The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

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In this blog entry and the next, I would like to introduce two excellent journal articles by Noel Weeks, both of which appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal. The first, featured here, is from 2010. The second is from 2016. Both are available in pdf online (links below).

 

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Noel Weeks is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia. He has degrees in both zoology and theology and has taught Ancient Near Eastern history for most of his life.

Back in 2010, in Vancouver, I had the distinct privilege of enjoying a very charming and thoughtful lecture by Dr. Weeks on Christian education. His ability to engage an audience and speak intelligently for 45 minutes or more without any notes astonished me at the time.

The article at hand addresses the use of “background” material informing the study of the Bible. For instance, when the Bible describes God’s creating work, does it do so in ways that might be comparable to other “creation” accounts in the Ancient Near East? What about Abraham taking Hagar to function as his wife because Sarah was barren? Was this common? Or, when God makes a covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 or commands circumcision in Genesis 17, is God making use of existing cultural customs? If he is, what can we learn by doing some “background” study? Such study could be very helpful, but it needs to be kept in its proper place. Scripture alone is the Word of God, and the Word of God is self-attesting and fully trustworthy in itself.

A treasure trove of “background” information has become available in the last century. In the first half of the twentieth century this was used to show the reliability of the biblical text, but in the last fifty years it has been used in much the opposite way. Comparisons to other Ancient Near Eastern “creation” accounts, for instance, have lately led John Walton to argue that the church has misunderstood Genesis for millennia. He argues that the Genesis creation account only tells us about the function of the created things, not their origins. According to him, this view of Genesis 1 matches the Egyptian and Mesopotamian way of telling their creation stories.

Weeks’ article from 2010 was written before Walton’s books and arguments had really begun to gain traction. Yet Weeks’ arguments are pertinent: he points out that the use of this biblical background material to back up the biblical account opened up the likelihood that the same material would be used to break down the biblical account—the methodology was flawed. The Christian must first of all receive the text in faith.

Arguments based on supposed parallels often suffer from the following faults:

  1. The cultures or texts being compared had no contact geographically.
  2. The cultures or texts being compared were from vastly different times.
  3. The point of comparison is too general to be helpful.
  4. The assumption of uniformity across cultures, lands, and times is flawed.
  5. The assumption that biblical authors must have conformed to what was common in their place and time is flawed. This denies the possibility of God’s revelation transcending their time and place, of newness, and of change.
  6. The transmission of the text or practice from the one culture to the other culture is rarely, if ever, explained.
  7. Correlation does not imply causation.

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Among the other alleged parallels that Weeks addresses, he speaks to the question of common creation accounts in the Ancient Near East. His comment is very much to the point: “The background to the biblical creation stories has been ‘found’; the problem is whether it has been found in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, Egypt, or a complex mixture” (229–30). As he explains, each of these options presents significant difficulties. In no case have scholars explained how the account of one culture reached another or was used by the other culture. In the case of Egypt, there are even several differing accounts available, so which one is the right candidate as “background” or “parallel”?

Weeks concludes that if scholars are going to read the text of Scripture as if it was locked into its own time and culture, then they need to realize that they themselves as scholars are also locked into their own time and culture (235). Yet scholars constantly act as if they have transcended this problem. This is illogical.

To read the full scholarly article, Noel Weeks, “The Ambiguity of Biblical ‘Background’,” in Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 219–36, click here.

You can also watch Dr. Weeks lecturing on biblical interpretation at a special invited lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary in this 30-minute video.

Blame Augustine for “Adam” (II)

Is it true that “no one in the Bible believed that construct of the historical Adam” but that the idea originates with the church father Augustine (354–430)? Such is the assertion of Scot McKnight, a leading NT scholar, in this video from the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation.

Last time we laid out the Scripture texts that consistently identify Adam and Eve as the original couple, from whom the whole human race descended. These texts expose McKnight’s pronouncement to be false, and no Scripture text can be advanced that supports his position. I realize that McKnight is depending not only upon Dennis Venema’s biological study in their co-authored book, but also upon the OT scholar John Screen Shot 2017-11-25 at 4.07.25 PM.pngWalton’s claim that Genesis 1–2 is an account of origins that speaks only of the function and purpose of the parts of creation, not their material or temporal origins. Walton relativizes the message of Genesis 1 & 2 by claiming that he is reading it within its Ancient Near Eastern context. I’ve attended an entire conference listening to Walton and have read some of his books as well as critiques of them. Maybe his views can be explained and critiqued in a future blog, but aside from Walton’s treatment of Genesis 1 & 2, all the other Scripture texts I advanced last time clearly treat Adam as a real historical person who was the first man, and origin of the human race. Therefore it would not in the least surprise readers of the Bible to find writers from the early church saying the same thing. But recall McKnight’s second assertion, “I think we can blame this one on Augustine and those who followed after him, that they created this construct, that we need salvation because of the sin nature that has been passed on from Adam to everybody else.” If McKnight is correct, we would not find writers prior to Augustine holding out Adam as a real historical person who passed on sin to us.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. A. D. 180)

