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Common Ground on Genesis

Common Ground on Genesis

On the Spectrum blog there’s quite a lot of discussion of the age of the earth and a search for common ground. The problem with the phrase “common ground” is that it can mean many different things. Two recent articles on the age of the earth had quotes that caught my attention. As far as I can tell (my specialty is Biblical languages, not any of the various sciences involved), the discussion of the various dating methods is quite good.

This material comes from members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, my former denomination, and one that is pretty firm on the young age of the universe and a literal seven day creation week. Watching this discussion unfold amongst SDAs is something I find fascinating.

The first article, Genesis Literalism and the Temple of Doom – I, after summarizing some of the methods, concludes:

Even if the message is not one we want to hear, recognizing the validity of these tools of science should be the basis for common ground.

Sounds good thus far. Then we continue with the second article, creatively titled Genesis Literalism and the Temple of Doom – II, and after some more dating methods are summarized we have another conclusion:

The obvious question, then, is, “how should the Church respond to this evidence?” As suggested previously, perhaps the best way to deal with this evidence, given a predisposition in favor of YEC, is simply to say nothing about age. Taking this approach would act as a hedge against further compelling scientific confirmation of a very old age. To proceed in this way would preserve the Church’s credibility, and would seem to be the only approach to common ground.

This one doesn’t strike me right at all. Essentially keeping silent about age when you’ve just admitted that the scientific evidence is entirely against young age seems very odd, and doesn’t seem any basis for common ground at all. Common ground between what groups or positions? In essence, by its silence, the church would say “We were wrong, but we don’t want to admit it, so now we’re going quiet.” Or so it seems to me …

I see two options for someone convinced that the earth is old, yet who espouses some form of biblically based Christianity: 1) Take a new look at the biblical evidence or role in the discussion or 2) Admit science is against you, but uphold what you believe the Bible teaches. The first approach is mine, looking both at how we understand certain passages of scripture and also looking at the role God intended scripture to play in scientific discussions. I’ve written on that before. Dr. Kurt Wise and Dr. Todd Wood are examples of folks who take the second approach.

I don’t think silence is going to work long term. I hope I will see in future installments that I have misunderstood the intent of the writer. I will certainly continue to read the series.

Todd Wood – the Evolutionist?

Todd Wood – the Evolutionist?

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had started reading Dr. Todd Wood’s blog (using the title Another Honest Creationist). The reason I call Dr. Wood honest (as opposed to some other creationists) is that he acknowledges that young age creationism relies on the Bible and specifically on a particular understanding of the early chapters of Genesis.

I find it difficult to believe that someone can be a young earth or young age creationist on any other basis. The scientific evidence is simply much too strongly against it. Dr. Wood, like Dr. Kurt Wise, admits that there is substantial evidence for evolution, yet they accept young age creationism because that is what they believe the Bible teaches. I disagree on their interpretation of Genesis, but I can respect their stand and their honest statement of their reasons for taking it.

Of course some other young age/earth creationists don’t like this approach. They believe that there really is no evidence for evolution and that there is some sort of conspiracy amongst scientists to pretend that evolution is true even though, they say, it is not.

One of these, Joseph Mastropaolo, offers a $10,000 prize for evidence of evolution, and sends e-mails out to people and then if they don’t respond, he puts them on a list on his web site.

All of this is fairly standard stuff in the creation/evolution debates, althought Mastropaolo’s twist of requiring his opponents to put up $10,000 of their own money, thus making this all more of a bet than a prize is interesting. I think that the prize offering thing is generally the last resort of those whose pockets are empty, but it’s all pretty common.

But what’s humorous is that Mastropaolo sent an e-mail to Dr. Wood asking him to put up some evidence and then added him to the list of non-responding evolutionists.

He says:

170. Dr. Todd C. Wood, of Bryan College, who wrote, “There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it.” Upon request and with the incentive of unlimited $10,000 grants for his Center for Origins Research, he did not send any evidence. Can it be that there is no scientific evidence to support evolution? Can it be that Todd C. Wood uses brass and bluff like the other 363,000 anti-science evolutionists worldwide? (12-30-09)

So a young age creationist who is working on building evidence for creationism is now an example of an evolutionist. Who ever would have imagined it?!

Another Honest Creationist

Another Honest Creationist

… and he really is a creationist. His name is Todd C. Wood, he teaches at Bryan College in Dayton Tennessee, and he blogs at the creatively named Todd’s Blog.

Now for reasons that may have something to do with the college’s name and location, Bryan College often strikes people as an obscurantist sort of place, determined to set education back by a century. My own experience belies that reputation. I was introduced to Bryan College by a Hebrew student who was a Presbyterian Church in America youth pastor. He needed a year of Hebrew for ordination and took it from me. During that time I also heard the president of Bryan College speak and explain some of his views on education.

