I was recently interviewed by fellow Energion author Steve Kindle regarding my newly released book God the Creator: Toward a More Robust Doctrine of Creation. The video is below.
This is again from the Daily Bible Study series. One complaint I have about the reading is that they will split up chapters and even give the verses out of order. This is not, unfortunately, according to some coherent theory about the history of the text, so far as I can tell, but seems to simply be a convenient way to get the right texts for the Sunday reading.
There is a substantial change in the text starting with Genesis 2:4. The precise division depends on who is doing the dividing, but usually it is Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a, and then 2:4b and following. These are the two creation stories.
These two stories describe creation in quite different terms. In Genesis one we have soaring literary prose. It is powerful, and likely intended for use in liturgy, a purpose it has served well many times. The key theological elements, emphasized by the literary form are power, control, success, satisfaction, and blessing (and perhaps more).
God is certainly involved, but the emphasis is on God’s power and glory and not on how close God is to creation. Genesis 1 could potentially be regarded as compatible with deism, seeing God as ultimate creator, but not as one interested in the day to day aspects of the world. Of course we have the Sabbath rest in 2:1-3, but a bit of interpretation, specifically not getting too literal, takes care of that. God is in charge.
I should make a couple of quick points. First, Genesis 1 is not poetry. It has poetic elements in the language, but it does not have the characteristics of Hebrew poetry. It is powerful, well-designed prose. Second, Genesis 1 is not a myth, when myth is used in a literary sense. While it uses some of the language and symbolism of mythology, this symbolism is used in quite a different way. There is none of the conflict between supernatural characters, for example. One could almost call it an anti-myth.
It is also not narrative history, nor is it science. It is theological in nature, and specifically liturgy. This doesn’t mean that it has no relationship to history or to science. It just isn’t trying to make testable scientific statements, nor is it trying to narrate a series of historic events in a form a historian might recognize. A good analogy might be the relationship of the liturgy of Good Friday and Easter Sunday to the events of the resurrection. Historical elements occur, but are never in focus. This is not a weakness. Liturgy takes its power from focusing on the divine elements and their connection to worshipers.
But with Genesis 2:4b we come to a very different picture. We see God planting a garden, forming a human being out of dust and then breathing the breath of life into that body. As we proceed through the text, we will see God personally involved with the human being.
There are those who think we solve problems with the text by noting different literary sources for Genesis 1 & 2. I do think that source criticism is accurate here in that these two stories of creation were at one point separate. But source criticism solves very little of what a text means as we have received it.
The problem with trying to resolve contradictions by referring to sources (and there are chronological issues between Genesis 1 & 2 if you take them as intending to present the events in precise order) is that it doesn’t really solve anything. We still have the text before us, and that means that somebody, somewhere, sometime thought they worked together.
This, to me, is evidence of the simple fact that this was not written, nor was it collected, by someone who was primarily concerned with chronology or with presenting narrative history.
In combination, these tell an exciting story. There is a God of ultimate power who does not have to fight with others in order to create, whose word brings things into existence, whose will is carried out, and who has no peer. At the same time, this God of great power is personally involved with the creation, getting his hands dirty, so to speak, and coming in contact so as to provide breath.
While on the sixth day, God is said simply to create the animals, in Genesis 2, the animals are created and brought before the original human so that he can name them, thus emphasizing and personally upholding the human’s authority and dominion. This same God of power is concerned that this first human is alone, and creates a woman, so we now have a first man and first woman, who are neither of them alone.
Either of these views by itself would be incomplete. Personally, I like to join them to Psalm 104, in which God as creator is presented as sustaining life on a moment to moment basis.
This is a day late, but the text for Sunday, the key text for the lesson, was the creation story of Genesis 1. This is a summary of what I taught, and some notes on what I didn’t.
For obvious reasons, we discussed Hurricane Dorian. By Sunday morning we were pretty sure we would not be impacted in this area. I wanted to make the point that it is questionable to claim an answer to prayer regarding the movement of a hurricane. If God spared us because of our prayers, what did God have against the Bahamas? Let’s just pray that God will be with us and with whoever is impacted by a storm and leave the movement of the story to the processes of nature.
I chose to spend my time in Psalm 19 and to discuss the relationship of God’s creative power to lawgiving, and then to God’s power and the proper place of the law. For my comments on this, see my earlier post.
Yes, this Sunday was scattered, because we covered a variety of related questions. I’m not teaching this coming week, but I’m planning to take a look at the scriptures and post a few notes.