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Irenaeus (c. 130–c. 202)

Let me highlight one early church apologist who does the very thing McKnight says didn’t happen. Irenaeus was a student of the apostolic father Polycarp, who himself had sat at the feet of the apostle John (all three are connected to Smyrna in Asia Minor). Irenaeus particularly opposes the Gnostic heresies in his book Against Heresies. One of their teachings was that material reality came about by a mistake or defect by some lesser divine being, and was not intended by the uppermost First Principle or highest “God.” Salvation therefore now involves the escape of “us,” who are like little sparks of the divine currently trapped in material bodies, and such escape is achieved by learning the higher mysterious system of the Gnostics. Gnostics therefore tended to say that Christ only “seemed” to have a human nature. They then took disciples like Thomas and wrote “gospels” in his name, praising his doubt. In their Gospel of Judas, Judas’s greatest deed, praised by Jesus himself, is to secure Jesus’ death, so that Jesus could escape from his material body. In that context Irenaeus found it necessary to affirm Adam, Jesus, and us all as historical persons with material bodies. He also strongly affirmed the resurrection of the body, a very counter-cultural teaching in his day.

Let’s see what Irenaeus writes in Against Heresies, Book 3, chapter 23. In this first quotation he is arguing against some false teachers who asserted that the rest of humanity could be saved, but not Adam.

But this is Adam . . . the first formed man . . . and we are all from him: and as we are from him, therefore have we all  inherited his title. But inasmuch as man is saved, it is fitting that he who was created the original man should be saved (3.23.2).

Irenaeus then affirms that Adam’s captivity to sin and death was inherited by all humanity, when he writes,

For it is too absurd to maintain, that he who was so deeply injured by the enemy, and was the first to suffer captivity, was not rescued by Him who conquered the enemy, but that his children were—those whom he had begotten in the same captivity (3.2.32).

He illustrates this by speaking of how unjust it would be to rescue children from their captors while leaving the parents under the power of those same captors, to do as they please. What Irenaeus means by this captivity is something he explains in the preceding section, where he writes that Satan made Adam captive by “bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under colour of immortality entailing death upon him,” and, further, that when God rescued the captive Adam, he was “loosed from the bonds of condemnation” (3.23.1). Though Irenaeus doesn’t use the language of original sin and doesn’t distinguish mediate and immediate imputation, he certainly understands that Adam’s sin had brought him and all humanity under God’s condemnation.

A bit further on, he states that God put enmity between Satan and the woman, and that it was to be continuous until the promised Seed of the women came, born of Mary. To that Seed would apply the promise of Psalm 91, that, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; you shall trample the great lion and the serpent” (Ps 91:13). In Irenaeus’s version, the translation of “serpent” was “dragon,” and either term is taken in Scripture to refer to Satan (see Rev 12:9). Irenaeus then interprets the text as follows:

indicating that sin, which was set up and spread out against man, and which rendered him subject to death, should be deprived of its power, along with death, which rules [over men]; and that the lion, that is, the antichrist, rampant against mankind in the latter days, should be trampled down by him . . . wherefore, when the foe was conquered in his turn, Adam received new life; and the last enemy, death, is destroyed 1 Corinthians 15:26, which at the first had taken possession of man (3.23.7).

He adds, finally, that if Adam, as the lost sheep, had not been found and saved, “the whole human race [would] still [be] held in a state of perdition” (3.23.8).

Later, in Book 5 of Against Heresies, Irenaeus again affirms Adam as the first created man, “For in the same way the sin of the first created man (protoplasti) receives amendment by the correction of the First-Begotten” (5.19.1). The historical reality of Adam is further affirmed by Irenaeus’s teaching that just as the Lord Jesus Christ died on the sixth day of the week (Friday) as the Passover Lamb, so Adam sinned on the sixth day of the week of creation (5.23.2).

I suspect that one could read more widely in the apostolic fathers and early church apologists to find more about their teaching regarding Adam, but our perusal of one treatise of Irenaeus shows that McKnight’s assertion about Augustine is incorrect. Irenaeus wrote this more than 200 years before Augustine. Again, we should not be surprised, for, like us, these men were reading and explaining the Word of God. The clear message of Scripture itself is that Adam and Eve were real, historical people, that the entire human race descended from them, that Adam and Eve sinned and thereby dragged all humanity into condemnation, that our Lord Jesus Christ himself inherited the same human nature, though without sin, and that in that body he paid for sin. Therefore those who believe in him shall rise again to new life in body and soul, to live with God in a new material creation, forever.

