The Wisdom of This World

Castle Church Wittenberg dsI’ve been traveling the last several weeks – spending some time in Europe working (with a little vacationing thrown into the mix). Last weekend I visited Lutherstadt Wittenberg, A small town in eastern Germany where Martin Luther spent most of his adult life, preached, raised his family, and … oh yeah … composed the 95 theses. The wooden door is long gone, but Luther’s theses are engraved on bronze doors to All Saints Church also known as the Castle Church or Schloßkirche. Both Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon are buried in the church. The church is undergoing major renovation leading up to the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 theses in 2017, but I was lucky enough to get inside briefly. The pictures are from top to bottom: the Schloßkirche, the Stadtkirche St. Marien, and the Corpus Christi Chapel next to St. Marien’s.

As a result of these travels, today’s post is a slightly edited repost from several years back on a topic worth another look.

The Wisdom of This World. Oftentimes when discussing issues of science and faith, or other issues that challenge the conventional thinking of the Christian faith, someone will up and quote or paraphrase Paul from his letters to the Corinthians.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? (1 Cor. 1:18-20)

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (1 Cor. 3:18-20)

The implication when this is brought into the conversation is, implicitly or explicitly, that we should forsake the wisdom of this world – the questions raised by philosophy, psychology, science, archaeology – and have faith in the wisdom of God and in his Holy Word, the “plain” reading of scripture. To accept an old earth and evolution or to question the historicity of Adam, Noah, Babel, Job, or Jonah is to succumb to the wisdom of the world, forsaking the wisdom of God (it is usually fine to turn the Song of Songs into an allegory though). To question the reality of Hell, eternal conscious torment, or the exclusivity of salvation is to succumb to the wisdom of this world.

In the 1 Cor. 23 Paul notes that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” (1. Cor. 1:23). I have at times heard people claim that this view of Christ crucified as “foolishness” explains the resistance to so-called “biblical” views of creation be they young earth, old earth progressive creation, or intelligent design.

Does this stumbling block have anything to do with our approach to science?

Without discussing the specifics of the age of the earth, evolution, the historicity of Adam or the concept of Hell, I would like to look at this more closely today and pose a more fundamental question as well.

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Posted in Christian Life, Sin

Can God Change?

Moberly OT TheologyChapter 4 of Walter Moberly’s book Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture is, for many of us, a challenging read. This chapter addresses the title question of this post – does God change? More specifically, does God change his mind? God doesn’t change in the essence of his being, he doesn’t grow and mature like humans. But does he even react to human actions? This question, and Moberly’s wrestling with it, is worth a short series of posts – I anticipate about three. Today an introduction, next time a look at Jeremiah 18, and finally a look at Numbers 23:19 and 1 Sam 15 along with a summary of the chapter.

The Problem. John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 6:6 is interesting (link here) The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. NIV

6. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth The repentance which is here ascribed to God does not properly belong to him, but has reference to our understanding of him. For since we cannot comprehend him as he is, it is necessary that, for our sakes he should, in a certain sense, transform himself. That repentance cannot take place in God, easily appears from this single considerations that nothing happens which is by him unexpected or unforeseen. The same reasoning, and remark, applies to what follows, that God was affected with grief. Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity.

John Calvin’s theology quite simply would not let him take the verse literally. The verse says that God repented, but God can’t repent. The verse says that he was troubled – but God cannot experience such emotions. He can hate sin, but he cannot be affected with grief. The question for us is clear, does this verse convey information about God or does it need to be “accommodated” into agreement with our theology?

