that, because no Christian man will ever say that faith came of itself without the gift and without the working of the Holy Spirit. I have met with a great many believers, and talked with them about this matter; but I never knew one who could put his hand on his heart, and say, ‘I believed in Jesus without the assistance of the Holy Spirit’.

Both Arminians and Calvinists affirm all that is written here, as long as we understand the “gift and working” of the Spirit as describing convicting, opening, drawing, enabling, and illuminating. So, I was not sure what Storms meant by this quote. Where we part ways, and where I assume that Storms (and Spurgeon) are coming from, is seeing this work of the Spirit as being regeneration.

Concluding with an open question to his Arminian readers, Storms seems to drift back to Calvinist presuppositions on decision making.

The question, asked by Storms a few different ways, is:

If God truly desires for all to be saved in the way the Arminian contends, and if he knows what it is in the means of persuasion contained in the gospel that brings people to say yes, why doesn’t he orchestrate the presentation of the gospel in such a way that it will succeed in persuading all people to believe?

The question is rooted in rightly noting that God “knows the secrets and inner motives of the heart” and thus knows why people accept or reject the Gospel. Where Storms goes wrong is importing a  (soft) deterministic view of decision making and free will into Arminian theology (ie compatibilism). The assumption being made here is that God can control all the circumstances and decision making factors (which He can) to bring about the scenario where every person would accept Him. This is (or at least seems to be) based on the assumption a decision is determined by factors other than agent’s will.

It is true that there are numerous factors that can strongly influence a decision, however, in the Arminian view, they do not determine the decision. The agent does, having “significant freedom” to decide. Now it is certainly true that God, as an all powerful being, could step in and control the will of a person thus determining the decision that is made. But, absent God overpowering the will, events cannot be orchestrated in such a way as to cause all to accept Him.


In the movie, Bruce Almighty, God gives Bruce the chance to play God. There are a few rules Bruce must abide by. One of them is “you can’t mess with free will.” It is clear in the movie that a non-compatibilistic view of free will is assumed. This stumps Bruce who asks the question Storms is posing from another point of view.

Bruce: How do you make so many people love you without affecting Free Will?

God: Heh, welcome to my world, son. If you come up with an answer to that one, let me know.