Blame Augustine for “Adam” (I)

Here’s the first part of our response to the assertion that “no one in the Bible believed that construct of the historical Adam” and that the church father Augustine (A. D. 354–430) is really to blame for this construct.

The assertion is made in this short video clip from the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, wherein Scot McKnight explains seven assumptions people have when they ask him whether he believes in an historical Adam. He states that their question operates on seven principles or ideas, namely that:

  1. Adam and Eve were two actual, real, solitary human beings created out of nothing or of dirt;

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    Scot McKnight: Wikipedia
  2. That a biological or procreational connection exists between Adam and Eve and all humans that follow;
  3. That there is an implied DNA genetic connection between Adam and Eve and the procreation of all humans;
  4. That Adam and Eve sinned and thus died;
  5. That Adam and Eve transmitted their sinfulness to all humans that followed;
  6. That therefore all humans need salvation from this sin;
  7. That the church must therefore preach the gospel of salvation and this gospel is at risk if we deny historical Adam.

Exactly right! He summarized our position at Creation without Compromise rather well.

It’s immediately after listing these seven principles that McKnight asserts, “No one in the Bible believed that construct of the historical Adam.” He specifies that no one between Moses and Paul believed it. Then he tells us that the church father Augustine is really to blame. McKnight has been making this pronouncement lately in support of a book he co-authored with Trinity Western University’s Dennis Venema. In a Biologos interview last February he wrote about, “the so-called ‘historical Adam,’ which is a theological construct in the history of the church but which was not believed by any single author in the entire Bible.”

In response, I will simply supply the biblical data. In my next post I will show that long before Augustine (354–430) the early apologist Irenaeus (c. 130–202) clearly and uneqivocally argued for the very historical Adam that McKnight denies.

No one in the Bible believed in an historical Adam? Really? 

Besides the obvious account in Genesis 1 and 2, Scripture also says:

When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them ‘man.’ When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image, and he named him Seth . . . When Seth had lived 105 years, he became the father of Enosh . . .” etc. (Gen 5).

This is the first of many genealogies, all of which refer to real people. No genealogy in Scripture that goes all the way back to the beginning ever begins with any human but Adam (Compare 1 Chron 1:1; Luke 3:38).

When men began to increase in number on the earth . . . (Gen 6:1).

This verse clearly assumes that it took all the generations of Genesis 5 before the number of humans began to increase, for the human race began with one human pair and only multiplied through the generations. We are never told of a believer in the rest of the OT who challenged or doubted these genealogies, least of all the beginning with Adam and Eve.

But God destroyed the rebellious human race entirely, to start over with Noah. Thus we read,

These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth . . . From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood (Gen 9:19, 32).

What happens after Noah parallels what had already happened after Adam, as recorded in Genesis 5 and 6. Many more texts speak of Adam as the source of the human race, our first father, and of Adam and Eve as those who were from the beginning.

Your first father sinned; your spokesman rebelled against me (Isa 43:27).

Like Adam, they have broken the covenant—they were unfaithful to me there (Hos 6:7).

“Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ ? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt 19:4–7)

From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth (Acts 17:26).

Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them (Jude 1:14).

Besides these texts one encounters the famous teachings of the Apostle Paul about Christ and Adam. In Romans 5, Paul wrote about death reigning “from Adam to Moses” and that Adam sinned by “breaking a command” (Rom 5:14). Adam was as real to Paul as Moses; further, the Genesis account of the fall into sin was treated by him as historical truth (the same occurs in 1 Tim 2:13–14 when Paul speaks of Adam being formed first, then Eve, and of Eve sinning first, then Adam). Paul then argues from the universal effects of Adam’s sin—the many died, and death reigned through the one man Adam (Rom 5:15, 17)—to the abundant grace and righteousness that came by the other “one man,” Jesus Christ (Rom 5:18). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul called Christ the “Second Adam” inasmuch as “in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22), and, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), and, “just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven” (1 Cor 15:49).

McKnight’s assertion cannot stand against the clear evidence of Scripture. He makes his rather odd pronouncement only after accepting his co-author Venema’s arguments for the validity of biological evolution. McKnight even admits that anyone who doesn’t accept Venema’s arguments in their co-authored book (wherein, incidentally, the scientific arguments precede), need not bother with his own arguments. How odd, that a New Testament scholar would let a scientist’s conclusions form the starting point of his own positions, rather than the very Bible that he has been trained to interpret!

