A World From Dust

TrilobitesIn popular imagination, even the imagination of of many trained in technical fields, evolution is a messy, chaotic, highly contingent and random process. Mark Whorton in Peril in Paradise comments that while he finds the evidence for an old earth convincing, the evidence for evolution is far less convincing. Most importantly, as a Christian he does not think that the origin and diversity of life is some lucky accident.

Is the acceptance of evolution a commitment to contingent randomness?

This image of randomness in evolution was made most emphatically by Stephen Jay Gould. Run the tape over and something entirely different will emerge. From his 1994 article in Scientific American (v. 271, pp. 84-91) The Evolution of Life:

History includes too much chaos, or extremely sensitive dependence on minute and unmeasurable differences in initial conditions, leading to massively divergent outcomes based on tiny and unknowable disparities in starting points. And history includes too much contingency, or shaping of present results by long chains of unpredictable antecedent states, rather than immediate determination by timeless laws of nature.

Homo sapiens did not appear on the earth, just a geologic second ago, because evolutionary theory predicts such an outcome based on themes of progress and increasing neural complexity. Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness.

The idea that we are products of random chance and historic contingency seems at odds with any reasonable Christian theology. But evolution is not a random process where just anything can happen. Evolution is constrained by chemistry and physics. Historical contingency may well play a much smaller role in the diversity of life we see around us than suggested by Gould. Simon Conway Morris and Ard Louis, professors at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford respectively discuss randomness and convergence in the video below:

The point being made in this clip is that the scientific definition of randomness does not imply that something is is open-ended and purposeless. The evolutionary process is an efficient search algorithm optimizing for specific functions. In fact, the evolutionary process follows well defined roads and paths constrained by the nature of chemistry and physics. Not everything is possible, there are a limited number of possible solutions, stable points in biological space. There is no reason to conclude that evolution demonstrates that we are accidents of nature.

9780190275013If we look carefully at the chemistry of life we can go much deeper than this. Chemistry (and physics) constrain the realm of biological possibility. I recently received a new book A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press) by Ben McFarland that digs into this question of chemistry, biology and evolution. McFarland is a biochemist, and a professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle Washington. He received his Ph.D. in Biomolecular Structure and Design from the University of Washington in 2001 and has been teaching at SPU since 2003.

McFarland’s take on evolution and contingency comes from his understanding of chemistry and biochemistry. Continue reading

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A Sojourn in Egypt

Great_Sphinx_of_Giza_May_2015Out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1)

Sojourns in Egypt plays an important role in the sweep of Scripture running from the opening frames of the story of Abraham and the covenant promise in Genesis 12 through the early story of Jesus (Mt 2).

Abram obeyed the call of God and went to the land of Canaan with the promise that he would become a great nation there. But all was not milk and honey… or fertile pasture land and sheep. In fact, the land of Canaan was soon afflicted by a severe famine. Abram and his household fled to Egypt to survive, sometime between 2100 and 1700 BC, when the sphinx had already been around for hundreds of years. (Image Credit)

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negev.

This story of Abram’s sojourn in Egypt is important. It is the first of three times a patriarch (Abraham twice and Isaac once) is reported as passing off his wife as his sister. This ruse strikes us in the 21st century as somewhat strange. The cultural context in which this maneuver makes sense simply isn’t clear. Much ink has been spilled in the attempt to reason through the significance of the maneuver and the relatedness of the three separate stories (they are not thought to be independent). The significance of our current story, however, does not lie in this ruse or in its relationship to the other two passages.

Abram’s household flees the land of Canaan in need, finds refugee in Egypt, gains in wealth – but needs to leave. The Lord afflicts Pharaoh with plagues and Abram leaves. This is a mini-exodus story as is the latter journey of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to Egypt and back.

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Christ as Redeemer From the Beginning

Adam and Eve did not introduce evil into God’s good creation. Christ as cosmic redeemer was part of God’s plan from the beginning.

Eve-and-the-SerpentGenesis 3 tells a story of disobedience and consequences for that disobedience, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the snake was in the garden. If the snake is identified with Satan, as later Christian tradition holds, there was a cosmic spiritual battle underway before humankind ever came on the scene. The Bible does not actually give us much insight into the origins of this conflict. Mark Whorton in Peril in Paradise follows the tradition that Satan rebelled before the world was created, quoting John 8:44 where Jesus remarks that the devil was a murderer from the beginning and 1 John 3:8 “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” According to Whorton “If the devil sinned from the beginning, then the fall of Satan occurred before the beginning and not some time after creation was declared very good.” (p. 48)

This gives us two reasons to discount the Perfect Paradise Paradigm.

