And Abram Went

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. (12:1-4)

Abraham CropThere are many issues that we could pick up on and discuss in Genesis 11:27-12:9. The journey began with his father and brother when they left Ur of the Chaldean’s and traveled up to Haran or Harran. Both Tremper Longman III (Genesis in the Story of God Bible Commentary), and Bill Arnold (Genesis (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)) agree that the Ur refereed to in the text is the well known city of Babylon although “of the Chaldeans” is an anachronism added to allow the reader to identify the city. The Chaldeans were not in Ur until well after the time of Abraham and even the time of Moses. John Walton (The NIV Application Commentary Genesis), on the other hand, argues that Ur may be some other city up near Harran, otherwise he finds it hard to understand why they’d stop in Harran as it is off the direct route. Longman suggests that they may have stopped in Harran because this was their ancestral homeland. This seems a reasonable suggestion. The exact path, however, isn’t really the point of the story. (The image outlines an “as the crow flies” path on a NASA image of the area.)

Although it is important not to drive a wedge between Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12 and following, it is also clear that the story takes a dramatic turn. Genesis 1-11 dealt with deep history. The authors and editors may well have told this deep history in a manner that revealed God’s mission in the world but used the stories current among the people. Whatever we think of the literary construction of Genesis 1-11, Chapter 12 takes us in a new direction. It is still an ancient book written in the conventions of the time to an original audience removed from us, but it is telling the history of the call of Israel. This is ancient history, but it isn’t deep history. There are connections with 1-11, but there is also a clear change in tone and focus.

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What is Your Story?

Mind Change on EvolutionI received a new book in the mail today How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science. In this book twenty-five Christians reflect on their journey to and around the intersection of evolution and Christian faith.

The contributors come from a range of perspectives including 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) and a wide variety of backgrounds. Some became Christians in high school or college, others were raised in conservative Christian homes (the kind where evolution is a dirty word). The title is a little misleading. 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).

Although the book is due for general release on June 9th (Kindle) to 13th (paperback), it is available now direct from IVP Press. Today I’d like to highlight one incident that struck me in Ken Fong’s essay. Ken opens his essay with an illustration … a game they would play in a swimming pool where the goal was to take a beach ball down to the bottom of the pool (the deep end!) and hold it there. “The ball would never stay buried for long. It belonged on the surface. Despite our best efforts at holding it under, its emergence back on the surface was inevitable.” (p. 34) Now keep that image in mind.

Ken Fong grew up in a Christian home, studied biological sciences at UC Berkeley, and then as he puts it “I gave in to the crazy notion that the God of the universe was calling me to be a pastor.” (p. 36) He went to seminary and for twenty five years has been pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of LA in Rosemead, CA. Early on (in college and seminary) he submerged the issues raised by evolution, leaning on young earth creationism, but struggling inwardly. “Looking back, it’s clear to me now that my primary issue wasn’t the veracity of the science as much as the veracity of the Bible. Whenever I sensed that the Bible’s authority was at risk, I would unleash a barrage of attacks against the threat to discredit and dismiss it, and I would submerge the disturbing thoughts and feelings in the deep end of my mind.” (p. 35)

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Miracles and the “Problem” of Divine Action

IMG_1211 crop 2One of the blogs at BioLogos is run by Jim Stump, formerly a professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN, now senior editor at BioLogos. I first “met” Jim virtually when he sent me a copy of the book Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, that he co-edited with Alan Padgett. I have since had the privilege of speaking with him in person on several occasions. I wish I had a better picture to post, but to the right Jim is listening intently to a tour guide in Oxford. (I, on the other hand, was taking pictures and only “listening” on the side.)

Introducing his blog Faith and Science Seeking Understanding Jim writes:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” -C. S. Lewis

Since the Middle Ages, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding) has been the Latin phrase used to indicate a commitment to the Christian faith along with a commitment to working out the implications of faith in light of all we know. This blog extends that commitment to “faith and science” and seeks to understand all we know through the lens of faith.

