What Price Concord?

justus_sustermans_-_portrait_of_galileo_galilei_1636There are two primary fronts in the conflict or apparent conflict between science and Christian faith: (1) Are the scientific claims intrinsically atheistic? and (2) How do we reconcile Scripture with the scientific data? Neither of these are new problems, but they play a significant role in Western society today. In his book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes Denis Lamoureux seeks to demonstrate that scientific claims are not intrinsically atheistic, rather that it requires faith to move from science to any metaphysical claim about the existence or non-existence of God. Nothing in our scientific understanding of the universe either requires or eliminates God from the picture. We can endeavor to predict the weather based on physics and chemistry and still view it as under God’s control. Our understanding of embryology and fetus development does not require us to dismiss the Psalmist’s wonder and awe of God who “formed my inward parts” and “knitted me together in my mother’s womb.”(Ps 139:13)

Although the story of Galileo’s run-in with the Catholic Church is often cast as a paradigm for the unavoidable conflict between science and Christian faith, it is a story from which we can learn much. We can draw insights concerning the most effective way that scientists can introduce findings to the church, the manner in which the church can productively engage with science, and the approach we should take to apparent scientific claims in Scripture.

Very few today doubt that the earth and other planets orbit the sun, or that the earth is in one of many solar systems in the galaxy, one of many galaxies in the universe. For most of church history, however, there was no belief but that the earth was the center of the universe and that the Holy Scriptures clearly taught this truth. Augustine wasn’t even convinced that the earth was spherical, although he was convinced that it was ridiculous to imagine antipodians (individuals with their feet pointing towards his) on the other side of the earth if the earth was spherical. Among other things, God could not be in the heavens above both Rome and the antipodians and this was contrary to Scripture (so Augustine thought).

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Moving Beyond Conflict

lamoureux-coverIt is important as Christians that we move beyond the either-or thinking that dominates so much of the church, either we believe in evolution or we believe in God. This is a dangerous and false dichotomy. We have been working through Denis Lamoureux’s new book Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes. The sixth and ninth chapter of the book focus on moving beyond the dichotomy, while the seventh and eighth look at Galileo and Darwin.

Denis outlines five broad categories that define most positions on evolution and creation. Three are clearly Christian – young earth creationism, progressive old earth creationism, and evolutionary creation. One clearly is not – dysteleological (atheistic, purposeless) evolution. The final position of deistic evolution is harder to characterize. This position denies the existence of an interactive and personal God, so cannot be claimed as robustly Christian, but does not deny the existence of God or the possibility of purpose in the creation of the universe and of life. Denis classifies this as non-Christian. It is not important that every individual plant a flag firmly in any one of the Christian alternatives. It is also not critical that everyone comes to agree with Denis and me that evolutionary creation is the best alternative. Denis encourages this readers and his students to think through all the issues when forming a view, perhaps mixing and matching elements from different thinkers across the spectrum. In fact he is clear on this:

From my perspective, knowing the method that God used to make the universe and life is not critical to being a Christian. Proof of this for me is the fact that I have met absolutely wonderful Christians who are young earth creationists, progressive creationists, and evolutionary creationists. They all love and serve the Lord with all their heart. I believe that our differences in understanding how God created the world should remain exactly that – different points of view. And these differences should never become a reason to divide us. We must always remember that we are united by Jesus and his love for us. (p. 128)

Serious problems arise when Christians deny or distort the scientific evidence to make a case for their position on origins. The evidence for an ancient earth and for evolution is very strong. There is a reason why acceptance of an old earth is nearly universal among Christians in the sciences, and a large majority, especially of those with training in biology, also accept evolution. (Denis outlines some of this in various places in his book, including a brief discussion of the fossil record in chapter six.)

Serious problems and divisions also arise when Christians who accept an old earth and evolutionary creation try to ramrod the view on others. Instead we should be patient and willing to teach and interact. If we are right (and I think we are), eventually the church will come around. (It came around quite nicely on the issues that got Galileo in trouble.) We need patient persistence along with emphasis on points of agreement.

Finally, serious problems arise when evolution is describes as anti-Christian, irreconcilably opposed to the faith. There is a difference between thinking that evolution is wrong and teaching that one cannot both be a Christian and accept evolution.

(Yes – atheists who preach the dichotomy are also a problem, but opposition from outside the church isn’t limited to this one issue, and this isn’t something that we, as Christians, are likely to change.)