István Kolossváry in The Fabric of Eternity (see last Thursday’s post) frames his argument about God, time, and providence the way he does because he is convinced that the idea that “our free will can change God’s divine will” is “fundamentally contrary to Christian belief.” (p. 10)

Moberly doesn’t quote Calvin. Instead he opens the chapter by quoting Jörg Jeremias. “There is hardly any other Old Testament statement about God which has appeared as offensive to thinkers of all times – philosophers as well as theologians – as the sentence that God felt regret [Reue] over something planned earlier or even already performed, and retracted it.” (p. 107) Of course Genesis 6:6 didn’t suddenly become a problem with the reformation. The Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria (25 BC to 50 AD) was troubled by the passage., arguing that God “knows no change of will, but ever holds fast to what He purposed from the first.” (p. 109)

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Posted in Bible, Problems for Faith | Tagged

The Fabric of Eternity

Budapest 2015My husband and I had the privilege of visiting Budapest last weekend, where our daughter is spending a year. We attended an active church meeting in an old movie theater in the city and thoroughly enjoyed the sights, sounds, and company. The picture to the right is taken from Gellért Hill looking along the Danube. The Buda side of the river is located near the edge of the ancient Roman Empire, and the ruins of the Roman city of Aquincum are fascinating. Although the Roman military town lies under Buda and has been built over throughout history, the accompanying civil town is one of the best preserved Roman cities in Europe, lying on the outskirts of modern Budapest. The tile floor below of two wrestlers graces the floor of the bath in a large private residence in the town. From Aquincum to Árpád to St. Steven (Szent István) through the Ottoman Turks, the Habsburgs, the communist era, to the present, Budapest is truly a city with a long and involved history. (Clicking on the pictures will bring up larger versions.)

Fabric of EternityCoincidentally, I recently received a short book (106 pages) written by a Hungarian scientist, István Kolossváry. His book, The Fabric of Eternity. A Scientist’s View of the Works of Providence, reflects the way that he has dealt with the (apparent) chasm between science and theology. His book “seeks to eradicate the wall that divides the two disciplines and bring a fresh perspective to believers in both.” In particular, Kolossváry is focused on the theological and philosophical questions that address the way that God can and does act in the world. Does science and scientific explanation eliminate the possibility that God exists? Some people claim that modern scientific understanding of the nature of the universe does just that. Kolossváry doesn’t find this satisfactory.

My own deep conviction vouches for a more humble Universe that humans can call home, a Universe that is alive by the love of God. To ‘go it alone’ means that we equate the Universe with god—the god of the philosophers, that is. The god of the philosophers is an absolute pure entity that is entirely self-contained, bearing its own cause, reason, and purpose. The god of the philosophers has no need for anything; it lives (if we can call it life) in perfect satisfaction and harmony with itself. God who loves the Universe, however, is beyond pure perfection and loves us human beings. It is love that lies beyond pure perfection; it is love that distinguishes God from the god of the philosophers. You know love only when you live it, it is beyond words. (p. 3)

As a biophysicist whose work involves computer simulations of chemical and biological systems, Kolossváry structures his argument first around free will and the nature of time and then around the quantum mechanical nature of the universe. He brings concepts from his scientific world into his approach to theology. (This may seem intimidating, but Kolossváry’s book is short and very readable.)

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Posted in Christianity, Science and Faith

A Matter of Interpretation

Laying Down Arms 2Part II of Gary N. Fugle’s new book Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide looks at prominent questions that concern many Christians arising from the evidence for the age of the earth (4.5 billion years) and by evolutionary biology. Gary Fugle (Ph.D. UC Santa Barbara) is a Christian who spent many years as a biology professor (now retired) at Butte College in Oroville, near Chico California. He has heard all the typical “Christian” (i.e. spontaneous creationist) responses to evolutionary biology, some needing serious reflection, others somewhat concerning. I will focus primarily on the chapter 4 (What Can the Natural World Tell Us?) and summarize only briefly chapter 5 (God Wouldn’t Do It That Way) and chapter 6 (Foundational Views in Christian Faith). I recommend the chapters in their entirety to those interested in this discussion.

