And It Was Very Good

Lost World of Adam and EveJohn Walton’s new book The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate explores a topic at the center of much of the controversy between science and Christian faith. Following the format used in his earlier books The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Scripture the chapters are organized according to propositions about the text and its interpretation. The first five propositions summarize concepts from the first two books and his more scholarly book Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology. These propositions focus on the nature of scripture and the interpretation of Genesis 1 to provide a necessary foundation for the move into Genesis 2 and 3 and the problem of Adam. Today’s post will outline the major ideas in this foundation.

Genesis is an Ancient Document. The better we understand the ancient context, the better we will understand the message of the text. Walton will often remind us that Genesis was written for us but it was not written to us. As scripture it is for everyone, but this does not remove the need for continued study and interpretation. Every translation involves interpretation.

lucas_cranach_God_as_Creator_Luthers_BibleSome ideas in the text are incidental arising from the ancient Near Eastern culture, they are not part of the message of the text. For example, Genesis assumes that the waters above are separated from the waters below by a solid dome of some sort. Most people until very recently would have had no trouble believing this and it was a common view in the church, as the picture from Lucas Cranach included in Luther’s bible illustrates. Today we know this isn’t true and most don’t feel that this “error” undermines biblical authority. Likewise, we no longer view people as thinking with their intestines, even though this language is used in the text of scripture. Genesis isn’t a science text and it isn’t teaching science. We would do well to remember this and to avoid reading modern science back into the text or out of the text.

The need for expertise and scholarship to dig the depth of meaning from the text is simply a fact. We all walk alongside and stand on the shoulder of others as we read and study the text. Walton goes on:

Such study is not a violation of the clarity (“perspicuity”) of Scripture propagated by the reformers. They were not arguing that every part of Scripture was transparent to any casual reader. If they believed that, they would not have had to write hundreds of volumes trying to explain the complexities of interpretation at both exegetical and theological levels. They were, instead, trying to make the case that there was a “plain sense” of Scripture that was not esoteric, mystical, or allegorical and could only be spiritually discerned. Everyone could have access to this plain sense. (p. 22-23)

A better understanding of ancient Hebrew, ancient Near Eastern culture, literature, expectations, genres, styles, daily life, all of these will improve our understanding of Scripture. We need careful scholarship and we all need to pay attention to this scholarship.

Creating Focuses on Establishing Order by Assigning Functions. This is a big part of Walton’s overall argument. When we read Genesis 1 with modern eyes it seems obvious that the point is the material creation of the world. Before we can draw such a conclusion, however, we should dig into the text in its original context. Within the ancient Near East creation involves establishing order rather than producing material items. It isn’t that the latter is out of the question, it just isn’t the primary focus.

Our translations can illuminate and also obscure the ancient meaning of the text because every translation involves interpretation. Walton argues that the words translated made or created in Genesis 1 generally refer to establishing order or assigning function rather than to material creation. For example, “God made two great lights” could as easily be translates as “God provided two great lights” in the same way that God provided families for the midwives who defied pharaoh.

Continue reading

Posted in Adam, Creation, Genesis | Tagged

Hope is Our Foundation

Celtic Cross Crop2Christianity is a religion founded on hope precisely because it is founded in God and his work in the world through Jesus, the Messiah of God. The resurrection is the clearest example of this hope, but it is far from the only example in scripture. John Polkinghorne outlines New Testament insights into Christian hope and the theological foundation of this hope in chapters seven and eight of his book The God of Hope and the End of the World.

First – relevant New Testament passages. Jesus leaves no doubt about the reality of the final resurrection or of the continued existence of the people of God. As an example, consider the reply to the Sadducees reported in Mark 12.

Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

This hope permeates Paul’s writing as well. From 1 Thessalonians, thought by most to be the earliest of the letters contained in the New Testament, to Romans, which (excepting the pastoral) is thought to be his last. His thinking developed over this time, from an expectation of imminent consummation to a realization that this would be a rather longer period of time, but his hope in resurrection never faltered. Polkinghorne summarizes from Romans:

The rest of the New Testament testifies to the belief that in the risen Christ the believer has been given a new and enduring life. ‘Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, so too we might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ (Romans 6:4-5). Once again, it is trust in the faithfulness of God that is the ground of this hope. … It is the Spirit already at work within us who is the testimony to life beyond the grave. ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you’ (Romans 8:11). Schwöbel comments that ‘it is the Spirit of God who bridges the eschatological tension between the already and not yet’. (p. 83-84)

Hope permeates as well the Gospel of John, the letters of John and Peter, and Revelation. The tension between already and not yet is, Polkinghorne says a little further on, “an intrinsic component of our eschatological thinking.” (p. 89) Throughout the New Testament Jesus is both the One who has come and the One who is to come.

