When Does it Matter?

photo6 crop corr dsThe first two chapters in N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Scripture address questions concerning science and Christian faith. The primary focus in the second was on Adam (It’s About God and God’s Kingdom), but the essay started with a discussion of the authority of scripture and the importance of being immersed in the story told in scripture. We need to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and become immersed in the whole sweep of scripture. When we are immersed in the sweep of scripture we learn how to deal with the inevitable challenges that each new generation faces as they embrace the Christian faith. Today one of the significant challenges comes from science and the impact this has on the way we understand Christian faith. Is the earth young or old? Does it matter how old we think the earth is? Is evolution a threat or a challenge? A threat is bad, a challenge can be good as it causes us to think more deeply about our faith.

First, the authority of scripture. In his essay on Adam Wright outlines his understanding of the authority of scripture (described more completely in his book Scripture and the Authority of God).

In the Bible all authority belongs to God and is then delegated to Jesus. … The phrase authority of scripture can only, at its best, be a shorthand for the authority of God in Jesus, mediated through scripture. … [A]s centuries of history demonstrate, the Bible is the God-given means through which we know who Jesus is. Take the Bible away, diminish it or water it down, and you are free to invent a Jesus just a little bit different from the Jesus who is hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New. We live under scripture because that is the way we live under the authority of God that has been vested in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord. (p. 28)

But the point of scripture isn’t a myriad of facts and details that must be believed. The point is in the story of God establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven. It is about God and God’s kingdom.

This is the big story that we must learn how to tell. It isn’t just about how to get saved, with some cosmology bolted on the side. This is an organic story about God and the world. God’s authority is exercised not to give his people lots of true information, not even true information about how they get saved (though that comes en route). God’s authority, vested in Jesus the Messiah, is about God reclaiming his proper lordship over all creation. And the way God planned to rule over his creation from the start was through obedient humanity. The Bible’s witness to Jesus declares that he, the obedient Man, has done this. But the Bible is then the God-given equipment through which the followers of Jesus are themselves equipped to be obedient stewards, the royal priesthood, bringing that saving rule of God in Christ to the world. (p. 28-29)

Powerful stuff … and dead on target. This is the message we need to preach. The Bible serves its God-given purpose through the fresh wrestling of each generation with the text and the story. The authority of the Bible is dynamic not static, as though it were possible for one generation to answer all questions for all time. “The Bible seems designed to challenge and provoke each generation to do its own fresh business, to struggle and wrestle with the text,” (p. 29) and “each generation must do its own fresh historically grounded reading, because each generation needs to grow up not simply look up the right answers and remain in an infantile condition.” (p. 30) This is a process to embrace, not a process to fear. We listen to tradition, but tradition doesn’t rule. This is why it is important to read the bible, in community and in conversation.

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Posted in Adam, Bible, Creation, Pastoring and Preaching | Tagged

It’s About God and God’s Kingdom

michelangelo's Adam 2The second essay in N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Scripture addresses the question Do We Need a Historical Adam? Wright accepts a historical Adam and Eve as a representative pair chosen by God, much as God later chose Abraham and Israel. The need for a historical Adam is much the same as the need for a historical Israel. This is the way the story is told, and the way God worked in the world. (My interpretation, Wright never put it quite like this.) The significance of Adam isn’t as progenitor of the human race or as originator of sin. Rather, the significance of Adam is in his vocation to be God’s image bearer in the world and in his failure to live up to this vocation.

In any discussion of Adam the key passages to consider are the passages written by Paul in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15. In Romans 5 Paul draws a contrast between Adam and Jesus: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (v. 19) This comparison leads many to claim a need for Adam as originator of sin, no Adam, no need for Jesus. But this, according to Wright, is to misunderstand Paul’s message.

First Jesus then Paul and Adam. Wright leads into his discussion of Paul and Adam with Jesus and the central message of the Bible.