I introduce Jim’s blog because I think he deals with issues that many who read these posts will find interesting. Philosophical issues that are at the intersection between science and Christian theology. He has begun hosting a series of posts by a number of different authors on the topic of divine action. There are seven posts in the series as I write this with more to come. In the opening post Jim wrote that he’s noticed four particular areas of theological concern that Christians often have when considering evolution in light of their faith:

  1. What do we do about the Bible’s depictions of Adam and Eve?
  2. If we share ancestry with other life, what about human uniqueness and the image of God?
  3. Doesn’t evolution make the problem of evil more difficult?
  4. If science can explain the development of life, is God’s action consigned to starting things off and then watching from a distance?

We’ve dealt with many of these over the years, working through a number of different writers and Christian thinkers. How are we to understand divine action, whether a miracle or not, in an age of science? My recent walk through Robert Asher’s book Evolution and Belief raised the question on several occasions. Although Asher is a Christian, he finds the idea of miracles at odds with modern science.The view he presented on this particular topic stood at one Christian extreme, almost a deistic position. Many of us take a less extreme view. The God of the bible is a personal God and as such he interacts with his creation. A personal God interacting with creation will, at times, appear “miraculous.” At other times it will be indistinguishable from so-called natural processes. But how do we reconcile an event as both natural and divine?

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No Holiness but Social Holiness

450px-JwesleysittingThe final section of Matthew Nelson Hill’s new book Evolution and Holiness looks at John Wesley’s view of original sin and human nature and the interaction between the structures he put in place with small accountability groups and more modern ideas from sociobiology. I was raised in a Baptist church, with something of a “soft” Calvinist bent. (TULIP appalled me when I first heard of it in college – it was not explicitly or implicitly taught.) I have attended Presbyterian or Baptist churches all of my life. As a result some of these aspects of Wesley’s thought were new to me. (My Baptist upbringing and college taught me precious little about Lutheranism and nothing at all about Weslyanism, except that “we” were not like “them.”)

A key component of early Methodism was the creation of structures, small groups, designed for accountability to help to shape the serious Christian in what Wesley termed “Christian perfection.” Hill’s interest is in the way these accountability structures encourage virtues that might be considered “unnatural,” such virtues as altruism and generosity.

First, Wesley’s views:

Wesley did not see human nature in a positive light; yet he continually saw God working with individuals to help correct their natural tendencies. (p. 139)

All persons are not completely bent toward depravity because all persons are recipients of prevenient grace. (p. 140)

For those of us not schooled in theology, prevenient is from the Latin meaning coming before, antecedent or anticipatory. This is a grace that anticipates (and enables) conversion and sanctification.

For Wesley, Christian perfection always consisted of wholly loving God with one’s heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. (p. 140)

Christian perfection isn’t a final state, for is is possible to fall back into the ways of the world, but it is, in Wesley’s view, an achievable goal that should be sought in this life. It is also not achieved through human effort alone, but requires the grace and Spirit of God.

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The God of Abraham

We worship the same God

640px-Lastman,_Pieter_-_Abraham's_Journey_to_Canaan_-_1614We are in the midst of a series of posts on the book of Genesis, considering a number of different commentaries. In the primeval history of Genesis 1-11, as indeed in much of Genesis, God is the primary actor. Genesis isn’t so much a story of human origins or the origins of Israel as it is a story of God’s mission. The origins of God’s work with his people. Because of this the most important part of Genesis, and the reason the book is worth an extended series, is not found in the primeval history of Genesis 1-11, but in the call of Abraham and of Israel. (The image is a 17th century artist’s depiction of the journey of Abraham from Haran.)

The Christian story begins with the call of Abraham and the election of Israel as God’s people, a light to the nations.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him. … The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord. Genesis 12:1-8


Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” 18:18-19

A pledge reaffirmed to Jacob as he fled to his mother’s brother Laban.

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. … He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” 28:10-15

A pledge reaffirmed in the exodus of Israel from Egypt. God calls Moses referring back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Exodus 3:4-6

Galilee from Mt of TransfigurationJesus meets Moses with Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. The same Moses who served the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Matthew 17:1-5

God, the Father of Jesus, is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who called Abraham, who formed Israel, who rescued them out of Egypt, who anointed David, who brought them back from exile is the God of the New Testament and the God we worship.