Through those connections I became aware of Dr. Kurt Wise, author of Faith, Form, and Time (link is to my review), which is the one book on young age creationism I recommend if you are only going to read one on the topic. (Dr. Wise prefers “young age” to “young earth” as he is in fact dealing with the age of the universe.)

Now my main reason for calling Dr. Wise, and now Dr. Wood “honest creationists” is not how they deal with the scientific evidence, though that is good to see. In fact, I read quite a number of posts by Dr. Wood before linking to this one, because I don’t like to pile on with the “how honest of this poor creationist to say that we’re right” line. At that point it’s like saying “This creationist is a good guy because he sees the evidence for evolution, but stubbornly refuses to believe it.”

But I believe it’s very much different when we understand just why these men will stand up to what they acknowledge is a large body of evidence. Their epistemology starts elsewhere. They have a higher source of knowledge. They believe that revealed knowledge, as in scripture, has precedence. I may disagree, but it’s nice to have it laid out in plain words.

The particular point of honesty–and I know there are a number more creationists that will agree here–is that both Dr. Wise and Dr. Wood acknowledge, or better proclaim that their starting point is scripture, and what’s more a particular understanding of it. Quoth Dr. Wood:

It starts with going back to the most basic convictions about origins that I have. For me, that starts with my convictions about the mode of scriptural inspiration, i.e. verbal, plenary inspiration. I don’t believe that the Bible is merely a human book that contains the word of God. I believe it is the Word of God. I also do not accept the modern and popular doctrine of accommodation, which basicallys says that by putting His revelation into human language, God was forced to use terms that were not precisely accurate. As a result, science takes an active role in interpreting the Scripture, since any part may be accommodated and therefore not literally true.

Now I profoundly disagree with that, but what I find dishonest in the work of some creationists is that they try to claim that simply doing science, starting from its current state, one can conclude that the universe was created recently (6000 or so years) and quickly. In order to make a political point and get creationism in the public school curriculum, they cut their view off from its foundation.

Now as I understand it, both Dr. Wise and Dr. Wood maintain that with the proper research and time and effort to produce the necessary body of scientific work, a sound scientific foundation can be made. In his book which I previously mentioned, Dr. Wise makes a point of listing things that need to be researched in order to produce such a theory.

Now I profoundly disagree with their understanding of scripture and of the relationship of scripture and science. I don’t even see my view as accommodation. I believe scripture does not address science, and that this is because God never intended to address science through scripture. But it’s nice to have that out at a start. That’s what I call being honest.

Two people can say that they believe the Bible, yet that is really meaningless until we know just what each one believes about the Bible.

So I’ve added a subscription to Todd’s Blog to my Google reader, and I’m enjoying his posts.

They Really Do Believe the Earth is Stationary

They Really Do Believe the Earth is Stationary

Occasionally when I mention “geocentricity” people will roll their eyes and let me know that nobody is believes that any more, nobody is that stupid, and comparing the rejection of overwhelming amounts of modern science in favor of young earth creationism with similar rejection of science by geocentrists is silly, because there aren’t any such people.

I’ve previously linked to the Geocentricity web site to show that there really are such people. Yes, they do exist, and they really are just that far out.

Today in the mail, however, I got further proof. Not only are they capable of producing web sites (using modern science to attempt to destroy it), but they are capable of producing and mailing brochures as well. I received a brochure titled “Have Scientists Been Wrong? For 400 years?” In the pamphlet they argue that “the mobility of the earth is the only place where science and the Bible have come into real conflict, and is the starting point for all churches that have compromised the authority of scripture.”

Gotta love all that rejection of compromise! Can’t allow even one iota of fact to pervert our doctrinal systems!

They even advertise a free book (one doubts very many people would pay for such drivel, but there it is–The Geocentric Bible–freely available to all with time to waste and a brain to fry.

Here is your brain; here is your brain after reading the book through.

(Imagine the pictures!)

Question: Is this much more brain frying than Kurt Wise’s claim that he believes in young age creationism even though the evidence is against it because of his beliefs as to the literal understanding of Genesis? (See my notes on his book Faith, Form, and Time.) I’d like to think not, but it seems to me that with the young age view, he is flying pretty vigorously into the face of reams of scientific evidence.

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

This isn’t a summary of previous posts, but rather an attempt to focus on the issue I’m trying to address with this series before I continue. The problem with a series like this is that the examples begin to take over the topic. Since I have used complementarianism and theistic evolution as examples, and brought inerrancy into the discussion in order to demonstrate that it is not the key issue involved, it is easy for a reader to decide that I’m trying to debate any one of those issues, or perhaps to prefer that I debate them and try to redirect the topic.

Since the posts to which I responded brought up two more issues, homosexuality and violent passages in the Bible, which are again controversial issues, I want to focus back on the point I’m trying to make: It’s both difficult and inappropriate to tell your opponent what his or her position ought to be. In this case I’m responding to the charge that a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution is less Biblical because the “obvious exegesis” of Genesis favors a young earth creationist position.

