The Power of Language

Human language.

However many other aspects of human nature and behavior we find among animals on earth, human capacity for language remains unique. The capacity for language and the capacity for abstract thought are intimately connected. We communicate complex ideas to each other through the medium of language. We even internalize and consider abstract concepts through the medium of language. This is an intimate part of who we are as a species, as a people. Language places boundaries on the way we think, but these are soft boundaries. We can break away from what we know and move into uncharted territories.

Even here, language plays an important role. To communicate new thoughts we often develop analogies and use metaphors connecting things we already know (or think we know) to these new and unfamiliar ideas. It is hard to imagine making progress in any other way. As a physical chemist I will describe the quantum nature of matter using concepts that are familiar – waves and particles. But electrons and photons are neither waves nor particles. As inherently quantum mechanical entities they behave wave-like or particle-like under certain circumstances.

When we read Genesis we read a story of divine origin told through the medium of human language, for human understanding. We believe as Christians that there is a divine source for the story. But the story must use concepts familiar to the original audience to communicate the important new ideas. This is how human language and thinking works. There is no way an ancient audience could really have made a leap from their world to our present day understanding of cosmology and particle physics. It would just have muddied the waters.

Human language is powerful, but can also be deceptive. Two recent posts on the BioLogos site (link: here) discuss helpful and unhelpful metaphors for evolution. Their introduction: “Evolution is a complex scientific theory that can be hard to wrap the mind around. To help us grasp evolution, we sometime employ metaphors; powerful conceptual tools that help us understand new concepts by connecting them to ideas we are familiar with. However just as the right metaphor can go a long way in guiding our learning, so the wrong metaphor can be dangerously misleading.

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Posted in Humanness

Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture

The questions surrounding Adam and Eve and the Fall in Genesis 2-3 and concerning the role of inspiration in the formation of the Bible are issues that won’t go away any time soon. They are not the only issues at play in discussions of science, Christian faith, and the intellectual coherence, but they are major ones. The post today is a slightly revised version of one of my older posts, but it brings up issues that remain and will remain important for quite awhile yet to come.

As a college student I took a course on theology – one of the requirements of the school I attended. Our primary textbook was volume one of Essentials of Evangelical Theology, by Donald Bloesch. Particularly relevant to the question here are a chapter entitled The Primacy of Scripture and a section in his chapter on Total Depravity dealing with The Story of the Fall. Bloesch takes a rather conservative reformed evangelical stance over all, although probably not conservative enough for some. It is worth considering what he has to say.

In his discussion of the primacy of scripture Bloesch emphasizes the human and divine aspects of scripture and notes that many people have a docetic view of scripture – and that this view is mistaken.

Scripture cannot be rightly understood unless we take into consideration that it has dual authorship. … The Bible is not partly the Word of God and partly the word of man: it is in its entirety the very Word of God and the very word of man. … if we affirm … that the Bible is predominantly a divine book and that the human element is only a mask or outward aspect of the divine, then we have a docetic view of Scripture. Some would even say that the Bible is an exact reproduction of the thoughts of God, but this denies its real humanity as well as its historicity. (p. 52 – page numbers are from the 1978 original I’ve had since taking a theology course in college)

What does this mean to Bloesch?

First – The authority of scripture flows from the authority of God in Jesus Christ.

… we must bear in mind that the ultimate, final authority is not Scripture but the living God himself as we find him in Jesus Christ. … The Bible is authoritative because it points beyond itself to the absolute authority, the living and transcendent Word of God. (p. 62-63)

Bloesch sounds quite a lot like NT Wright here as he describes his view of the authority of scripture in The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God and in the enlarged revision Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. The central claim of Wright’s book is that all authority belongs to God – and thus scripture is authoritative only in the sense that the authority of the triune God is exercised through scripture. In fact, Wright goes so far as to say that scripture itself points — authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority! — away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God, now delegated to Jesus Christ.(p. 24 The Last Word)

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Posted in Adam, Genesis, The Fall | Tagged

An Ancient Document

The Old Testament is a collection of ancient texts written in contexts that were quite different from ours. Genesis is an ancient document. As Christians we believe that it was inspired to tell God’s story and to reveal his work in his creation. But even when read in a good translation and through eyes of faith, there are cases where we should step back and consider the ancient context. This is especially true of the primeval history in Genesis 1-11. These are important stories – but they may or may not be intended as we often interpret them.The story of the flood in Genesis 6-9 raises a number of questions. Unlike the nursery decorations with cute animals boarding a pleasant boat, this is a story of depravity, death and destruction leading to a redo of creation. How are we to understand the story? Over the centuries, as we have learned how big the world actually is, how many diverse species of animals exist and have existed, the questions have increased.