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Probability, Complexity, and God

diceRobert Asher concludes his book Evolution and Belief with a brief discussion of probability in biology and closing thoughts on the belief in God. The randomness and improbability of evolution is often emphasized in the popular literature, but evolution is not a random process. Concepts of probability and randomness in biology are often seriously misunderstood.

Probability and Contingency. Asher uses the example of dice. Suppose we role five dice, three times in succession. The odds of getting any particular outcome, whether 1,2,3,4,5 three times in a row or precisely the three outcomes in the figure to the right, is 1 in 470 billion. If I rolled the dice, with four seconds allowed per roll we would expect this outcome on three consecutive roles about once every 61000 years. About three times a day I’d get the right first roll, 1,5,6,1,1 raising my hopes … but the full sequence could come on day one, or day 22 million, or not at all in 61000 years. Of course, the fact that I got the rolls shown in the picture is not surprising, we cannot rationally argue from odds that some designer must have arranged it. When I rolled the dice I had to get some result out of the 470 billion possibilities. (Asher got different numbers on his rolls.)

In another example, consider your church on Sunday. Each of those people developed from one of about 400 maternal eggs and one of a couple hundred billion sperm produced by their parents. The odds that each of those people were born with precisely the given genetic traits and that they would meet in that church on Sunday is infinitesimal. Unimaginably improbable. But we are not particularly surprised when it occurs. Some one of the multitude of possible combinations had to occur. Asher uses the example of his second-year class on vertebrate biology, but the point is the same.

These examples illustrate the difference between contingency and chance in history. Contingency is the retrospective appreciation of how what happens is one possibility out of many, one which is dependent upon what else has happened. Some combination of numbers has to result with every roll of the dice, although each combination, by itself, is improbable. The occurrence of some series of numbers after a roll of the dice is not only probable, but certain. (p. 202)

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On Reading Genesis 1-11

lucas_cranach_God_as_Creator_Luthers_BibleThe book of Genesis stands at the front of the Bible and provides an account of origins, setting the stage for the exodus from Egypt and the foundation of Israel as the people of God. The book can be usefully divided into three sections: The primeval history of 1-11, the ancestor narratives of 12-36, and the story of Joseph in 37-50. Although this may seem obvious to the person who has studied the book or the Bible at length, it isn’t necessarily obvious to the “average” Christian. As a long time Christian, familiar with the stories of scripture from infancy, this division was an insight that had escaped me until I first read Bill Arnold’s commentary (published in 2009).

The primeval history (ch. 1) begins with a sweeping and doxological view of creation. It is a hymn of praise to God. God alone created the universe and all that is found within. There is no combat between gods, no divine deities in the sky, no forces of evil in the deeps, all familiar themes in the ancient Near East. God created and formed the earth to function as a holy space, and populated it with humans created in his image to serve as his representatives.

This is followed by four stories connected by genealogies (chs. 2-11). The genealogies serve to flesh out the stories and serve as an important part of a whole narrative composition. The stories, Eden and the Fall, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Deluge, Babel, follow similar themes of spreading sin and the grace of God, with significant and interesting additional features as well.

The literary structure of 2-11 defies the rather simple literal interpretation often assumed by conservative Christians. The complications are numerous, and many of them don’t originate from conflicts with geology, biology, linguistics or archaeology. They arise from the text itself. Even in the absence of external evidence forced harmonizations or interpolations and extrapolations are required to maintain literal rather than “merely” literary truth. As such these complications have been subject to Jewish and Christian thought and speculation for millennia. Walter Moberly (The Theology of the Book of Genesis) outlines several of issues.

The story of Cain and Abel assumes a context with other humans present. The indications include Cain’s wife, but go beyond this alone. Moberly outlines four more. The division of labor with Cain a tiller of the ground and Abel a keeper of sheep. “Such divisions of labor with their particular categorizations would not be meaningful if there were only a handful of people on the earth.” (p. 24) Cain kills Abel in the open countryside. “The point of being in the open countryside is that one is away from other people in their settlements.”(p. 24) Cain is worried about danger from others when he is sent off as a wanderer (v. 14). Building a city (v. 17) presupposes a population. The “solution” to these problems require us to assume that Adam and Eve had many unnamed children before or shortly after Cain and Abel. (All in the 130 years (5:3) before Seth! Seth replaces Abel after Cain kills him (4:25).)

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