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Nearly Twenty Years Later…

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

I came across this the other day:

“It is likely that scientific research in the next ten or twenty years will tip the weight of evidence decisively toward either a young earth or an old earth view, and the weight of Christian scholarly opinion (from both biblical scholars and scientists) will begin to shift decisively in one direction or another. This should not cause alarm to advocates of either position, because the truthfulness of Scripture is not threatened (our interpretations of Genesis 1 have enough uncertainty that either position is possible). Both sides need to grow in knowledge of the truth, even if this means abandoning a long-held position” –Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 309, 1994.

Grudem was hopeful that this debate would be settled by now.  I wish it was, but the lines are still drawn.  I wonder if they will ever be erased!

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The Universe Is 29 Years Young

A new map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the precision by the Planck mission. Image by ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

When the thirty-something women I know lament their age, I usually tell each of them that they can’t be over twenty-nine years old. Everyone wants to be young, and for some reason people think you’re officially old when you’re thirty. I’d complain about this, but then I’d sound like an old-timer. Well I still might, since I have something else to gripe about.New cosmological evidence points to a universe that is even older than once thought. The evidence of a very old universe keeps piling up, even though young-earth creationists continue to chase “yabbut” trails.

“Yabbut radio carbon dating is flawed.”
“Yabbut science cannot observe past events”
“Yabbut the fossil record actually points to a young earth”

I used to be a young-earth creationist, but gave it up mainly because the evidence of an old earth always crushed the young-earth propositions. But it was a long haul for me, because I held tightly to my literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. And that is, I believe, the main motivation behind most of the young-earth chatter. If the universe is very old, if the earth is very old, then that will affect the way you read Genesis. And how you read Genesis could greatly influence your theological approach to the Bible. A deeper fear is that if someone concedes an old universe, then they may give up their Christian faith. That’s not true but believe me, I have felt that fear before.

One of the most popular young-earth arguments is one that I often found hard to accept: God created the universe to appear old, but it is really very young.

So the universe looks 13.8 billion years old, but really she’s only 29 (or 6000–she’s still flattered).

It may sound preposterous on its face, but the argument goes like this:
-When God created Adam, Eve, the animals and the plants, they were mature enough to reproduce (Gen. 1:11, 22, 28).
-Thus, it is not surprising that God created the rest of the universe to look old.

This kind of argument has big problems. The biggest is the fact that it is an argument ad ignorantium–an argument from ignorance. There is no possible way that someone can prove God created the world this way.

Epistemologically, the argument is completely useless even if it were true. Think about it. For the sake of illustration, let’s pretend that you are 50 years old. What if God actually created the universe just 1 year ago. One year ago today, God created the space-time continuum, Earth, all the people on earth, and you. But you look 50. You still have memories of your past 10, 20, 30, 40 years of life already, even though those memories didn’t actually happen. Everyone else in the universe was created the same way and at the same time. They were also created one year ago, but have no perception of it. God created all things to appear as if they have existed for a long, long time.

If this scenario were true, how old would you be? Would you be one year old, or fifty?

Well, you would be fifty. God made you to be fifty. All the evidence in the universe points to the fact that you are fifty. Scientific research says that you are fifty. Your friends tell you that you are fifty. Every ontological bit of evidence in the created universe points to the fact that you are fifty (because it was created to show that).

But aren’t you really only one year old? No! God is the one who made you one year ago with all your perceptions and knowledge which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that you are fifty.

Now this gets to my point. What if God created the universe 6000 years ago but made it appear in every way shape and form to be 13.8 billion years old?

Well, then it is 13.8 billion years old.

You may say, “No, it only appears to be that old!”
But if God created it to be old…then it is OLD! Its ontology is old, so it is old. It doesn’t simply appear old, it is old!

You see, the “universe only appears old” argument goes nowhere. Even if it is correct–even if God created the cosmos to appear old, then there would be no other way for us to see it.
You might as well say that the world is only one year old and God created it to look much older. There is no direct evidence to support that, so it cannot be affirmed. It is a useless argument.

This is a little heady, but hopefully you see my point.

