How to Read?

How should we interpret Scripture?

What are the principles we apply when we seek to understand the message of the Bible and apply it to our lives?

We looked last week at how not to read, but how then are we to read?

To a certain extent our answer to these questions is determined by our day and age, living in the 21st century. It is conditioned, among other things, by the way we are raised and educated. This later varies somewhat with location. We like to think that there is a unique and obvious approach, this isn’t really the case. As Christians, the only universal affirmation is that the scriptures reveal God and Christ, but there are multiple ways this could happen and different approaches have found favor over time.

Chapter three of Craig Allert’s Early Christian Readings of Genesis One digs into this topic looking first at approaches to reading the Bible in our day and age and then at the approaches taken by the early church Fathers. Today we will look at modern interpretative methods.

Historical criticism shapes the modern approach – both within the confessing church and outside it. (By confessing church I mean those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.) Allert describes historical criticism:

When applied to biblical books, [historical criticism] is a comprehensive term that designates the techniques used to discover the historical situation, sources behind the writings, literary style and relationships, date, authorship, approach to composition, destination, and recipients. Generally speaking, [historical criticism] seeks to answer one overarching question – To what historical circumstances does a given text refer, and out of what historical circumstance did it emerge? (pp. 97-98)

Although confessing Christians may have strong misgivings with the way historical criticism is applied in academic circles outside of the church many of the general principles are widely accepted (even if historical criticism is forcefully rejected). The most significant problem is with some of the assumptions and presuppositions that govern the approach. There is often an unwarranted rejection of elements of the text – particularly in the realm of the supernatural and the power and mission of God. Historical criticism cannot address important theological questions. Continue reading

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The Cost of Existence and the God of Love

We have been slowly working through Denis Alexander’s new book Is There Purpose in Biology and come now to the final chapter – where he digs into the topic introduced by his subtitle. Evolution causes problems for a number of people because it uses, in fact requires, death to create life. Predation and parasitism are a normal part of the nature world. Tigers are excellent hunters, the dart frog is highly toxic, and so-called flesh eating bacteria lend an element of risk to swimming in natural waters or clean-up after a flood.

When we consider evolution and natural selection we often think of it in terms of survival of the fittest. The vision is of competition and bloody fight, of victors and vanquished. But while there are predators and parasites – these creatures fill niches in the natural world and simply live their lives. The food chain is a complex web. In evolutionary biology fitness has little to do with competition and victory in the local specific situation. Rather the fittest are those who raise most offspring, nothing more, nothing less. In the long run a variant with greater fitness will survive and dominate the population, but in the short term many will coexist. Evolution does require a natural cycle and process of life and death with successive generations. But this need be no more violent or wasteful than the world we see around us today. Each succeeding generation fulfills a role in the process of the unfolding of creation.

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How Not to Read

Last summer I started reading a new book by Craig Allert, Early Christian Readings of Genesis One. The first chapter and post, Why Care?, focused the value of reading the early church fathers and addressed the question of why we should care about their approach to Genesis (or anything else). It has been a long hiatus, but the book is worth a return visit. Chapter 2, How Not to Read the Fathers, wanders through a number of topics related to the reading of ancient documents – the early church fathers and/or Scripture itself.

These texts are not armories containing material to be selected, assembled, and restructured as ammunition in a modern battle, but intellectual works intended to convey significant ideas. Misreading and misappropriation is a constant danger. Three common practices virtually assure misuse and mistaken conclusions. Allert does not list these in his chapter, rather they are conclusions I’ve drawn from his discussion.

1. Ignore the context of the text. The context of an ancient text should consider the whole extant body of work by an author as well as the ancient culture and language in which it was first written. Before taking one passage by Basil or Origen or Augustine and using it a window into his approach or views it is necessary to consider the whole work. Sometimes it is necessary to consider the whole body of work by an author. Often there is a nuance that is not obvious at first glance.

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The Christian Matrix

There is a matrix within which we find Purpose and meaning. Evolution doesn’t undermine the possibility of Purpose in the world or purpose in life. The scientific study of biology alone doesn’t lead us any closer to an understanding of Purpose. But there is more to life than the naked scientific reality. In the next chapter of his book Is There Purpose in Biology Denis Alexander explores a Christian matrix within which biology and the study of biology can flourish.

