Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 5 — Final)

See here for Part 1, here for Part 2, here for Part 3, and here for Part 4.

The Extent of the Flood

As already mentioned, USTO disparages a “Bible-first” approach.  Instead, the Bible has to be understood, not only on its own terms, but also in terms of what God is revealing in the “second book” of scientific evidence.  Not surprisingly, this leads USTO to reject the notion of a global flood in the days of Noah.  They grant that the Bible describes some cataclysmic event of massive proportions; however USTO insists that it was not global.  Moreover, “the event is described with a specific theological and literary goal in mind” (241).  It is not meant to provide us with a “hydro-geological” explanation.

Once again we are presented with a false dilemma:  a global flood versus a “specific theological and literary goal.”  This dilemma is false because if we understand the text to be referring to a global flood, that certainly does not rule out a theological and literary goal.  Creationists understand that God reveals what he does in Genesis 6-9 for a theological purpose, but that by no means rules out the historical fact of what it describes.

In Genesis 6-9, one of the key issues is how we understand the Hebrew word kol (all).  USTO concludes that the Hebrew word kol in the Flood story is used rhetorically – it simply means that a large area was inundated and large numbers of people were affected.  Kol can be used rhetorically – no one questions that.  However, Scripture must interpret Scripture.  USTO ignores the key section in Genesis 6.  In Genesis 6:5-7, God observes the wickedness of human beings “in the earth.”  USTO would translate that as “in the land,” and yes, the Hebrew word for ‘earth’ can also be translated ‘land.’  But verse 6 militates against that, because it speaks of God’s creation of human beings “on the earth.”  God did not create human beings “in the land,” i.e. in some region now under his scrutiny.  This is universal language.  That becomes further evident when Genesis 6:7 refers to the animals.  God plans not only to destroy humanity, but also the “animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens” which he created at the beginning (cf. Gen. 7:4).  This too favours a global understanding.  Later in chapter 6, God speaks of “all flesh” having corrupted its way on the earth.  Are we to imagine that there were pockets of humanity which were immune to this trend?  Genesis 6:17 says, “For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven.  Everything that is on the earth shall die.”  Notice the mention of “under heaven.”  All flesh “under heaven” is slated for destruction.  Again, that distinctly favours a global understanding of this event.

Moreover, the building of the ark itself witnesses to a global flood.  The ark was built by Noah, not only to save him and seven others of his family, but also to save the animals.  USTO has no explanation as to why the animals had to enter the ark if the Flood was something less than global.

In a sidebar, USTO interacts briefly with the New Testament mentions of the Flood.  They claim that none of the New Testament passages “make a statement about its geographical scope” (243).  Luke 17:26-27 is mentioned:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

USTO claims that this is just speaking about “how people were living their lives day by day and were caught by surprise when judgment came” (243).  But what is the nature of the judgment to come?  It’s universal.  Just as the Flood destroyed all the ungodly in the days of Noah, “so will it be in the days of the Son of Man.”  In case you miss the point, in the next three verses, Christ speaks about the days of Lot and the wholesale destruction of Sodom:  “fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all.”  No one escaped, except Lot.  Clearly, Christ understood the Flood to be an event which destroyed all human beings except Noah and his family.

According to USTO, 2 Peter 2:5 “references God sparing Noah” (243).  2 Peter 2:5 says, “…if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly…”  It beggars belief to argue that Peter believed the flood to be anything less than global.  It was the “ancient world” which was not spared and the flood came upon “the world of the ungodly.”  The natural reading is to understand these terms globally and universally.

USTO also adopts an unnatural reading of 2 Peter 3:5-6.  They argue that it just speaks about the world being deluged and destroyed and the Greek word for ‘world’ (kosmos) is being used in its broadest sense, and therefore it’s not referring to the extent of the Flood.  However, when you look at these verses in context, beginning with verse 4, it becomes evident how implausible that interpretation is:

They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?  For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished.

Notice how Peter writes about the creation of the earth – he is quite evidently not speaking about the creation of some portion of the planet.  The same entire planet that was created was deluged with water.

If God is revealing through the scientific evidence that a global flood never happened, then we need to revisit our interpretation of Genesis and somehow bring it into alignment with this newer divine revelation.  That is what USTO is doing.  However, it is a revisionist approach to the Bible.   It simply does not honour the Bible as God’s Word.  We honour God’s Word when we take it on its own terms and then evaluate what we observe in the world around us in the light of what God has said.  As the Psalmist says, “….in your light do we see light” (Ps. 36:9).

Conclusion

There are a fair number of other concerns I could mention, but having covered the most important, I’ll bring this lengthy review to a close here.  I began by saying that USTO could be described as the theistic evolution “Bible.”  I said that intentionally because USTO not only contains content from the written Bible as we know it, but it also presents scientific evidence as a second “book” with additional revelation from God (albeit with a “provisional authority”).   Whether this is a legitimate method of approaching origins is really the key issue.  Because I am a Reformed Christian, I emphatically deny that it is.