A God of Deception? The earth looks old, very old. Of this there is no real doubt or disagreement. One way that Christians reconcile this appearance of age with the age inferred from Genesis – a six day creation and counting the years in the genealogies – is to postulate a mature creation. Fugle sees two significant problems with this approach.

First, it means that nothing can be truly known about the past. For some conservative Christians, this leads to a clean and simple conclusion that the Bible is the only reliable source for knowledge about historic events. But it also suggests that all or a large part of many scientific disciplines, including cosmology, astronomy, physics, geology, and pre-biblical archaeology, are based merely on illusion. (p. 34)

A second and perhaps more crucial implication of the false appearance argument is what it suggests about God, the Creator. It implies that his creation is full of deception – not just a little, but detailed and elaborate deception.

… According to Psalm 19:1-2, “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (my emphasis). Christians are called to trust in a God who is wholly truthful and faithful, not one who would create a deceptively fake image of reality in his natural creation. The important implication is that God reveals truth both in the Bible and in nature. (p. 35)

The old earth progressive creation view can escape many of these problems, but there is still an an appearance of evolution embedded, for example, in the genomes of diverse life forms. These are not obvious to a casual observer, but are convincing to the vast majority of trained biologists, both Christian and non-Christians. They are also convincing to most of us trained in other areas who are familiar with genetic data.

A Matter of Interpretation. Fugle understands the high authority of the Bible in Christian thought and life. He agrees with it. The issue isn’t the authority of scripture. It is important to distinguish between the authority of scripture and the authority of a particular interpretation of scripture.

There is a crucial distinction here between the inerrancy of Scripture itself and the supposed inerrancy of any particular interpretation of Scripture. If there are good natural evidences to support evolution, or a very old age for the earth, then to claim we should defer to a young-earth interpretation of the Bible is really an emotional appeal inappropriately fortified by reference to our high view of Scripture. A young-earth creationist interpretation is not equivalent to the Bible itself. (p. 38)

Andrea_di_Bonaiuto._Santa_Maria_Novella_1366-7_fresco_0001dsThis is a key point – and Fugle backs it up by reference to church leaders and thinkers including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Charles Hodge. He quotes Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica First Part, Question 68, Article I, Answer.

Two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches. The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

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Posted in Creation, Science and Faith | Tagged

Why Does it Matter?

Lost World of Adam and EveJohn Walton sums up his book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by asking why it matters that we dig into the question of Adam.  Aren’t we simply letting science dictate the terms?

The historicity of Adam and Eve is significant for two reasons: inerrancy and The Fall. On the first point Walton has argued that Genesis is an ancient text and it is only natural that God would accommodate his message to the understanding of the original audience. We need not affirm everything mentioned in the text if it is incidental to the message of the text.  Such an approach has ample support in the history of Christianity. Walton brings up John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1 as an example. That Saturn is larger than the moon, or that the moon “only” reflects sunlight, does not mean that there is an error in the text of Genesis.  This is an accommodation to the level of the audience.

Walton turns to an earlier book,  Four Views on the Historical Adam, where he presented a sketch of the argument made in much greater detail in the current book. Philip Ryken offered one of two pastoral responses (Greg Boyd offered the other). Ryken argued that we need a historical Adam. His reasons are summarized by Walton (p.. 203):

  1. The historical Adam explains humanity’s sinful nature.
  1. The historical Adam accounts for the presence of evil in the world.
  1. The historical Adam (with the historical Eve) clarifies the biblical position on sexual identity and family relationships.
  1. The historical Adam assures us that we are justified before God.
  1. The historical Adam advances the missionary work of the church.
  1. The historical Adam secures our hope in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Walton points out that these reasons illustrate the truly significant questions in the discussion of Adam. Inerrancy is a rather minor one that can, if these other issues are addressed, be handled rather easily (for most of us at least).

