The Lion and the Lamb

“He endured death as a lamb; he devoured it as a lion . . . . in being slain he slew death.”

- Augustine, Sermon 375A

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Biblical vs. Systematic Theology

I’m currently reviewing a book for the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. While reading it, I came across a nice, concise and coherent, distinction between biblical and systematic theology. I like it, because while distingushing the two it also points to their unity and mutually enriching character. He writes:

Biblical theology is faith seeking understanding of the redemptive-historical and literary unity of the Bible in its own terms, concepts, and contexts. Systematic theology is faith seeking understanding of the logical coherence of the Bible in conversation with the church’s tradition and contemporary theology.

Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 35.

To round out the last part of the definition, I would that the ‘conversation’ also includes present experience of God’s Spirit (or what the church discerns the Spirit is doing).

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Devout Christians who affirm evolution

Many evangelical Christians are shocked when they hear that other evangelical Christians, perhaps even prominent ones, believe that evolution is true. But knowing about such Christians can open up space for important questions and constructive dialogue.

Many have grown up believing that evolution is the enemy of faith, that it is basically equivalent with atheism (or, at least, theological liberalism), that it entails a denial of miracles or the supernatural, a rejection of the authority and truthfulness of Scripture, and is threatening to cherished Christian beliefs about creation, sin, salvation, the uniqueness of human beings as made in God’s image, etc. Of course, belief in evolution requires none of these other commitments (or rejections). But the past legacy of religious and cultural wars in America have linked them together in the minds of many (on both sides, whether religious or non-religious, conservative or liberal).

Interestingly, there is a huge disconnect between popular (esp. American) evangelicalism’s general rejection of evolution and what many actual scientists holding to evangelical faith (and attending evangelical churches and even teaching at evangelical institutions) say about evolution. I find this disconnect interesting . . . and troubling.

As an example, a recent survey of of the members of the American Scientific Affiliation and Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (a large affiliation of scientists who hold to evangelical faith, including the authority of the Bible), found that 66% of respondents affirmed the statement: “biologically, Homo Sapiens evolved through natural processes from ancestral forms in common with primates.” Moreover, the greater the respondent’s expertise in a relevant field (e.g., biology, genetics, biochemistry, etc.), the more likely they are to affirm the consensus view (evolution). To quote the report:

Employed scientists are more likely to accept the consensus science than retired ones. Scientists employed in areas that are more likely to do basic science, likewise. Finally, the areas of expertise closest to the areas of age of the earth and evolution are also more likely to accept this than areas that are further away. Going to a Christian college versus a secular one has no bearing on whether the mainstream science is accepted.

After reading this survey a while back, I became interested in knowing about prominent Christians who affirm evolution. I’ve been compiling a list, which I share below. It’s not exhaustive (far from it), but gives a nice sampling of Christians (many evangelical) who hold to the consensus view within the sciences.

Of course, many Christians do not believe in evolution, and their voices need to be heard too (rational discourse demands this!). My point in sharing this list is not to create a popularity contest or to say something like “all the important people believe this, therefore you should believe it” . . . but simply to indicate that devout and intelligent Christians can think very differently about this issue and to raise awareness about those who affirm evolution.

I think this should provoke our curiosity about how these believers integrate their science with their faith. Being scientists and theologians who are making important contributions to their fields, and who have a passion for Christian faith, discipleship, worldview, and ethics, they might have some important things to say! Many, in fact, have published books on the relationship between faith and science generally, or more specifically about how Christian faith relates to particular questions and discoveries in their fields of expertise.

Also, with any list of this kind, it is always important to note each scholar’s particular field, expertise, and contributions if one is to properly weigh their voice as an authority. So, I’ve included some of these details and encourage you to google these names yourself.

