Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Strawmen, Sunday School, and St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg
Last things first. I thought it might be fitting to update everyone on my plans for the coming year. Recently, I received news that I have been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research in St. Petersburg, Russia. Though the grant period begins in September, I will be moving to the Russian metropolis in less than two weeks to get an early start on my work (not to mention a change in scenery!). The news could not have come at a better time, as I was about to give up hope on deciphering Russian immigration policy and procedure (even being married to a Russian citizen, I would have numerous legal hurdles).

So a stipend and visa sponsorship have significantly simplified our lives, and we are grateful for the opportunity. Simultaneously moving further from and closer to friends and family, we will find ourselves in good company while cherishing connections strained. More pertinent to you, however, I anticipate having more personal time (not to mention, space to think and breathe), and I intend to fill part of that time writing more frequently here. My only question is: do I need to refocus my goals? Is my time better spent responding to the misuse of geology in young-Earth circles or discussing a positive, fresh outlook on scripture/science outside of the rigid confines of YEC hermeneutics?

Sunday School
Perhaps of interest to some of you, I recently finished teaching a 5-week Adult Sunday School course on 'Reading the Primeval History of Genesis'. Overall, feedback from the class (20–30 people) was very positive. It was my first time teaching (in person) on the subject, however, so at times my thoughts were somewhat disorganized and poorly articulated. Above all, I learned what is most important to say when you only have 45 minutes to cover a topic as broad as, for example, Genesis 6–9. On the other hand, preparing lessons for each section revealed how much I have yet to learn, particularly in a comprehensive study that seeks to elaborate all aspects of the text from literary to historical/cultural to theological. I am hesitant to post the audio or link directly to it here, but if you are interested in hearing my approach to Genesis 1–11, please contact me and I will provide those links.

The early chapters of Genesis are by far the most influential on biblical theology as a whole, and New Testament authors from Matthew to Paul to the apocalyptic John often framed their message in terms of Genesis motifs. Therefore, it is no understatement that this small compilation of stories from ancient Israel has shaped the course of world history out of proportion to her political fame in the Ancient Near East. In other words, it was not the stories of Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon—all of whom succeeded militarily at one point against Israel—that captivated the human heart and inspired millions to cultivate God's Eden. Why? What stood out in Israel's story that brought life to the land and its inhabitants?

In the first lesson, I attempted to fracture our modern hermeneutical lenses, which prevent us from reading scripture outside of our own time and place. Genesis was not written, for example, to lay the groundwork for modern scientific paradigms. Attempts to synthesize Genesis with modern science grossly miss the point and prevent us from hearing the main message. Neither was Genesis written simply to tell people 'what happened' or to provide a more accurate description of events. The story of divine intervention among a catastrophic flood, for example, was the most widely copied narrative in the Ancient Near East, preserved in four literary traditions that predate the composition of Genesis as we know it. Israel was not concerned to get all the historical facts 'right', as is the focus of modern historiography. Rather, she needed to hear why this happened and how these events relate to Israel's story—namely the holiness and mercy of Israel's god. Therefore, the story of Noah and his ark are cast poetically and intratextually in terms of uncreation/recreation motifs, with strong textual and thematic links to the stories of Abraham (Sodom/Gomorrah) and Israel (Exodus/Conquest). My conclusion is that we ought to treat Genesis 1–11 not merely as the 'Primeval History'—a record of original events—but as the 'Prologue to History', which defines the very nature of history itself and prepares us to understand Abraham's position in the cosmos.

In my treatment of the text of Genesis 1–11, I worked within two structural frameworks that I have found most helpful. The first recognizes Genesis 1–5 and 6–11 and parallel units, which elucidate the nature of mankind (i.e. the human condition) and of God's purpose to create a humanity in his own image despite the frailty and wickedness of man's heart:

Genesis 1–5 speaks of God's creation of the cosmos and of humanity, after which mankind is placed in a garden but takes of the fruit of the ground, exposing his nakedness and shame. This story is followed by a conflict between brothers (Cain/Abel), a genealogy that details the origins of culture (sons of Lamech), a prideful humanity (Lamech), and a genealogy that traces God's promised seed (Seth to Noah), through which he would bring mankind back into the garden (Gen. 5:28).

Genesis 6–11 speaks of God's uncreation and creation of the cosmos and of humanity (through the Flood and Noah's family), after which this new humanity works in a vineyard but takes of the fruit of the ground, exposing his nakedness and shame. This story is followed by a conflict between brothers (Canaan, via his father, and Shem), a genealogy that details the origins of culture (the sons of Noah), a prideful humanity (Babel), and a genealogy that traces God's promised seed (Shem to Abram), through which he would bring mankind back into the garden (notice that Abram heads west from Ur, after mankind was expelled east from the garden).