As I continue my posts on the Daily Bible Study readings for this week’s Sunday School lesson, I come to what may be, for many, a somewhat more troubling passage. It’s not that the passage mandates no work on the seventh day of the week, though that bothers some, but more that the penalty for violating this law is death.
This frequently brings on the standard Christian response, which is dismissal: This is from the Old Testament, so we don’t have to worry about it. The big problem with that is that, by incorporating themes from Hebrew scripture into the New Testament and by basing any number of beliefs on it, Christianity has accepted this as part of our history, and part of our scripture.
We face the fact that most of us work on the seventh day. Certainly by rabbinic definitions, but also by practically any definition, I have already worked on this seventh day. Some of the actions involved in posting this blog count as work. So I have violated a law from the scripture.
I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist, so I have another perspective from which to look at this. I grew up refraining from work, as we defined it (which differed from rabbinic definitions). Some Seventh-day Adventists have told me they believe I left the church because I didn’t like the Sabbath. This is quite incorrect. The Sabbath is one of the things I miss about the Seventh-day Adventist community. I don’t actually believe this is a command applying to Christians, so I do not feel obligated, but there was a great value in the obligation to rest at specific times.
I believe the New Testament view would make all time sacred to God and all time to be used by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I see a violation in failing to take the appropriate rest, not in the keeping of a specific day. This is because there has been a revolutionary shift brought on by the death and resurrection of Jesus. But this is not my primary topic.
The focus of this statement of the Sabbath command is on God as the creator. This is quite frequently the case, such as in Genesis 2:1-4a and the Sabbath command in the Ten Commandments. The rest is tied to the creator. The authority for the rest is tied to creative activity. This is a theme repeated from most of our scriptures this week. God, as creator, asserts God’s power as legislator.
In Israel, this law was particularly tied to idolatry, which, as we have seen in other scriptures this week, is a fundamental sin. The most attractive form of the temptation to idolatry is the temptation to attribute divinity to what is created. The sun, for example was seen in much of the ancient near east as the god of justice. This is why Psalm 19 asserts God’s authority over justice, and his creative and controlling power over the sun itself.
I could discuss the nature of and use of the death penalty, but I’m going to avoid that on this occasion, except in the sense that it emphasizes the importance of the command in question. Idolatry separates one from God in a way that nothing else can. Nothing else can do so — logically — because all the other ways we might think of separating ourselves from God turn out to involve idolatry.
When, for example, I do not rest as God would direct, and do not maintain my health, I am putting my own labor above God. This is a form of idolatry. I am more concerned with my own activities than I am with that Ultimate Concern.
Thus the Sabbath command was very much central for Israel, and the thing to which it points—constantly reminding ourselves that God is Creator and the true Ultimate Concern, remains central for us.
Hebrews 11:1-3 begins thus: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (KJV). Most of the words here are at least a bit controversial.
It may be easier to understand the passage if we accept that the writer is not trying to define “faith” or the Greek word “pistis,” but is speaking of the function of faith. In Hebrews we have a kind of hand-in-glove paired ideas of this faith or faithfulness. On the one hand, one of the key concepts of the book is God’s faithfulness, and it is from this platform that the author calls for a response of faith, endurance, and boldness.
If you look back to chapter 3, verses 1-5, and especially verse 2, you will see the expression of the faithfulness of Jesus, who is faithful “as was Moses,” though the point of the passage is to say that Jesus is faithful to a greater mission and authority than was Moses. In verse 5 we are called upon to hold firmly to the boast and the boldness of hope.
This is one of many cases of the author of Hebrews signaling upcoming topics. Though it is the boldness and the boast of our hope we are to hold onto tightly, we have some similar wording in 11:1 where faith is the “substance” of the things we hope for. I believe it’s necessary to get to a point in the semantic range of the word used for faith, so that it is a faithful acceptance and affirmation, it is the key to what we are to hope for.
The context of chapter 11 makes this nature of the faith clear. It is a belief that drives endurance in hope that underlies the actions of all of the people of faith in the chapter. They didn’t just sit around and believe really intensely. They remained faithful to their call.
But the real key is not their faith, or the genuineness of their belief, but rather the faithfulness of the one in whom they are believing and trusting. We have only to look a few verses back to 10:23 to support this idea: “Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, because the one who promised is faithful.”
Our faith is enabled and brought forth by the one who is faithful in everything, an idea that has been building from the beginning of the book of Hebrews. The one who is faithful has been faithful in accomplishing our redemption and thus we have but to put our faith in his, faithfully.