So, here is the list:

Prominent Christians Who Support Evolution

  1. John Stott (biblical scholar; prominent 20th century evangelical)
  2. Denis Lamoureux (Canadian dentist, theologian, evolutionary biologist)
  3. Francis Collins (scientist, genetics expert)
  4. Alister McGrath (theologian and scientist with three doctorates: DPhil in Molecular Biophysics; Doctor of Divinity in Theology and a Doctor of Literature in Humanities Division)
  5. John Polkinghorne (theologian and scientist): particle physicist who contributed to the discovery of the quark; Anglican priest
  6. Alvin Plantinga (a leading Reformed philosopher)
  7. Tim Keller (prominent Reformed pastor and author)
  8. Nancey Murphy (philosopher & theologian)
  9. Dennis Venema (biologist at Trinity Western University, Canada)
  10. John Walton (OT scholar)
  11. Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921; Presbyterian theologian)
  12. Charles Hodge (19th century Calvinist theologian)
  13. Deborah Haarsma (prof. of physics and astronomy)
  14. Ard Louis (theoretical physicist, Oxford)
  15. Jennifer Wiseman (astronomer)
  16. Jeff Hardman (zoology)
  17. Mark Noll (historian)
  18. Karl Giberson (physicist)
  19. Denis Alexander (molecular biologist)
  20. Kenneth R. Miller (cell and molecular biologist)
  21. Peter Enns (biblical scholar)
  22. Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836 – 1921 ; Baptist minister and theologian)
  23. Bruce Waltke (Reformed, evangelical OT scholar)
  24. Jürgen Moltmann (Reformed theologian)
  25. Ted Peters (Lutehran theologian)
  26. J. I. Packer (?): Not sure about Packer’s view. However, he does believe that nothing in Scripture “bears on the biological theory of evolution one way or the other.” In Mark Noll and David Livingstone, “Introduction,” in Warfield, Evolution, Science, and Scripture, 38-39. He also endorsed Denis Alexander’s book with the comment: “Surely the best informed, clearest and most judicious treatment of the question in its title that you can find anywhere today.”
  27. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (philosopher, Jesuit priest, who trained as a paleontologist and geologist)
  28. James Orr (1844-1913; Calvinist theologian)
  29. Asa Gray (1810-1888; America’s foremost botanist, a friend and correspondent of Darwin’s)
  30. James McCosh (1811-1894; Scottish Presbyterian philosopher)
  31. Arthur Peacocke: physical chemist and Anglican priest
  32. Keith B. Miller (field geologist)
  33. Ian Barbour (physicist and leading scholar of science and religion)
  34. Howard J. Van Till (Physicist)
  35. George Murphy: (physicist and evangelical minister)
  36. R. J. Berry (geneticist)
  37. Celia Deane-Drummond (biologist and theologian)
  38. Philip Hefner (theologian)
  39. Samuel M. Powell (Christian philosopher at Point Loma Nazarene University)
  40. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (theologian)
  41. N. T. Wright (biblical scholar)
  42. Joel Hunter (pastor)
  43. Owen Gingerich (astronomer)
  44. Tremper Longman III (biblical scholar)
  45. Joel B. Green (biblical scholar)
  46. Christopher Fisher (theologian)
  47. James C. Peterson (theologian and ethicist)
  48. Warren S. Brown (psychologist)
  49. James W. Haag (philosopher)
  50. Malcom Jeeves (psychologist)
  51. Graeme Finlay (cell biologist, scientific pathology)
  52. Ian Hodder (anthropologist)
  53. Ian Tattersall (anthropologist)
  54. Christian Smith (sociologist)
  55. Arnold Sikkema (physicist, Trinity Western University, Canada)
  56. Amos Yong (Pentecostal theologian)
  57. John D. Barrow (cosmologist, theoretical physicist, mathematician)
  58. William Phillips (physicist, 1997 Nobel Prize in physics)
  59. Martin A. Nowak (evolutionary biologist, mathematical biologist)
  60. Ian Hutchinson (nuclear physicist)

pfranklinbannershort

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Some Mother’s Day reflections

God’s Family

Today is mother’s day. And so today we celebrate our mothers, our wives, our sisters, and our daughters. We pause to thank God for them and show our love and gratitude for them. Today is about mothers; but more than that, today is also about family and mothers often play a central role in bringing the family together and nurturing family relationships and cohesion.

Of course, families are not perfect. And for RuthAndNaomisome, family life is very difficult. Some of us do not enjoy a close relationship with our mother, perhaps because of distance or conflict or something else that makes the relationship difficult. Some are grieving the loss of a mother or a child today. So, mother’s day is a day of celebration for many, but for others it is difficult.

In the story of Naomi and Ruth, we encounter both of these things: the joy and wonder of being a mother, but also the pain and suffering of enduring loss. In the midst of all of this is hope, because God is drawing all of us into his larger family, his covenant family. We become members of this family not because of our biology but because of God’s covenant promise and invitation; in this family we are related to one another not primarily through blood but through faith.