Also, though I believe that theistic evolution is the best position to take at the moment, I am not attempting to demonstrate that. Rather, I’m attempting to show that it, along with a number of other positions on Genesis, can be held plausibly as interpretations of the Biblical text. The particular position one adopts depends on other factors, including the particular approach one takes to Biblical interpretation. After this mid-course focus I’m going to look at other issues and ask whether the exegesis is so obvious that an opponent of some particular brand of theology can easily dismiss it as “not real Christianity.” Within some limits, Christianity allows, and has always allowed, some flexibility.

The problem often starts with a charge that goes something like this:

1) The Bible clearly teaches X
2) X is unthinkable or false
3) So Christianity must be false

Now there are numerous and huge gaps in the logic as I have written it, but I think those gaps generally exist in the argument as presented by critics of Christianity. (Note to my philosophically inclined friends: To avoid general implosion with possible damage to the space-time continuum, do not try to critique that as a syllogism. Did I say it was a syllogism? I did not!) Let me apply this to a couple of relevant issues:

1) The Bible clearly teaches that the earth was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago
2) That teaching is false
3) Christianity must be false

One obviously missing element here is “Christianity actually teaches X” but that is generally assumed, as is the direct connection between “The Bible clearly teaches X” and “Christianity accepts X as true.”

For example, one could say that the Bible teaches that an animal must be brought as a sacrifice if one sins, but Christianity does not teach this, for reasons that seem good and proper to pretty much all Christians. Here we have a teaching that is fairly clear, but that Christians believe applied to a particular set of times and places, not including the present. You can try to use this to demonstrate that Christians don’t really follow the Bible, but it’s not going to help as an argument against Christianity because it teaches animal sacrifice. (PETA beware!)

That would fit more with another form of the argument:

1) The Bible teaches that God condones and even commands violence
2) Condoning violence is unthinkable (but where is the demonstration that it is wrong?)
3) Therefore Christianity is false

Now supposing this argument is used against a Christian who is a pacifist. Clearly the conclusion is false with reference to that person’s belief.

The point I am trying to make here is not primarily whether the Bible teaches any of these things, or whether they are true or false, but whether a Christian can believe or disbelieve them and still be a Christian. Is it proper to dismiss theistic evolutionists and even old earth creationists as “not real Christians,” rather than to respond to their actual position?

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, clearly wants to argue with fundamentalists and then dismiss all Christians based on his arguments against fundamentalists. I blogged about that starting in From the Land of the Deluded, where I make some similar points.

I have two suggestions here. First, that Christianity is not defined by American fundamentalism. I have supported that partially and will continue to do so as the series progresses. Second, that it is better to respond to an opponent based on what that opponent actually believes rather than what you imagine them to believe or what you think they ought to believe.

It is inevitable that this will sometimes fail, but it is an admirable goal in any case, and trying to define your opponent out of existence as the first step to a debate is probably not going to get you very far.

Christians do this to atheists from time to time as well, in particular by concluding that an atheist actually hates God or does not desire to be under authority. This suggests that an atheist isn’t really an atheist, but is rather a rebellious theist. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stretch our Christian imaginations a little bit, and allow that someone might just not find the idea of God convincing, or might not see sufficient evidence to believe. Imagine, in other words, that the atheist is honestly stating his or her beliefs.

Further, we need to realize that what seems to us a certain result of a particular belief might not be so certain for someone else. In talking about grief, I am likely to mention that my relationship with Jesus Christ and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting have been critical to me in facing loss. Do I mean that someone without those particular beliefs will not be able to handle what I have handled? Not at all! From personal experience I know persons from other faith traditions who have found their beliefs and spiritual practices critical, and I know non-believers who have also endured and come out of such trials successfully. I mention this particular case because it is very common for Christians to believe that atheists will be unable to endure hardship and loss.

One last illustration might help. I speak frequently to Methodist groups, as I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Every Methodist group with whom I have discussed Calvinism has come to the conclusion that Calvinists will not engage in evangelism. Why? If Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has determined who will be saved or lost–what purpose is their for evangelism? The result is already determined!

Now I have always pointed out that Calvinists do, in fact, practice evangelism, and thus attacking them for a failure in outreach would be inappropriate. A few years ago, however, I had the experience of hearing John Blanchard, a Calvinist evangelist (something many Methodists would regard as an oxymoron), who was asked this very question: Why, if you believe in predestination, are you an evangelist?

His answer, as I remember it, was this: Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it; evangelism is a command, and I obey it.

Hmmm. A bit different logic than we Methodists were assuming he would use, but here we have him believing both things. He is not the person we assumed he would be.

Neither is the theistic evolutionist the person you assumed him to be. He is not necessarily a scientist whose religion is loosely pasted on. He might be a devout believer and a scientist. On the other hand, his training might be in Biblical studies, like mine is, and the church and faith might be the stuff of his daily life. In any case, he (or she) not likely to be impressed when you claim he’s not who he says he is.