Of course, the passages for this week all deal in some way with creation, so we have verse 3 telling us that it is by faith that we can understand God as the creator. Yet again we see God’s authority and power established by God’s creative power.
This combined faithfulness of God with a response of faith is quite common in scripture. In Romans, we have a great affirmation of God’s faithfulness in chapter 8, followed by chapter 9, which some see as a complete change of topic, as though Paul said, “Well, I’ve got to say something about Israel, so here goes.” In fact, when I took Exegesis of Romans in college, the professor was content to make it just through chapter 8.
There is a subject change, but it is incremental and not one that turns a big corner. Yes, Paul is going to talk about Israel and the salvation of Israel, but they way he does it emphasizes God’s faithfulness. It would be natural in a church of both Jews and Gentiles for people to ask after the firm, or perhaps fiery proclamation of God’s faithfulness at the end of Romans 8, to ask, “But what about Israel? It’s God’s biggest promise! Is God faithful there?”
So the discussion that follows, rather than being a sort of excursus, is a historical and eschatological affirmation of the foundation of the book’s message: God is faithful.
Which reminds me that one of the authors I publish, Edward W. H. Vick, commented in a couple of his books (Creation: The Christian Doctrine and Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide), that we can’t really talk about soteriology without talking about creation and eschatology, and we can’t talk about creation without talking about soteriology and eschatology. These topics tie together frequently and powerfully in scripture.
This week, with these scriptures, we’re not even going to try!
I’m continuing with comments on the scripture passages for this week from the Daily Bible Study, which my Sunday School class uses as curriculum.
This passage, like most of the passages this week, links God’s Word (whether in words or not) with creation and justice. We are to praise God because his word holds true, his work endures (v. 4). He loves righteousness and justice and his unfailing love fills the earth (v. 5).
It’s interesting to note that this passage, very much like yesterday’s passage from Proverbs, states the attributes first and then makes the power explicit. “By YHWH’s word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all their host” (v. 6). “He spoke, and it was, he commanded, and it stood firmly” (v. 9).
I quote it fairly frequently, but I wonder how often we think about who this must be when we talk about being in God’s presence, or hearing God’s voice, or looking at something that we say must surely be the act of God.
It’s possible for us to affirm the right things about God and never even imagine a tiny fraction of what all this would be like. Perhaps a slightly less casual attitude might be in order.
The reference “Ephesians 3:14-21” is inscribed inside my wedding band. This is a powerful passage, and I just want to call attention to a few lines: “… that you may be able to grasp with all the saints the breadth, length, height, and depth, (19) to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you can be filled with all of God’s fullness.”
We often—I often—don’t really get this. It is in the nature of a teacher to explain things, but in this case we have to say we can’t make this clear. It surpasses knowledge. It surpasses our ability to imagine it.
And then verse 20: “Now to the one who is able to immeasurably more than we ask or conceive according to the power that is working among us …” And that points us back to Psalm 33 and the one who speaks and it is done.
Do you ever pause and try to imagine this? Or is “we are the body of Christ” just a description of an ordinary gathering of humans?
Continuing my notes on the daily passages from this week’s lesson, I’m looking at Proverbs 3:13-20. I assume it’s clear to all that the subject is creation.
13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 14 for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. 19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; 20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew. (Prov. 3:13-20 NRSV)
We again find ourselves looking at God’s revelation through God’s work. I like to emphasize the importance of not just reading words from the Word of God, as we do in scripture, but also receiving the Word of God as revealed in God’s acts in history (as well as our own lives) and in Jesus.
This passage is logically extracted from the chapter, which is not always the case, as I noted yesterday. You can see a simple inclusio which ties the passage together. In verse 13, the ones who are fortunate are those who find wisdom and get understanding. This is reflected again in verse 19 when these same to things (the words in Hebrew are the same just as they are in the NRSV). The tie between these two verses emphasizes the message. It is divine wisdom and understanding that the happy, or fortunate, ones have found.
But I think one can further deduce that real wisdom (and not all claimed wisdom really is) and real understanding derive, just as does all creation, from God. It’s interesting how often we try to discover those things that God does. That is, as opposed to things that just happen. But the scriptural view of creation would say rather than all things depend upon God and function because it is God’s will that they do.
As a believer in free will, I also note that my ability to choose along with the ranges of choices available all derive from God’s action and God’s will. There is no real independence. Everything derives in some way from God. I believe in free will, but each act of my will happens because God has permitted it and also set the bounds on it.