Denis contends that “everyone needs some purpose in life if they wish to flourish and maintain good mental health.” (p. 179) This purpose can be found in everyday activities … work, family, hobbies, charitable activities and causes. It can be found in the pursuit of public office or in the pursuit of knowledge or adventure. Ultimately, however, all of these pursuits are limited in time and space. In the long run they are meaningless … “swallowed up in the march of time and death.”(p. 180) These elements of purpose, so essential to human health, are not intrinsic to evolutionary biology. They must be imposed from the outside.

As Christians we see a Purpose in the world that goes beyond the personal elements in everyday activities. There is a Purpose that will endure and a hope for the future that transcends the march of time and death in this world. This Purpose, like all non-trivial elements of purpose, is imposed on biology from the outside. The key question, then, is straightforward: Can evolution be incorporated into the Christian matrix of Purpose? For Denis Alexander and many of the rest of us, the answer is clearly yes.

Creator. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both begin with the affirmation of God as Creator. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. The Nicene Creed expands this to include “all things visible and invisible.” This is not an invention of the early church, but a faithful reflection of Scripture. The idea of God as creator permeates the Bible, from Genesis 1 (in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth) through John 1 (in the beginning was the Word … without him nothing was made that has been made) and more.

To speak of God as creator can be misleading though. Human create and this kind of creation comes immediately to mind. But God as creator is not the same. “The human act of creating is not the complete cause of what is produced; but God’s creative act is the complete cause of what is produced. … Creation is about ontology, the existence of things and the meanings of their existence.” (p. 184) God is everywhere and in everything. The idea that we can separate “natural mechanisms” from the acts of God stand at the root of many misunderstandings of creation. Denis quotes Aubrey Moore writing in 1889:

The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out all together, Darwinism appeared, and under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend… Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. (Moore 1891, p. 73 quoted by Alexander, pp. 189-190)

Denis elaborates on this idea. Our scientific understanding of the world has nothing to do with the biblical understanding of God as Creator.

Within the Christian worldview, all scientific investigation must be, by definition, an attempt to further understand the properties and workings of the created order. So our present state of scientific knowledge about a particular aspect of the created order is irrelevant to its theological status as creation. (p. 190)

Ignorance doesn’t leave room for God or understanding remove him from the picture. God is active in the mechanisms we understand just as much as in the mysteries that are not (yet) resolved.

Immanent. The immanence of God is creation … that he is permanently pervading and sustaining the universe … means that there are three tenses – past, present, and future – all involved in the act of creation. In the beginning God created, he is actively involves in the ongoing work of creation, he will continue to create in the future… bringing about a new heavens and a new earth.

So the biblical doctrine of creation tells us about a dynamic process in which God is the author of the narrative, and Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). God’s creation encompasses the past, present, and future. That’s the matrix. (p. 197)

When it comes to God’s action in the world, it is important to recognize that God is not one force among many. He is the origin and sustainer of them all and acts through them as well as (rarely) outside them.

So what is the Purpose in Biology? God has intentions and purposes in the world and for the world. More specifically there is a purpose to evolutionary biology as part of God’s Purpose for the world. Denis digs into some elements of Purpose in biology in the last section of this chapter. First, there is an intrinsic value in “the great riot of biological diversity we see all over the planet.” (p. 209) Denis suggests:

A careful reading of the biblical text reveals God as creator revelling in the living diversity of his own created order, not because it had some utilitarian purposes for human use, but simply because it was there. (p. 209)

He goes on:

The theological framing outlined here suggests that it is the intrinsic value of the created order in all its wonderful diversity that matters to God. It reflects God’s creativity, a created order that has been in existence 3.5 billion years before humanity ever came on the scene to enjoy it, during which period God was really enjoying it. (p. 210)

Evolution is a description of the creative process producing the wondrous diversity of life on this planet – past and present. The Purpose of evolution is to bring about the diversity of life in God’s creation.

The second Purpose of biology is the emergence of …

creatures like ourselves … that have the capacity for free will, and so moral choice, creatures with complex minds that enable the use of language, the appreciation and investigation of the properties of the created order, reflection on the meaning of life, and engagement in loving relationships. It is all this that opens up the possibility of a relationship of love with the God who is love. (p. 211)

We are not contingent accidents of nature, but part of the Purpose of biology in God’s creation.