As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church. It may surprise some to know that many advocates of acceptance of gays and lesbians in the full fellowship of the church are actually quite conservative in their understanding of exegesis. One can fault their results in a number of passages, in my view, but one can hardly say that they lack the intent or a conservative approach, even as one charges them with special pleading in particular cases.

And so as not to disappoint, let me note right now that my intention will not be to argue one side or another here, but rather to look at the types of Biblical interpretation involved.

Previous posts in this series were:

The Imagination Stopper

The Imagination Stopper

Carl Zimmer has a post on the Loom that discusses irreducible complexity along with some examples. I found it very interesting how we start with a bicycle as irreducibly complex, a claim of an intelligent design (ID) advocate, and then see how the irreducible is reduced through the magic of Google.

There are many ways in which ID is less irrational than young earth creationism. For example, ID requires one to deny things that are much nearer the cutting edge of science, whereas young earth creationism requires one to deny well established theories from a wide variety of disciplines.

But there’s one area in which I think ID has managed to be more destructive to sound science than young earth creationism, and that’s in causing atrophy of the imagination. Because ID provides an answer to many things that are not known, or purports to do so, it tends to make people quit looking or quit trying to imagine what might be. This atrophy of the imagination winds up with ID advocates not even checking to see if the problem they propose has already been solved.

This is simply one instance of a more general problem: Satisfaction with existing answers. There is nothing like being satisfied with the answers you have to prevent you from finding new and better ones. This satisfaction often manifests itself in the “insurmountable problems” attack on any form of new technology. “It doesn’t work now and it never will,” the critics announce with great solemnity. The answer to which, of course, is to overcome the problem.

Similarly, the attack can come in the form of damning with faint praise: “Sure, that will work, sort of, but it won’t solve the whole problem.” In the creation-evolution debate, this argument is repeated over and over in stages.

“There are no transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find one.

“There are not enough transitional fossils.”

So paleontologists find dozens more.

“Well, you found a few, but there are still not enough.”

It doesn’t end.

Now ID advocates could turn this argument against me, or more purposefully against scientific opponents of ID. Are we too satisfied with current answers? Are we damning with faint praise? Well, I think we’re all safe from the “faint praise” accusation. Successful prediction #1 has yet to be made so that it might be praised faintly and thus damned.

But is there the possibility that satisfaction with current answers is preventing progress? This one is more difficult to tell. The absence of any new answers to actual questions is a bad indicator for ID, but I wish they would go ahead, spend some time in the laboratory, and attempt to produce such an answer so that it could be criticized. Since the beginning of discovery, the proper answer to the critic who says it will never work, or will never provide a satisfactory answer, is to go out and make it work or provide that answer.

As it is, it is the ID crowd who are trying to make us satisfied with an existing answer, and are trying to prevent us from finding a new one.

I’m not a scientist. I don’t work in the natural sciences. But I do read a wide variety of materials from various fields, and I have to say that the field of evolutionary biology looks nothing like the static sort of field stuck in a 19th century theory that hasn’t changed which is described by some (see the Dispatches comment on Steve Fuller.) It isn’t a field that is blocking discovery or trying to defend an entrenched orthodoxy. It is a field that is constantly producing new ideas. In fact, one of the great resources of its critics is the criticism of existing ideas produced within the field.

The ID critics perform an interesting sleight of mind when they both use quotes from various working evolutionary biologists (normally taken out of context, but still!) to show how the whole theory is falling apart, while at the same time say that the whole field is static and is blocking new ideas. That very active criticism and reexamination is the sign of a healthy field of science, involved in serious discovery and growth.

And just what have the ID advocates produced to match? What I see is defense after defense of a static position, one that is much, much more deserving of the epithet “18th century social theory” than is the theory of evolution.

Interpreting the Bible I: Obvious Exegesis

Interpreting the Bible I: Obvious Exegesis

I’m starting a short (I hope) series on interpreting the Bible. This is in response to a series of posts I read recently. The first two were from EvolutionBlog, OEC vs. YEC and The “Terrible Texts” of the Bible. I then encountered A question for Christians on Positive Liberty, which discusses some poor (in the both mine and the post author’s opinion) exegesis used with regard to homosexuality. Though I do read Positive Liberty, I actually went to that post via Dispatches from the Culture War, who agreed with and commented further on the post here.

I have two more kind points of meta-posting. First, what interests me in these posts in particular is that all of the authors involved are people I read regularly and respect, though obviously I disagree with them on some issues. I’m not talking here about stupid approaches to the Bible, but rather, misunderstanding of Biblical studies as an academic enterprise and also of the role of the Bible in Christianity. Second, I’m posting this here on my Threads blog, rather than on my Participatory Bible Study blog, because I’m most interested in commenting on the social aspects.

Now for those who were not too bored by the introduction . . .