Continue reading

Posted in Eschatology, Resurrection | Tagged

But Is it True?

Seriously_Dangerous_ReligionIain Provan in Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matter has taken us through a survey of the Old Testament to explore the Old Story told in the Bible. He then connected it with the new dimensions revealed through Jesus Christ. Now it is time to address the key question – not what does the Bible teach?, but rather is it true?

We are now in a position to return to where we began. … The Old Story… is in fact routinely regarded nowadays, on all sides, not just as ineffective but also as problematic and even dangerous. Implicit or explicit in that judgment is the further judgment that the Story is untrue. It does not correspond to the way things were, or are. That is why it is problematic and even dangerous, as we look toward the future. It is not a reliable guide to reality, and those who think that it is will inevitably do damage as they engage with reality. (p. 348)

The question of truth must be seriously considered. Everyone lives in a story of some sort, and lives their life and makes choices according to that story.

Human beings are always “storied,” regardless of whether they reflect upon this fact, just as they are always “political,” regardless of whether they vote. “The world is ruled by little else” than powerful ideas, “both when they are right and when they are wrong.” We can do no other than find ourselves in a story. The only question is, Are we going to make any effort to ensure that we are governed by right ideas rather than wrong ones? Or are we simply going to remain “slaves”to inherited ideas, without engaging in any critical reflection on them? (p. 349)

The Old Story told in scripture should be questioned and tested. Is it reasonable? Does it contribute to a coherent understanding of the world around us? Does it mesh with the facts we know and what we are learning? Are our inherited ideas actually faithful to the Old Story?

The last question is important. Many atheist writers will argue against the Story, but as I listen or read it becomes clear that the way the Story is framed is part of the problem. The Story shouldn’t be rejected in total because one way it has been told is clearly wrong. We need to dig deeper.

Provan believes that this Story properly understood meshes well with the facts, and does so far better than any of the competing stories. In the remainder of the post today we will look at the first three areas he examines for coherence: on the nature of the world, the nature of God, and the nature of humankind.

earth2 cropThe nature of the world. Provan begins his consideration of the truth of the Old Story told in the Bible with the nature of the world.

1. The world is not eternal – it had a beginning and will have an end. Both scripture and modern science tell a similar story here. Time flows relentlessly in one direction. “The universe does not run on eternally, in endless cycles of existence, … It began, it is developing, and it will end. We inhabit a story.” (p. 354)

2. The universe is ordered, one of the “marked emphases in the Old Story.” The universe is finely tuned to allow us to flourish. This fact coheres nicely with the Old Story. Provan finds it implausible that this fine-tuned order arose simply from chance.

All of this is to say that the existence and nature of the cosmos in which we live imply, to me, a personal creator God of the kind that biblical faith proclaims. The cosmic story in which we are bound up implies a Storyteller—someone who is weaving the story together into a coherent tale. (p. 355)

The design apparent in the universe, in life on earth, in the creation of human persons, implies a designer.

Continue reading

Posted in Christianity, Problems for Faith | Tagged

The Nature of Creation

ArizonaThere are several new books on my desk, The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science by Mark Harris, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate by John Walton and Religion and the Sciences of Origins by Kelly James Clark. Each book digs into different aspects of the discussions surrounding science and Christian faith. Over the next several weeks (probably months) I intend to dig into all of them.

Today I will begin with The Nature of Creation. The author, Mark Harris, is a lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He began his career as an experimental physicist in condensed matter where he investigated the properties of the so-called spin-ice, solids with an intrinsic spin disorder that persists even to absolute zero. Pure water falls into this class, but is hard to crystallize. Dr. Harris worked on heavy rare earth titanate pyrochlores X2Ti2O7 with X= Gd, Dy, Ho, Er, or Yb. He has a number of influential papers published in Physical Review Letters and other top-notch scientific journals. I bring this up only to emphasize that he has the credentials and background from the sciences. On the religion side, he also trained for the ordained ministry and spent time in university chaplaincy and cathedral ministry before taking his current position at the University of Edinburgh running the Science and Religion program in the School of Divinity.

