When God Began to Create?

Genesis 1:1-3.  We all know it – and it is crystal clear, right?

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. (KJV)

Well, as it happens there is some uncertainty in the translation of these verses. We don’t have the original text. Hebrew doesn’t make vowels explicit and there is more than one plausible way to place the vowel in the text. These change the nuanced meaning of the text. It is also not clear whether the first verse is an independent sentence and what follows a description of the creation in the rest of the chapter, or whether the first clause leads into the second and third verses.  The NRSV translates this section as:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

This translation emphases the initial darkness and lack of form. The creation story begins as God brings light to the face of the earth. The NIV is slightly different, verses 1 and 2 set the scene, with verse 1 perhaps a heading.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

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Of Pine Nuts, Acorns, and Mustard Seeds

February was a busy month in our household, but it is now time to get back to The Bible & Ancient Science  by Denis Lamoureux.

What is the message of the Bible? Denis finds that for him “reading the Bible is a mystical experience. It is a spiritual encounter between us and the Lord, facilitated by the inspired words in Holy Scripture.” (p. 64)  But lives are changed by the message of the Bible, not by a legalistic or literalistic rendering of precise words. Words, by the way, written and spoken in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using images of the day.

Consider Mark 4:30-32.

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”(NIV)

The mustard seed and mustard plant provided an image that was immediately understood by the original audience. How many ordinary Americans, on the other hand, know what a mustard seed looks like or a mustard plant for that matter? Isn’t mustard that yellow stuff that comes in a squeeze bottle?

Pine trees and pine nuts, oak trees and acorns are images that most North Americans will understand immediately. I found two versions of Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” online. In the YouVersion we read (and this is the version referenced by Denis in his book):

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

In contrast, The Bible Gateway version has:

“How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It’s like an acorn. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge oak tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.”

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The Message is Spiritual

In The Bible & Ancient Science  and his other books Denis Lamoureux argues that the ancient cosmology and phenomenology is incidental to the text. The Bible makes statements about nature. In these statements, the message lies in spiritual truths not in the phenomenological perspective. For example, when the sun is described as rising and setting, we envision the earth spinning giving the appearance of solar motion. However, the ancient audience viewed a luminous object moving across a vault. The use of such phenomenological language is incidental to the message of the text. It isn’t important whether the earth spins or the sun moves.

I have posted a number of times on this idea that the science is incidental. You can find discussions in posts on some of Denis’s other books here: Science is Incidental or Evolutionary Creation 6 or No Historical Adam?.  Denis has found that this concept raises an important question for many of his students. Quoting from p. 50:

If the science in the Bible is an ancient human understanding of nature, then is this also the case with the spiritual truths in Scripture?

Are we not being inconsistent if we reject the ancient phenomenological perspective of the world in the Bible but accept the spiritual truths?

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A Flat Earth?

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Psalm 19:1

Is the earth roughly spherical, orbiting around the much more massive sun, with a far less massive moon orbiting the earth?

Is the universe expansive, with stars and galaxies light years away from us?

Does a 21st century vision of the solar system or the galaxy shape your reading of Genesis or the Psalms?

Denis Lamoureux digs into these kinds of questions in the next couple of chapters of his book The Bible & Ancient Science introducing concepts in biblical interpretation. When reading the Bible when and where should we expect to find correspondence or concordance with fact? Lamoureux argues that the Bible is a book of redemption. “The primary purpose of the Bible is to deal with our relationship with God and to make us realize that we have damaged it though our own sinfulness.” (p. 28). There is a spiritual correspondence between the teachings of Scripture and spiritual reality. This is fundamental to our belief that the Bible is the word of God.

But is there a scientific concordance or correspondence between statements about the physical world in Scripture and physical reality as we understand it today? Denis’s answer, and mine, is not necessarily. Human understanding of cosmology has changed through the years and these changes are reflected in Scripture and in the writings of Christians over the last two millennia. Kyle Greenwood has a nice book Scripture and Cosmology for those who wish to dig into this a little deeper. Continue reading

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Literally a Matter of Interpretation

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.

As Christians we take the bible seriously as the Word of God. It provides touchstone through which we can discern the will and ways of God. Paul wrote to Timothy:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

A powerful word that we would all do well to take to heart. But it is not true that all we have to do is read the Bible and everything else will fall into place. If that were true I seriously doubt that people would have found it possible to use it to justify the institution of slavery in America, Jim Crow laws, antisemitism, or rioting in the US Capitol building.

The Bible is written in ancient languages and into ancient cultures, using literary forms and genres common to those times and places. It must be translated, studied, and interpreted. Prayer, the power of the Spirit, and an openness to learn all play important roles.

In The Bible & Ancient Science Denis Lamoureux outlines a number of principles for interpretation. The first two deal with literalism and with genre.

No one takes the Bible as 100% literal. Figures of speech are common. Lamoureux points to Isaiah 55:12

You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.

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Character Matters

I had every intention of posting on Daniel Lamoureux’s book last Thursday. Diving once again into the questions of science and Christian faith.

And then I couldn’t.