What distresses me here is that while those involved in scientific endeavors quite rightly expect others to note technical nuances in their fields, or at least to admit those nuances are inaccessible to them, they often don’t grant similar respect to another field. I’m going to get to material on the Bible and homosexuality in later posts, but right now let me just illustrate from the creation vs. evolution debate.

It’s quite common for a scientist, let’s say an evolutionary biologist, to comment on how some creationist fails to comprehend details of an issue because that person is a non-specialist. This is very important and quite appropriate, because people who don’t understand certain issues precisely can make wildly silly remarks about it. An engineer may not be well equipped to understand cell development. I’m not really all that well equipped to understand any of the above, which is why I stick my nose in a book when posting on science and/or get someone more expert to check what I write. (On a blog, I can count on correction in the comments, but those usually come from people who know even less than I do.)

Similar courtesy is often not extended to experts in Biblical studies, however. Scientific experts are quite quick to comment on just how people in Biblical times understood the world, and what their statements on such topics actually mean. One example is the common statement that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism, so that anyone who is a Christian but doesn’t support a young earth is “going against the Bible.” It’s one of the few things on which non-theistic evolutionists and young earth creationists can agree!

But stating that the Bible “clearly” supports young earth creationism is an example of “obvious exegesis.” I use that particular collocation of words in my title because it makes my hair stand on end. I hope I can make some of my readers feel similarly about it as I write.

In discussing this I’m going to look at two aspects of Biblical interpretation. First, exegesis. I’m going to simplify by restricting the word “exegesis” as I use it here to mean “getting to understand what the original author meant to the people to whom he originally spoke or wrote.” (We’ll find, however, that even such an apparently simple label as “original author” is somewhat complex.) Second, we have application, or the way in which people who use the Bible in their lives in some way take Biblical statements and apply them. This one isn’t so simple either, and not just because modern Christians try to accommodate the Bible to modern science.

For this introductory post, let me simply take a look at one statement from Jason Rosenhouse:

But for all of that, I do still have quite a bit of sympathy for their interpretation of Genesis. It sure looks to me like twenty-four hour days and a young-Earth were what the Biblical authors intended. The text itself describes the days as being bracketed by an evening and a morning, which is a very odd way of speaking if something other than twenty-four hour days were intended. . . .

Now oddly enough, Rosenhouse gets around in the paragraphs following this one to a couple of the key points of exegesis that do not fit into a young earth model, but he misses significant details, and also some of the key ways in which an expert in appropriate areas in Biblical studies would look at the text. Note here, of course, that I am not an “expert” in the “doctoral degree and academic involvement” sense. I’m a popularizer. That’s important, because an expert in any one of the areas I’ll touch on would make this more complex than I do, not less.

So is it so obvious that Genesis describes creation in seven literal 24 hour days? That all depends. In what context are we studying what part of Genesis? Rosenhouse does not that Genesis 2 is different from Genesis 1, but he only notes the length of time involved, not the key point, which is that Genesis 2 is itself a creation story that differs from Genesis 1, that it does not have any days of creation at all, and that it is chronologically incompatible with Genesis 1. If I step beyond Genesis I should point out that Psalm 104 is also a creation story that skips that part.

So when we do exegesis, we have several levels at which we can look:

  1. The textual pre-history, in this case Genesis 1:1-2:4a vs Genesis 2:4b-24. We will get a different answer to our questions in looking at the original intent of each author. (Note that I have a breakdown of these stories according to the sources here.)
  2. We can look at the redactor who somehow combined the two stories. The interesting thing here is that he is unlikely to have been unaware that the two stories do not share a time framework, and are not actually chronologically compatible. In interpreting the combined text, we have to take that into consideration. Did he mean Genesis 1 to be taken as the chronological framework, which should then be imposed on Genesis 2, or did he see them as compatible in another sense? (If, as I argue below, Genesis 1 is liturgy, while Genesis 2 is a narrative sharing many, but not all, characteristics with myth, then it is quite possible that he intended the reverse–that Genesis 2 is closer to the history, while Genesis 1 is the way in which it is celebrated liturgically, and the time framework is entirely liturgical.)
  3. We can look at their canonical position as part of the Torah. This involves adding the Sinai experience and the 10 commandments, which pushes us back in the direction of a literal creation week.
  4. We can look at them in the broader canon of scripture, in which case we must not only add those points at which a literal creation week is described, but those texts, such as Psalm 104 or Proverbs 8 that describe creation differently.
  5. Finally, we get to the point of application, as in what is the community that uses the Bible as scripture expected to believe about this material. This is where those who are not part of the community, and especially those who once were but no longer are tend to be very dogmatic. The “true” Christian way is to figure out what the original author said and then to believe that. I’m going to deal with this in a later post, but I will simply note for now that this has never been the actual approach, even when people most vigorously claimed it was.

