Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Augustine on Genesis

Augustine (354-430 AD), one of the great theologians of the early church, wrote at length on the work of God’s creation outlined in Genesis. His work, entitled The Literal Meaning of Genesis, was a revision of his earlier commentary. This church father is cited by creationists of differing viewpoints in support of one belief or another. It is clear that Augustine, in an era when very different cosmic concepts prevailed, possessed the ability to revise his own view in light of the novel discoveries of his day.

Since Augustine lived in an age which may be termed conceptually pre-science, it may not be wise to quote him or any other early church figure concerning areas of knowledge which clearly have scientific dimensions in the 21st century. His thought processes, however, should be studied carefully because they have enormous relevance today. He was far ahead of many modern creationists who rigidly insist their interpretations of scripture trump today’s scientific discoveries and interpretations about which there is virtually no dispute. By modern standards Augustine knew little science, but he was willing to let the knowledge of his day inform him in his interpretation of scripture.

Examples from Augustine’s treatise on Genesis effectively illustrate this point. In Chapter 18 he says that “in matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”

Later, in Chapter 20, he comments “I have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better.” Contemporary Christians would do well to heed such advice and take it to heart. Additional quotes further reveal Augustine’s deep insights with respect to the truth search: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and other elements of the world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons…Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.”

The following startling quote further informs us of Augustine’s fear that respect for Christian principles across a wide range of knowledge could be damaged: “If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” We may easily identify with Augustine’s perceptive thinking across fifteen centuries.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Creationism's Central Focus

Creationism is a term with many meanings. This science/faith blog has often connected that word with a time scale. We have used terms like old earth, young earth, ancient, or recent, as modifiers in connection with beliefs about when creation events occurred. Sometimes discussions about these matters obscure or detract from other important issues. Secular observers tend to take sides, even celebrating the fact that creationists cannot agree on any fundamental reality in their respective belief frameworks.

A different focus on the more central message of Genesis may be appropriate. One main creation view which rests in the shadow of the two main positions is the “framework” interpretation of Genesis. In the framework view the Genesis 1-2 passage “functions as a literary structure in which the creative works of God have been narrated in a topical order” according to Lee Irons and Meredith G. Kline in The Genesis Debate. The literary structure uses a “framework” of a seven-day week. Events described are historical but not necessarily described in sequential order or in rigid, literal time frames.

Framework creationists are not bound to a particular time scale. Belief in long time frames is permitted, but not necessitated. Authors Irons and Kline argue that the central meaning of the early chapters of Genesis is the theological message that the chief end of creation is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. They would not bind the conscience of the church to only one view of the age of the universe.

In Genesis 3:15 Eve’s descendent (Christ) is mentioned as the eventual victor over Satan. It is the Bible’s first indication of man’s future redemption. The Genesis creation account is not intended to provide factual information for developing a scientific account of how the physical universe unfolded. Those details would be revealed by scientific discoveries many centuries after the book of Genesis was originally penned. In our day we are living in these exciting days of discovery.

Genesis 1-2 was written for an audience of Israelites surrounded by cultures saturated with pagan polytheism. God’s chosen people needed instruction in the divine character and purpose of Jehovah, not the answers to scientific questions we are just now able to discover after three millennia. They needed to know who the Creator was, and there was additional benefit in having that knowledge expressed in language using their own frame of reference.

Holy Scripture does not reveal plain, simple, and literal truth with respect to modern astronomy, geology, physics, archaeology, and other science disciplines. Scripture is not a textbook of science, but scientists reveal new facts regularly. Biblical historical and linguistic scholarship uncovers new truths. Careful research and discovery in these areas provide an increasingly accurate picture of past and present reality.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Plain and Simple Truths

The longer we read articles dealing with health foods and sound nutrition the more we encounter words such as pure, plain, and natural to describe advertised products. Such terms sound a resonant chord among increasingly health-conscious consumers. We are conditioned to respond positively to such terms in other discussion contexts. For example, creationists of young earth persuasion support their view of a 6000-year earth existence by making the case that the simple, literal, normal, clear, and common-sense reading of the Bible demands acceptance of a young earth and a recent global flood.

Young earth speakers and authors enthusiastically claim their interpretations “honor the Bible,” consist of the “simple teachings of scripture,” conform to the “plain Word of God,” make “common sense,” and are “easy to understand.” It would be unwise for any old universe creationist in our pulpits, on the airwaves, or in Christian publishing to attempt to refute an argument made at this level. Orthodox old earth creationists believe God’s two revelations--the special revelation of scripture, and the general revelation of the natural world--do not and cannot contradict one another if each is interpreted correctly.

