Martin Luther on Creation (II)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527The ancient Hebrew cosmology, we’re told repeatedly, included an understanding that there is a hard shell over the earth, known as the “firmament.” We’ve addressed this misunderstanding here before, but once again, Martin Luther has something to teach us on this subject.

I’m returning to the first volume of Luther’s Works, and specifically what he had to say about the firmament in Genesis 1:6.  Why? Because Luther is correct here, when he explains the meaning of the Hebrew word “raqia” (“expanse,” or “firmament”). Luther writes:

“The Hebrew word “raqia” denotes ‘something spread out,’ from the verb ‘raqa,’ which means ‘to expand’ or ‘to fold out.’ The heaven was made in this manner, that the unformed mass extended itself outward as the bladder of a pig extends itself outward in circular form when it is inflated – if I may be permitted to make use of a coarse comparison in order to make the process clear.”

But what about Job 37:18? That verse says:

“Can you, like him, spread out the skies, hard as a cast metal mirror?” 

Isn’t it clear from this verse, found in one of the earliest books of the Old Testament, that the ancient cosmology did in fact include a hard shell above the earth? So goes the argument; the creation account reflects the cosmology of the ancient Hebrews, and as such does not describe in “literal” terms the makeup of the universe.

Luther responds:

“This pertains not to the material but to the Word, which makes very strong even that which is very soft by nature. What is softer than water, what is thinner and finer than air? Yet because these very fine and soft substances were created by the Word, they preserve their form and motion most perfectly and firmly. But even if the heaven had been constructed of steel or of an infinitely harder material, it would break and melt because of its swift, long, and continuous motion. The sun, too, would melt one day as a result of its swift motion, even if it consisted of the hardest material. For motion produces great heat; in fact, Aristotle declares that the lead on an arrow melts on account of its swift motion.” 

Luther’s explanation of the nature of the firmament is interesting on a couple of levels. First of all, he debunks the “solid dome” idea in a few words, and does so by doing the work of exegesis using the text of Scripture itself in the first place. He goes on to add:

“Among the Hebrews the firmament got its name from the expanding. Thus in Psalm 104 the comparison with skins and camp tents, taken from military life, cleverly alludes to the word. The expression is: ‘Stretching out the heaven like a tent curtain’ (Ps. 104:2). ‘For just as a folded-up tent is unfolded and pitched in a field,’ the psalm says,’ so Thou dost spread out and, as it were, unroll by Thy Word the unformed heaven, where Thou dost sit invisibly in the whole of creation, just as in a sphere, within all things and outside all things.’”

In the second place, Luther interacted with the scientific knowledge that he had available to him – in this case, the teaching of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and later the conclusions of contemporary philosophers. But he does so not in order to re-interpret Scripture to conform with the philosophers’ conclusions. Rather, this knowledge leads him to glorify God and the power of his creative and providential Word. This philosophical (or scientific, to use the modern term) knowledge is limited and provisional. It is always subject to revision. It’s useful, Luther says, but it’s useful within its limits:

“It would… be the height of stupidity to sneer at these ideas [those of the philosophers or scientists of the day], as some do, because they are not so definite that they could not be otherwise. They contribute toward teaching the arts, and this is sufficient.”

But in the end, writes Luther:

“We Christians must… be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them and admit our lack of knowledge rather than either wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding. We must pay attention to the expression of Holy Scripture and abide by the words of the Holy Spirit, whom it pleases to distribute His creatures in this way…”

These are words to live by! We must acknowledge our limitations, the creaturely limitations that are inherent to our very being (the fact that we are limited creatures, and not the Creator), and the additional limitations and distortions of our understanding which were caused by the fall into sin. 

Martin Luther on Creation (I)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527I recently acquired a copy of  Luther’s Works, Volume 1: Lectures on Genesis 1-5. It’s always enjoyable to read Luther, and his typically “earthy” style is in evidence in this volume, even though these are transcriptions of Luther’s original lectures, with the occasional addition made by a later writer. As the editor of this volume says, “The hands are sometimes the hands of the editors, but the voice is nevertheless the voice of Luther.”

These lectures were originally delivered nearly five hundred years ago. But despite their age, and despite the fact that Luther seeks to correct errors that were then common, but which have now been replaced by others, there is much here that is very applicable to current discussions on the Biblical account of creation. “Everything old is new again,” as the song says. Or even better, “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes.

The first aspect of Luther’s lectures that is worth noting is Luther’s humility before God’s Word. Luther often wrote and spoke brashly, but like John Calvin, he knew when to be silent, and he knew that the believer’s proper posture before God’s Word is one of absolute humility. And so, speaking of the eternity of God, he writes:

“He is within, without, and above all creatures; that is, He is still incomprehensible. Nothing else can be said, because our mind cannot grasp what lies outside of time.”