But Walton doesn’t address these issues specifically. Rather he argues that

… even if we accept without question all these points, we could still maintain that no theology is built upon the scientific implications commonly associated with Adam and Eve: that they must (theologically speaking!) be created de novo, as the only people at the beginning of humanity and those from whom we are all still descended. (p. 203-204)

This has been the thrust of his book. It isn’t that we have answers about everything. Simply put, the traditional interpretation of a unique pair isn’t the only interpretation that is faithful to scripture and to the theological claims of scripture. And this is important:

In other words, if neither exegesis nor theology intractably demands those conclusions that argue against modern scientific consensus premised on common descent, we have no compelling reason to contest the science. (p. 204)

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Posted in Adam, Genesis, Problems for Faith | Tagged

New Creation From the Old

Church of Transfiguration - interiorI have to admit that the conclusion to Mark Harris’s book The Nature of Creation (both the chapter on Scientific Eschatology and New Creation and the concluding chapter itself) leave me somewhat befuddled. There are a number of clear (and useful) points, but less clarity concerning the nature of creation and new creation and what these should mean to the Christian. Perhaps this confusion is unavoidable given the complexity of the topic.

Harris has outlined two forms of creation – creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua, creation out of nothing and continuous creation in earlier chapters. In this last section he adds a third form of creation into the mix – creatio ex vetere, creation from the old.

Science really cannot shed much, if any, light on eschatology. What science has to say about the end of the world has little to do with the biblical vision. This shouldn’t be surprising – the new creation arises as a fresh start from the old. It is a redemptive creation and “redemption is always a divine action.” (p. 167) This is true in the exodus, in the Old Testament prophets, and in the apocalyptic literature. It is a message of hope that reflects a change in the current social and political situation and a completely new beginning for creation, the latter primarily in the later apocalyptic writings.

Harris argues that “any description of divine action must be metaphorical by definition.” Biblical texts fall into a number of different categories. Some are historical – accounts of kings and battles and such. These we can interpret in the light of our experience (although it also helps to understand the ancient Near East.

There is, however, a profound difference when we are seeking to understand a biblical text which describes something entirely out of our experience, such as a miracle, or a divine action, even one of creation. And the prophecies of new creation, by their very nature, concern divine action, and new action at that. Clearly all talk of contact between the divine and the earthly must then be inherently metaphorical, an attempt to explain the otherworldly in terms of our world. But this is all that we can do: speak of the new creation using language of our creation, images from our world which refer to a reality coming from another world. (p. 174)

The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection body is our only real point of contact. This, of course, we only know of through the text of scripture – through human language inadequate to the task of description. It is something new for which the words and ideas dis not really exist in first century Greek.

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Posted in Creation, Eschatology | Tagged

In the Image of God

creation of Adam dsThe final chapter of John Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate looks at the ways in which humans are distinct creatures and a special creation of God.  In discussing human origins, Walton draws a distinction between evolution in the sense material continuity and gradual change with time and the mechanisms that drove this process of evolution. I made the same distinction in my recent post “How to Talk About Science and Faith.”  He points out that evolution is “not inherently atheistic or deistic,” although some of the mechanisms proposed are.  Evolutionary history itself “has plenty of room for the providence of God as well as the intimate involvement of God.” (p. 191)

As an ancient document Genesis has nothing to say about the science of evolution – it was not an idea in the consciousness of the author, not an idea that was relevant to the theological point of the text.  The traditional interpretation that humans were a unique special creation is an interpretation consistent with scripture. Walton asks, however, if it is the only interpretation consistent with scripture. What specific claims does scripture make about  human origins?

Genesis 1:26-27 tells us “God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, … So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 5:1-2 gives us the same: When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them “adam” when they were created.

Psalm 8 is also significant: What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?  You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet. (v. 4-6)

Human distinctiveness isn’t material, it isn’t neurological, and has nothing to do with opposable thumbs.  There are aspects of our biology that enable us to function effectively as God’s image in the world – but these traits do not define human distinctiveness or our calling as God’s image.

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Posted in Image of God | Tagged