In the first chapter of The Nature of Creation, Harris outlines some general ideas. It is common to think about the doctrine of creation in terms of a series of propositions. (p. 4)

  • God created the world from nothing. He is not dependent upon the world.
  • Creation is wholly contingent upon God.
  • God is therefore both the initial creator of the world, and also its continuing sustainer.
  • God created the world as good.
  • Evil came to be present, but does not derive from God.
  • Creation will have an end in a “new heaven and a new earth.”

I’d say that we also affirm that God created the world beautiful. The pictures included in this post display some small part of that beauty.

But is this propositional approach an appropriate way to frame the doctrine of creation?

Continue reading

Posted in Bible, Creation | Tagged

The Riddle of Jesus

Church of the Holy sepulcher ds2I’ve been slowly working through The God of Hope and the End of the World by John Polkinghorne and Surprised by Scripture by N. T. Wright. The books converged this week as I read Polkinghorne’s chapter on The Resurrection of Jesus and Wright’s chapter Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?. It is a little early, I suppose, but quite timely as we approach Easter in just a few weeks. Obviously Polkinghorne’s answer to Wright’s question is yes, as is Wright’s answer. Wright would also say it is the wrong question and Polkinghorne would agree. The resurrection isn’t a scientific question. It is a historical question and a faith question. The picture, by the way, was taken when we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 2001.

The Riddle of Jesus. Jesus lived some 2000 years ago, a relatively short life, before he was put to death by the local authorities. This is a rather unremarkable story. Many charismatic leaders over the years have been put to death by authorities. “Yet,” as Polkinghorne says, “we have all heard of Jesus, and that in itself is a significant fact about him. The riddle of Jesus is why someone whose life seemed to end in complete failure has proved to be the most influential figure in the history of the world.” (p. 67) He goes on:

Within just a few weeks of his miserable death, … [his followers are] … proclaiming that this Jesus, this rejected and crucified man, has been made by God ‘both Lord and Messiah’ (Acts 2:36). That is to say, they believe that uniquely in him God’s will and salvific purpose are being fulfilled. Our task is to understand how this tremendous change came about. Such a remarkable transformation requires a commensurately remarkable cause. The first disciples claimed that it was because ‘God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held by its power’ (Acts 2:24). Who Jesus was, and what his real significance was, turns on whether this claim is true. The resurrection is pivotal for Christian belief. (p. 67)

1 Cor. 15 is a crucial passage here. Both Polkinghorne and Wright refer to it.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (v. 3-8)

According to Polkinghorne when Paul refers to what he had received he would be thinking back to his earliest instruction in the faith. The use of the Aramaic Cephas and reference to ‘the twelve’ support a very early date for the composition of the summary statement repeated here (later) by Paul. And Paul was certainly convinced that the resurrection was true and central. A few lines later he writes: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, … we are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ.” Paul, devout Jew, a Pharisee no less, would certainly rather die than be found to be misrepresenting God.

Continue reading

Posted in Resurrection | Tagged ,

Faith and Culture: Uneasy Partners

YanceyThe final section of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? looks at faith and culture. The first chapter considers the uneasy partnership between Christians and power (politics) while the second, entitled Holy Subversion, considers where we should go from here.

In the chapter on the uneasy partnership Yancey begins by considering the limits of political power and the importance of faith in a moral and free society. He brings up Jürgen Habermas’s remark, “A liberal democracy requires of its citizens qualities that is cannot provide,” and continues:

In a similar vein, Martin Luther King Jr. said that the government can requires a white man to serve blacks, and can stop whites from lynching blacks, but no government can force a white person to love a black one. That requires a transformation of the heart, the province of religion. (p. 238)

Interestingly, I heard a southern pastor make the same point in a sermon last Sunday. Love cannot be legislated, it requires a transformation of the heart. A few pages later Yancey notes: “the New Testament presents government as necessary, even ordained by God, but certainly no sponsor or friend to faith.” (p. 240-241) To meld faith and power, politics to tightly seems doomed to failure. Both the Old Testament story and the history of the church tell similar stories. Power and the pursuit of power corrupt humans. The state controls bad behavior. Christian faith should transform the heart and this cannot be legislated.

