Archive for the ‘Biblical Study’ Category

How About: Evolution…Maybe?

March 24, 2010

Today I want to come at this from a slightly different angle. Judging by the responses I got on Facebook and via email, many folks are willing to say the Earth is old but they’re still not cool with evolution. And that’s not even my main point. So how about this for a starting point:

If the book of Genesis had never been written, how would you believe the Earth and all that is in it were made?

As a theist, a person who believes in God, you would believe God made it. All this stuff had to come from somewhere, right? So God made it. But how did he make it? What did the creation process look like? How long did it take? Did he do it instantaneously, or did he do it gradually, over a really long period of time? And did he make our human race from scratch? Or did he mold us out of a previous species and develop us into something more aptly fitted for what he wanted to do with us?

If the Genesis creation account had never been written, you would not naturally conclude that God chose to do it in a matter of a few short hours. Not in this day and age, anyway. Nothing else in nature happens so quickly, and since nature is his handiwork, we learn much about how he works by simply observing how nature actually works, right? Things happen very gradually in nature, and big changes take a really long time to develop.

Before the dawn of a more scientific era, ancient people used to ascribe things like thunder and lightning to the gods. They didn’t know meteorological reasons for changes in the weather, nor astronomical reasons for changes in the seasons, so they blamed the gods. Monotheistic people just disagreed on the number of gods to blame, but they still saw things the same way in the end. Storms and tides and droughts and harvests were the work of God. Nothing else needed to be known.

Today we understand scientific reasons for all of these things that happen, but that doesn’t mean our faith is invalidated. Just because we understand now how a tree reproduces and grows, or how a mother’s body weaves together and nourishes the intricate parts of a fetus doesn’t mean we can’t give God credit for these incredible occurrences. On the contrary, we look, we marvel, and we worship. We say, “Look how elegantly God does his work!” You don’t have to discount the mechanics in order to honor the One Behind It All.

So why not conclude that God made our world very slowly over millions of years, as our science seems to clearly indicate?

The answer is that Genesis puts it differently. And many of us inherited a tradition of biblical interpretation which says that you should read those first few chapters very simplistically and forget anything else the rest of our scientific disciplines tell us.

My contention is that there are other ways to understand those first few chapters. They began as stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren in Mesopotamia many centuries ago. They are beautiful stories and they assert things about God and about his handiwork which distinguished those people from all the other people groups around them. Let’s celebrate that and receive it as inspired by God himself. But let us not insist that these stories overrule any other information we find in God’s creation, using the scientific lenses we’ve developed over the years. I don’t think that really does justice to the complexity of God’s handiwork, and it just makes us look a little dumb. I don’t think that honors him.

Does that mean we have to accept macroevolution? Must we accept that we came from monkeys? Well, I’m willing to suspend my judgment on that, but not on how long things seemed to have taken. I’m willing to concede that our fossil records are far from conclusive on the many transitions that this view assumes. But aside from trying to use Genesis 1-3 as a source of scientific information, would you naturally conclude something else? If you hadn’t been told that humans were made from scratch, would you feel so compelled to disbelieve the Darwinian outlook on biological development?

People addressing these questions generally fall into three broad categories. Young Earth creationists say it had to be six literal days, and it all happened a few thousand years ago. The flood buried a bunch of stuff deep in the earth and that’s why so much stuff seems to be older. Old Earth creationists still keep the framework of Genesis 1 and interpret the word “day” more figuratively, arguing instead that these may indicate really long phases of time. Thus the cosmos could be billions of years old but we’re still using Genesis as our guidebook for how it all happened.

Theistic evolutionists, among whom I guess I am now numbered, say that this is still trying to use Genesis as a science book. It still makes us do funny things with our scientific method. It’s like when certain middle eastern countries hold “elections” to determine the will of the people, but the outcome is so predetermined that everybody knows it’s not really an election. I think we fudge on the science way too much in order to preserve a way of interpreting Genesis which God simply is not demanding from us. I do not think he means for us to be so divided between our study of his creation and our study of scripture. I long for the day when we can just say, “Okay, so the world is really really old. Now let’s get on with understanding what he means to make of it all in the end.”

Now that‘s a question worth debating.

Why I’m no longer “Young Earth”

March 23, 2010

Today I will try to explain why I believe in evolution. You have to realize, though, that saying I believe in evolution is for me like saying I believe in orbits or reproduction. Whether or not I believe it doesn’t make much difference. These are things that I’m pretty sure just are.

I should probably begin by saying that I used to be a “Young Earth” creationist. The approach to the Bible that I learned taught me to read the first chapters of Genesis and take them at face value. If they say God made everything in six days, then by golly that’s what he did. God said it; I believe it; that settles it. Considering the genealogies of the chapters which follow, it would then appear that humankind has only been around for a few thousand years. One guy even calculated quite confidently that the earth was created on October 23rd, 4004 BC, and it stuck. So the Earth is only about 6,000 years old. Alright, if that’s what the Bible says, then I’ll believe it.