The central message of the Bible is not simply that we are sinners, but through Jesus God is rescuing us from the sinful world so that we can be with him in heaven. That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole biblical story. The Bible is not about the rescue of humans from the world but about the rescue of humans for the world, and indeed God’s rescue of the world by means of those rescued humans. …

… Yes, Jesus was and is fully divine and fully human. But the point of his divinity in the Gospels is that in him and as him the living God is becoming king. And the point of his humanity in the Gospels is that , in him and as him, human beings are at last taking up again their God-given vocation of being the royal priesthood through which God brings his wise, redemptive ordering to the garden. And yes, the good news is good news of salvation. But in the Bible we are saved not simply so we can go to heaven and enjoy fellowship with God but so that we can be his truly human royal priesthood in his world. (p. 32)

With this idea in mind, we now move to Paul and Adam.

First, Paul’s exposition of Adam in these passages is explicitly in the service not of a traditional soteriology but of the kingdom of God. (p. 33)

This isn’t about how we get saved, but about how God is re-establishing us through Jesus as his image bearers in his kingdom.

Second, there is a close parallel between the biblical vocation of Adam in Genesis and the biblical vocation of Israel. (p. 33)

Adam and Eve failed to carry out their God-given vocation in the garden with serious consequences. Israel failed to carry out its God-given vocation as the people of God and light of the world. “God’s project for the whole creation (that it should be run by obedient humans) was aborted, put on hold“. (p. 34)

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Posted in Adam, Creation, Image of God, Jesus | Tagged

Afterlife and Hope in the Old Testament

The God of HopeAny discussion of Christian hope must look carefully at Scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The next section of John Polkinghorne’s book The God of Hope and the End of the World turns to Scripture beginning with the Old Testament and the views of life, death, hope, and the hereafter expressed in the Old Testament. Polkinghorne’s sketch is similar to Iain Provan’s as described last week (Old Testament Hope: For New Jerusalem – Not For Eden), but emphasizes different elements.

Belief in an afterlife was common in the ancient Near East, especially in Egypt. Israel was in close proximity to Egypt, brought out of Egypt as we read in the book of Exodus, yet the Egyptian obsession with the afterlife was not reflected in Israelite thinking. As Polkinghorne notes: “the people of Israel centred their hopes on justice, prosperity, and honored old age, attained in the course of the life of this world. Hope for the future lay in the continuance of the nation and the family.” (p. 54) There appears to be a belief in an existence after death in the law, the histories, and the wisdom literature, but this is shadowy and not particularly hopeful. There are hints of something better, but these are only hints (Psalm 139 and Job 3 are examples). But the afterlife is not a foundations of hope for the people of Israel.

In general Israel viewed God as working within history and their hope rested in the faithfulness of God to preserve and to prosper his people. “This confidence did not arise from some facile optimism, but it was forged in the fire of disaster and disappointment.” (p. 58) In the pages of the Old Testament over the course of a thousand years there are cycles of deliverance and disaster, from the deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to defeat at the hands of the Babylonians and the destruction of the temple. Through it all there is hope in the covenant faithfulness and mercy of God. He will not forsake his people.

The defeat at the hands of Babylon, the exile and then the return to Jerusalem prompted deeper thinking about God’s plan for Israel and indeed all of mankind. Passages of Scripture that reflect a more profound hope, a hope that extends beyond a long and peaceful life and continuance of nation and family, come only at the end of the Old Testament period. Either during the exile, or as most scholars think, after return from exile and in the intertestamental period leading up to the first century. One example is found in Isaiah 26 and includes an image of imminent birth that Paul uses in Romans 8 for all of creation. Continue reading

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Old Testament Hope: For New Jerusalem – Not For Eden

Sea of GalilleeChapter 11 of Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters turns to the question of Hope and God’s plan for the future. What kind of hope is expressed in the Old Testament? This is an excellent chapter, sketching what Provan sees as the sweep of the Old Testament story. The Old Testament is a story of hope. If we miss this thread, we miss everything. And too many have … skipping from the Fall to Matthew. I’ll sketch this chapter briefly, but note that I found it worth the price of the book.

Genesis 1-3 is a passage of hope. Hope begins with creation. There is a hope for the future, with humans walking in harmony with God.