The case of the shrinking elephant tusks

elephantLast year I spent some time reading through Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution with a friend. As Dawkins explains in his preface, while he has written a number of books about evolution, “I realized that the evidence for evolution itself was nowhere explicitly set out, and this is a serious gap that I needed to close.” So in this book he sets forth his best case for evolution, making it an intriguing book to contend with.

Some of his arguments have ready answers, and some do not, and my hope in sharing both the answered and the unanswered is that readers may be better prepared to contend with evolution, neither overestimating nor underestimating the challenge it presents.

At some point I hope to include a chapter by chapter response, but I’m going to begin with Chapter 5, because it is one of the most interesting. Dawkins titled this chapter “Before our very eyes,” and it is here that he shares what he sees as examples of evolution that occurred “so fast…we can see evolution happening with our own eyes during one human lifetime.”

Today we’ll take a look at the first example he gives, about elephant’s tusks.

Chapter 5: Example #1 – THE CASE OF THE SHRINKING ELEPHANT TUSK

Dawkins believes the African elephant may have “evolved” a smaller tusk size in the space of 33 years. From 1925-1958 the Uganda Games Department monitored tusk size and noticed a decrease in size that was “highly statistically significant, which means that it is almost certainly a real trend, not a random chance effect.”

Why are elephant tusks shrinking? Dawkins proposes that, because “hunters tend to pick on the individuals with the largest tusks” this “means that, at least in theory, smaller-tusked individuals will be at a selective advantage.”

While acknowledging this is merely a plausible explanation, and there may be others unrelated to natural selection he concludes “I am inclined to take seriously the possibility that this is a true evolutionary trend.”

Response

Dawkins repeatedly speaks of creationists in his book – Greatest Show on Earth is supposed to be an answer to them – but this example left me wondering just how familiar he was with creationists and their arguments.

Why?

Because this example of “evolution in action” is one creationists could use to support our position. Creationists don’t find natural selection controversial. We believe change does happen, and quickly – after all, we’re the folks who believe that the vast variety of dogs we see today came from just a few kinds present on the ark!

So if elephant tusks are trending smaller over the course of a generation or two, that fits in well with the creationist model.

What it doesn’t do is offer any sort of evidence for the molecule-to-man form of evolution Dawkins supports. A smaller average for tusk-size is a horizontal change – no new information is needed, just selection from what’s already present. But for evolution of the sort Dawkins defends we need an explanation for a vertical change – how beings can grow in complexity, evolving from that single-celled creature to something elephant-size.

Either Dawkins is unaware of that fact creationists also believe in natural selection – which would mean he really needs to do his homework! – or he is knowingly and deliberately pulling a bait and switch here, presenting one form “evolution” in which the word means little more than “change” and offering that up as if it were proof for the very different sort of “molecule-to-man” evolution.

For more on this point see:

God is visible to any who will see

Our universe, if just slightly different, would never have been able to support life. For example, a proton’s mass is 1,837 times greater than that of an electron, but it carries a positive charge that is exactly equal to that of the electron’s negative charge. How very strange that the two, so different in size, would yet be perfectly matched in charge! If they weren’t paired just so, then the vast array of elements could never have formed and life could never have existed.

This is but one example of the fine-tuning that so troubles atheists that they’ve resorted to “what if” stories to explain it away. Yes, they acknowledge, the universe is too finely tuned to have come about just by chance…if we’d had only one role of the dice to get here. But what if this wasn’t the only universe? What if there were billions and trillions and gazillions of universes out there somewhere? What if we could stack the odds in our favor by supposing as many universes as we might need? Then it wouldn’t seem so very improbable that at least one of these might be suited to life…right?

And these same atheists will mock Christians because we speak of faith!

A fire like moon
Shot of a solar eclipse blotting out the sun

There is no evidence of these other universes. None at all. So on what basis do they propose this theory? Because they need it to be true. The only case that can be made for it is that the alternative is too terrible for them to consider – that a Fine-Tuner brought the balance, order, and wonder to our universe.

Atheists can be clever, but God won’t leave them with any excuse. As Psalm 19 explains the heavens declare His glory. Want to explain away fine-tuning by postulating a multiverse? Well, then answer this: why would the Sun just happen to be 400 times bigger than our moon and also 400 times further away?

This precise pairing means that the moon and sun appear to be the same size in our sky. This allows us, during a solar eclipse, to study the Sun’s corona in a way that we just can’t any other time and wouldn’t ever be able to if the two celestial bodies weren’t sized just so. As the moon passes in front of the Sun only the corona is still visible – flaring fire crowning the moon in the dark daytime sky. Yes, dear atheist, we are not only in a universe impossibly finely tuned for life, but implausibly suited for us to study our own Sun.