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The Importance of Israel

the_inspiration_of_saint_matthew_by_caravaggioMatthew anchors the story of Jesus in Israel’s history. If we are unfamiliar with the Old Testament Scriptures and this history, we will miss important parts of the message. This is especially true in the prelude to Jesus’ public ministry in chapters 1-4. Richard Hays (Reading Backwards and Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels) explores these connections.

Matthew encourages the reader to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament precursors, particularly Moses, David, and Isaiah’s Servant figure. … Matthew’s language and imagery are from start to finish soaked in Scripture; He constantly presupposes the social and symbolic world rendered by the stories, songs, prophecies, laws, and wisdom teachings of Israel’s sacred texts. (p. 109)

Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture, he is the Messiah and he enacts Israel’s destiny the way it was intended. In the opening section there are at least seven passages where Matthew makes a direct statement or allusion to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scripture.The fulfillment passages sometimes seem a reach, with 2:15 “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” a good example. This quote is found in Hosea 11:1, which is decidedly not a messianic prophecy. This passage, and the rather simplistic assertions sometimes made about it in sermons and Christian literature, has long troubled me. It shouldn’t though. In order to understand Matthew’s point in including this citation, and others as well, we need to dig deeper than some index of prooftexts and look to the context of the passages.

Jesus enacts Israel’s destiny. In this post we will look at four specific passages: the flight to Egypt (2:13-15), Herod’s murder of the innocents (2:16-18), the baptism of Jesus by John (3:13-15), and the temptation (4:1-11). In all of these passages there is, according to Hays, “a typological identification of Jesus with Israel: Jesus becomes the one in whom the fate of Israel is embodied and enacted.” (p. 113)

(1) Out of Egypt I called my Son. 2:13-15 Hosea 11 starts with the identification of Israel as God’s son. This is a tradition that can be traced to Moses and the exodus. God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son.” (Ex 4:22) But we should see in Matthew’s formula “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet” not simply the bald misappropriation of Hosea 11:1, but a resonance with the context of Hosea 11 and with God’s love for and rescue of his people, Israel.

Matthew transfigures Hosea’s text by seeing how it prefigures an event in the life of Jesus. Matthew now sees the fate of God’s “son” Israel recapitulated in the story of God’s Son, Jesus: In both cases, the son is brought out of exile in Egypt and back into the land.

… Matthew cannot be unaware of the original contextual meaning of Hosea 11:1 as an expression of God’s love for Israel, a love that persists even through Israel’s subsequent unfaithfulness (Hos 11:8-9). Indeed, Matthew’s use of the quotation depends upon the reader’s recognition of its original sense: if Hosea’s words were severed from their reference to the original exodus story, the literary and theological effect of Matthew’s reading would be stifled. The fulfillment of the prophet’s words can be discerned only through an act of imagination that perceives the figural correspondence between the two stories of the exodus and the gospel. … the story of Jesus acquires the resonance of the story of Israel. (p. 113-114)

Matthew’s use of the quotation also names Jesus as God’s Son. This is not independent from, but part and parcel of the figural connection between Jesus and Israel.

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A Matter of Interpretation

IMG_2919dsIn his recent book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, Jim Stump has a nice discussion of the role of interpretation in our approach to the Bible. Sola Scriptura is a foundation stone of the Reformation. Luther insisted on this in his dispute with the Catholic Church. If the church is corrupt and self-serving, as Luther and the other reformers believed (and there is certainly evidence to back up the claim at least in part) there has to be some other reliable foundation for understanding Christian faith. This foundation is found in the Bible. Stump focuses on the major problem with this approach: “But then this doctrine which began as a unifying cry against the institution very quickly became ground for endless divisions. Luther’s reading of Scripture was questioned by Zwingli and Calvin; theirs was questioned by the Anabaptists. And so on.” (p. 57) The interpretation of Scripture is not always obvious. In this post I will consider a few of the points brought up in the book.

First, the data are sparse. The data in science or theology, “almost always underdetermines the theories that explain it.” In science theories are put to the test whenever new data rolls in. Of course, this doesn’t prevent enthusiasts from trying to squeeze the data into a favored mold … at least until the difference is overwhelming. The same can be true in theology as well. Jim has a nice example of four data points that can be fit to a circle, a diamond, or any of an infinite number of other shapes. I’ll adapt his illustration – but modify it a little.

shapesIf two new data points are added there is a decision to make – one that depends on the way in which we interpret the data.