The human beings of Genesis 1–2 are mortal beings, then, who may eventually be given the gift of immortality. … The book of Genesis begins in hope; human beings are born looking forward to something they do not yet possess. This beginning in hope is typically obscured by those who assume that the first humans already possess what, in fact, they have only been promised. (p. 281)

But the hope present in Genesis 1-2 is not limited to humankind. Indeed, there is hope for all of creation.

When our biblical authors tell us that creation is good, they mean that it is a wonderful place, created in such a way as to be exactly the right place—a good and a beautiful place—for the flourishing of God’s creatures. They do not mean that, in this original state, creation has already arrived at its final destination. To the contrary, they tell us in Genesis 1–2 that change is built into the very fabric of creation from the beginning, as its human creatures set out on their quest to multiply, to rule and to subdue, and to keep and to serve. Along with these divine image bearers, nonhuman creation also sets out on a journey; its destiny is bound up with theirs. (p. 284)

The biblical story is not one of lost perfection and a return to Eden. Rather it is a story of a journey to the end God has planned for humanity and for all of creation. It has become a journey of fits, starts, detours, and corrections – not because of God’s ineptness, but because of the freedom he has allowed in his creation.

There is hope in the midst of the evil present in the world. Provan interprets Genesis 3:15 as descriptive of an ongoing battle between two opponents. Certainly the Old Testament is a tale of the battle between good and evil. But it is a hopeful tale. The hope lies “in the mere fact (if it is “mere”) that God continues to pursue a relationship with human beings even after they embrace evil.” (p. 286) God makes a covenant with Abraham so that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Hope continues through the covenant faithfulness of God. Provan traces this hope through the remainder of the narrative. Exodus and then Deuteronomy extend the covenant relationship with Israel.

In the narrative that follows Deuteronomy, just as much as in the one that precedes it, God works actively in the world to pursue his good ends. As in the Pentateuch, he does so in the midst of significant dysfunction and wickedness even among the people he has called to help him. The story in the first book of Samuel about how Israel eventually came to be ruled by kings illustrates this truth in a striking manner. (p. 290)

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Design, Secular Naturalism, and “Acceptable” Worldviews

TrilobitesThe conversation (at Jesus Creed) on the post last week Darwin’s Doubt and Intelligent Design was interesting. Several years ago I had (and posted about) an e-mail conversation with a friend and colleague about intelligent design and the place for the Christian worldview in the academy in general and science in particular. This conversation is worth another post (a lightly edited repost), and as this has been a particularly busy time (including giving and grading an exam late last night), today is a good day for it. This colleague is a Christian, he supports intelligent design research and inquiry – but his faith does not hinge on evidence for design. He respects Francis Collins and his stand, and appears comfortable with the general evolutionary tree of life including common descent. But there is a significant issue that goes beyond “proof” of God or of design. The issue is one of consistent worldview and approach to intellectual life.

I put some of our correspondence (with permission) up for consideration, so you get his words directly, not just my interpretation.

A major problem in the whole area, I feel, is the different assumptions about who has the burden of proof. Origin of Life advocates seem to put the burden on skeptics. As long as some hypothesized mechanism might conceivably get around whatever issue is raised, then the skeptic has been defeated, even if no evidence is available to back up the proposed mechanism. I think they [the naturalists] feel this is fair, since they believe that naturalistic scenarios have proven so successful in science that anyone who doubts a naturalistic scenario must prove rigorously that no natural explanation can possibly work, or else it is reasonable to fall back on a naturalistic explanation, even if it is highly speculative.

I am uncomfortable with this, since it would be easily extended to the origin of the universe, and to the life of Christ as well, which, interpreted naturalistically, would require that we believe his reported resurrection was due to fraud or error, since this is theoretically possible and is a naturalistic scenario. In this way, the Christian worldview is excluded not just from science, but from history, and then from all intellectual discourse.

As you read on – consider this question:

What place does Christian thinking have in the academy? How does this thinking distinguish itself? In the sciences, in the social sciences, in biblical studies?

