Creation Through Christ

BioLogos is starting to release videos of the plenary talks (at least some of them) from the March Christ and Creation conference in Houston. This was a great time with much material worth some serious consideration. The first talk in the conference, and the first to be posted was by N.T. Wright. Wright focused on the significance of Christ in our understanding of creation. Rather than starting with Genesis, we as Christians should start with New Testament passages, not least John 1:1-5, 14

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

as well as Colossians 1:15-20

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

1 Corinthians 8:16

yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

and Hebrews 1:1-3

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

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Before Galileo

I picked up another new book this week – to add to my stack. This book Evolution and the Fall contains a collection of essays by a number of authors including Biologist Darrel Falk, philosopher James K.A. Smith, theologian Joel Green and Old Testament scholar J. Richard Middleton. It looks well worth dipping into over the coming months. This book is the result of a collaboration facilitated by the Colossian Forum where these Christian scholars met together regularly over several years for worship, fellowship, and intellectual engagement on the issues surrounding evolution and the fall.

The introduction lays out the premise. Christian thinkers need to gather together in communion to thrash through the kinds of hard questions raised by evolution, especially human evolution. Our model shouldn’t be Galileo. Rather,  we should be looking before Galileo to the manner in which the church worked through key issues. The preferred model should be the Council of Chalcedon where the leading thinkers and bishops of the church gathered to thrash out issues surrounding the nature of Jesus as both divine and human.

Why is this a better model? First, comparison with Galileo sets the wrong tone.

Since we now tend to look at the church’s response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this “Galilean” framing of the new origins debate does two things: First it casts scientists – and those Christian scholars who champion science – as heroes and martyrs willing to embrace progress and enlightenment. Second, and as a result, this framing of the debate associates concern with Christian orthodoxy as backward, timid, and fundamentalist. (p. xvi)

Second, this model focuses on the importance of Christian fellowship and worship in the discussion.

Creative and constructive theological work requires faithful imagination. But that requires two things: time and worship. We need time to train and stretch our imaginative muscles; time to ruminate on issues and opportunities; time to listen and contemplate; and above all time to pray. So the cultivation of faithful imagination also requires bathing and baptizing the imagination in the cadences of the biblical story – which is precisely the goal of Christian worship. Thus the cultivation of constructive theological imagination begins with liturgical formation. (xviii)

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Consider the Devil(s)

When my son was in third or fourth grade he gave a year end report on Tasmanian Devils (image credit). These are fascinating carnivorous marsupials now found only on on the Australian Island state of Tasmania. But it wasn’t all fun – there is a dark side to the tale of the Tasmanian Devil. They are severely threatened by a transmissible facial cancer. Bites transfer cancer cells from animal to animal. The genetic diversity of Tasmanian Devil is so small that the cells are not fought off as foreign invaders, instead they take root and the cancer spreads between individuals as it spreads within individuals. You can read more here. Genetic diversity in a population is a good thing.

Chapter three of Adam and the Genome looks at genetic diversity within our species, Homo sapiens, and the implications of this diversity. Dennis Venema introduces the Tasmanian Devil as an example of the potential consequences of population bottlenecks. The low genetic diversity of the Tasmanian Devil is believed to have resulted from a severe population bottleneck within the last 10,000 years (the holocene). One recent paper (here, Biology Letters, 2014;10(11):20140619. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2014.0619) estimates a bottleneck of between 473 and 714 individuals between 1700 and 5700 years ago. Conservation efforts to save the Tasmanian Devil involve genomic analysis to preserve as much genetic diversity as possible in a healthy population kept free of the devastating facial cancer.

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On the Resurrection

He is risen indeed!

Yes a scientist can believe in the resurrection. Science trades in motivated belief, there are reasons for the positions taken and the theories accepted. But theology also trades in motivated belief. In his book Theology in the Context of Science John Polkinghorne presents a short summary of his motivation for Christian belief. Dr. Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, before he resigned to study for the priesthood. He knows what it means to think as a scientist and as a Christian. (The picture to the right is of our visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 2001 – when visitors were scarce.)

One of the difficulties that face a scientist wanting to speak to his colleagues about the Christian faith is to get across the fact that theology also trades in motivated belief. Many scientists are both wistful and wary in their attitude towards religion. … Their wariness arises from the mistaken idea that religious faith demands that those who embrace it should be willing to believe simply on the basis of submission to some unquestionable authority … (p. 124)

Dr. Polkinghorne goes on to acknowledge that he too would have trouble with faith if it required uncritical fideism.

What I am always trying to do in conversation with my not-yet-believing friends is to show them that I have motivations for my religious beliefs, just as I have motivations for my scientific beliefs. … This task is one of great importance, since the difficulty of getting a hearing for Christian faith in contemporary society often seems to stem from the fact that many people have never given adequate adult consideration to the possibility of its being true, thinking that they ‘know’ already that there can be no truth in claims so apparently at odds with notions of everyday secular expectation. (p. 124-125).