So what would the “obvious” exegesis of Genesis 1-2 be, actually? I hope I’m giving you the sense that this is not quite so simple. Rosenhouse is certainly right on one point, in my view. Genesis 1-2 was not intended to describe the process of evolution. As he says:

Ultimately, it is very hard to believe (to put it kindly) that a writer setting out to communicate a lengthy creation process over billions of years would have written anything like what Genesis records. . . .

Just so. It’s hard to believe, and you shouldn’t believe it.

But then he says:

Or you can take the most sensible approach. That’s where you recognize that the Bible (more specifically the Torah) is not inerrant, and it is not the word of God. . . .

While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.

If I believe that errancy is incompatible with the phrase “word of God” then obviously I must discard it if I discover error–or, perhaps, alter my view. But having discovered that Genesis does not describe evolution does not remove the option of allegory, or any number of other points. (I’m going to discuss the meaning of “word of God” in a later post in this series.)

So let’s go back to the initial point of “obvious exegesis.” Just what did the Biblical writers think they were writing in this case. Was it chronology? Was it narrative history? Allegory? Myth? Here is where I find myself most annoyed with superficial looks at what the Bible might mean, whichever end of the spectrum they come from. Allegory is a particular type of literature. Myth is a particular type of literature, as is narrative history, theology, liturgy, and so forth. All of these occur in the Bible, and all of these are written to answer different questions or to serve different roles.

Those liberal Christians who call Genesis “myth” are doing as much or more disservice to the Bible as those Christian fundamentalists who treat it as science or history. It is none of the above. In fact “it” cannot be so classified, because “it” combines different types of literature into one text.

The redactor of Genesis had before him (or in his head) genealogies, stories from various sources, poetic elements, liturgy and theology, which he wove into a new text we call Genesis. I would argue that Genesis 1 is liturgy, and that is a fairly common view amongst experts. Now liturgy is not myth and it’s not allegory, though it may partake of aspects of both. For example, when the minister on Easter Sunday morning announces “He is risen!” as part of the liturgy, nobody supposes that he is claiming that Jesus just rose from the dead, nor does one suppose that the liturgy means that this rising occurs annually. Nobody who understands the liturgical calendar supposes that this statement is made precisely (even to the day or week) of the anniversary of what it celebrates.

Neither does Genesis 1 necessarily mean that the writer or those who used it in their liturgy actually believed that the earth was created in six literal days followed by a literal day of rest. In fact, allegorical interpretations of the seventh day come much before modern times, as, for example, in the book of Hebrews. But even earlier you get sabbatical years and cycles of seven years, all based on this same concept.

Were you to ask the Israelites just what they believed at the time when Genesis took on its current form, I would personally guess that they would believe something like a literal week “a long time ago.” (I would note that Daniel seems confused on some chronology that occurs over only a few centuries. We’re talking millenia. That probably means “ancient times.”) I also think they would be surprised at the question, simply because it didn’t occur that much in their world. My guess as to their answer is not obvious, however, it’s just my guess. They might have just looked at the questioner oddly and had him locked up as nuts!

Genesis does not answer the kind of questions we seem to want answered regarding origins, because those were not the questions that the authors wanted answered, and they wouldn’t have had a clue as to the answers even if they had asked them.

Note that I have not excluded Jason Rosenhouse’s view. Much of what he says the Biblical text doesn’t mean is quite likely correct. But looking at what it does mean is substantially more complex. Understood in its historical context I would say that the Bible provides very little comfort for any of the groups. The Biblical authors would, I think, be equally surprised by efforts of young earth creationists to lock their days and their chronology into stone, by the day-age efforts of old earth creationists, and by efforts of some Christian evolutionists to suggest that the Bible really teaches their view. It simply doesn’t tell any of these stories, or answer the questions these stories intend to answer.

I intend to continue with posts on the meaning of the phrase “word of God,” on how scriptural application is determined, and how this relates to the issue of the Bible and homosexuality as I continue.

Albert Mohler Steps in It on Evolution

Albert Mohler Steps in It on Evolution

There are some basics about what evolution is and is not, and what the various positions of both creationists and evolutionists are, that everyone who steps into the debate should know. Some examples include the difference between a young earth and an old earth creationist. I’ve seen a few discussions in internet fora in which someone explains the age of the earth in great detail to someone else who actually agrees.

Then there is the difference between an intelligent design (ID) proponent and one of the more specific types of creationist. An ID proponent might be young or old earth, or might even accept most, but not all, of the features of biological evolution, as does Dr. Michael Behe.

Someone of the stature of Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. should be aware of these things. I don’t mean he has to agree with anyone else’s position. Merely that he should be aware of what those positions actually are. Pretending that alternative views don’t exist strikes me as just a bit deceptive.

Nonetheless, Dr. Mohler writes, in The End of Evolution (article, not book), writes in his introductory paragraph:

The evolutionist is locked into an intellectual box from which there is no rescue. Evolutionary theory is naturalistic by necessity – everything must be explained in purely naturalistic terms. Only nature can explain nature, and there is no other source of meaning or truth. Thus, in the end the theory of evolution – and the theory of evolution alone – must explain everything about humanity.