Too hot, too cold or just right? John Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies at Westmont College (recently retired from his position as a professor), have worked together on a new book exploring the question of ancient context of Genesis especially as it relates to the story of the flood. In The Lost World of the Flood their intent is not to provide a single “correct” interpretation – but to explore the context and “provide an interpretation based on the conviction that the Bible is the Word of God – Scripture that speaks truly.” (p. viii) They go on:

Our goal is not to convert the reader to our conclusions, or even to persuade the reader to adopt our way of thinking. Instead, we seek to bring information to the reader’s attention that has helped as we have struggled with the passages. If readers deem that information useful and beneficial, we are gratified. But for readers who cannot accept our findings, believing that Scripture makes claims that require other conclusions, we hope that at least we have shown how our particular interpretation is the result of faithful interpretation. (p. viii)

I expect that some will feel that John and Tremper have strayed too far from traditional interpretations of the flood and that Scripture makes claims beyond the ones they see (i.e. their reading is too cold). Others will feel that they haven’t gone far enough – they have found more history in the story than warranted (too hot). But regardless of where we find ourselves along this continuum, it is important to remember that our interpretations are never inerrant and that the ancient context is important for a proper understanding of Scripture. We can all learn from John and Tremper as they wrestle with the text as Old Testament scholars and as Christians. Continue reading

Posted in Genesis | Tagged ,

If You Believed Moses …

“But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” John 5:45-47

I recently came across a comment inspired by one of my posts on Adam that reflected on this passage from John. The basic idea, according to the commenter, is that we must stick to a specific interpretation of Genesis or we are rejecting Moses, the first step in a process that will inevitably lead to rejection of the message Jesus teaches.

Another comment along the same line reflected on Jesus’s teaching on marriage.

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10:5-9 (Also Matthew 19:4-6)

Clearly, according to this second commenter, the reference to Genesis 1 and 2 in this discussion of divorce is a clear indication that Jesus is corroborating a specific interpretation of these passages when it comes to Adam, Eve, and human origins, an interpretation that requires two unique individuals, sole progenitors of the human race.

In this post I don’t want to get sucked into yet another discussion of the appropriate interpretation of Genesis 1-3 or 1-11. It’s more important to step back and think clearly about the teaching of Jesus as well as the point of his references to Moses and to marriage.

Frankly I don’t think that the historicity of Adam and Eve, the length of creation ‘days’, or the possibility of evolution figured into the teaching of Jesus in either of these passages. Rather, the passages, and for that matter most of Jesus’s teaching, can be summed up by the teachings of the prophets, the teaching of Jesus on the greatest commandments, and his teachings on servant-hood and unity. These are all part of the same message. Continue reading

Posted in Christian Life, Jesus

And Now Evolution

Although BioLogos and Reasons to Believe (or more accurately those Christians affiliated with these organizations) have similar views of divine action, there are significant disagreements when it comes to evolution. Chapter 7 of Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos begins to address the question of evolution explicitly. Darrel Falk presents his view, representative of BioLogos, while Fazale (Fuz) Rana presents the view of Reasons to Believe. Ted Cabal, Professor of Christian Apologetics at Southern, moderates the discussion.

Ted opens the chapter by asking Darrel and Fuz three questions. (1) How do you define evolution? (2) How convincing do you find the evidence for common descent? And (3) Does acceptance of biological evolution necessarily entail rejection of design? These are great questions to start the conversation. Darrel and Fuz have slightly different definitions of evolution, they disagree on the evidence for common descent, but neither finds that biological evolution rules design out of the picture. Fuz, however, does think evolution raises important questions about design. More on this below.

Darrel Falk defines evolution as descent with modification. He quotes a UC Berkeley website to elaborate on this. (p. 124, http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/evo_02)

Through the process of descent with modification, the common ancestor of life on Earth gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today. Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.

Although scientists and others often move beyond science to assert that evolution disproves God, Darrel points out that there is nothing in this definition that necessarily removes God from the picture. The mechanisms of evolution include natural selection at the individual level, genetic drift, and survival of populations – even if at high cost to some individuals. Macroevolution and microevolution operate according to the same principles.