I believe the Bible alone is our inspired, infallible, inerrant source for doctrine and life.  The Bible teaches that about itself.  Therefore, God’s Word always has to be our starting point.  It is not that the Bible is a “textbook” for science, as USTO and others allege creationists to believe.  Rather, science can only honour God when it takes its starting point from what God has said in the Bible.

I tried, but I could not read this book dispassionately.  In this book, I heard the whispers of Satan in the Garden of Eden:  did God really say?  If someone is questioning my Father or twisting his words, even if it’s done with the greatest sophistication, I cannot remain dispassionate.  I also think of the sad fact that this book comprises course material at Wheaton College.  Scores of impressionable youth have been and are being fed this content.  Because it is happening at a Christian institution, they could be led to believe that this is an acceptable Christian approach.  It is not.  It is unbelief.  I pray for students at Wheaton College that God will help them with his Spirit and Word to discern the truth regarding origins.

Book Review: Understanding Scientific Theories of Origins (Part 2)

See here for Part 1.

Scriptural Perspicuity

According to USTO, understanding the Bible on origins requires an understanding of the broader Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought-context.  This method has been championed at length by one of the contributors, John Walton, in his other writings.  This method is related to his view of the authority in the Bible.  In USTO, Walton and his colleagues write that, in the Bible, God has vested authority in the human authors.  Consequently, “the message of the author carries the authority of God.”  But also:  “our only access to the message is through the human author” (10).

But where does the Bible teach this about itself?  Shouldn’t the Bible be our starting point for how we read and understand the Bible?  This misstep has massive implications.  The opening chapters of Genesis are treated as if they are any other ANE text.  They are treated as human writings bearing a divine message, rather than as writings inspired by the same Holy Spirit who inspired the rest of the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:21).  As a consequence, instead of going to the rest of Scripture for illumination on points requiring explanation, USTO goes to the ANE context.

This approach compromises on what we call the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.  Scripture is a lamp for our feet – it sheds light (Ps. 119:105,130).  The meaning of Scripture is accessible, even to those without a background in ANE studies or the Hebrew language.  In referring to the Pentateuch, the apostle Paul wrote that the stories of Israel’s failings in the wilderness “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor. 10:11).  Those Spirit-inspired words were written to the Corinthian Christians, some of whom may have been Jews, but many of whom were not.  Paul expected that the Word would be clear and he understood that the book of Exodus, though written hundreds of years before, was intended by God to speak clearly also to the Corinthian Christians.

If we heed USTO, Christians today need background in ANE studies before they can properly understand the message of Genesis 1.  In fact, with this approach, the church has been in the dark for centuries until these ANE studies were conducted and brought to light what had previously been dark.  To the contrary, there is a simple and clear message in Genesis 1 and we should not allow academics to propose darkness where God has given light.  Yes, there are difficult passages in Scripture and the doctrine of perspicuity does not deny that given what Scripture itself says in 2 Peter 3:16.  However, historically, Genesis 1 was not regarded as a difficult passage.  Taken in the context of the entire Bible (letting Scripture interpret Scripture), what it is saying is so clear that a child can understand it.  It only became a difficult passage because of the challenges posed by unbelieving scientists.

Creation Without Compromise has previously featured work done by the late Dr. Noel Weeks on John Walton’s views of biblical background:

The Ambiguity of Biblical “Background” (Noel Weeks)

Critique of John Walton (Noel Weeks)

The work of Dr. Weeks goes into much more detail and I commend it to you for your further study.

USTO’s Interpretation of Genesis

This brings us into a more detailed consideration of the arguments for how to understand the Genesis account of origins.  USTO argues that Genesis 1 is speaking in terms of a functional ontology.  In the ANE thought-context, things comes into existence by reason of their function.  Genesis 1 is therefore not describing the creation of material, but the taking of that material and ordering it and putting it into use (102).

We should note the false dilemma presented between material and functional.  Genesis could be working with both categories.  In fact, if we maintain the approach of letting Scripture interpret Scripture, this might well be our conclusion.  Recognizing the functionality of what is described in Genesis 1 does not rule out its material nature or its historicity as an account of what really happened in those six days.  Interestingly, this “both…and” approach is what we find in article 12 of the Belgic Confession.  God created heaven and earth and all creatures out of nothing (non-material to material), and he also gave every creature not only its “being, shape, and form,” but also to each “its specific task and function to serve its Creator.”

Related to the foregoing false dilemma, USTO overstates its case in regard to the Hebrew verb bara’.  They argue that the verb is always used in Scripture to refer to things not material in nature:  “The verb bara’ does not intrinsically refer to materiality….” (106).  However, readers should know this is a disputed claim.  This comes from one of the leading Old Testament dictionaries:

Though br’ does not appear with mention of material out of which something is created, it is regularly collocated with verbs that do (e.g. Gen. 1:26-27; 2:7,19; Isa. 45:18; Amos 4:13).  More significantly, br’ is used of entities that come out of pre-existing material: e.g. a new generation of animals or humans, or a ‘pure heart.’ (Ps. 104:29-30; 102:18[19]; 51:10[12]; cf. 1 Cor. 4:6.).  (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 1.731).

In fact, NIDOTTE states that John Walton’s view (which is what we encounter in USTO) is “somewhat misleading.”

Click here to continue to part 3.

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.