First and foremost, God’s unchanging, eternal purpose and plan for creation was fixed before He created the physical realm. Second … Evil was present in the garden even before the forbidden fruit was eaten. Since it was Satan who first rebelled, Adam cannot be solely culpable for the introduction of all evil and suffering into God’s perfect creation. (p. 49)

Christ as both creator and redeemer intensifies the first reason. Paul, for example, portrays Christ as our redeemer from before creation.

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. Eph. 1:4-6

Whorton points out that “The Creator’s gaze was not fixed on Eden.” (p. 50) In fact Paul continues in his letter to the Ephesians to tell how God’s plan was “to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.” (Eph 1:10)

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A Perfect Plan not a Perfect Paradise

Balance YECI’ve been reading a book Peril in Paradise by Mark S. Whorton. In this book Dr. Whorton, a rocket scientist (Ph. D. in aerospace engineering, worked for NASA) and a Christian, puts forth a case for an old earth and digs into problems with a young earth scenario. Throughout the book he tells a little of his own story. Raised in a Southern Baptist church, son of a deacon, he cut his teeth on “the great doctrines of biblical inspiration and inerrancy.” As a doctoral student he found that his arguments for a young earth fell flat. “My colleagues graciously showed me the flaws in my “scientific evidence.” Essentially my arguments were either based on obsolete data, an incomplete understanding of the processes, or mere speculation. Even more surprising was the overwhelming wealth of evidence for an old earth that I was unaware of.” (p. 214) The data is overwhelming and growing. I have been reading a series of posts on a grand canyon buried beneath the Nile river over at Naturalis Historia. One more thread of evidence consistent with an old earth, but essentially impossible to reconcile with a very young earth. The abundant evidence for an ancient earth caused Whorton to dig more deeply into both the biblical and theological arguments for young earth creationism. He does not espouse an evolutionary creation, leaning instead toward a old earth progressive creation model. According to the back of the book, he has been active in the formation of local chapters of Reasons to Believe founded by Hugh Ross.

In the opening sections of this book Whorton contrasts a “perfect paradise” paradigm with a “perfect plan” paradigm for understanding creation and God as Creator. Many young earth creationists (YEC) base at least part of their argument for a young earth on the phrase in Genesis 1 “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.” Certainly, death, decay and suffering could not have been part of this “very good” creation. This reasoning leads to the “perfect paradise” paradigm. The garden of Eden was a perfect paradise, ruined only by the sin of Adam and Eve. Anything else would not have been “very good.” To support his argument Whorton quotes some prominent YEC sources. While all who hold to a young earth may not take this particular view, many do.

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No Evolution Allowed

Mind Change on EvolutionThe stories in How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science are fascinating. Twenty-five authors give twenty-five different perspectives. There is no one pathway to grapple with these issues. The contributors include pastors (e.g. John Ortberg, Daniel Harrell, Ken Fong), biblical scholars (e.g. N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Tremper Longman III), scientists (e.g. Francis Collins, Jennifer Wiseman, Denis Lamoureaux) , and philosophers (e.g. James Stump, James K. A. Smith, Richard Mouw). Some became Christians in high school or college, others were raised in conservative Christian homes (the kind where evolution is a dirty word). Some of the authors reflect on a changed mind, starting from an anti-evolution, even young earth perspective. Others never had a deep personal struggle with the relationship between evolutionary biology and Christian faith. All, however, have found it necessary to grow in their understanding of the relationship between Christian faith and science. A number still have open questions (most often concerning Adam and Eve).

In my last post on this book I focused on Ken Fong’s story (What is Your Story?). Today I would like to look at Tremper Longman’s journey. Tremper is an Old Testament scholar, Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara CA. He has an MDiv from Westminster Seminary and a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern languages and literature from Yale. We’ve been using his recent commentary on Genesis (2016) and his short book How to Read Genesis (2005) alongside other commentaries in our continuing walk through Genesis. He is also coauthor of Science, Creation and the Bible (2010) with Richard F. Carlson (a scientist). In the past we’ve walked through his commentary on Job and How to Read Job (written with John Walton). He introduces himself in the clip below (from 2009).

At Westminster Seminary Genesis 1 and 2 were approached figuratively although an original historical couple was defended. The same was true when he returned and taught there (1981-1998).