Why would that be?

The multiverse doesn’t explain it. There is no reason that the one universe in which all the dice rolled just right for life would also be the same universe in which we’d be gifted with a moon that was sized exactly right to study our own Sun.

Atheists have no explanation.

But we do. We know our God created us as the very pinnacle of His creation (Psalm 8:3-9, Genesis 1:26-28) and that our purpose is to glorify Him. So it isn’t surprising to us that God would so arrange things that the size of the sizing of the moon enables us to study our Sun – God is showing us His wonders!

This article was first published in the May 2016 edition of Reformed Perspective.

RELATED ARTICLE: Observatory Earth: Eclipses and our Privileged Planet

If biological evolution is true, whence sin and suffering?

This is the  fourth and final instalment in the series on Keller’s white paper in which he answers the real questions of Christians when they are told that evolution is compatible with the Christian faith.

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Keller words this “layperson” question as follows, “If biological evolution is true and there was no historical Adam and Eve how can we know where sin and suffering came from?” He responds in short, “Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.”

Keller finds the “concerns of this question much more well-grounded” than the first two questions. With reference to the first two, he summarizes, “I don’t believe you have to take Genesis 1 as a literal account, and I don’t think that to believe human life came about through EBP you necessarily must support evolution as the GTE” (7). But as regards this third question he wants to maintain that Adam and Eve were historical figures and not mere symbols. In this regard he differs from those who are more liberal with the text of Genesis 1–3.

In part agreeing with Keller

As with the last question Keller entertained, I again find him making some strong and valid points but ultimately proposing solutions that don’t work. He is concerned that if the church abandons belief in a historical fall into sin, this might “weaken some of our historical, doctrinal commitments at certain crucial points (7). Two such points are the trustworthiness of Scripture and the scriptural teachings on sin and salvation (7–10). He correctly asserts that “the key for interpretation is the Bible itself.” He adds that he doesn’t think Genesis 1 should be taken literally because he thinks the author himself didn’t intend this. However, we have earlier weighed his case and found it wanting. His principles sound good, but he doesn’t practice them. Moreover, he fails to talk about the ultimate author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit.

When Keller favourably quotes Kenneth Kitchen to the effect that the ancients did not tend to historicize myth, that is, think that their myths really were history, but rather tended to turn their history into myths, celebrating actual persons and events “in mythological terms,” we can again agree. This supports the view that the original message is the truth we find in Genesis, and that the myths of the surrounding nations adulterated this (8).[1]

The Derek Kidner model

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In 1967 Derek Kidner, a British Old Testament scholar ordained in the Anglican Church, published a commentary on Genesis in which he surmised that the creature into which God breathed life (Gen 2:7) could have belonged to an existing species whose “bodily and cultural remains” (fossils, bones, cave drawings, I presume) show that they were quite intelligent but were not up to the level of an Adam. Keller concludes, “So in this model there was a place in the evolution of human beings when God took one out of the population of tool-makers and endowed him with the ‘image of God’” (11). However, a problem arises regarding all the other tool-makers. They would have been biologically related to Adam but not spiritually related. Kidner then proposed a second step: “God may have now conferred his image on Adam’s collaterals, to bring them into the same realm of being” (11). Then, if Adam is taken as the representative of all, they might all be considered by God to be included in the fall even though they are not physically descended from Adam and Eve (this sort of move, by the way, has been welcomed by certain Reformed theologians who emphasize Adam’s federal or covenantal headship, though historically Reformed theologians never separated this from his physical headship).

“Let us make man in our image”

What is lacking in Kidner’s account and Keller’s consideration is more attention to the language of Genesis. God did not simply appoint an existing being to be endowed with his image. Rather God conferred within himself and specifically uttered his determination, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule . . .” (Gen 1:26). Then verse 27 three times uses the word “created,” when it says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” Thus, God spoke of “making” and “creating” man in chapter 1, while in chapter 2 the manner of this creating was specified in that God “formed the man of dust from the ground” and “fashioned/constructed a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man” (2:7, 22). Speaking of a mere endowment or bestowal of God’s “image” on an existing hominid, Neanderthal, or whatever it was, doesn’t do justice to such terms as “created,” “made,” “formed,” and “fashioned.”

Suffering and death before the fall?

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Moving on to the problem of death before the fall, Keller acknowledges that this is a very prominent question. He doesn’t propose a fulsome answer, but offers a number of points by which his Biologos fellows could help Christians overcome these concerns. He does this by highlighting aspects of the creation which, in his view, show that “there was not perfect order and peace in creation from the first moment” (11, italics added). These aspects include the initial chaos which God had to “subdue” in the successive days of creating, the presence of Satan, the fact that the world was not yet “in a glorified, perfect state” (11) and the view that surely there had to have been some kind of death and decay, else the fruit on the trees would not even have been digestible (12). What response can we give to this?