But then I look around and consider a few things. Stars, for example, shine their light down on us from a very, very long distance away. We know how fast light travels, and we use the term “light year” to indicate the distance light travels in a year. We know that many of those stars and galaxies are hundreds of thousands of light years away. Some are millions of light years away (we now know the universe is very, very big). That means their light is only now arriving after traveling for millions of years. Our stars are snapshots of the past–the very distant past. And they prove the world is older than that guy said.

That didn’t use to mean much to me. God could create a universe already “in maturity,” right? I mean, Adam wasn’t born a baby, was he? He was created already a grown man. If he were to cut down a tree in the garden, it would probably have rings, right? How old would they be? You see my point. The Genesis creation account seems to indicate that the world was created already old, in a sense. The stars that Adam saw even then were not as old as they looked. I can buy that.

But then there’s more. Looking for other evidences of age, I see things like our Grand Canyon, which is a mile deep and up to 18 miles wide. It’s got this river at the bottom of it, and it obviously was cut slowly by that river over a very long time. Estimates for that time period range from 5 million years to 17 million years. Besides things like this, we also have devised dating techniques that measure the steady decay of certain isotopes and other things that, frankly, are out of my pay grade. There’s a bunch more things like this, but you get the picture. Appearances can be deceiving, but if our world is only a few thousand years old, then this is starting to look like a really massive trick.

Besides this, we keep digging up bones which paint a picture of a gradual development of the many species of living things around us (including our own species). Judging from their depth in the ground, many of these species appear to have predated us humans by quite a bit. The point is, however, that every branch of science we have indicates the earth is billions of years old, and that the human race developed from more primitive species over millions of years.

That’s not what the Bible says. I know that. And I could go along with the “created in maturity” concept up until a certain point. I could believe that the world just looks older than it is because God made it to look older than it really is. Much, much older. But if that’s the case, then people should be forgiven for studying the Earth and the cosmos and deciding that they are as old as they seem. They should be forgiven for seeing evidences of gradual development of all living things, including ourselves (What the heck is an appendix for, anyway? Or a tailbone?).

But they are not forgiven, are they? At times, in fact, they are angrily chastised for not believing the clear Word of God in these matters. They are shamed and excluded from our schools and churches because they contradict the biblical testimony, choosing instead to cling to their ungodly scientific beliefs. We don’t want them poisoning our children with their spurious logic and their anti-Christian worldviews.

Only now there are believers as well, like myself, who are starting to see the world as old. Many of them are way more qualified than I am to study these things and they don’t see what the big deal is. They’re starting to say, “Hey, we believe the Bible. We love it. We just don’t think it was intended by God to be used as a textbook for astronomy, geology, or biology. It wasn’t written in a scientific context and we shouldn’t superimpose our very modern scientific mentality into it. That does violence to the text.”

I’m with those guys at this point. I think you can be quite faithful to the Bible and yet not use it as a science textbook. Some people in the medieval times tried to do that when someone suggested the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. They tried to do it when someone suggested the earth is flat and stationary. Both times they were wrong, and both times they were certain they were being faithful to the text. But they weren’t. They were treating the Bible like it’s a different kind of book than it really is. N.T. Wright said some good stuff about that once.

Well this raises plenty of questions, of course, like “How do we accept Paul’s typology and his view of the fall of mankind if we don’t believe in a literal Adam and Eve?”

Those are good questions. I’m still working on that. Anybody got any good ideas about that?

I’ve got more to say, so keep checking back.

Thinking about Creation

March 18, 2010

As I often do with Scot McKnight’s blog posts, I will be closely following one of his current threads pertaining to evolution and its relationship to the Christian faith.

This question is very close to my heart at the moment, as I have run up against it a number of times over the last few years. Personally, I have become convinced that the cosmos is as old as our scientists tell us it is. And I see consistently logical reasons to believe what paleontologists and geologists and astronomers have been telling us about the age of the earth and about the gradual development of our species over hundreds of thousands of years. But as a Bible-believing Christian, I have some wrestling to do with the creation account of Genesis 1-3 (really even through chapter 11). How can I decide that these chapters are not to be taken as historical (even if some of the biblical writers may have thought it was, given their historical context) and yet accept Paul’s discussion in Romans 5 of the fall of Adam and our fate as his descendants? How would it affect my understanding of the accomplishment of the Second Adam, Christ, on my behalf?

I have plenty to write about this, but right now I’ve got to go corral a classroom full of teenagers (most of whom have criminal records), so maybe watch this space and pitch in your thoughts when you have time.