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Ever heard of “Emergence Christianity”?

A few weeks ago some new friends asked me if I was going to the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. Apparently, it was a big deal, but I was oblivious. A sold-out event, there wasn’t much chance of attending; but that week, someone who couldn’t go offered me their spot. I took it, pretty much flying blind into unfamiliar territory.

The shindig’s main attraction was a local figure, Phyllis Tickle. I must confess, I had probably only heard of her once before and never read her work. She is the founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly and has written several pieces on what she calls, among other things, the “Great Emergence.”

In fact, the word great came up a lot in her lectures. She spent most of her time talking about church history, mentioning the Great Schism between the East and West Church, the Great Reformation led my Martin Luther, the “Great Unpleasantness” between the northern and southern states amid the American Civil War, and other great’s. She was well spoken, not needing notes or a podium and cramming a much information into her pleasant and almost casual orations as possible, at times confessing that she didn’t have sufficient time to cover all the material (the teacher’s curse).

I can see why she has impacted the community so much, since she really is dealing with some of the most obvious problems of modern Christianity…and really religion as a whole. It’s been clear for some time that church attendance has dropped over the years, but people have retained their own private spirituality. They believe in higher power, but not in organized religion. People have lost hope in human leadership, and so spiritual anarchy looks better and better all of the time. Tickle noted that this is not unique, but is common throughout human history. She argued that history shows a pattern that about every 500 years a massive shift takes place in human authority, particularly in religious doctrines. So there were four in the common era. The first was when Constantine made Christianity the state religion (AD 313). The second was the Great Schism between the East and West Church (AD 1054). The third was the Protestant Reformation (AD 1517), splitting the church again. Tickle observed that it is about time for another shift, and all of us can feel that tension now. Religious authority has frustrated many of us. We want to express our religious views but feel that we are oppressed from every direction. [To be clear, she was not calling for any kind of split or revolution. Tickle was only observing what was happening in the current religious climate.]

So, what is Emergence Christianity, then? Here’s my take on it. It is an ecumenical movement that spans across all Christian denominations and sects that liberates from dogmatism–that is, control of human systems–and pursues the religious freedom and dignity of all people. It elevates Christ above all but does not impose Christ above all. It recognizes that Christ is the supreme demonstration of God’s love to the world, but understands that people have to come to that understanding on their own terms. In other words, the Spirit of God will move in people’s lives whenever and however he wants to, and we can’t force that to happen.

*Emergence Christianity is not the so-called “Emergent Church,” which is a movement that tends to be more conservative. As Tickle put it, the Emergent Church tends to be more sexist and homophobic. I’m not sure how fair an estimation that is.

I believe this movement is similar to the post-evangelical phenomenon. The term “convergence” also came up in the discussions, and I thought of the ‘post-postmodern’ label a few times in the lectures. There are some positives and negatives about all of this that I may flesh out later.

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Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake

Jesus’ Wife fragment judged a fake.

Whenever a scholar or archaeologist discovers some new manuscript or artifact that has direct bearing on Jesus of Nazareth or any other Bible character, it usually causes quite a stir in the media.  The loudest voices in the conversations are polar.  Some champion the new finds as yet another hole in Christianity’s supposedly impenetrable armor.  At the same time, many of my fellow Christians become either nervous or defensive.  What if this new find endangers Christianity?  What if it affects my faith?

The recent hubub has been around a fourth century (?) Coptic fragment that mentions Jesus’ wife.  It’s been an interesting discussion, but really doesn’t affect our faith or the Biblical canon one way or the other.  We already know about extra-biblical writings which say all kinds of things about Jesus.  But the canon is what we accept and believe.

Anyway, Daniel Wallace is an authority on the subject of New Testament textual criticism and has some great discussions about it that I recommend. This is the latest one.  Looks like the the Coptic fragment was judged a fake anyway.

…and Church life continues!

 

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An Excellent Wife. My Wife.