The second framework is logical and views the subunits of Genesis as literary diptychs—two-panelled story structures that explore a more complex reality than a singular monologue might convey. For example, Genesis 1–2:3 and 2:5–2:25 each tell of God's creative work. Both describe that work in terms of a two-part problem: Gen. 1:2, "that the earth was without form (Heb: tohu) and without inhabitant (Heb: bohu)"; Gen. 2:5, "that it had not rained and there was no man to till the ground". One speaks of the origin of life and goodness; the other of the origin of death and evil. In one, God speaks with unrivaled sovereignty over the cosmos and declares the result to be good. Every part of the world has its perfect function, and none disobey. In the other, God recognizes that the situation is not good and works (this time like a farmer, potter, and surgeon) to reshape the portrait into something more beautiful, much like an artist reworking blotches of paint. In both, blessed communion between mankind and God characterize the conclusion, so that creation affects spirituality and social structure as much as it does physics and physiology. Together, these stories tease out the dynamic relationship between God and his creation, which define the very course of history, and celebrate the fact that God is mighty to move in history to bring about his kingdom and will on earth as in heaven (cf. the petitions of the Lord's prayer in light of the narrative realities in Gen. 1–3).

Genesis 1–11 is comprised of 6 literary diptychs, which comment on creation (Gen. 1:1–2:25), sin (3:1–4:16), multiplication of knowledge and mankind (4:17–5:32), mercy amid judgement (6–9:17), cultural proliferation and the organic unity of mankind (9:18–10:32), and the confusion and curse of culture vs. the unity of culture through divine blessing (11:1–31). The dialogical structure allows the author to explore the basic problems of reality through one of the most unique and sophisticated forms of ancient historiography. The existential and eschatological are intertwined from the beginning, so that all of scripture to follow—whether law, prophet, or wisdom—falls firmly into place.

Strawman Arguments regarding the Nature of Scripture
In the latest issue of the Answers Research Journal, author Callie Joubert argued against the 'incarnational' view of Scripture, which is frequently cited in modern discussions to reconcile the Bible's ancient portrayals of the universe with the notion of divine inspiration (e.g. how can the infallible word of God speak of the sun as rising/setting over a stationary, flat earth?). But her article, entitled Understanding the Nature of Scripture, of Jesus, and the “Dis-Ease” of Theistic Evolutionists (BioLogos), offers little that is qualitatively new to the discussion, in my opinion, and frequently speaks past its interlocutors (senior fellows of Biologos). Consider the opening lines of the abstract:

"To understand the nature of the Bible, theistic evolutionists at BioLogos have proposed that Christians compare Scripture with the divine and human nature of Christ. Underlying this proposal is their assumption that the authors of Scripture and our Lord were not inerrant. The apostle Paul is also singled out as the ultimate source of the “dis-ease” for Christians who are seeking to reconcile the Bible and evolution..." (emphasis added)

Within the Protestant tradition, the incarnational model of Scripture has its conceptual roots in Calvin (not Biologos), who famously warned against learning astronomy from Genesis rather than astronomers. In this sense, Calvin is not far from Augustine, and both are inline with Paul's description in 2 Timothy 3:16, where Scripture is said to be God-breathed. If Paul's intention was to echo the words of Genesis 2:7 (in Greek, the parallel is striking), then the very pages of Scripture may be said to function like the ideal adam: "then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." Like the adam of Genesis 1–2, Scripture is the image of the creator God, and works/lives to extend God's glory across the whole earth through instruction ("have dominion and rule over...") and cultivation ("Be fruitful and multiply... work the ground"). These images of Scripture's role are played out well in the parables of Jesus himself, wherein the gospel message (the word) goes forth to bring fruit, abundance, prosperity and life.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God, being the last adam, and his authority parallels that of Scripture. He is the word of God made flesh, which tabernacled amongst the people. Paul's likening of both Scripture and Messiah to adam proper is thus appropriate, and we should not miss the implications. Jesus—like Scripture—conveyed God's message and glory through human flesh. Jesus spoke in human language, often characterized by chiasm, drama, and metaphor; his words bore the markings of human speech and literature. As Calvin explains, God lisps to us in his speech. Else we cannot comprehend his majestic word.

The paradoxical unity of Jesus' divine and human nature was articulated most famously by the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Appealing to this doctrine to understand the incarnational aspect of Scripture results in what might appropriately be called a Chalcedonian hermeneutic (follow the link for an original explanation of the term). The basic implication is that we can better understand God's message through the study of history, language, and science. Why? Because Scripture is written in time and space through human language using human conventions, and it appeals to historical social settings and past perceptions of physical realities.