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There are a number of famous mothers in the Bible, women who play crucial roles in the unfolding of salvation history: Eve, the mother of all who live; Sarah, the mother of the covenant through which God is going to bless all nations of the earth; Rebekah, the mother of Jacob who becomes Israel; Naomi and Ruth, who are important in the genealogy of King David; Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist; and Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Bible sometimes even depicts God himself as a mother: God is like a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13), a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4), a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Deut. 32:18), and a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4).

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Today we are focusing on Naomi and Ruth, whose story is recorded in the book of Ruth in the OT. The story begins “in the days when the judges ruled Israel.” Naomi, her husband Elimelech, and their two sons Mahlon and Kilion, leave their home town of Bethlehem in Judah because of a severe famine. They settle in Moab. While they are in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies and she is left alone with her two sons. Her two sons marry Moabite women (one marries a woman named Orpah and the other a woman named Ruth), but after about ten years both sons die. Neither of them had fathered children, so the women are now left without husbands and without children.

When Naomi hears that the famine in Judah is over, she and her daughters-in-law get ready to leave Moab and return to her homeland of Judah. Along the way, Naomi, with great love and kindness toward her daughters-in-law, tells them to return to the home of their parents. She says, “‘Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.’” Then she kisses them good-bye, and they all break down and weep (Ruth 1:8-9). After some deliberation, Orpah agrees to return to Moab, but Ruth decides to stay with Naomi:

16 Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” 18 

The story emphasizes two things about this relationship between Naomi and Ruth: (1) Naomi’s graciousness and gratitude toward Ruth and (2) Ruth’s kindness and faithfulness to Naomi. All of this is an expression of love. And in their graciousness, kindness, and faithfulness, Naomi and Ruth reflect the character of the God they serve, the covenant God of Israel who is abundantly gracious, kind, and faithful.

Both women have experienced great loss. Naomi (who now wishes to be called Mara, or ‘bitter’) has lost a husband and two sons; Ruth has lost a husband, a father-in-law and a brother-in-law. But in the midst of their grief and loss they have found each other and though they are not blood relatives they are family together, mother and daughter. They are not obligated to stay together. Ruth could have returned to her own family to begin again, but she decided to stay.

And while they don’t realize it at the time, God has a larger plan for them and for their family. The story of their relationship is going to become an important part of God’s larger story, God’s redemptive plan not only for Israel but for the whole world.

As the book of Ruth unfolds, Ruth meets and marries a man named Boaz, who is a close relative of Naomi’s. Boaz agrees to become a family redeemer or kinsman redeemer. In those days, when a man died without leaving an heir, it was customary for the closest next-of-kin male relative to claim and ‘redeem’ both the widow and the property. In this way, the woman could then bear a son who would be an heir to her first husband’s estate. In chapter four, near the end of the story, we read:

13 So Boaz took Ruth into his home, and she became his wife. When he slept with her, the Lord enabled her to become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. 15 May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”16 Naomi took the baby and cuddled him to her breast. And she cared for him as if he were her own. 17 The neighbor women said, “Now at last Naomi has a son again!” And they named him Obed. He became the father of Jesse and the grandfather of David. (Ruth 4:13-17)

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So, what do we learn about God’s family from Naomi and Ruth?

The book of Ruth teaches us much about God’s view of family. From Ruth, we learn about the importance of love, kindness, and faithfulness. Ruth made a commitment to Naomi and selflessly put the needs of her mother-in-law before her own. Similarly, Boaz, Ruth’s husband, honoured his own family by fulfilling his responsibilities as kinsman redeemer. God honours both of them by choosing them to be part of the messianic line: their child will be the grandfather of King David!

From Naomi, we learn about the importance of openness, hospitality, and gratitude. She took Ruth, a foreigner – a Gentile! – into her own family and loved her as a true daughter. And God blesses her with a new family and a baby grandchild who will be her husband’s heir.

Most importantly, the story of Naomi and Ruth teaches us about God. Their relationship exemplifies God’s own love, grace, goodness, and faithfulness. And their story teaches us about the kind of family that God wants to represent him in this world. It teaches us that God’s grace and our response to his grace in faith form the basis of a new family that God himself creates. This family might include our actual blood relatives, but it includes many others as well—others who are sometimes radically different from us.