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A Whale of a Story

No this one isn’t about Jonah. Rather it is about the fossil evidence and other evidence for the evolution of whales. Dennis Venema digs into this example in Adam and the Genome. Robert Asher has a chapter on whale evolution in his book Evolution of Belief. (Robert Asher is a paleontologist at Cambridge, specializing in the paleontology of mammals.) Gary Fugle also discusses whale evolution in his excellent book Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide. As it happens some of my colleagues have been deeply involved in the study of whale evolution and we have several examples on display across the street.

Even Charles Darwin knew that whales were mammals. This led him to propose in his first edition of On the Origin of Species that they evolved from land animals – perhaps from something like an aquatic bear. This proposal earned him a great deal of ridicule (Dennis quotes a rather acerbic example) and Darwin reduced his discussion of whale evolution in subsequent editions. While the identification of whales as mammals was once a poster child for anti-evolution forces, it has become one of the strongest examples of evolution available with a multitude of transitional fossils, most of them discovered in the last forty years. The whale also captures our imagination. Massive sea-faring mammals.

Darwin picked the wrong land animal, rather than a bear he should have chosen a pig, or a hippopotamus. Whales and porpoises (cetaceans) are even-toed ungulates like both of these mammals. The evidence for evolution of whales from an early even-toed ungulate comes in multiple threads.

(1) The fossil record. A string of intermediate forms have been identified (image above is a Basilosaurus fossil). Many of these fossils retain clear evidence of hind limbs gradually disappearing through the millions of generations. If you click on the image above you can see the hind limbs in the lower right corner. These are rudimentary, perhaps of use in reproduction, but certainly not for locomotion. The ankle bones of these ancient whale precursors have a structure similar to that of even-toed hoofed animals and one distinctive from other mammals. Continue reading

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A New Kind of Triumph

This last Sunday we celebrated the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, setting off the Holy Week events. The echoes of Scripture in this event are often recognized and preached, but still worth another look. Richard Hays in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels looks at these passages in the context of their message concerning the identity and mission of Jesus. This is an incident recorded in all four gospels, although with slightly different emphasis in each.

There are several take-home messages from the triumphal entry.

The accounts are not identical. First – and this probably escapes most – these accounts help us learn how to read scripture and understand inspiration. When the passages are preached, read, taught individually they are clearly the same, that is they record one historical and significant event. Placed side by side there are several striking discrepancies.

In Mark 11:1-11 Jesus sends two disciples to get a colt and bring it; Jesus rides the colt down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and branches; Shout Hosanna; Jesus enters the temple, looks around and leaves. The next day he returns and cleanses the temple.

In Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus sends two disciples to get a donkey and her colt and bring them; Jesus rides one, the other or both? down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and branches; Shout Hosanna; Jesus enters the temple, cleanses it, and then leaves the city.

In Luke 19:28-45 Jesus sends two disciples to get a colt and bring it; Jesus rides the colt down to Jerusalem; People spread cloaks and praise God; Jesus enters the temple and cleanses it.

In John 12:12-19 The people take branches and meet Jesus; Jesus finds a donkey and sits on it; the cleansing of the temple occurred at a Passover probably two years earlier.

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Evidence For Evolution

At the Christ and Creation conference last Friday morning Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight gave back to back talks based on their new book Adam and the Genome. The major points in 25 minutes each. Both excellent talks followed by a joint (but brief) Q&A time. Both talks were excellent and inspired many in attendance to buy the book. (Baker ran out of the supply on hand well before the afternoon sessions were over.) I am slowly working through the book, starting with the evidence for evolution in general and human evolution in particular. Whatever you think of the pathways for integrating the evidence with Christian faith, it is important to take the evidence seriously. If you are not a biologist and wonder why biologists and most other scientists find the evidence compelling, buy this book and read Dennis’s overview. This is an excellent introduction to a complex topic.

Analogy to Language. In Chapter 2 of the book Dennis uses several different illustrations to help the lay person understand the basic principles of evolutionary biology. None of the analogies are perfect, as Dennis makes clear, but each is helpful. We can understand elements of the evolutionary process better if we step back and consider the case of language. Consider six “English” versions of John 14:6:

  1. ca. 990 AD. Se Hælend cwæð to him: Ic eom weg, and soðfæstnys, and líf: ne cymð nan to Fæder, buton þurh me. (Anglo-Saxon)
  2. ca. 1395 AD: Jhesus seith to hym, Y am weie, treuthe, and lijf; no man cometh to the fadir, but bi me. (Wycliffe Bible)
  3. ca. 1535 AD: Iesus sayd vnto him: I am the waye ye truthe and ye life. And no man cometh vnto the father but by me. (Tyndale Bible)
  4. ca. 1611 AD: Iesus saith vnto him, I am the Way, the Trueth, and the Life: no man commeth vnto the Father but by mee. (King James)
  5. ca. 1769 AD: Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (King James)
  6. ca. 1982 AD: Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. (New King James)

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