Fuz Rana looks at five kinds of evolution – microevolution, speciation, and microbial evolution are, in his words, noncontroversial. There is ample evidence that these processes have happened and are happening today. The traits of a species can change in response to external pressures. Darrel mentions lactose tolerance in humans. Such changes represents microevolution. Speciation occurs when one species gives rise to two or more sister species – different species of finches, for example. Microbial evolution includes such developments as antibiotic resistance or the ability to digest synthetic fabrics. Fuz notes that “microbial evolution is not surprising given the large microbial population sizes.” (p. 131)

Fuz finds far less support for two additional kinds of evolution – chemical evolution (i.e. abiogenesis and the origin of life) and macroevolution (the origin of life’s major groups from a common ancestor). With respect to the first, Darrel responds, and I agree, that questions surrounding the origin of life fall outside the scope of biological evolution. Evolution, descent with modification, describes the progression in the diversity of life from a common ancestor. Darrel and Fuz disagree quite strongly when it comes to macroevolution. Although significant questions remain, Darrel finds the evidence convincing while Fuz does not.

The arguments advanced by Fuz are worth looking at more closely.

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Posted in Evolution | Tagged ,

Intelligent Design Revisited

Ten  years ago, when I first started writing on science and faith, Intelligent Design was a hot topic. It was in the news and high on the agenda for many in my local church. Today it has slid into the background, occasionally mentioned, but there are often other fish to fry.  Greg Cootsona devotes a case study in his recent book (Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults) to the topic of intelligent design but not more than this because it is not one of the major issues for the emerging adults in his target audience.

The discussion of Intelligent Design focus on philosophy and worldview rather than science. Several years ago I read a book, Intelligent Design Uncensored by William Dembski and Jonathan Witt. The one clear message from the book was that the motivation for Intelligent Design is not scientific, it is philosophical and theological. The opponent is philosophical naturalism. At the end of the book, summing up the arguments, Dembski and Witt write:

This book began with a question: Are the things of nature the product of mindless forces alone, or did creative reason play a role? The question is fundamental because so much hinges on it. Are humans worthy of dignity? Are they endowed with certain unalienable rights? If humans are the mindless accident of blind nature, entering and exiting the cosmic stage without audience, in a universe without plan or purpose, what right do we have to puff ourselves up and talk of human rights and human dignity, of meaning or value or love? In such a cosmos, love is but a function of the glands, honor and loyalty nothing more than instincts programmed into us by a blind process of random genetic variation and natural selection. Such a cosmos is ultimately meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

At the heart of this book is a conviction rooted in reason and evidence: the evidence of nature points away from such a pointless universe and toward a universe charged with the grandeur of a design most remarkable. (pp 153-154).

This is a sentiment with which I agree. I am a Christian because there is evidence within creation for a creator. The heavens declare the glory of God. The intricacy of a biological cell and the formation of a child likewise declare the glory of God.

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Posted in Intelligent Design, Science and Faith | Tagged

He is Risen Indeed!

Last Thursday I started a discussion on the power of resurrection. Several commenters pointed out that, in addition to the passages in Paul I cited, it is important to consider the words of Jesus in the Gospels. I certainly agree with this – with both death and resurrection foretold. Passages span all four Gospels (e.g. Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34, Luke 9:21-23, 18:32-34, John 2:19-22). Rather than quote all of these, I will focus on the two in Luke:

But He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.” And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” (Luke 9:21-23)

For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.” But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said. (Luke 18:32-34)

This is followed in Luke 24 by the two men in shining clothes reminding the women at the tomb that Jesus had taught “that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (v. 7) And Jesus himself speaking to his followers “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”” (v. 45-47)

Although the disciples didn’t get it until after the events, Jesus himself clearly expected his death to initiate resurrection beginning with himself on the third day or after three days. (The references differ slightly.)

The issue is not so much the event as the meaning that Jesus and later his followers and the Church attach to the event. The criticism in last week’s post (“Such a story reminds me more of something I’d see on Saturday morning cartoons … forces of evil battling against the forces of good … than from a wise creator“) reflects the way we seem to think about the death and resurrection of Jesus, exemplified by one of my favorite Easter hymns Christ Arose:

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Although not a bad hymn, it does reflect an image of a victorious superhero Jesus and doesn’t really do justice to the story, or to the importance of suffering as the means to triumph.

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Posted in Resurrection