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Our Best Argument

Celtic Cross Crop2The final chapter of Tim Keller’s new book Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical turns to what Keller finds is the best argument for Christian faith. Bottom line: it is Jesus. He starts the chapter acknowledging that the previous chapter (see Is it Reasonable?), and for that matter much of the material in the book, provides a convincing argument that it is reasonable to doubt the scientific materialism and secular humanism that governs much of Western culture these days. But this alone isn’t enough to bring anyone to Christ. Why should we find the Christian faith convincing? In Keller’s view our best argument is the person of Jesus Christ – his life, his teachings, and his resurrection. While Christianity appears to be shrinking in the West, it is growing globally with its center in the message of Jesus.

Why might this be? What is considered by many in the West (at least in academia) to be a symbol of Western imperialism is being embraced around the globe. Keller makes an important observation (following Richard Bauckham) .

Even when Jesus has been used to legitimate oppression, as in the nineteenth-century American South, the African slaves themselves found their inspiration and power in Jesus to resist their domination. Even though during the early-modern period Christianity was tied too closely to European and American colonialism and empire, today most of the most vital and largest Christian populations are now nonwhite, non-Western. No matter how many efforts have been made to capture and deploy Jesus for imperialistic ends, he has always escaped them. (p. 229)

The church can, at times, be usurped and manipulated as a tool for power. But this is contrary to the gospel and to the teachings of Christ – as many Christians have realized.

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It’s in Art

emergence-of-personhoodThe second essay in The Emergence of Personhood, A Quantum Leap? was written by Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History. In his essay Tattersall digs more deeply into what it means to be human from the perspective of evolutionary biology. He agrees with Richard Byrne (see The Dividing Line) that capacity for language is an important factor, but capacity for language is only one piece of a larger picture – an active sense of self and capacity for symbolic thought. Uniquely human personhood, in Tattersall’s view implies “an active sense of self” with an internal sense of self and the ability to relate this to an external world of others like us, other humans.

Personhood in the sense that I am implying here most likely derives from the highly distinctive ability of members of Homo sapiens to think in a symbolic manner (see discussion and references in Tattersall 2012 Masters of the Planet). We have the cognitive ability to break down our internal and external worlds into a huge vocabulary of discrete symbols that we can shuffle, according to mental algorithms, to create novel combinations. Such rearrangements add up to our unique capacity to envision previously unimagined and unobserved possibilities, and to form new interpretations of the world around us. (p. 38)

A couple of important points. (1) This discussion of personhood is a feature of our species as a species. It does not follow that disabilities, diseases, or developmental stage in an individual makes them “less human.” (2) The capacity for language isn’t just an ability to communicate direction based on instinctual gestures – it goes far deeper than this. Language itself is a learned means of abstract symbolic thought and communication. Tattersall argues that our sense of “individual personhood is at least as much a story we tell ourselves about ourselves” as it is a set of responses we share with chimpanzees. This makes humans qualitatively different from other living inhabitants of earth.

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The Embodiment of Israel’s God?

hayssRichard Hays explores the ways in which the Gospel writers draw the Old Testament to narrate the identity of Jesus. In Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness he focuses on Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. In Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels he goes beyond this to look at other aspects of the identity of Jesus, as well as the re-narration of Israel’s story in light of Jesus and the role of the church (the gathering of Christ-followers) in the world. I am currently leading an adult education class at church based primarily on these books, especially Reading Backwards. This is an important topic for the church, especially in an academic community such as the one surrounding our church.

Jesus as The God of Israel? The first post How to Read the Bible focused on two passages in Mark involving Jesus commanding the wind and waves (4:35-41), and later walking on water (6:45-51). In the way both of these passages are presented by Mark we can see echoes of the Old Testament portrayal of God, Jesus does things that God does in Psalm 107 and Job 9. There are five other passages in Mark that Hays identifies as drawing on Scripture to portray Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God.

(1) The one for whom the way is prepared. Mark begins his Gospel (1:1-3):

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”

The opening, calling Jesus the anointed one, is an echo of the Davidic kingship (Psalm 2) . The second title “Son of God” may be a later addition rather than original, but it is consistent with other passages in Mark (eg. 1:11 and 9:7) and is also most likely an echo of Jesus as the promised Davidic king. On the other hand, the quote from Isaiah clearly refers to the Lord himself, not his anointed one (40:3). The NIV has:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

Although Mark does not use the explicit quote, “him” in the last line clearly refers back to the Lord (kyrios) in the preceding line.

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