First, we must emphasize what the Scriptures emphasize, “And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen 1:31), the climax of all the other affirmations of the goodness of creation in that chapter (Gen 1:4,9,12,18,21,25). Second, we can agree that good bacteria were present, to digest food, for God gave all the plants for food (Gen 1:30; cf. Gen 9:3) and even in the new creation the tree of life will bear fruit every month and its leaves will be used for healing (Rev 22:2). Although Revelation describes this symbolically, the idea of plant death in some sense is not averse to the new creation (cf. Isa 65:25). Thus digestion and plant death before the fall are something good, not something evil. Third, God did not have to subdue the chaos as though it were an active power against him. Rather, he took six days to form and shape what he had initially produced on the first day so that he would set the pattern of our lives and manifest himself as a God of power, wisdom, order, and love. Finally, the presence of Satan did not make God’s creating work as such incomplete or evil. Rather, Satan had chosen to rebel, had destroyed the peace of heaven, but had not yet instigated our human rebellion. So none of Keller’s points stand and certainly none of them provide any scriptural evidence whatsoever of suffering and death before the fall. We must shun any suggestion that God is the one responsible for sin, evil, and suffering, or that suffering and evil are just natural developments and not a result of our sin.

Spiritual death, not physical?

One final attempt by Keller to find some room for suffering and death before the fall emerges from the distinction between physical and spiritual death. If one treats the threat of death in Genesis 2:17 and the curse of death after the fall as simply indicating spiritual death, then all of the hundreds of thousands of years of animal death before Adam and Eve are no problem. As Keller writes, “The result of the Fall, however, was ‘spiritual death’, something that no being in the world had known, because no one had ever been in the image of God” (12). Note that this is simply a consistent application of the idea that God “bestowed” his image on at least two hominids (or whatever they were) and thereby “elected” them to be humans. Before this all creatures were only animals.

However, this separation of physical and spiritual death is artificial. The refrain of Genesis 5, “and he died,” underlines how the curse on creation was effected in a very physical way. We realize that Adam and Eve did not drop dead physically, the moment they disobeyed. But at that very moment they put themselves on the path of death, rebelling against God, and running from the Author of life. Only in the promise of the Seed could they still find hope—both physical and spiritual.

Conclusion

I don’t think Kidner’s model or Keller’s attempts to provide rhetorical suggestions to his fellow Biologos members have any scriptural weight behind them. These are attempts to accommodate theories that simply do not fit the message of Scripture. Nor do I agree with Keller that the right attitude for the church is to have a “bigger tent” in which we can peacefully discuss together the ways in which we as Reformed Christians might accommodate to Scripture the view that humans descended from other species by evolutionary biological processes. I am convinced that such views are serious errors that need to be kept out of the church of Christ. They disturb the peace. Defending the church against them preserves the peace within.

While I appreciate many of Keller’s writings on apologetics and church planting and have expressed my appreciation in particular for the way in which he pointed out the absurdities of holding to evolution as the “explanation of everything,” I hope that this review essay will help Reformed and Presbyterian churches maintain adherence to their confessional statements.

God created all things good in the space of six days. He made us—from the moment of our existence—as his vice-gerents, representing him to creation and responsible to him. We pledged allegiance to his enemy when we yielded to Satan’s suggestion. Thus we are responsible for sin and death; it is our fault, not God’s. But thanks be to God that his work of grace in Jesus Christ has opened the way for forgiveness, new life, and ultimately, a new creation.

[1] See remarks from E. J. Young in the discussion of the genre of Genesis 1. See https://creationwithoutcompromise.com/2016/03/07/keller-can-we-take-genesis-1-literally-if-we-hold-that-used-evolution-to-create/

Keller: If biological evolution is true, are we just animals driven by our genes?

Keller’s white paper asks a second “layperson” question, one that really gets at a problem: “If biological evolution is true—does that mean that we are just animals driven by our genes and everything about us can be explained by natural selection?” Keller’s provides this short answer, “No. Belief in evolution as a biological process is not the same as belief in evolution as a world-view.”