In discussing our disagreements on earth’s age and the placement of events on earth’s geological timeline with people inside or outside the church, we would do well to avoid incorporating such phrases. The use of such terms is not part of a sound and cogent argument. Just as scripture uses reasoning and proof, so should we do the same when attempting to relate the Bible to observations in the world of nature. The apostle Paul’s reasoning and proving in the synagogue at Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-4) and the method of instruction in the epistle to the Hebrews come to mind as examples. We must back our arguments with solid evidence, facts, and reasons, avoiding emotional appeals.

We may be thankful that on essential matters of Christian doctrine such as the person and work of Jesus Christ, all evangelical creationists are in virtual agreement. All honor the scripture as the divine written revelation of God to mankind. Interpretation of time frames expressed in the exceedingly brief creation account of Genesis 1-2, however, diverge greatly. Respect for the extensive findings of mainstream science in the past several hundred years, is at the center of the disharmony. For this reason, this science/faith blog has attempted to bring a longer-term historical perspective to the issue over the past several months.

John Mark Reynolds co-authored a book with J. P. Moreland in 1999 entitled Three Views on Creation and Evolution. Reynolds is a young earth creationist who, nevertheless, recognizes an important underlying issue. Here are several much discussed passages: “Natural science at the moment seems to overwhelmingly point to an old cosmos…The data are mostly against us…Recent creationists should humbly agree that their view is, at the moment, implausible on purely scientific grounds…Presently, we can admit that as recent creationists we are defending a very natural biblical account, at the cost of abandoning a very plausible scientific picture of an “old” cosmos. But over the long term, this is not a tenable position. In our opinion, old earth creationism combines a less natural textual reading with a much more plausible scientific vision. They have many fewer ‘problems of science.’ At the moment, this would seem the more rational position to accept.”

It is the goal of this blog to continue to investigate the truth and harmony of theology and science.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Creationism Options

Evangelical historian Mark Noll has penned a succinct definition of creationism. Noll says “The word creationism by rights should define all who discern a divine mind at work in, with, or under the phenomena of the natural world.” This definition spreads a very broad umbrella. In the past few decades events in the United States have served to narrow the meaning of creationism. Most journalists now use the term to describe those who see the earth as six to ten thousand years old. These creationists also believe the earth-encircling Noahic flood event occurred within that time frame and is responsible for virtually all of earth’s geologic features.

Even though public perception has now identified creationism primarily with young earth views, there are other camps who may object. My personal view is that the geological record manifests divine, creative emplacements of new life forms at widely spaced intervals along the timeline of Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. Evidence clearly speaks of a beginning to the time, space, matter, and energy of this universe. I believe the Beginner was God. Therefore, I am a creationist. By Noll’s criterion even theistic evolutionists could be termed creationists if they believe God created everything in the beginning and now guides the evolutionary process. There are many shades of belief systems which could rightly be called creationist according to this definition.

Let us fantasize that we are supernaturally enabled to observe a complete sensory re-experience of earth history from the creation event to the present. Imagine that the exact sequence of events could be chronicled in detail. Such a record would fill many thousands of volumes. Only one set of descriptions is correct. That set of true descriptions could be called “correspondence truth.” In the study of truth theory, correspondence truth is the view that truth is correspondence to a fact. Thomas Aquinas stated “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to external reality.” Truth theorists describe many other categories of truth. Correspondence truth, however, comes closest to the category creationists embrace when they speak of their beliefs.

The account of creation in Genesis 1-2 is remarkably brief. God did not supply many details. He did, however, communicate the overwhelming truth that He is the Creator of all things in existence, both living and non-living. This message was understandable to the people in the ancient cultures of Moses’ day as well as every culture since then, including our modern culture. With respect to the details--How? When? In what order?--about which we are all extremely curious, God has gifted man with ability to discover the details through the processes of science and historical research.

Some of my good young earth friends with whom I have discussed creationism issues in detail insist that the most important details of creation events are evident in scripture alone. When I have offered scientific findings pointing to an earth of enormous antiquity, some of them have informed me that scientists, especially geologists and astronomers who make these conclusions, have preconceptions and presuppositions which predispose them to believe in an old earth, uniformitarianism, and consequently, evolution. Therefore, they reject or re-interpret all evidence which does not conform to their own presuppositions of a 6000 year old earth.

To those who insist that scripture contains most of the important information anyone would ever need on any topic, consider that even the writers of scripture would not advocate limiting acquisition of knowledge and truth in this manner. Recall a verse from the King James Version of scripture in Acts 1:3. Luke, the author of Acts, reminded his readers that Christ had shown himself alive after his death by “many infallible proofs.” Many other translations use the modifier “convincing” to describe the quality of proof we should seek when searching for truth in any area. We receive much encouragement from scripture to test and prove in discovering external reality.