Think for a minute about God’s inclusion of Ruth in his special covenant line. Ruth is a non-Israelite, a pagan foreigner not related to the family of Abraham by birth. Yet, she becomes the mother of Obed, who is the father of Jesse, the grandfather of David, and the great ancestor of Jesus the Messiah! Ruth—an outsider—becomes a key link in the chain of God’s chosen people, a people through whom God will bless the entire world.

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Jesus himself came to create a family. He begins on the cross with his own mother, Mary. Like Naomi, Mary had also suffered the loss of a husband and was now facing the death of her son. In the midst of the pain and loneliness of the cross, Jesus calls his mother and his close friend into a new family:

25 Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” 27 And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from then on this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

This was just the beginning. Jesus died and rose again to create one new family made up of both Jews and Gentiles, one including people from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation. Jesus died to bring people back to God and to bring people together in God’s great family. Those who are unrelated by birth are now family in Jesus – we are brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers in Christ bound together in the one Holy Spirit united in one baptism and gathered around one table. As the apostle Peter puts it, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Pet. 2:10).

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So, how shall we respond? First, we can show love, kindness, graciousness, and gratitude to and for one another – whether we are children or mothers. We can strive to treat our own mothers as Ruth treated Naomi: with kindness and faithfulness. And we can strive to treat our own children as Naomi treated Ruth: with openness and gratitude.

Second, we can open our lives to others—others who are not related to us. We can strive to be open, showing hospitality to those who need a family. No one should be alone in the body of Christ. We are called to be brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers for another in Christ. This takes effort, intentionality, and sometimes overcoming fear, selfishness, and even prejudice.

Today is Mother’s Day. But for Christians, it is more than a Hallmark holiday. It is a church day. A day when we recognize and celebrate together our spiritual kinship together in Christ.

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Painting: He Qi, “Naomi and Ruth”

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‘Truth’ can hurt (and not always for the good)

“The gross distortions of Christian truth with which the church’s history is replete have often resulted from the misuse of good doctrines and not only from what we label false doctrine.”
– George Lindbeck

I just read this quote and thought I’d share it. It’s one worthy of pause and reflection.

Truth matters! Christians believe this resolutely. But truth must be understood in context. We must strive to understand not just that something is true, but also how it is true and why it matters. And knowing truth is not enough; what we really need is wisdom to apply the truth fittingly and lovingly. “Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only,” says James the brother of our Lord (Jas. 1:22). Similarly,Paul talks about the importance of correctly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

I think one of the biggest misconceptions about theology is that theology is about memorizing and regurgitating doctrines. This makes theology boring, legalistic, and devoid of life and contextual richness. It’s like learning a bunch of mathematical or statistical formulas without actually understanding how they work or knowing when to apply them. Of course, doctrines have an important place in theological learning and thinking. But doctrines must be studied and understood in the context of their historical development and applied in the present with discernment and appropriateness.

Doctrine is the fruit of theology, not its beginning point or final end. It’s what results from the church’s emersion in Scripture and tradition, as it seeks to make rational sense of its experience of the living God in its midst. As such, doctrine  is formulated and reformulated over the course of an ongoing dialogue taking place over many centuries — with much continuity to be sure, but also some revision. Genuine theology, then, is about the pursuit of wisdom. It’s about understanding all things in the light of God revealed in Christ. In all things, it seeks to glorify God and bear articulate witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Its doctrines are short-form ‘formulas’ that guide the church as it seeks to understand, articulate, and embody the truth in its life and mission.

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“My love affair with the stars” (Owen Gingerich, Harvard astronomer)

On a summer night when I was five, the temperature in the house at sunset still stood at over a hundred degrees, so my mother took cots outside for sleeping. I looked up at the darkening sky and asked, “Mommy, what are those? to which she replied, “Those are stars — you’ve often seen them!” I am reported to have responded, “But I never knew they stayed out all night!” And that was the beginning of my love affair with the stars.
- Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe

Posted in Quotes, Science and Christian Faith

Is God Male?

Holy Trinity of Urschalling 1150When I teach about the Trinity in my introductory theology class the topic of God and gender often comes up. “Is God male?” Let’s think about that.

The Bible often refers to God with masculine personal pronouns. Following this, Christians usually say “He,” “Him, “His,” and “Himself,” when referring to God. Trinitarian language is predominately masculine (“Father” and “Son”) though “Holy Spirit” is more elusive. Many popular Christian books celebrate the more masculine qualities of God (especially books for men and books on ‘leadership’): God is a hero, a conqueror, a warrior, a triumphant king, and so forth.