Now I could fisk the entire article, almost word by word, but I’m just going to touch on three paragraphs. You see, there may be a few people out there who believe that evolution explains absolutely everything, but there are very few of them.

What evolution does is explain, within the bounds of science, how live diversified on planet earth. It would also propose how life may well diversify anywhere. It is not merely evolution that is naturalistic by necessity, but science itself. That’s for a rather simple reason: Science is designed to explain the natural world. It is ill-equipped to explain the supernatural, because the supernatural does not function as the natural world does. That’s why we call it supernatural.

Now one may not believe there is a supernatural, but if one does believe in something supernatural, it would be extremely odd to also believe that the supernatural followed natural laws. If it did, we would simply call it natural. On the other hand, if it does not follow natural laws, how would a method designed to study things that follow natural laws study it?

Imagine the lab experiment for chemistry (the only science I took in college). Careful instructions are given as to temperature, what chemicals one is to combine, how, and when. Then the teacher announces, “Then, if God wills it, the whole thing will light on fire!” It’s silly. I think everyone knows it’s silly.

Here’s the problem. Many Christians living in western culture are so thoroughly convinced that science is the best way of knowing that they want to put their faith, the most important thing in their life, on a foundation of science, somehow.

But faith is not science, and God is not a proper object of scientific investigation. Oh, we can see what God has done via science. I would suggest that if a miracle actually takes place, the scientific evidence for the physical event should be present. But even so we do not see a miracle. Rather, we see the results of the miracle. We simply have an event for which we lack an adequate natural explanation.

If you can’t accept that there are other ways of knowing than science, then you probably shouldn’t be a Christian, because science is never going to make a scientific theory of the Christian faith. It cannot because of its nature and because of the nature of science itself.

When Christians say evolution is naturalistic, they are quite correct. But when they treat that as some special thing about evolution as opposed to all other branches of science, they are in serious error, both scientifically and theologically (from the viewpoint of orthodox Christian theology). Scientifically, they try to examine a phenomenon that is by definition not available to scientific inquiry. Theologically they try to put God in a box, regulated by natural laws. The god that they can fit in that box is not God.

A bit further on Mohler says:

Evolutionary theory cannot possibly explain the totality of human experience, much less the reality of human origins. Evolutionists – if consistent – believe that every human experience, every emotion, every physical attribute, every hope, and every fear is simply a feature developed by means of natural selection.

Of course, looked at from the Christian point of view, evolution cannot explain the totality of Christian experience. It’s not supposed to. As a Christian, I believe the totality of human experience involves origin from God and an experience with God, neither of which are defined in a way that science could even investigate.

But neither can any other scientific theory explain all those things that it does not purport to explain. Now there is a great deal that evolution can explain. In fact, I think what evolution can explain would make Dr. Mohler very uncomfortable, and so he has to make a broadside attack on something he clearly does not understand. Evolution can explain a great deal. (See my earlier notes on the book Random Designer: Created from Chaos to Connect with the Creator for more information.)

Finally, I want to address this paragraph:

That’s a cold theory, and it just doesn’t make sense to the vast majority of Americans – and it shouldn’t. The Christian worldview offers a far more satisfying, true, and understandable account of human origins and human existence.

As a minor point, let me note that the majority of Americans are not really equipped to evaluate the evidence for biological evolution. It requires certain skills which the majority of us do not possess. I’m a well-read layman on the subject, yet I would refer you to others to discuss the science, while I discuss Biblical and theological issues.

But as for it being a “cold theory,” it’s also a cold fact that a hurricane will follow it’s proposed course and there’s nothing I can do about it. Shall I reject it because it’s cold, inexorable, and so incredibly NOT warm and cuddly? The fact that the Christian worldview, or rather Dr. Mohler’s particular version of it, is satisfying doesn’t make it any more true. In theology we would have things such as legalism, the notion that one can earn one’s salvation. One can construct such a system that will be quite satisfying. But assuming Dr. Mohler is a good Southern Baptist, he would not accept the satisfying argument as a demonstration of their validity. He would argue that one can’t earn salvation, that it is God’s gift.

Which leads to the word “true.” If we are to determine whether evolution is true we have to go right back to that place that Dr. Mohler apparently wants to avoid–natural, and naturalistic, science. Methodologically naturalistic, of course, which simply takes note of the fact that science studies the natural world, not the supernatural.

The facts do not adjust themselves to our convenience and comfort. Whether I like the idea of evolution or not is quite irrelevant to whether it is a valid theory.

Meteorology is a cold theory. But whether I accept it, or replace it with an alternative theory of lovingly God-guided hurricanes, that hurricane is still coming. It cares not in the least how comfortable I am.

Explaining Suffering – or Not

Explaining Suffering – or Not

As a follow-up to my notes on God’s Problem, I would like to comment briefly on how a diversity of explanations do coexist, and how they might justifiably do so.