The last two centuries, the last half century in particular, have afforded Christians an exciting discovery opportunity concerning the history and timing of creation events. Some creationists fear we are becoming more beholden to science than to the Bible text. Interpretations of both science and the Bible text should be approached with great care. Scholarship in both of these revelations is more complete and reliable than ever before. For the gift of our ability to make these discoveries, we thank God.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pivot Points

Resurgence of the view of earth as a very young planet and a global flood sculpting all of earth’s features in recent times was a pivotal occurrence triggered by a complex ebb and flow of events. In our day, almost fifty years after the publication of The Genesis Flood, belief in a young earth and a worldwide recent flood remains one of the defining pillars in the worldview structure of many Christians, setting them apart from fellow old earth believers who otherwise agree on important Christian doctrines. Such a belief sets them even farther apart from the many having no theological anchor at all.

A century before the Whitcomb/Morris publication, the appearance of Darwin’s The Origin of Species was likewise pivotal. For decades prior to 1859, Christians in the field of geology and other sciences had gained a refreshing and enlightening vision of the synergy of God’s “two books” –- the scriptures and the natural world. Our earth and its life forms were seen as existing for exceedingly long ages. In the decades to follow, however, the practitioners of science turned much more secular. The center of truth shifted toward science itself as having authority and away from the God-conscious outlook of many of the best scientists of the early 1800s. In the century’s last four decades there was a drift toward secularization not only in science, but also in all areas of society.

Theologians reacted with alarm. In the 18th and early 19th centuries they had come to respect science. But secular science interpreted as supporting evolution, allowing God a less prominent role in the creation story, was perceived to weaken their theological views. And indeed, that was true. They needed science of a different type. The reaction was a conscious move toward embracing an early form of scientific method called Baconian induction. It was used, for example, to examine the Bible in minute detail, organizing passages and proof-texts to support often pre-conceived conclusions about how the Bible must be interpreted and understood. In this sense they saw themselves seeking truths about a wide array of knowledge “scientifically.”

Mark A. Noll (b. 1946), a historian specializing in a study of evangelical attitudes in America, has written a significant chapter entitled “Thinking About Science,” in his volume The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll states “Creationists (he is speaking of young earth creationists) regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science…The tragedy is that creationists preserve a misguided Baconianism for the Bible and abandon a healthy Baconianism for science.” My personal experience during many discussions with young earth fellow-Christians, is that on matters of earth history and other truths of the natural world, they accept none of the findings of secular science if those findings are not proven “from scripture alone.”

This tradition intensified in the early 20th century and is still prevalent today among a large contingent of evangelical Christians who endorse a young earth and a recent, catastrophic global deluge. On matters of earth’s geologic history, young earth believers do not accept any mainstream scientific evidence which does not confirm a recent creation. They seek to discredit findings of scientific research pointing to the great age of our universe and earth. At the same time they present their own findings which serve to confirm their own vision of the timelines of earth history. Young earth adherents pronounce all old earth findings to be tainted with presuppositions, such as the belief that uniformitarian geological doctrines are true and support an old earth view leading also to a belief in evolution.

Reducing the young earth/old earth discussion to matters such as whether “yom” (day) in Genesis means 24-hours or a long time period, or whether any sort of death occurred before the fall of Adam, misses the crux of this discussion. A more fundamental issue is how we see our world today: through what mindset? with what worldview? using what set of tools to gain knowledge about God and His actions in our world, past and present? The Creator has given us a wonderful set of tools whereby we may make correct conclusions about His plan for mankind and how we may acquire a proper interpretation of His glorious creation.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Perfect Storm

A massive flood is a devastating meteorological event of great impact. Ingrained in the psyches of many religious people is the sense that floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters are manifestations of God’s judgment. Granted, it is possible that such catastrophes could be manifestations of divine wrath, particularly if they were to occur on a global scale and obviously caused by unnatural events.

The Genesis Flood, the landmark 1961 publication of John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, took the evangelical community by storm. It may have been the “perfect storm.” American evangelicals in the 19th century had “...developed a fairly sophisticated conception of how to integrate science and theology” according to historian Mark Noll. But evangelicals “…in this (20th) century have had more difficulty understanding how their predecessors could believe that the deliverances of scientists should aid in understanding the Bible,” continued Noll.

There are many examples. Specifically, beginning about 1930, resistance to the secularization of science, a drift toward George McCready Price’s ideas of a young earth and flood geology, and the appearance of fundamentalist literature promoting pseudo-scientific facts by popular figures such as Harry Rimmer, amounted to a reversal of the healthy synthesis of science and faith within the church.