Pretty much everyone took the view that there was considerable figurative language in the early chapters of Genesis (especially the “days”) and they taught that the earth and the cosmos were old. Even so, …, most if not all of the faculty, myself included, affirmed the special creation of Adam and Eve. At the time, it seemed critical to an Augustinian interpretation of Romans 5 which linked our sin nature to Adam’s sin in a way that suggested a hereditary connection. (p. 50)

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Also in Eden?

Lately I’ve been listening to the book of Ezekiel on my commute. One morning last week the passages included Ezekiel 28 and the lament against the king of Tyre caught my attention (vv.11-19).

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘You were the seal of perfection,
full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.
You were in Eden,
the garden of God;

You were on the holy mount of God;
you walked among the fiery stones.
You were blameless in your ways
from the day you were created
till wickedness was found in you.
Through your widespread trade
you were filled with violence,
and you sinned.
So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God,
and I expelled you, guardian cherub,
from among the fiery stones.

The king of Tyre is described by the sovereign Lord as blameless in the garden of Eden until he fell. What are we to make of this? The entire passage is quoted at the end of this post.

Ezekiel 2Ezekiel was a priest from Jerusalem, taken to Babylon in the first wave of exile. He wrote from the banks of the Kebar river in Babylon, 1:1). His visions are impressive. This is one of a number of prophecies against various peoples and rulers. Generally they are among the passages that seem less important. With the exception of a few lasting images (e.g. wheels within wheels and a valley of dry bones) the book of Ezekiel is not often the subject of sermons, or even of bible studies. It contains some fairly graphic sexual imagery in describing the failures of Judah, fantastic apocalyptic imagery, the repeated notion that the righteous can fall away and the wicked can turn to God with a change in final status, a massive rebuilt temple at the end of the book. There are echoes of some of these themes in the New Testament, especially in Revelation. It would seem that any interpretation of The Apocalypse of John that doesn’t take into account the Jewish context, including the book of Ezekiel, will probably miss some important points.

Ezekiel is admittedly a hard book to understand. Daniel Bodi in Ezekiel & Daniel (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary) comments that “Calvin never finished his commentary on Ezekiel and Luther put forth no major effort toward its interpretation.” (p. 403, I have the hard cover edition that includes the prophets from Isaiah to Daniel and page numbers are from this version.)

The king = Satan? According to the word of the Lord in this passage the king of Tyre was in Eden, the garden of God. Clearly this is a problem for any kind of literal interpretation of the passage. Some commentators (only a few) have assumed that the passage must be referring to Satan. After all, the garden was a real place some 3500 years earlier. The only “persons” in the garden were Adam, Eve, and Satan. It isn’t reasonable to assume the passage refers to Adam, therefore it must reference the fall of Satan. Ezekiel 28 along with a passage in Isaiah 14 “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!” are the primary references for this idea. It is highly unlikely that this is an appropriate interpretation of either passage, and it is a particularly strained interpretation of Ezekiel 28.

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Oh, the Stories We Tell!

ChurchWe all have some story, some paradigm, that structures and forms our understanding of life and purpose.

What is the story around which you shape your life?

I’ve been reading a book Peril in Paradise by Mark S. Whorton. In this book Dr. Whorton, a rocket scientist (Ph. D. in aerospace engineering, worked for NASA) and a Christian, puts forth a case for an old earth and digs into problems with a young earth scenario. He does not espouse an evolutionary creation, leaning instead toward a progressive creation model. According to the back of the book, he has been active in the formation of local chapters of Reasons to Believe founded by Hugh Ross.

In his introduction he defines a paradigm (a world story):

A paradigm is like a puzzle where all the pieces fit together to form a view of our world. The various aspects of life fit together to form a (hopefully) consistent picture. Like looking through rose-colored glasses, we see life filtered through our paradigms. But when we try to fit the pieces of daily life into our puzzle, sometimes things just do not seem to fit. (p. 22)

Science employs paradigms and so does theology. As scientific paradigms are continually tested against the data, so to should theological paradigms be tested against the data, most importantly the Scriptures. Even when the Scriptures are accepted as an inerrant revelation (and Whorton accepts this completely), theology remains an imperfect science.

It is very important to recognize the distinction between paradigms and truth. Paradigms are human constructs – models that attempt to integrate distinct points of fact (the “data” of revelation) into a consistent system from which we can make sense of our world. But as a human construct, a paradigm is fallible and incomplete, even when based on the infallible and complete truth of revelation. This subtle distinction is highly significant when it comes to analyzing our world views. Often what someone asserts as the clear reading of Scripture is actually an implication from a particular paradigm. So while the truth of God’s word is not in question, His word demands that we test our paradigms to see if they are consistent with His revealed truth. (pp. 23-24)

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