Writing of the creation of light on the first day, Luther reveals the same sort of humble acceptance of what God’s Word says:

“Although it is difficult to say what sort of light it was, nevertheless I do not agree that we should without reason depart from the rules of language or that we should by force read meanings into words. Moses says plainly that there was light, and he counts this day as the first of the creation. Therefore I am of the opinion that this was true light and that its motion carried it in a circle, just as sunlight moves in a circle.” 

One more example, from Luther’s comments on Genesis 1:6, shows Luther’s reverence for God’s self-revelation in his word. Regarding the separation of the “waters above” from the “waters below,” Luther explains:

“But Moses says in plain words that the waters were above and below the firmament. Here I, therefore, take my reason captive and subscribe to the Word even though I do not understand it.” 

In a subsequent post or two I’d like to get into some other important points that Luther makes about the creation week that remain very applicable in our context. But even before getting into details, it’s Luther’s approach to the Word that is very instructive, and vitally important. Interpretation of individual passages flows from this starting point: a posture of humble acceptance of God’s Word, even where we are unable to entirely explain it, even where our understanding of it isn’t where we would like it to be.

As the saying of Anselm of Canterbury puts it, “Credo ut intelligam” – “I believe so that I may understand.” 

In subsequent posts, we’ll look at Luther’s lectures on the first chapters of Genesis in some more detail, using the same starting point that Luther himself used. 

Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

This blog post provides a simpler account of a scholarly essay by Noel Weeks called, “The Bible and the ‘Universal’ Ancient World: A Critique of John Walton,” Westminster Theological Journal 78 (2016): 1–28.

But first an introduction.

The titles of several of John Walton’s books make clear his view that the Bible comes from an ancient world that we no longer understand . . . unless we accept Walton’s explanations of how these ancient cultures worked and thought, and then apply Walton’s reconstruction to re-intrepret the Old Testament.

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(IVP, 2009)
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(IVP, 2013)
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(IVP, 2015)

Apparently the books are selling well, for IVP has turned this into a “Lost World” series with one more volume per year, for 2017, 2018, and 2019. In every case the premise of the volume is that Western readings of the Old Testament have grossly misunderstood the meaning of the text by ignoring the Ancient Near Eastern context. For example, The Lost World of the Torah (i.e., of Gen–Deut), due to come out in Feb 2019, argues that “The Ancient Israelites Would Not Have Understood the Torah as Providing Divine Moral Instruction,” and “We Cannot Gain Moral Knowledge or Build a System of Ethics Based on Reading the Torah in Context and Deriving Principles from It” (the book’s theses have been announced online). Presumably the Ten Commandments, part of the Torah, do not provide moral instruction? We shall find out when the book is published.

As with all of Walton’s books, this raises questions about how much we can assume that there was such a thing as an Ancient Near Eastern mindset that was shared across very diverse cultures and several millennia. Weeks’s article from 2010 pointed out enormous problems with this assumption (we reviewed this in a previous blog post).

Enter a second essay by Weeks, directly challenging Walton.

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Weeks begins by pointing out that the crucial weakness in Walton’s method is the belief that the ancient world and our modern world are so vastly different that the Bible’s conformity to thought patterns of the ancient world—as reconstructed by Walton, we hasten to add—and its differences from our world, can be taken for granted. As a result of this assumption, Walton doesn’t need to make careful distinctions in his evidence from the ancient world. Weeks, however, shows how important it is to evaluate the evidence much more closely than Walton does.

First, he points out biases in the textual evidence (mostly clay tablets) from Mesopotamia, that is, the land of the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians:

  • 100s of 1000s of Mesopotamian texts versus a few dozen from Israel (besides OT)
  • 90% of Mesopotamian texts are economic or administrative records but the biblical text of the OT is not of that sort
  • the 10% of the Mesopotamian texts remaining are mostly for divination & exorcism
  • next, it’s unclear whether the few Mesopotamian texts that could compare to the Old Testament represent matters central to Mesopotamian thought
  • also unclear whether Mesopotamian scribes recorded views of their own culture & time or simply repeated past stories for other reasons
  • further unknown whether the average person in Mesopotamia thought in the way of these few texts or whether such views belonged only to the elite

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Weeks concludes, “When all these reservation and qualifications are taken into consideration, the simple quoting of a Mesopotamian text as the background to the OT is implausible” (6).

Weeks next reviews the evidence from Egypt, then from Hittite sources, and then from the Transjordan area. The only site that provides texts of ancient myths is Ugarit, on the Syrian coast (7). But Ugarit has no creation account, nor do the Hittite myths (8). The only creation account, from the Enuma elish, is actually about the superiority of the Babylonian god Marduk. The dating of the document’s origin is likely late second millennium B.C., too late to have been consulted by Moses (9).

Weeks asks whether even ten references over two thousand years and two cultures can establish a common view, and then adds that “on some crucial points Walton is more likely to have two than ten” (10).

Walton’s key arguments next receive scrutiny.