Today’s scripture is very positive. It emphasizes the good things: Long life, pleasantness, peace, happiness. Yesterday’s passage was taken from a cry of deep despair. Job was facing just how unlikely it was that God would respond to him. The wise person is not always fortunate in everything. Job, called righteous, suffers. The season of his life reflected in the book that bears his name was anything but pleasant and peaceful.
Is this a contradiction in scripture? Is it inappropriate to say of wisdom that “her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold”? (v. 14). Actually, I think that the contradiction, or better the tension, is in the nature of reality itself.
We tell young people not to text and drive. A young driver collided with my car while probably texting. So we say, “Don’t text and drive. It’s safer.” There’s that hedging. But no matter how safely one drives, bad things can happen. When the other car collided with mine, I was driving within the speed limit and obeying all traffic laws. Indeed, I was paying quite close attention. Yet from a side street came something I was not prepared for.
In life as well, unpleasant things can come upon us from a side street and smash our lives to pieces. It’s just the nature of reality. No matter how careful you are, there are things that happen that are beyond your control. As I write, people in Puerto Rico are awaiting Tropical Storm, likely to become Hurricane Dorian. Wisdom is useful. Good preparation is helpful. But there are some things that storm will do that nobody could have prepared for well enough.
We don’t abandon preparation just because storms come when they come no matter what. We don’t abandon safe driving because someone else may be driving while impaired or sending an essential text at just the wrong moment. These things help, but nothing is certain.
As a Christian, however, I believe that God has set a boundary. God permitted Job to be stricken by disaster, but God also set limits. I could definitely wish those limits were more, well, ummm, limiting! But odds are that when I want to see some flexibility in the boundaries, I will be less happy with the limits.
Perhaps God thinks of that as well, noting how unhelpfully we beat against the limits set on creation.
I never met Dr. John Sailhamer, but I appreciate scholars who propose and support theories that are substantially out of the ordinary. I don’t mean crazy, just creative and risky. I found out recently that he has passed away.
In celebration of his life I’d like to link to my review of his book, Genesis Unbound. At the time I reviewed it, it was unfortunately out of print and I’m glad to see that a new edition was published in 2011. I’m showing a link to it at the left of this post.
This is among the books that I strongly recommend that anyone involved in debated issues of creation or with an interest in it should read.
Evolution is one of those issues we often don’t discuss in church. There are actually quite a number of Christians who accept evolutionary theory in general or just a part of it, but quite often they just don’t want to get into the kind of acrimonious debate. Every so often (really quite rarely, all things considered) I’ll get an e-mail from someone who found my e-mail address on the list of board members for Florida Citizens for Science, and they wonder how I can be a Christian and be on that list. That is, unless they simply assert that I must not actually be a Christian. (This is a rambling post. [Which of mine aren’t?] Toward the end I do get around to referring to the SDA church in which I grew up and the UMC, where I currently hold membership.)
Now this post is more about “openly discussing” than about evolution as such. I grew up in a conservative Christian culture (the Seventh-day Adventist Church), in which it was one of the articles of our faith that we accepted the literal creation week. As a result of that, and of the resistance I met when I started to see things differently, I grew up with the impression that conservatives want to close off conversation while liberals were open. Each group was, after all, treating me in that way.
But the more I have experienced the world, the more I have observed two things:
- Any entrenched group will tend (or at least have a strong temptation) to exclude outlying opinions
- Outlying groups, especially those that actually have some traction, will tend to feel excluded even if they aren’t
The fact is that no matter how energetically we may work to be totally open, no discussion can take place on a completely unlimited field. Not all boundaries are limiting boxes.
A few years back I was teaching a Sunday School class and one of the members asked me to meet with him to discuss the future of the class. He wanted us to study eastern religions. I told him that I had no problem with the class studying eastern religions if that was what they wanted to do, but they’d have to get a different teacher. “Why?” he asked. Well, I explained, there are two reasons. First, I know very little about eastern religions. Second, I’m a Bible teacher. That’s what I do. He was quite surprised and told me that I didn’t really need to know much about eastern religions in order to teach it for the class.
That attitude is more common that you might think. On the one hand we have the idea that issues can only be discussed by a very highly qualified group of experts, and outlying opinions, those contrary to the majority position, should shut up and go away. That attitude can lead to stagnation. But on the other hand we have the view that all opinions need to have an equal place at the table, no matter how poorly supported they might be. This is another attitude that will prevent progress, this time by creating chaos and wasting time.