Two senses of “evolution”: EBP & GTE

In explaining this question and his response, Keller distinguishes evolution in two senses. The first is the teaching that “human life was formed through evolutionary biological processes” (he gives the acronym EBP for this), and the second is evolution “as the explanation for every aspect of human nature,” which he calls the “Grand Theory of Everything” and refers to as “GTE” (6). We might call this evolution as a worldview. Similarly, some Canadian Reformed authors have argued for the distinction between “evolution” and “evolutionism.”[1]

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The problem Keller is addressing is that self-described “evolutionary creationists”—such as those at Biologos tend to be—end up hearing the same critique from both creationists and evolutionists: both argue that you can’t hold the theory of biological evolution without at the same time endorsing atheistic evolution as a whole. Essentially both critics assert that evolution is a package, a worldview, a big-picture perspective, and you can’t just isolate one part of it.

Keller suggests to his fellow Biologos members that most Christian laypeople have a difficult time distinguishing EBP from GTE. They have a hard time understanding that it is possible to limit one’s commitment to evolution to “the scientific explorations of the way which—at the level of biology—God has gone about his creating processes” (6, Keller quoting David Atkinson). “How can we help them?” Keller asks, for “this is exactly the distinction they must make, or they will never grant the importance of EBP.” He simply states that Christian pastors, theologians and scientists need to keep emphasizing that they are not endorsing evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything.

Keller’s helpful critique of evolution as the GTE

To support this, Keller provides a brief but helpful analysis, showing that evolution as the GTE is self-refuting. I’ll explain his point with the help of an online video where he elaborates a bit more. Basically, according to those who hold to evolution as the GTE, religion came about only because it somehow must have helped our ancestors survive (survival of the fittest). In fact, they say, we all know there’s no God, no heaven, no divine revelation. Such things are false beliefs. But if that is the case, argues Keller, then natural selection has led our minds to believe false things for the sake of survival. Further, if human minds have almost universally had some kind of belief in God, performed religious practices, and held moral absolutes, and if it’s all actually false, then we can’t be sure about anything our minds tell us, including evolution as the grand theory of everything. Thus, with reference to itself, evolution as the GTE is absurd.

In the online video that I used to supplement the explanation here, Keller is dealing with the problem that opponents of Christianity and of religion generally try to “explain it away.” He states, “C. S. Lewis put it this way some years ago, “You can’t go on explaining everything away forever or you will find that you have explained explanation itself away.”

Keller, following Lewis, illustrates “explaining away” with “seeing through” things: A window lets you see through it to something else that is opaque. But if all we had were windows—a wholly transparent world—all would be invisible and in the end you wouldn’t see anything at all. “To see through everything is not to see at all.”

How does that apply? Keller asks. He then shows that many universal claims are self-refuting.

If, as Nietzsche says, all truth claims are really just power grabs, then so is his, so why listen to him? If, as Freud says, all views of God are really just psychological projections to deal with our guilt and insecurity, then so is his view of God, so why listen to him? If, as the evolutionary scientists say, that what my brain tells me about morality and God is not real—it’s just chemical reactions designed to pass on my genetic code—then so is what their brains tell them about the world, so why listen to them? In the end to see through everything is not to see.[2]

As usual, Keller is an insightful apologist for the Christian faith. He helps us oppose evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything. Just the same, I heard another prominent evolutionary creationist, Denis Alexander, answering questions at a recent conference (2016) and musing about our lack of knowledge as to when “religiosity” first evolved among our ancestors. So, Keller’s helpful critique notwithstanding, at least one of his co-members at Biologos appears to think that religiosity is an evolved trait (or at least allows for this view).

 

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But not GTE

But Keller doesn’t prove that EBP doesn’t lead to GTE

Although I’ve highlighted something helpful in Keller’s white paper, the main point he needed to do was to prove that one’s commitment to the theory of evolutionary biological ancestry for humans (and all other living things) does not entail holding to evolution as the grand theory of everything. He didn’t do this because the setting in which he spoke was Biologos, an organization which is committed to EBP but wants to avoid GTE because the members are Christians. They’ve already crossed that first bridge. Nevertheless, this is the real point at issue.

Can and will Christians be able to hold to EBP without moving to GTE?

I seriously doubt that Christians can or will be successful in adopting evolution as EBP while avoiding the trajectory that moves toward evolution as GTE. Here’s why, in short.

It seems to me that as soon as one adopts EBP, the following positions come to be accepted (whether as hypotheses, theories, or firm positions):

