In his insightful and challenging book, The Right Questions (2002), Phillip Johnson (who died last month) wrote that at the heart of the cultural changes today is the sharp divergence between two very different world views: the Christian view that states (as in John 1:1-4): “In the beginning was the Word…”; and scientific materialism which says, “In the beginning were the particles” (p.136). (Before his retirement Phillip Johnson had been Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley for over three decades.)
In an earlier chapter in his book, he had observed that “In the beginning was the Word” is dismissed as a ‘non-cognitive utterance of religion’ and therefore one that cannot be evaluated in terms of ‘true or false’ (p.63). On the other hand he also draws attention to an unquestioned assumption that stands behind scientific naturalism, namely that ‘the laws and the particles existed, and that these two things plus chance had to do all the creating’ (p.64).
In this context Johnson points out that everyone needs to ask ‘the right questions’ – especially with respect to the assumptions that stand behind scientific materialism. For example, he draws attention to President Clinton’s announcement in June 2000 with the breakthrough in understanding the human genome: “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life, we are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift” (p.37). And Francis Collins, the scientific director of the government’s Human Genome Project, said: “It is humbling for me and awe-inspiring to realize that we have caught the first glimpse of our instruction book, previously known only to God” (p.38).
Johnson comments that both statements ‘seem to say that the genome research actually supports the view that a supernatural mind designed the instructions that guide the immensely complex biochemical processes of life’. He also notes the negative implications, namely that ‘Clinton and Collins seemed to be repudiating the central claim of evolutionary naturalism, which is that exclusively natural causes like chance and physical law produced all the features of life…’ (p.38).
Yet he also notes that most leading biologists reject the notion of God and God’s involvement.
But can the clear statements of John 1:1-2 be easily dismissed as a crutch for those who need such a foundation for life? In the beginning was the Word, we read, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God… And in John 1:14 we learn, And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
In his Prologue John speaks of the pre-existence of the Word of God. From all eternity the Word has been enthroned in the magnificence of the glory of heaven. But John also speaks of the incarnation of the Word: he is a Person who took up residence with us. And John tells us that the Word incarnate was full of grace and truth. We have seen his glory, he testifies. John was either spinning a falsehood or witnessing to a truth that is beyond human invention.
Indeed, The Gospel of John together with the other three Gospels reveal a transcendent figure. The esteemed ancient historian Dr Edwin Judge once commented: ‘An ancient historian has no problem seeing the phenomenon of Jesus as an historical one. … The writings that sprang up about Jesus also reveal to us a movement of thought and an experience of life so unusual that something much more substantial than the imagination is needed to explain it’.
Furthermore, Paul the Apostle in Colossians 1:5b speaks of the Gospel as the word of the truth. He could have left out any reference to the words the truth, but he doesn’t. He wants to stress that the Christian message is true. Paul’s words reflect not only the words of the Gospel of John but also those of Luke who states that he had verified his account of Jesus Christ with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-2). Strange as it may seem the Bible accounts of Jesus are verifiable and true.
Over the years the Christian church has been criticised for taking a western religion to other cultures. But what we often forget is that Christianity is not a western faith. Its origins are in the Middle-East. But more significant is the point that Paul is making in 1:6-7: the Christian gospel is for all the world.
All this brings us back to the question of knowledge. When we ask the right questions we discern that there are some essential assumptions that undergird scientific or philosophical naturalism – assumptions that cannot be tested and which require a step of faith. On the other hand, the step of faith in the statement that there is a creator God, is not a blind step. Its essence is grounded in a verifiable historical figure – Jesus.
This is the Jesus Christ to whom the Colossian believers had responded. It is the good news that he brings that we need to embrace ourselves and introduce to others around us today.