We live in a kind of tension between these two ideas. For example, I believe that creation vs evolution is a perfectly valid subject for discussion in the church. The debate on the interpretation of Genesis is alive and well, and carried out by highly qualified scholars in the appropriate fields. I think that there is really very little actual scientific debate on this same controversy, because I don’t see creationists doing original science that can actually challenge the various facets of evolutionary theory. I see some picking at this or that, but nothing one can get one’s teeth into. But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not qualified in any of the fields in question, so my opinion on that point isn’t particularly important.
What I think we should work toward is a creative tension between consensus and new ideas, between open discussion of all views and perhaps more productive discussion between people who are more selective. I think this sort of discussion is well served by a variety of confessional, non-confessional, and secular schools, whether the topic is religious or not. I regularly hear complaints that certain sectarian institutions should be shut down because they are too closed in their confession. I disagree. As long as those who attend know what the principles of the school are, and graduates are functional in the subjects they learn, I think that’s an appropriate way to add variety.
The problem is that “functional” is defined by too many people as “accepting what I already believe.” As an example, I hear from advocates of the historical-critical method in Bible study (and with some caveats I count myself among their number), that one isn’t “qualified” in biblical studies if one doesn’t “know” something so obvious as that there are three Isaiahs. But what if one knows that this claim is made, and knows why, but doesn’t accept it? One can be so absolutely certain of one’s scholarly conclusions that one cannot imagine an intelligent person disagreeing.
Conservatives will doubtless nod and agree, but from them I hear that if someone can’t make a good argument for the 6th century dating of Daniel, or for the Mosaic authorship of all or part of the Pentateuch, that person doesn’t really know what she or he is talking about. Or perhaps the secularly educated scholar doesn’t truly understand Calvinist theology. Or Arminianism. Whatever.
My suggestion would be that if all your knowledge comes from one source or type of source, such as all your academic ideas are those favored by the school from which you got your degree, you may be a bit narrow. And that means that the simple fact that your college is confessional on the one hand, or very secular on the other, doesn’t mean you’re ignorant or closed. Ignorance and closed-mindedness are cultivated attitudes. Especially in modern America, you have no excuse not to know how the other side thinks.
You also have a variety of avenues to challenge the other side, so you don’t really have an excuse when one school or organization doesn’t like your ideas and tells you to hit the road. I may not like it. I too have an ideal academic environment, one in which serious scholars who disagree are welcomed irrespective of confessional statements. But that’s my imaginary ideal. I think I got a rather decent education from confessional schools that were closed in many ways I wish they were not. But they were nonetheless good schools.
All this blather has been leading to two links with quick opinions on my part. The first comes from a Seventh-day Adventist source, in which an SDA writer responds to some claims of supposed challenges to evolutionary theory. It’s in Spectrum Magazine, titled Dangling or Not? A Response to Chadwick and Brand. This article critiques another in which creationists see some new scientific discovery challenging the foundations of evolutionary theory. Just as I’ve been hearing all my life that the end of the world is upon us because of some recent story in the news, so I have been hearing that evolutionary science was on life support due to some new discovery. I’ve become just as jaded to both. But this story takes place in an organization that really doesn’t want to open the door to full discussion of this issue. Being an advocate of evolutionary theory in the SDA educational system is unlikely to be good for your career prospects.
On the other hand we have the UMC general conference. Now in religious terms, as I’ve said, I see creation vs evolution (though I don’t see the two in conflict), as a valid debate. Amongst the advocates against evolutionary theory is the Discovery Institute. Before you read the rest of this, you should know that I truly dislike the Discovery Institute. I think they largely make what should be scientific and theological questions into political ones. But just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard in the church. Yet according to this article from UM-Insight, they were denied a booth at the UMC General Conference. Why? Because they are not in accord with our social principles. Hypocrisy anyone?
I recall when I first joined a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor if I had to affirm the social principles. He said, “Those? We don’t pay much attention to them.” I know a number of Methodists who would object to his saying that, but what he says is very accurate. The social principles are a box that few would like to be confined in, yet that provide an excuse for many things. Advocating to change them is a recreational sport. If the GC venue was running out of space, you have to exclude someone, but this is a particularly thin excuse. There are plenty of United Methodists, though presumably a minority, who would be sympathetic to the institute’s work. Many of them live in this area. I disagree, but in the church they should have a voice.