As I write these posts, I actively attempt to recall my personal experience during these years. My concern was to be faithful to my cherished, traditional Christian beliefs. Fellow church members shared the same goals. In retrospect, however, the science I embraced was deficient. Geologists of the 19th century, including many Christians, had gained a clear vision of an earth of great antiquity. Early in the 20th century that vision faded. Beginning in 1961 for a large segment of evangelical Christianity, the vision almost vanished. They have espoused a recent creation only 6000 years distant.

Belief in a 6000-year-old earth pre-supposes the occurrence of a Noahic flood only 4400 years ago. That view, together with the interpretation of earth in the flood account of Genesis 7 as necessarily signifying the entire globe, entails acceptance of the proposition that virtually all of the earth’s geological features result from the catastrophic flood and from horrific upheavals of the earth’s crust during and after the flood.

Scientific findings of the past three centuries do not come close to supporting this account of historic earth events. The theological constructs of “no death before the fall,” not required by a careful reading and interpretation of scripture, result from errant interpretations of science. With respect to determining the antiquity of the earth, I must repeatedly stress the value of God’s gifts to us in modern times which enable us to clarify the meaning of scripture with science. In the early 19th century this gift was an occasion for Christians in the field of science to glorify the God of creation. In the 21st century we are in a better position than ever before to interpret the Bible text correctly with respect to our physical world.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Flood Preparedness

As I write this post, our local newspaper has warned the community that spring floods on the Mississippi may be imminent. There was a large buildup of snow over the winter with no significant January thaw. The approach of warm weather, together with the possibility of spring rains, may set us up for flood conditions. This has happened before. Floods are sometimes caused by previous conditions building up over time.

In 1961 the publication of The Genesis Flood by theologian John C. Whitcomb (b. 1924) and hydraulic engineer Henry M. Morris (1918-2006) was a monumental event whose causes had been building for many years. We may even describe its consequences as those of a flood for which some warning signs had been given. It effects are still with us today, half a century later. In the century prior to 1961 creationism discussions centered more on the incompatibility of evolutionary beliefs with the Christian worldview than the theme of recent creation in six 24-hour days just 6000 years ago. The evolution issue, after all, was more significantly connected with the implications of man’s supernatural creation in the image of God than with the subject of time frames.

Before launching into the specific discussion of Whitcomb and Morris’s volume The Genesis Flood, let’s return to theologian Bernard Ramm, author of The Christian View of Science and Scripture in 1955. Science historian Ronald Numbers recalls “Ramm was emerging as the leader of the ‘new evangelicals,’ who distinguished themselves by embracing ‘responsible’ scholarship and shunning belligerency.” However, Ramm indiscretely used the term “narrow bibliolatry” to describe the views of Bible literalists who believed in a recent creation and a world-wide Noahic flood. The Christians Ramm termed “narrow bibliolaters” instead saw themselves as defenders of the reliability of God’s word and the divine truth of Christianity’s message to man.

Ramm allied himself with members of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), even to the point of hosting one of their conventions. When a large number of Christian scientists in the ASA began to lean toward a liberalized view of creationism, including theistic evolution, the seeds of a vigorous revival of belief in flood geology and a young earth took root. The most conservative Christian spokesmen believed nothing less than faithfulness to Bible truth was at stake. A number of science faculty at Wheaton College were associated with the liberalized views of ASA members. Numbers even claimed that the ASA “at times resembled a Wheaton alumni association.”

Neo-evangelicalism had its origin during this time. It was a response to perceived excesses of fundamentalism including, of course, the rigid interpretive scriptural literalism which permitted only one interpretation of the events described in Genesis 1-2. Again, many Christians felt threatened by erosion of their cherished belief framework. Society was showing innovations as well. It was the era of the “Beat Generation,” the onset of Rock and Roll music, extreme tail fins on automobiles, and other innovations in our culture. Looking back, I now recall an avant-garde group of artists at Rutgers University. From one of them, I took a course in Art History and Appreciation. The evolving emphasis in the arts, even then, may have signaled broader changes many Christians would later find unpalatable. When such changes took place in the church, they were cause for alarm and a swift return to traditional, conservative viewpoints.

The Genesis Flood, therefore, was a reactionary response by Christians who saw themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and traditional Christianity. Their sincerity and devotion to God are not in question. With respect to our preparation to discuss issues with naturalistic evolutionists, theistic evolutionists, old earth creationists, young earth creationists, or any belief between or beyond these positions, we must commit to serious study of the evidence graciously provided by the Creator of our physical world. In addition, we must pray for the ability to interpret physical evidence and God’s word correctly. They cannot contradict one another.

Several upcoming posts will examine the last half-century’s (since 1961) discussion of the creationism issue in more depth.