Even so, I would be extremely hesitant about saying that God IS male; in fact, I would push further to argue that such a notion applied to God absolutely and without qualification is both false and misleading.

Granted, Scripture predominately speaks of God with masculine language. However, it also employs female language, images, and metaphors with reference to God.* For example, it portrays God as a mother. God is like a woman in labour (Isa. 42:14), a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12), a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15), a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13), a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4), a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18), and a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals, and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4). Other maternal images can be found in Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

In addition to using maternal images, the Bible portrays God in terms of common feminine roles (in biblical times): as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21), a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9), and a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21). The point is not that these tasks are inherently feminine, but that Scripture appeals to common culturally feminine roles to depict God.

Moreover, Scripture speaks about God using female bird or animal imagery. God acts like a female bird protecting her young (Ps. 17:8, 36:7, 57:1, 91:1, 4; Isa. 31:5; Dt. 32:11-12), like an eagle (Dt. 32:11-12; Ex. 19:4; Job 39:27-30), like a hen (Mt. 23:37; Lk. 13:34; cf. Ruth 2:12), and like a mother bear (Hosea 13:8).

Finally, the Holy Spirit is often associated with female imagery and functions, such as birth/new birth, life, water, a comforter and counsellor, and love that binds together, etc. (e.g., John 3:5-6; John 14; 1 John 4.).

Genesis 1:26-27 teaches that both male and female human beings reflect God’s image. If this is true, and if there is any meaningful difference between male and female, this implies that it is only together, as both male and female, that we reflect God’s image. It also implies that God transcends both categories and that God is characterized by both male and female qualities.

So, Scripture can employ both masculine and feminine language to speak about God. Whether one or the other predominates is ultimately not significant. The larger point to grasp is that all such language is analogical not literal when used with reference to God. Why is that so?

Male and female are created categories; they relate essentially to creaturely sexuality and reproduction, not to God’s life as transcendent and infinite Spirit. Saying “God IS male” in an ontological sense—i.e., moving from saying God is like to saying God IS without qualification—leads us into idolatry, because such a statement limits God to finite, anthropomorphic, and created categories. We end up envisioning a god made in our own image (a human projection), rather than seeing human beings in God’s image. The danger of idolatry, of course, is that it tends to religiously undergird harmful and oppressive ideologies. For example, feminists worry (and not without reasonable warrant I think) that the problem with viewing God as ‘male’ is that we tend to begin with certain cultural notions of ‘maleness,’ which we project onto God; we then use these projections to underwrite the very cultural biases with which we began. We have to be very careful about this.

What about classical Trinitarian language that speaks of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? It is important to understand that when it comes to Trinitarian theology, Father, Son, and Spirit refer to the divine ‘persons’ or relations, not the divine being or essence. O.K. That way of putting things is rather technical. Let me illustrate with some practical examples.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was clearly male in his incarnate human form (a form he apparently retained in his resurrection). Does this mean that God IS male? No, this does not follow. Even if it were appropriate to say that Jesus IS male (not just was a male): (a) we would have to ask about the meaning of such ‘maleness’ in the resurrection (in light of passages such as Matthew 22:30); and (b) we would have to distinguish this from what we say about GOD’s being or essence. Whatever we say about GOD ontologically (God’s essence or being) we must say equally of the three divine ‘persons’ (e.g., God is holy, God is just, God is good, God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, etc.; Likewise, each divine person is holy, just, good, omnipotent, etc.). BUT, what we say about the individual ‘persons’ cannot always be said about GOD as such (ontologically, God’s essence). For example, Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew; the Holy Spirit was/is not. The Father is not a Son, the Son is not a Father, and the Spirit is neither. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit is sent from the Father and Son (or from the Father through the Son). The Spirit is the breath of God, the Son is the Word of God, and the Father is the One who breathes and speaks his Spirit and Word. Jesus the Son died and endured physical suffering on the cross; Father and Spirit did not suffer in this way (though perhaps they suffered in other ways). And so on. So, the fact that Jesus was (or even is) male does not mean that GOD IS male. Everything that GOD is, Jesus is; but not everything about Jesus applies equally to God’s essential being.