“Who can find a virtuous and capable wife? She is more precious than rubies. Her husband can trust her,and she will greatly enrich his life.  She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.” (Proverbs 31:10-12 NLT)

Perhaps it is a little off topic, but I’d like to make a brief post here about my awesome wife.  Allyson has stood by my side for more than eleven years in marriage.  In all of the time that I’ve been in school, she has supported me and encouraged me more times than I can count.  I can’t tell you how many nights she would have to go to bed alone because I was up late finishing (or starting!) a research project.  Several other nights, I’d be in the library doing research while she held down the fort at home.

Several times I would come home, musing over things I had discoverd in seminary: different views of the eschaton, the mystery of hypostasis, the use of the waw consecutive (that’s Hebrew).  I’d try sharing these things with Allyson but (you married seminary students will get this), she just wasn’t as interested as I was.  “Come on!” I would think, “Don’t you see how cool it is that Christ was mentioned in the protoevangelium hundreds of years before his birth?”  The technical stuff I studied actually thrilled me, but those things really weren’t her speed.

She was more interested in fomenting her personal walk with Christ. The technical concepts that I concentrated on were not as important to her if they didn’t deepen her personal relationship with Christ.  So she focused on her own personal Bible studies and I focused on mine.

Now, this is what I’m really getting at. My wife and I have different ideas on the Bible and theology, and we’re cool with that.

We both believe that God is sovereign.  I, however, am a Calvinist in my view of salvation.  Allyson does not go that far.

I prefer an allegorical view of Genesis 1-3, but Allyson takes a literal view of it.

I believe that the flood of Genesis was probably a local flood.  Allyson sees a worldwide flood.

I am friendly to some amillennial ideas, but Ally is pretty much a pre-mil’er all the way.

I know some of my views seem weird to folks in my tradition, but Allyson takes a literal view of all the Bible.

You see, we disagree about several things, but that doesn’t separate us.  It strengthens us.  Religiously, we agree on the essentials, which include trusting in Christ alone for salvation.  Still, we talk about our theological disagreements from time to time, and so learn more about each other every time.  Allyson is a strong thinker, an individualist with strong commitments to family and community.  An important trait of the ideal woman portrayed in Proverbs 31.

My wife is excellent!  I trust her.  She enriches my life.  She is worth more to me than I can say!  We do not agree on all things, but we are united in our commitment to Christ and to each other.  I just love that about her!

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Must Adam Exist? Part 1

The works I’ve read so far on the creation account have assumed that Adam and Eve were historical characters, but Peter Enns‘s latest book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins argues that they are not.  Many of you who know me will be surprised that I find his points persuasive.  His argument makes more sense to me than all the other approaches to Genesis 2-3 I’ve considered.  His earlier book Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament created more than a stir in the evangelical community, and this book may have a similar effect.

Enns puts it plainly that the modern church faces a challenge with what science has unearthed about human origins.  If a Christian comes to believe that evolution is reality, does that mean he should abandon his faith?  Does he have any reason to continue believing in a Bible that portrays a man created out of the dust of the earth and woman formed from part of man’s side?  A number of Christian leaders believe that a nod to evolution is a step away from the Christian faith.  Embracing evolutionary thought leads to apostasy.  It’s that simple.  But Enns argues that this is not the case.

He begins by showing that the Pentateuch was largely written with history in mind, though it is not all historical.  The compilers used a number of sources which may include Mosaic material (though Enns seems to steer clear of this).  The final product was produced sometime after the exile.  At that time, you can imagine that the Hebrews were looking for their own identity–their own history–and the compilers of the Pentateuch provided it, including a creation account.  That creation account had similarities with neighboring creation accounts, but was (and is) theologically instructive.  Since the Pentateuch was written to give the Hebrews a history and identity, it only makes sense that Adam would embody the very character of the Hebrews’ disobedience which ultimately led to their exile.  Adam was a kind of prototype of the Hebrew people, a “Proto-Adam,” who made the same mistake that the Hebrews made.  To those Israelites who remembered the tragedy of the exile brought on by their disobedience, they could certainly relate to Adam’s exile from the Garden.  His sin, also led to tragedy and expulsion.  The connection is tremendous.  Such a “Proto-Adam” is not likely a real, historical character, but is–for those of you familiar with this terminology–a type of Israel.