  1. Adam and Eve had biological ancestors, from whom they evolved (some sort of chimp-like creatures).
  2. These “chimps” in turn had other biological ancestors and relatives, as do all creatures.
  3. In fact, there is an entire phylogenetic tree or chain of evolutionary development that begins with the Big Bang. All living things have common ancestry in the simplest living things, such as plants. At some point before that the transition was made from non-living things to the first living cell (some evolutionary creationists assert that God did something supernatural to make the transition from non-living things to living).[3]
  4. Evolving requires deep time. “Multiple lines of converging evidence” apparently tell us the universe is 14.7 billion years old; the earth is about 4.7 billion, life is about 3 billion, and human life is probably about 400,000 years old (these numbers may vary; I happen to think 6-10 thousand is rather ancient as it is!).
  5. Humans do not have souls; they are simply material beings. This is being promoted by Biologos and other theologians and philosophers.[4] Not all evolutionary creationists would agree; some say God gave a soul when he “made” man in his image, others that the soul “emerged” from higher-order brain processes at some point in the evolutionary history.
  6. The world is on a continual trajectory from chaos to increasing order, or from bad to good to better to best. This creates great difficulties for one’s doctrine of the fall, redemption in Christ, and the radical transition into the new creation.
  7. The earth, as long as it has had animal life, has been filled with violence. Keller admits in his paper how critical this is: “The process of evolution, however, understands violence, predation, and death to be the very engine of how life develops” (2). This presents enormous difficulty for one’s doctrines of the good initial creation, and the fall into sin.
  8. The universe’s order arises mainly due to the unfolding of the inherent powers and structures God must have embedded in that initial singularity called the Big Bang. There is a movement toward Deism inherent in the theory.
  9. Much of what the Bible ascribes to God’s creating power and wisdom actually belongs to his providential guidance, which itself was probably a rather hands-off thing.
  10. God’s nature—particularly his goodness—needs to be understood differently if creation was “red in tooth and claw” from the beginning.[5]
  11. The authority of God’s Word falls under the axe due to the exegetical gymnastics required to accommodate EBP. Scripture apparently no longer means what it appears to mean. This opens up the reinterpretation of everything in the Bible.

Conclusion

In sum, Keller provides a helpful critique of evolution as the Grand Theory of Everything, but fails to demonstrate that holding to evolutionary biological processes does not in itself, very much open one up to evolution as the GTE, and may in fact ultimately make it impossible to avoid more and more of evolution as the GTE. This is surely because for the most part evolution as such depends upon atheistic presuppositions. And in fact, it’s actually quite hard to determine just where the line is between evolution as EBP and GTE. I’m afraid that’s a sliding scale, depending upon which scientist or theologian presents his views. Once the camel’s nose is in the tent . . . you know the rest.

The academic and religious trajectories of scholars who were once orthodox and Reformed show how hard it is to maintain evolution as EBP only. I’m thinking of such men as Howard Van Till (who is now more of a “free thinker”),[6]  Peter Enns (who now only holds to the Apostles’ Creed and treats the Bible as arising from the Israelites, not from God),[7] and Edwin Walhout (who advocated rewriting the doctrines of creation, sin, salvation, and providence).[8] There are whole swaths of theologians and scientists associated with Biologos, the Faraday Institute, and the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation who are trying valiantly to hold together their Christian faith with evolutionary science, and the money of the Templeton Foundation will ensure that pamphlets, presentations, conferences, and books, will bring these views to the Christian public. Holding to Dooyeweerdian philosophy’s sphere sovereignty may help some of these Christians compartmentalize their biology, geology, and their faith, but that philosophical school has been subject to severe criticism in our tradition, and on precisely this point.[9] I fear that the dissonance of EBP itself with the historic, creedal Christian faith will prove to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Christians to keep their faith and EBP together. I also doubt that one can very easily maintain evolution as EBP only.

 

[1] See, for instance, http://reformedacademic.blogspot.ca/2010/03/response-to-clarion-s-ten-reasons.html. Accessed 24 Feb 2016.

[2] See http://veritas.org/talks/clip-explain-away-religion-tim-keller-argues-we-cant/?ccm_paging_p=6. Accessed 24 Feb, 2016.

[3] As an example of an evolutionary creationist attempting to defend the evolutionary link from egg-laying reproduction to placenta-supported reproduction, see Dennis Venema’s recent essays on vitellogenin and common ancestry at Biologos. See http://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess/vitellogenin-and-common-ancestry-does-biologos-have-egg-on-its-face. Accessed 25 Feb 2016.

[4] See my essay entitled, “In Between and Intermediate: My Soul in Heaven’s Glory,” in As You See the Day Approaching: Reformed Perspectives on the Last Things, ed. Theodore G. Van Raalte (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 70–111.

[5] See https://sixteenseasons.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/evolution-and-the-gallery-of-glory/. Accessed 27 Feb 2017.

[6] See https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2012/12/25/howard-van-tills-lightbulb-moment/. Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[7] See his book, The Evolution of Adam (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2012), ix–xx, 26–34.

[8] See https://yinkahdinay.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/walhout-gets-it/. Accessed 26 Feb 2016.

[9] For example, see J. Douma, Another Look at Dooyeweerd (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, 1981).