Perhaps, in the end, the better question is not “Is God male?” but rather: “Are we men like God?” and “Are we women like God?” Do we resemble God in our character, our actions, our dealings with others, our treatment of creation, our vocational goals and responsibilities, and our stewardship of God’s material resources (which really belong to God and are entrusted to us to serve God and others)? Posing the question this way leads us to focus on how God’s character and actions ought to determine how we live out our cultural embodiment of masculinity and femininity, not the other way around.

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Painting: Holy Trinity of Urschalling (1150 CE).

* See Dr. Margo G. Houts, “Feminine Images for God: What Does the Bible Say?” Online: http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/970418/o1041897.htm

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The ever quotable Hauerwas

I still love this quote:

“Protestants turned Second Temple Judaism into priest-ridden legalism so that Jesus could be Luther.” – Stanley Hauerwas

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Billy Graham on creation

A few years ago, I read the following quote from Rev. Dr. Billy Graham. I still find it powerful and provocative:

“I don’t think that there’s any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures. I think we have misinterpreted the Scriptures many times and we’ve tried to make the Scriptures say things that they weren’t meant to say, and I think we have made a mistake by thinking the Bible is a scientific book. The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course, I accept the Creation story. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man… whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.”

- Billy Graham, Doubt and Certainties (1964)

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On Reading Genesis ‘Literally’

genesis bookIn many popular debates between ‘creationists’ and ‘scientists’ over questions of origins (such as the recent Ham vs. Nye debate), one very important question rarely comes up. That question is this: How should we read the early chapters of Genesis? Quite often, debaters on both sides simply assume that Genesis should be read as a literal and scientific historical account of how God created the earth, step by step. Scientists then reject Genesis as not being scientifically viable while creationists attempt to prove how Genesis does recount reliable science.

But why should we read Genesis in this way? (See also, my post on reading the Bible ‘literally’ here). The ancients were not concerned with scientific questions! They tended to employ their ‘science’ – what they observed  phenomenologically about creation – in the service of their cosmogonies and religious worldviews. If God had wanted to give them a modern scientific explanation they wouldn’t have understood any of it anyway (quarks and quarks, microbiology, general and special relativity theory, and other modern ideas would have sounded like utter nonsense). So, instead of speaking scientifically, God accommodated God’s revelatory message to them. God descended to their level to speak to them in language they could understand. As St. Augustine put it,

“Perhaps Sacred Scripture in its customary style is speaking with the limitations of human language in addressing men of limited understanding. … The narrative of the inspired writer brings the matter down to the capacity of children.” (St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

So, a key question to ask is: how does the actual text of Genesis ‘want’ to be read? What clues does the text itself give us  about its meaning and focus? Genesis is an ancient text. A very ancient text. And we should be careful about imposing our own views about what the text must say without carefully considering the kind of text that it is. How do we know what kind of text it is? By paying close attention to genre, grammatical structure, literary style and devices, and contextual issues (its context in Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the rest of the canon; its historical and cultural context in the Ancient Near East).

Another important question that often does not get addressed (people simply make assumptions about it) is: how do we integrate modern scientific knowledge with our reading of Scripture and with our theology? Does science even get a voice? If so, how strong a voice? This is a huge issue, which I cannot address right now (I’ve posted some other thoughts on this question here). But I do want to suggest that science should get a significant voice, particularly when we are asking questions about nature and physical reality (which is what science is designed to study and does so with impressive results). A good axiom is: the nature of the reality being studied must determine the methods we employ to study it. Spiritual truths must be discerned spiritually (aided by divine revelation); truths concerning the natural world must be determined by methods befitting the physical nature of the natural world (i.e., science).

On the relationship between theology and knowledge about creation, consider the wisdom of St. Augustine (4th – 5th century):

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this 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 seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

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 a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but the people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and 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 learned from experience in the light of reason?”

- St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

Consider also the wisdom of John Calvin (16th century):

“If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf, were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God?”

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.2.15.

Perhaps the worst tragedy in all of this is that when we do not consider such questions, we fail to here the message of Genesis as God actually intended it. We miss out on hearing the voice of God as God intended to speak! I have found that when we read Genesis according to the questions and issues it is actually addressing (rather than our modern problems), its message is so much more powerful and wonderful! I will devote a future post to discussing the powerful, life changing truths that Genesis teaches, truths that were quite revolutionary in their own time and continue to be today.

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