"Adam" by Lucas the YoungerMany of the lessons drawn from Genesis 2-3 through exegetical study are largely unchanged by such a conclusion.  Men and women are sinners, disobedient to God, and incur his judgement because of that disobedience.  There is a cosmic villain that pursues to do us harm and destroy God’s good work.  God has made mankind in his image and appointed them to rule the earth as He rules it, with goodness and wisdom.  But what about the prospect of sin and death in the Garden?  Didn’t Adam’s sin curse humanity with death?  It certainly doomed Adam and Eve.  God condemned them both and cast them from the Garden, forbidding them access to the tree of life.  They were doomed to physical deaths: “…for you are dust; and to dust shall you return” (Gen. 3:19 ESV).  Didn’t they die spiritually, too?  Perhaps, but that is not explicitly stated in Genesis 3.  Rather, it comes from the Apostle Paul’s expositions hundreds of years later.

It is perhaps better to view the Adam and Eve event as an illustration of wisdom and the lack thereof.  Enns compares the terminology and concepts between Genesis 3 and the Book of Proverbs, also appealing to the writings of second-century apologists Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons.  In their view, Genesis 3 did not recount the historical origin of humanity and the loss of their perfection.  Instead, they see it as the loss of humanity’s innocence.  It was the story of the couple’s initiation into adulthood, beginning the process toward maturity.  They represent Israel.  They represent us. We fail, but as we heed God’s instructions, we learn to become wise. (This is not a comment on salvation as taught in the New Testament.  Remember, this is Old Testament theology!)

I was really intrigued at Enns’s argument at this point.  I found this next point to be a staggering truth.  A traditional approach to Genesis 3 teaches that Adam’s sin was catastrophic to the world, bringing the judgment of God upon all mankind.  If that is true, why don’t we see it referenced as such even ONCE in all of Old Testament?  Why isn’t the Garden event referenced repeatedly by Moses, or the prophets, or the writings as the cause of God’s wrath in all of creation?  It’s true that Paul cites Adam this way, but the Old Testament authorities do not. If Paul is just reiterating what the Old Testament had taught already, then shouldn’t we find it repeated within the pages of the Old Covenant? …We don’t.  If we consider just the Old Testament, then Adam does not seem to have a major influence on theology.  It is Paul’s interpretation of Adam’s importance that makes Adam so critical to New Testament Christian theology.  Enns has a good answer for that one too.  I’ll discuss that in my next post.

I highly recommend this book.  You can find it at the link above or even on Kindle.  I don’t know if I’m ‘all in’ with it’s arguments yet, but it seems quite convincing to me!

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Genesis 1: God Creates with Purpose

When I was in college, I listened to a lot of Christian talk radio and sermons on tape.  What I heard bolstered up my Christian world view which was a particular help in my philosophy classes.  I remember hearing one theologian (I think it was R. C. Sproul) state that Genesis 1-3 was one of the most difficult passages in scripture to interpret.  I thought that was crazy!  As a literalist, the Biblical account was clear to me.  God created the world some thousands of years ago in six literal 24 hour days.  There were two accounts of the creation: Genesis 1:1-2:3 focused on creation as a whole, and 2:4-25 told the story again, paying special attention to the creation of Adam and his wife.  A serpentine creature possessed by Devil destroyed the pristine Garden of Eden by tempting the woman to disobey God’s command not to eat of a special tree.  She convinced Adam to do the same, so sin and death came into the world.  God divvied out judgment to man, woman, and serpent, and cast the first human couple from the garden paradise.  What’s hard to understand about that?

These days, I’ve recognized what that speaker meant.  I’ve considered some different perspectives on the Bible’s creation account, and would like to share some of the most influential works that have moved me into a new direction.  Each of the authors has a high respect for the scripture and recognizes the authority of the text.  However, as experts in their field, they are sensitive to interpretive issues that the average person would not catch.