God is not a Gnostic

November 28, 2005

Seeing that my attention span was unusually short, even for me, during Thanksgiving week, I sorted through the piles of books I keep littered around the back seat of my car in search of something that could hold my attention for several days of vacation. I settled upon a book of erotic poetry.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of course, if you knew me well you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I spent my Thanksgiving week meditating on such a thing. You may be disappointed to hear that it was a commentary on the Song of Solomon written by Tremper Longman, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I suppose it goes without saying that I enjoyed making my way through this book, and I had no trouble finishing it. In the process I was struck by a couple of realizations that I’d like to share:

First, I was floored by the intensity of sexuality in this book of the Bible. Once you get what these folks in the Song are saying, it’ll really get your blood going. Longman approaches the book with a presupposition that I find I can accept wholeheartedly: While both Jewish and Christian expositors have interpreted this book strictly allegorically from the time of the earliest surviving commentaries, it was originally written as an intimate love song—an ode to marital consummation. Because we Christians so enjoy the symbolism of Christ and His Bride woven into the fabric of marriage itself, we are quickly persuaded to jump to an entirely symbolic interpretation of this book of the Bible. But as Longman skillfully argues, there is nothing in the text of the Song itself which would suggest that it was written as anything other than a song about sexual enjoyment. Longman takes the view (and I find that I agree here as well) that this is a collection of love songs, not a linear story of one couple’s relationship. Once you get over the notion that this book can only be of value as an allegory about more “spiritual” things, the need to discover some narrative unity in this book recedes into the background.

As I began making my way through this book with that in mind, the eroticism of the text leapt off the page and grabbed my attention with force. Listen to some of these statements:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee—turn, my lover, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether.” (2:17)

Sounds like a pretty scene, right? Only there is no such place as “Bether.” Never was. So you have to look into the etymology of the word for insight. It turns out that the word “bether” means “to bisect,” so that she seems to be referring to a bisected mountain…you get where I’m going with this…but keep reading. In chapter four, after the man has finished praising her breasts as “twins of a gazelle,” he announces that he will go “to the mountain of myrrh and to the hills of frankincense” (4:6). To what exactly did I previously think he was referring here? I can’t remember anymore. I must have skimmed over it as so much flowery fluff and poetic puffery. Well, I doubt I’ll read it that way ever again.

It only gets more explicit from there. At the end of chapter four, our “young stag” unfolds a potpourri of garden images which teem over with alluring sights and smells as he describes the woman’s physical beauty. He tells her, “You are a garden fountain, a well of a living water, streaming down from Lebanon.” In case you haven’t caught up, he’s not limiting his admiring gaze to the woman’s upper half here. I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a Bible teacher of any stripe inform you that Ancient Near Eastern poets often employed such imagery when admiring a woman’s pelvic region. She responds to his advances thusly: “Let my lover come into his garden and eat its choice fruit” (4:16). The chorus of listeners exults in this passionate interchange and proclaims their approval with one voice: “Eat friends, drink! Be intoxicated, lovers!”(5:1). The next chapter only takes this bold revelry further on.

But I’ll stop now for you to regain your original color, and I’ll leave it to you to dig beyond the symbols and euphemisms into the intended meaning of the last two chapters of the Song of Songs. They’re pretty steamy, and Longman (who is an excellent Hebrew scholar) unpacks those references which the casual reader will miss until it becomes obvious that God wanted a book in the Holy Scriptures which openly celebrates sex! Which brings me to point number two:

We have a Bible that institutionalizes the enjoyment of sex! Do you realize how important that is? It’s no small thing at all. For a faith tradition so rooted in the transcendence of God, the otherness of God, a tribute to sex comes as a shock to the system for those with the nerve to look straight on without averting their eyes. It’s downright embarrassing! If God has a sense of humor (and I’m certain He does) then one of His greatest laughs must have come from including erotic poetry in the scriptural canon of the same religion that brought you monks, nuns, and a celibate priesthood!

Now, lest you think I am picking on only Catholics here, let this also be a check for us Protestants against our own inherent asceticism and Gnostic separation of that which is “spiritual” from that which is not. This danger becomes particularly acute if, like me, you run in circles that stress a difference between “soul” and “spirit.” Sometimes in our zeal we talk as if a human being can be neatly split up into separate and mutually exclusive substances; but that kind of compartmental thinking would sound strange in the ears of the authors of the Bible.

Let us recall how in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman were naked and felt no shame. Their enjoyment of one another was the product of God’s decree that they “be fruitful and multiply.” It was only after they “had their eyes opened” that they saw themselves differently. To this day, only human beings (particularly civilized human beings) show shame when it comes to sex. Consequently, the forbiddenness of this act fuels a trillion-dollar entertainment industry. But look underneath this fixation on sexuality and see that something good is drawing them towards perhaps the most beautiful picture of something eternal that this world has ever seen.

Yes, marriage (and certainly the marriage bed) pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church. But in our effort to see the thing signified we should not miss the enjoyment of the sign itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some gardening…