This foundation for reading and applying Scripture is a far cry from that critiqued by Joubert's article. It does not assume "that the authors of Scripture and our Lord were not inerrant". Neither does it, from this assumption, employ creative license to discern where the Bible is right or wrong in light of modern scientific and historical discoveries. Rather, it affirms that God speaks truthfully through human conventions—limited (and even fallible) descriptions of the world and how it works.

In his book I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution, Dr. Denis Lamoreux (cited in Joubert's article) details this hermeneutic, in which the infallible Message of Faith is contained within the Incidental vessels of human understanding. Both ancient and modern descriptions of planetary motion, for example, are limited and fall short of reality. The Bible is not in error by saying "the sun sets, and hastens around to whence it came," even without our nuancing these words as 'figurative language'. If the biblical author did not intend to make a strict, architectural statement about the world, then the Bible cannot be in error regarding Earth's orbit. His description is phenomenological and true to experience. If we force Scripture to speak where it has not spoken, it is we that are in error.

Joubert thus ascribes a false motivation to Christians that accept science as a valid means to investigate the past. In her first conclusion, she states:

"...theistic evolutionists do their best to convince Christians that the biblical record of creation cannot be trusted as a straightforward historical account because such interpretation is contrary to “science” (by which they mean the evolutionist majority view of origins)."

It is true, the discoveries of modern science have caused readers to reconsider whether and how the language of the Bible corresponds to reality. Joubert and others do not solve this problem, however, by appealing to a 'straightforward' reading. Theologians and literary critics will tell you first that the biblical record of creation is far more dynamic than a literalistic reading allows. The narratives of Genesis are masterfully woven together so as to function canonically throughout Israel's story. Often (especially in the case of Cain/Abel), they are laconic and appeal to the imagination of the reader. One can object to reading Genesis as a 'straightforward historical account', therefore, on scientific and literary grounds.

If we read Genesis 2:7, for example, to imagine that God physically molded and then chemically transformed a 'handful' of dust through his (incarnate?) breath, we have not necessarily misread the text. If we use the text to formulate scientific hypotheses regarding the physical origin of mankind, however, then we have misapplied it. Why? Because the verse functions primarily to establish the true relationship between man and creation and creator, and it does so polemically through well known imagery (the molding of mankind from the earth). This view is confirmed by comparative studies in Ancient Near Eastern literature, and it was recognized even by other biblical authors (e.g. Psalm 103).
Joubert also spends much time writing about Jesus' use of the Old Testament narratives, particularly his reference to Genesis in terms of people and events. She does not establish, however, whether Jesus' exegetical and rabbinic use of these texts necessarily elucidates the authorial meaning. Does Jesus' reference to the creation of mankind as male and female in the beginning depend on Adam/Eve existing close to the beginning of the cosmos (the YEC timeline) rather than much later in history (conventional timelines)? Of course not. Jesus alludes to the text as it stands, and to the narrative reality of Genesis. A modern preacher that accepts the evolutionary timeline could respond exactly as Jesus did to the same effect.

Joubert's flat-footed reading of intrabiblical citations further belies the literary artistry of biblical authors. New Testament citations of Scripture were masterfully creative, sometimes betraying the original meaning intentionally or reorienting original meanings metaleptically around new contexts. To claim that "Jesus applied the text literally, and so should we" neglects the dynamic interaction between Scripture and the Messianic vocation and results in some glaring inconsistencies. How should we live, for example, in response to the fact that the "poor will always be with you" according to Jesus and according to the Torah? How exactly did Jesus "fulfill the Law"? Why does Matthew list exactly 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus (the OT records more than this)?

Christians need to abandon the literalistic hermeneutic of YEC, which provides no breathing space and offers (contrary to Joubert's assertions) no meaningful apologetic. Reading Genesis as 'straightforward history' betrays the intention of the author, whose poetic efforts add depth and richness to theology, if only we are willing to listen. Furthermore, Joubert and others commit themselves unnecessarily to pseudoscientific statements about the creation and its history, which cannot rationally be defended. The incarnational model of Scripture focuses on the real message of God's word, rather than distracting and limiting readers through unrelated discussions on modern science. Thereby, Scripture is able to function in time and space, conveying the very breath of God to readers in all cultures and generations. Finally, it allows Christians specialized in the natural sciences to speak of God's creative work where Scripture simply has not. This—we pray—enlightens and informs our perception of the covenant God of Israel, who has made heaven and earth.