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Posted in Academia, Intelligent Design, Problems for Faith

Darwin’s Doubt and Intelligent Design

TrilobitesA couple of years ago Stephen C. Meyer published Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design as a continuation of the argument he began in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. I’ve read Signature in the Cell, and we discussed it in a series of posts in early 2010. I have not (yet) read Darwin’s Doubt – not out of any desire to ignore the Intelligent Design (ID) debate, but rather because the most important questions in my mind are not scientific (i.e. does science leave room for God?) but theological and biblical (i.e. who is God? how does he act? and how are we to read the bible?). This is where I’ve focused most of my reading. The closest I’ve gotten to digging into the specific argument in Darwin’s Doubt is listening to the radio show Unbelievable where Stephen Meyer and Charles Marshall, an Evolutionary Biologist from UC Berkeley, discussed the book. You can listen or download the episode through the link above – it is an interesting discussion.

Although I haven’t read the book yet, and thus won’t attempt to review it, BioLogos put up a series of reviews on the book, a post by Stephen Meyer where he was able to respond to the reviews: Clarifying Issues: My Response to the BioLogos Series reviewing “Darwin’s Doubt, followed by a wrap-up post Reviewing Darwin’s Doubt Conclusion. These posts suggest some interesting questions.

The basic argument of Darwin’s Doubt is that the explosion in the diversity of life forms and body plans in the Cambrian Period some 542 million years ago poses a problem for the general hypothesis of evolution by natural selection. The trilobite is a great example. In the Paleozoic era (542 mya to 251 mya) the sea crawled with these armored arthropods and their hard shells fossilized well. The image above is a photo I took at the Natural History Museum in Oxford last summer showing a portion of a 450 million year old slab of fossils from the Ordovician Period, about 90 million years after the beginning of the Cambrian. Trilobites galore! Trilobites first appeared at the beginning of the Cambrian as part of the Cambrian explosion. The mystery that surrounds the explosion of animal life in the Cambrian leads, in Meyer’s view, to the theory of Intelligent Design as the best explanation.

There are real challenges. Darrel Falk, who wrote one of the reviews, agrees with Meyer that there are real challenges here, and that there are big changes ahead for evolutionary biology. In fact, he doesn’t think that Meyer exaggerates the nature of rethinking that is going on in biology these days. From the perspective of a non-expert, I agree with him. By coincidence, an expert in evolutionary biology (HT BM) pointed me to a recent issue of The Journal of Experimental Biology devoted entirely to Epigenetics (v. 218(1) 2015), where several of the authors suggest that the Modern neo-Darwinist Synthesis will require extension or replacement. Denis Noble’s lead article Evolution beyond neo-Darwinism: a new conceptual framework is available free of charge if anyone is interested. This is a mainstream scientific journal with neo-Darwinist roots. The changes afoot could be minor extensions, or major reorientations, something akin, perhaps, to the move from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics in physics. In fact my friend made just that analogy. The move underway in biology is from a reductionist/deterministic “Newtonian” way of thinking to a more diffuse systems and relationships oriented approach.

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Posted in Intelligent Design, The Fossil Record | Tagged ,

A Community of Contrast!

640px-CorintoScaviFonteWe are called to be a community of contrast, not a prophetic witness or moral judge.

Paul to the church at Corinth (ancient Roman fountain image source):

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.

Philip Yancey finishes off part three of his book Vanishing Grace asking the question “How should we live?” He quotes part of this passage from 1 Cor. 5 in his discussion, but not the whole. Yet Yancey’s discussion brought the whole to my mind as I read. “God will judge those outside.” This isn’t a threat to be proclaimed. We aren’t called to prophesy doom and destruction. Rather it is an admonition to Christians to mind their own business, so to speak. We are to focus on being a community of contrast and a light to the nations. This requires a spirit of discernment within the church rather than judgment of those outside.

Yancey opens the chapter with a story where his book club was discussing a book about a patriarch of a Muslim family (written by a Muslim author) who confines his wife to home for 30 years, sexually assaults the servants, and forbids his daughters an education. Yet some of the women in his group, ardent feminists at home, hardly reacted. “It’s a different culture,” they said, “we can’t impose our values on it.” (p. 218) Yancey, on the other hand, contended that this was simply wrong. There is such a thing as right and wrong, good and evil. It isn’t all cultural and it isn’t all up to personal preference.

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