John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

When anyone reads the Bible, he or she naturally and automatically interprets it based on their own culture and experiences.  For example, since I am an American, any reference to stars and stripes makes me think of the American flag and what it represents: fifty stars which represent states, thirteen stripes which represent the original colonies.  Feelings such as patriotism might also arise.  Since I have lived in America all of my life, I recognize such symbols immediately and effortlessly.  The point is, all people recognize the symbols from their own culture.  So, we also recognize that the writer of Genesis 1 was, at the very least, familiar with ancient Mesopotamian symbols and used them when he wrote the creation account.  Walton argues that we must read Genesis 1 as the ancient Mesopotamian would.  As he puts it, Genesis 1 is scripture, so it was written for us; but it was not written to us.  It was written to an audience already familiar with these symbols.   That means that it takes more work for us to unearth these symbols to correctly interpret the writing.  We go too far when we expect that the writer was using symbols relevant only to us–a modern audience.

Walton uses small chapters to take us step-by-step to a better reading of Genesis 1.  He promotes the view that the Biblical creation account is about transforming chaos (Genesis 1:2) into order.  He posits that the word for “create” in Hebrew has to do with making something purposeful, and thus God ordered the chaos that existed to give the world a specific function–bringing glory to himself.  He made it into something that could serve him and put images of himself–mankind–into positions of authority over it.  Walton also shows how Genesis 1 portrays all the created cosmos as a temple directing worship to its creator.  This strikes me for two reasons.  First, it shows further relevance to the ancient audience, who would appreciate the importance of the actual temple in Jerusalem.  Second, it gives more reason for people to find reason for praising God through creation (Ps. 19:1).

As for the seven days themselves in Genesis 1, they have nothing to do with how God actually created the universe and instead represent the seven-day inauguration of the world as a cosmic temple (1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chron. 7:9).  God is certainly behind the creation of all things, but Genesis 1 is really about establishing a worldview for the Hebrew people at the time of writing.  They were steeped in other ancient creation accounts and world views.  These neighboring stories taught the people that they were a mere byproduct of divine conflicts between deities.  The Hebrew account told a different story.  God took the chaos that existed before (Genesis 1:2), carefully ordered it, and gave it all purpose and meaning.  Mankind is not a side effect of warlike events, but God took great care to hand craft governors in his own image to rule on earth as he does from heaven.

So we are to read Genesis 1 as a theologically instructive account of creation that has nothing to do with how God created the universe.  Walton doesn’t stop there, but also gives his thoughts about the teaching of evolution in the classroom.  Genesis 1 ought not be taught as science in the public school system since it was never intended as a scientific document.  On the other hand, evolution should never be taught as a world view in the public school system.  Just because a person believes that evolution is true, it does not mean that person is a naturalist, thinking that there is no meaning or purpose in the universe.  Though Genesis 1 does not reveal the science of how God created the universe, it does reveal that he created it with meaning and purpose.

Why all the trouble?  Why not just read Genesis 1 literally?  Walton insists that he is reading it literally:

“I believe that this is a literal reading.  A literal reading requires an understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.  I believe that the reading that I have offered is the most literal reading possible at this point.  Someone who claims a ‘literal’ reading based on their thinking about the English word ‘create’ may not be reading the text literally at all, because the English word is of little significance in the discussion” (170).

I really appreciate his approach!  What do you think?

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Embarrassed at the Creation Seminar

The Creation of Adam

Image via Image via Wikipedia

Years ago when I was in college, I invited one of my English Lit. professors to come see a creationist speaker at my church.  The speaker was one of the most recognized creationists in the country and was giving a series of lectures to my congregation. As for my professor, he was hostile to a lot of Christian ideas, but I was able to develop some respectful dialogue with him.  We had some insightful and sometimes heated conversations after classes, speaking about the Bible, morality, and human origins.  He often found Christian perspectives unreasonable, and Baptists were the worst offenders.  So when I invited him to my independent Baptist church to hear a creationist point of view, he was more than reluctant.  He eventually agreed to come on the condition that I would attend an event of his choosing (he hadn’t “cooked it up” yet, but it would probably be a pro-evolution scientific lecture).  I agreed and, in retrospect, that was a stupid decision.  If you’re going to make an agreement with someone hostile to your ideas, make sure you know the terms!