Yancey makes five observations and suggestions.

1. Clashes between Christ and culture are unavoidable. The pull of culture will often conflict with the surrounding culture. This should lead us to action. But it is also important to compromise and prioritize. He quotes C. Everett Koop who saw the all or nothing approach on abortion as counter-productive. How many lives might have been saved if a few limited exceptions had been made in the initial fight against abortion (life of the mother, defective child, even rape and incest). “That would have saved ninety-seven percent of the abortions since then.” And perhaps it would have kept the battle lines from being drawn so tightly and allowed time to work on heart and understanding.

Modern democracy, which grew out of Christian soil, compels us to recognize other’s rights even when we deeply disagree with their positions. We seek to persuade but not to coerce. More, the gospel commands me to love my enemy as well as my neighbor. (p. 247)

2. Christians should choose their battles wisely. Too often battles are ill-chosen and even irrational. “Too often the agenda of religious groups matches line for line that of conservative – or liberal – politics and not the priorities of the Bible.” (p. 249) Issues like healthcare for the poor and protecting widows and orphans should be considered on biblical grounds not political grounds.

Continue reading

Posted in Christian Life, Evangelicalism | Tagged

New Dimensions in the Old Story

Lake and SkyChapter 12 of Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters finally turns to the New Testament, and the story many of us have wanted to dig into from the beginning. He has laid the foundation with a careful look at the Old Testament answer to 10 central questions. But what the Old Testament says matters to Christians because this story is our story. Christian faith is built on the old story. We can’t get the New Testament right if we don’t understand the Old Testament story. Matthew 5, 21, 26; Luke 24; 2 Tim 3; Hebrews 12 all point us in this direction, and many more references could be given.

According to the New Testament authors, it is in the Old Testament that the Christian will find the older and larger part of the great Story in which she is still caught up, telling her of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds the one who is still “running the same race” (p. 310)

This chapter is worth more than one post and we will cover it in two, or possibly three. Provan’s first three questions centered on creation: who is God?, what is the world? and who are we?, that is, who are man and woman?. These will be the subject of today’s post.

Who is God? Consistent with the Old Testament, the New Testament asserts that God is one, the only creator and Lord. Christians are to shun idols and focus only on the living God. Meat offered to idols is to be avoided, but not because the idols are anything more than man-made objects. As Paul said “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:6) God is the Creator. God is good, and this goodness is expressed in blessing, love, faithfulness, deliverance, and holiness. Provan also sees this goodness expressed in God’s anger and His patience.

As it is in the Old Testament, God’s anger in the New Testament is still “anger for a reason” (righteous anger), which involves both jealousy and vengeance (1 Corinthians 10:22; Romans 12:19). It is nevertheless anger that is slow, because God is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Here, we learn also that God’s anger relents when people respond to him in the right way and turn toward the good. This underlines a final point of continuity with the Old Testament: that, in New Testament faith, “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy,” delivering people “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (James 5:11; Titus 3:5). (p. 313)

Justice, judgment, and the covenant faithfulness of God are all part of the New Testament story as they are part of the Old Testament story.

There is an important difference however. In the New Testament we have Father and Son. God remains one and God remains good, but Jesus himself is the incarnation of this God, not a creature of God. Provan turns to John 8 to make his case. When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” This was too much for some of the Jewish leaders, Pharisees, in his audience and their challenge began an exchange that ended with Jesus making a claim concerning himself as more than prophet and teacher. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.

The early Christians believed that God is one, but they also believed that God is three. They felt that they were pressed to this paradoxical conclusion by the events in which they had been recently caught up, which allowed for no other explanation. How exactly to say that God is one and yet three, without making mistakes—without falling back into polytheism, for example, or into a “simple” oneness in God that did not make room for Jesus’ full divinity—then became a matter of considerable discussion in the early postapostolic church. It led ultimately to the formulation of various “creeds” (official statements of belief in the church) that tried to speak well about the “one-in-three” reality (the Trinity) and to guide Christians in how not to speak about it (or believe it). (p. 314)

The one-in-three reality of the nature of God is a new revelation of New Testament faith. The Old Testament vision was not wrong, but it was incomplete. It did not have knowledge of the Son.

Continue reading

Posted in Bible, Image of God | Tagged