The third Purpose of biology is that the end of our planet is not the end of life. “It is the conviction that there will be a “new heavens and a new earth” following on from this one. (p. 214)

The “continuity yet transformed” part of the story is critical for ideas of Purpose in biology. For this entails that everything that ever lived will be caught up into this new creation. … The main point here is that there will be continuity with present biological life. (p. 216)

The Christian narrative of Purpose celebrates these three – the diversity of life, the emergence of humans, and the guarantee of eternal purpose in the age to come.

There is a fly in the ointment – the role of death, pain and suffering in the living world. We will explore this Denis in the final chapter of his book and the final post in this series. For now …

Where is Purpose found in the abundant diversity of life on earth?

What is the matrix through which you view the world and its Purpose?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

You may also comment on The Christian Matrix at Jesus Creed.

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Beyond the Myths and Into the Future

Religious people, including evangelical Christians, are generally supportive of science. On the other hand, they often distrust scientists. There are some valid reasons for distrust – when some of the loudest voices condemn or belittle religion portraying science as true enlightenment. Elaine Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle conclude their book Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think with some thoughts on productive ways forward.

First, they note that “most, if not all, of the apparent tensions or conflicts between religion and science for religious people can be tied to concerns about what a particular scientific issue means the perceived role of God in the world or the perceived sacredness of humanity.” (p. 140) This is an important observation because it allows us to focus on the most significant issues. As a scientist and a Christian I find that there is no intrinsic conflict between science and God’s action in the world or the sacredness of humanity – in fact, scientific study and pursuits can provide means to alleviate suffering and promote human flourishing. Certain views – e.g. young earth creationism – are in conflict with science. The question for religious people (especially evangelical Christians) is whether young earth creationism is the only faithful interpretation of Scripture. I don’t believe it is the only or even the best interpretation of Scripture. Other views – e.g. eugenics – are in conflict with religion, but these are not ‘scientific,’ they merely exploit science to achieve an end.

For scientists who hope to sway the opinion of religious Americans a focus on the key issues will help to pave the way. Heavy-handed approaches will make few converts. In addition, Ecklund and Scheitle “would encourage all scientists to refrain from making theological claims – and to highlight, when relevant, that their work does not make theological assertions.” They go on “Science has limitations, and religious individuals want to see that scientists believe this, and will not try to utilize science to make arguments about things outside the scope of science or take science beyond its intended purpose (what the philosopher Gregory Peterson calls “disciplinary imperialism”).” (pp. 142-143)

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Not Really Random … or Purposeless

Evolution is not random. Chance is a harnessed tool rather than a metaphysical conundrum. This is Denis Alexander’s well supported claim in chapter 4 of Is There Purpose in Biology. The claim that evolution undermines Purpose, metaphysical capital P purpose, is ridiculous. So too is the claim that constraints and convergence in evolutionary biology demonstrate such Purpose.

Darwinian evolution is not a theory of chance. We can look at this in a little more detail, following Denis’s argument.

Genetic variation happens. But it happens at predictable rates in predictable places. Yes, genetic variation arises from random mutations – meaning “that their occurrence is not influenced in any way by the needs of the individual organisms in which they occur.” (p. 144) But these variations are constrained by the laws of chemistry and physics. They are not random the way the  role of (fair) dice or flip of a (fair) coin are random.

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What is a Credible Interpretation?

The first chapter of Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins looks at principles of biblical interpretation. Because this is the biggest stumbling block for Christians, it is important to address interpretation head on in order to lay a framework for understanding the relationship between science and Christian faith.

John Walton provides three criteria for a credible interpretation of Scripture (p. 9): (1) it will be supported by “sound exegesis performed in a close reading of the text.” Critical thinking is an important aspect of interpretation. The intellectual exercise of reason – digging into grammar and word usage – is an essential part of interpretation. (2) it will “be compatible with other other texts of Scripture and with tenets of sound theology.” There is an overall coherence to the message of Scripture. (3) it “must be founded on sound hermeneutical principles.

There is the rub … what are sound hermeneutical principles? What is the appropriate theory and methodology of interpretation of Scripture? Some see the bible as a transcendent text containing hidden knowledge, even coded messages. Modern science and other phenomena completely foreign to the original audience are found by those with eyes to see. But this is not a sound approach to Scripture. Taking this approach, we can find anything we want … as people too often have throughout history.

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