Nevertheless, my prof agreed to come to one lecture, and we’d debrief later.The day before the creationist speaker began his lecture series, several pastors from the church took him to lunch; and I, the inquisitive college student got an invitation.  While we were eating, I asked my fair share of questions and told the lecturer about my skeptical professor who would be coming to one of the sessions over the next few days.  How great would it be if my prof changed his mind about his evolutionary viewpoint!  I hoped for a great, life-chainging experience like that.  Well, that’s not what happened.My prof missed the first lecture, but came to the second.  I welcomed him in, introduced him to my friends and a few pastors, and we quickly found a seat for the next session.  Everyone was cordial and polite; it was great!  Throughout that lecture, I could see my guest fidget as he heard points with which he could not agree.  At one point, he huffed, shook his head in disagreement, and grabbed one of those miniscule pencils from the back of the pew in front of us so he could scribble down some notes.  Then it happened.  The speaker was wrapping up his lecture, noting the importance of teaching creationism in churches across the country, especially since college professors are hostile against creationist views.  “In fact,” he said, “I had lunch with a student yesterday who told me that one of his English teachers constantly attacks biblical ideas!”

I melted.

My guest scoffed and dropped his head in his hand in disbelief.  I turned red as tomato and began to sweat a little.  Needless to say, after the event was over he took off, deeply offended and hopping mad; as was I.  Obviously, he felt like the speaker just called him out personally in front of everyone (even though no one really knew who he was), and I felt like a fool for trusting any information to the speaker.  I had just become a sermon illustration.

It’s been more than fifteen years since that event, and even now it chafes me.  Still, I’ve held strongly to my creationist views of Genesis 1-3, at least until recently.  The rest of my time in college, I studied English, which made me familiar with how language and literature works.  Later, my master’s degree in theology exposed me to how biblical literature works.  Finally, my doctorate gave me the chance to concentrate on how Old Testament literature functions.  Ironically, I was more of a creationist earning my bachelors at a secular university.

Now, when I say that I’m no longer a creationist, it doesn’t mean that I am no longer a believer in the Bible or Christ.Instead, it means that I no longer prefer a literal reading of Genesis 1-3.  I still believe that it is true in what it intends to describe, but it was never intended to be read scientifically.  My thoughts are certainly not unique.  Many scholars with a high view of scripture take a similar approach.  I merely follow in their footsteps.  I’d like to take the next few blog entries to describe how I arrived at this view.

Though my views have shifted since I was in college, I cannot agree with my English Lit. professor that the creation story in Genesis is pure mythology and a waste of the modern reader’s time.  Genesis is scripture, and important to the Christian!  And unlike my prof, I still like Baptists.

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It’s about time!

I’ve wanted to write a blog for several years, but didn’t know if I had it in me.  There are a few reasons for that.  One is the fact that there are a ton of really good blogs out there already.  I learn a great deal from many of them and thought that my words would just be white noise.  Another reason I’ve been hesitant to write is that there are many more blogs that are inconsistent or poorly written.  I can’t help but feel embarrassed for some of those writers and wonder if my blog will fall into that rut.  I know that life gets busy and the blog might become a low priority.  Will some of you read my blog and think it’s a drag?  I hope not!

It also takes a certain amount of courage to write about your ideas.  I think this is especially true in the Christian Church.  Church communities have certain expectations about what the members and leaders believe.  If you don’t believe A, then you clearly don’t believe the Bible.  This is an unfortunate approach to Scripture.  To be sure, some interpretations are a stretch, and others have no respect for the text whatsoever.  But I think it is important to hear each other out.  If you bear with my blog for a while, you will probably find some of my upcoming posts challenging.  Please read on.  As an educator, I have told my students that reading challenging material is like lifting weights at the gym.  You have to strain through parts of it, and you’ll be sore for a few days, but you’ll be happy with the results later.

Over the next few weeks I plan on writing about matters of creationism, evolution, and the biblical person Adam.  I’ve read some material on these topics over the past few months and want to flesh some of my thoughts out here.  Stay tuned!

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