I have seen Micah 6:8 quoted several times in the last few days.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

To top it off, I picked up an old Reader’s Digest from January 2009 (randomly out of a large stack in our bathroom, but perhaps the hand of the Spirit was at work). This issue has a feature on advice for President Obama as he began his first term and one of those asked to supply advice was the Reverend Billy Graham (p 165). I quote just a bit of Graham’s advice here:

More than 2,700 years ago, the Jewish prophet Micah said to the people of his day “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Could any words be more appropriate as you assume office?

Look carefully at Micah’s three injunctions. First he exhorts you to “act justly” – to do what is right, not just what is politically expedient. Power brings with it many temptations that can be almost overwhelming … Know them, resist them, and make it your goal to live with integrity and with enthusiasm for justice.

Then Micah charges you to “love mercy” – not just to practice mercy but to make it your passion. …

Finally, Micah calls you to “walk humbly with your God.” Every word in this phrase is important. … But you can’t truly walk with God if you allow pride or ego to dominate you.

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Welcome 2021!

Fall 2020 was a tough semester. Last winter, before COVID-19 became a household word, I agreed to double teach in the Fall to fill a need in our department. (In exchange I have a light load this winter term.) Teaching in an unsettled environment with evolving expectations and constraints, with one new course and another needing significant adaptation to spatial separation in discussions, whether online or in person … suffice to say, the workload was significantly more than doubled. Writing regularly and even thinking about science and Christian faith took a back seat. It is time to get back into the groove.

I recently received a copy of a new book by Denis Lamoureux “The Bible & Ancient Science”. Much of the material in this book will be familiar to those who have read many of Denis’s other books, especially his large book “Evolutionary Creation”.

Like many Christians, Denis found the questions raised by the intersection (or conflict) of science and our faith troubling. Unlike many, however, he took the time to explore the questions in depth. When he felt called to engage in the battle between science (specifically evolution) and Christian faith, he began by pursuing a PhD in theology. This challenged many of his preconceptions about the way to read Scripture as the word of God. A second PhD in biology, focused on the evolution of the jaw, convinced him that the theory of evolution is grounded in solid empirical evidence. This background led him to a career as a Professor of Science and Religion at St. Joseph’s College, University of Alberta (see his site here). This latest book focuses on a series of hermeneutical principles to help guide Christians to a deeper understanding of Scripture. Drawing from his long experience teaching the topic to college students, he has pulled together a helpful guide for lay Christians. In a series of posts we will think through many of these principles.

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Love Your Neighbor

As Christians we are called love our neighbor – a mandate that spans the prophets, the Gospels, and the letters of Paul.  This isn’t a command that is supported by a single proof text. Jesus, himself, taught us of the importance of this commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mt. 22:37-40

BioLogos has prepared a Christian statement for Science in Pandemic Times. I encourage you to read it and consider signing it (I have signed it). The threat is very real and we are called to act in a fashion that shows our love for others. This doesn’t mean cowering in fear, but it does mean acting in a prudent and respectful manner.

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Is Curiosity a Shared Value?

The first shared value Elaine Ecklund discusses in in her new book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear is curiosity.

Scientists, by their nature, are curious about how things fit together, how the various facets of this universe work. This is true in astrophysics, in chemistry, in geology, in biology and in sociology. The dictionary definition of curiosity is quite simple: a strong desire to know or learn something. To flesh out this definition, Ecklund turns to the philosopher Elias Baumgarten:

As a character trait … curiosity is a disposition to want to know more or to learn more about a wide variety of things. The more one has this character trait, the more often or the more intensely one will on particular occasions experience a desire to or urge to investigate and learn more about something. (pp. 60-61 quoting from Baumgarten’s  article “Curiosity as a moral virtue” Int. J. Appl. Philos. 15, 169 (2001))

In general, curiosity is valued and nurtured in scientific and academic environments. Research is driven by a desire to move forward in understanding, to explore questions or realms of this world that have not been answered before.

Is curiosity a value that is nurtured in the church?

Here the answer is mixed. The history of science as developed in the Christian West was driven by curiosity and a desire to better understand God’s creation. Clearly the church has often been a place where curiosity is nurtured and valued.

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Moving Past Origins

What virtues are most valued in your church community?

What is the significance of human uniqueness?

Elaine Ecklund in her new book Why Science and Faith Need Each Other: Eight Shared Values that Move Us Beyond Fear suggests that scientific and faith communities share many virtues – although this may depend in part on the specific communities involved. An important resource for digging into this question is found in many of our church communities – scientists who are active in the local church. In her interview with Christian scientists she found (not surprisingly) that some churches do a better job of this than others. The scientists within a congregation can provide an important and trusted perspective. But this will only happen if there are some shared values and virtues.

Before digging into these virtues however, it is worthwhile to step back and look at the largest area of concern for many Christians … the question of human origins and human uniqueness. For good reason, Christians hold strongly to the position of humans, created in the image of God. For many, this rules out the possibility of  evolution, especially human evolution. But the choices and range of views is not quite so clear cut. In her survey, Ecklund found (see Religion vs. Science: What Religious People Really Think) that a little less than 40% of evangelicals claimed that some version of young earth creationism was definitely true, but about a quarter of these also claimed that a contradictory old earth view was definitely true. There is an important lesson here. Surveys can obscure the truth by forcing respondents to choose the more acceptable of options without nuance or careful consideration.

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