  • First, about creation in Genesis not being about the origin of things, but only their functions, Weeks provides two counter examples from Babylonia (11).
  • Second, the particular functions that Walton ascribes to each day of creation are rather out of line with his claim to convey the ancient mindset, for he chooses very abstract functions, such as time, the architectural design of cosmic geography, fecundity, etc. (12).
  • Third, the idea of creation as temple where God came to rest just like all other ancient gods lived in temples is challenged by the fact that these gods were often described as living in other gods’ temples or even reposing outside a temple, and especially, having their more permanent residence in a heaven (13–14, 18).
  • Fourth, the assumed “scientific naiveté of the ancient people in apparently thinking of the universe as a three-tiered structure is false. While such texts exist, other, different texts from the same cultures also exist (14–17).
  • Fifth, the importance of the seven-day period in general does not need to be questioned, but its purported tie to the length of time for building a temple fails (19).

Interestingly, Weeks concludes that Walton has not only made the Bible more like the surrounding cultures, but he has also made the surrounding cultures more like the Bible (18). And, we might add, both as unlike today as possible.

In a major section of his paper, Weeks also critiques Walton’s application of his method to Scripture more broadly, but for our purposes we will not describe this (21–6).

He concludes,

In summary I am not impressed by the whole approach outlined here. There is no recognition of the difficulty of discerning a uniform mind of the ANE. Individual extra-biblical texts are turned into representations of the whole huge chronological and cultural span. Even more striking are claims that are simply false (26, bold here and in following paragraphs added).

The tendency of [Walton & Sandy’s] system is to push any real impact of God on the world further into a grey area . . . They reject Deism . . . but their system has the same tendency . . . The points of interaction between the deity and the physical world are postulates of faith without tangible physical evidence. [However], the biblical text is clear that when God interacts with the physical, the physical world is actually, visibly changed (26).

Structurally this approach is very similar to the neo-orthodox thesis of a Word of God within the Scriptures but not synonymous with the Scriptures (27).

In other words they make no attempt to set forward a method by means of which we might climb out of the language of an ancient time into the message for us. I suspect that they do not tell us because they already know what parts of the text are objectionable. Whether is it the parts that do not fit Kantianism or the parts that make the modern unbeliever scoff, it is modern problems that really drive them. I fear they have fallen into the trap they wished to avoid (27).

We need to see that the Bible stands over against both the ancient world and the modern world. It does so because God is distinct from the creation he made and yet he impacts upon it (28).

For those who prefer to get the gist of this article in video format, you can watch Weeks’s lecture at Westminster Theological Seminary, posted online. I’m sure they’ll be happy for the added web traffic 🙂 and you will be happy to listen to his very winsome style of lecturing. A pdf of the article can also be obtained.

 

 

The Big Bang and Genesis

bigbangWhen I was a seminary student, we had the privilege of having Dr. Margaret Helder as a guest speaker.  Having grown up in Edmonton, Dr. Helder was not a stranger to me.  She had occasionally been a guest speaker at our Christian school in Alberta.  However, on this particular occasion at the Canadian Reformed Seminary in Hamilton, I heard her say something that I couldn’t recall having heard before.  I don’t remember if it was part of her original presentation or in reply to a question, but she pointed out that the so-called Big Bang and Genesis are incompatible.  I don’t remember the exact reasons she gave as to why that was, but it sounded quite reasonable to me at the time and, since then, I’ve kept it in the back of my mind.

I thought about this again recently as I encountered a book which suggested that the Big Bang and Genesis are compatible.  Gregory Koukl’s new book The Story of Reality is generally a recommended overview of the Christian worldview (a review will be appearing shortly on my blog Yinkahdinay).  In chapter 7, Koukl is answering two objections to the Christian view of God as Creator.  The second has to do with miracles.  After all, creation is a miracle.  He notes that all scientists “pretty much agree that the universe had a beginning.”  That beginning was the Big Bang where “all things exploded into existence in a fraction of an instant.”  Then he says this (page 51):

I know the Big Bang idea is controversial with some Christians, but I think that’s because they haven’t realized how well it fits the Story [the Christian worldview laid out in the Bible], which basically says the same thing.

So according to Koukl, the Big Bang fits with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Reading this gave me occasion to look a little more into this and refresh my memory as to why Dr. Helder had told a group of seminary students and professors otherwise.

I found this article on creation.com to be especially helpful:  The Big Bang is not a Reason to Believe.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the whole article, this chart about sums it up — each flash on this chart represents a conflict between the chronology of Genesis 1-2 and Big Bang cosmology:

russ-humphreys-idea

Does the Big Bang really fit the story that well?  Perhaps if you define “Big Bang” in some way that doesn’t reflect how it’s really being used in astrophysics.  Maybe that’s what Koukl has done.  Or perhaps if you insist that Genesis 1-2 don’t give us a chronologically accurate, historic account of the origins of the universe.  Of course, that second option could find you up against Jesus Christ, who clearly taught that Adam and Eve were created at the beginning (Matthew 19:4).  No, I still think that Dr. Helder was right.  There’s no reconciling the Big Bang and God’s Word.