First, despite our best efforts to find logical explanations, in general people use case by case explanations pretty readily. They may believe that one person suffers because of their own sin, another is under the attack of the enemy, and yet another is having his faith tested. Simultaneously, they may look strictly to a future divine intervention to resolve the problem.

Second, I would ask if the problem of suffering is actually a single problem. There is no necessity that all suffering be explained in a similar fashion. It is quite rational, I think, and frequently done, to divide suffering from natural disasters or non-moral causes as one issue while suffering because of wrong moral choices of others or because of evil is quite another matter.

This will even work its way into the creation-evolution debates because of the question of whether physical death predates human sin. Old earth creationists and theistic evolutionists both have to answer this question if they are to claim compatibility with Christian theology. Young earth creationists maintain that both groups are out of bounds on that very issue.

My observation is that any explanation of suffering fails at some point, or at least fails to satisfy.

  1. There is no explanation–suffering just happens.
    This may well be right, though I think there are some reasons why we live in a universe that is so designed as to allow suffering. The problem for this one is that it is ultimately unsatisfying for a great many people. They just can’t accept it.
  2. Suffering as a punishment for sin.
    This one works for some, though it tends to lead to vindictiveness and to erode love for one’s neighbor. Consider the implications of those who believe HIV/AIDS is a judgment on gays and lesbians. The view is corrosive. (Note that this isn’t a valid argument against it being true, though I think there are such valid arguments. The main problem here is that one will inevitably encounter someone who is clearly undergoing undeserved suffering under this view, and that tends to shake one up. Then the question becomes not only why good people suffer, but why God would discriminate between one bad person and another. For example, why would HIV/AIDS be created to punish gays, while somewhat lesser STDs punish promiscuous heterosexuals? (Please note that the question is based on a false premise and I’m aware of that. It is one of the questions, however, that tends to shake one’s faith in the basic premise, as it should.) Alternatively, why would a hurricane hit New Orleans one year, but a relatively quite area of coastline another? Is there supposed to be a correlation between the evil and the response?
  3. Suffering as a test of faith.
    Suffering does test one’s faith and many other things, but the question is whether a God who intentionally puts one into such a test is in accordance with a “loving” God. We can, as I have noted, adjust our view of what “loving” means, but that has its own risks. I tend to think that our faith is tested, but that God here operates in terms of parameters, not precise direction.
  4. Blessing and cursing.
    This is simply a variation on punishment for sin. An additional problem here is that my sin may harm many, and my good deeds may benefit many. I may cause undeserved suffering or undeserved blessing. If I manage the family finances badly, more people suffer than me. One is reminded of Abraham’s question about destroying the innocent with the guilty (Gen. 18).

All of these views have various difficulties, but I think few people adhere strictly to just one. I do think that many tend to claim just one even if they don’t use it consistently. The bottom line here is a very human one–most of us can’t stand not to have an answer. If we see someone else suffer, and we don’t have an explanation that either excludes us from a similar result, or at least limits our liability, life can be too difficult to face.

I still do not have a good explanation. At the root of the way I understand this, however, is the notion that God creates a universe and then largely lets it function. He may intervene in order to have communion with his creatures, but he does not routinely alter the course of cause and effect in the physical world*.

Now I get to return Ehrman’s book to the library, and go back to cogitation. I hope you have enjoyed the journey.

*For this reason I tend to reject the idea of some that toward the “end times” (whenever they may be) we have massive healing and so forth.

New Creationist Prize

New Creationist Prize

. . . and it’s sillier than the old ones.

Adnan Oktar, who writes as Harun Yahya, is offering the prize, according to the (HT: Breaking Christian News, surely an interesting place to find this):

Mr Oktar, 52, who successfully campaigned for Mr Dawkins’ official website to be banned in Turkey, has said he will give 10 trillion Turkish lira, roughly equal to £4.4trn “to anyone who produces a single intermediate-form fossil demonstrating evolution.”

The problem with all these prizes is that the folks offering them demonstrate no comprehension of even the most basic elements of how an historical science is carried out, and simply cannot recognize the abundant evidence when they see it.

Of course, the effort to ban the Dawkins web site amply demonstrates Mr. Oktar’s particular methodology. He doesn’t have the facts, so he prefers to ban the opposition.

As an interesting side note, and a case of “with friends like these, who needs enemies,” Mr. Oktar defended Dr. Michael Reiss:

Mr Oktar has also defended Professor Michael Reiss, the British biologist who resigned as the director of education for the Royal Society earlier this month after suggesting science teachers should tackle creationism if the matter is raised by pupils.

I also believe Dr. Reiss was treated wrongly, and even more the cause of sound science education was dealt a blow. But Mr. Oktar should consider that he wants to ban a web site entirely for disagreeing with him, while complaining that a scientist lost one position. He should be too embarrassed by his own actions censoring dialog to complain about those of others.