The limits of the “two-books” metaphor

The Bible and the "book" of Nature

There is an idea, common among Christians, that God has revealed Himself to us via “two books”: Scripture and the book of Nature. The Belgic Confession, Article 2 puts it this way:

“We know [God] by two means:

  1. “First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature, as the apostle Paul says in Rom 1:20. All these things are sufficient to convict men and leave them without excuse.
  2. “Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

But what happens when these two “books” seem to conflict? This happens in the Creation/Evolution debate, where the plain reading of Genesis 1 and 2 conflicts with the evolutionary account of our origins. So, as Jason Lisle notes, that has some Christians thinking that since:

“…the book of Nature clearly reveals that all life has evolved from a common ancestor….we must take Genesis as a metaphor…. we must interpret the days of Genesis as long ages, not ordinary days.”

ANALOGIES HAVE THEIR LIMITS

But that’s getting things backwards. While the Belgic Confession does speak of Creation as being like a book, metaphors and analogies have their limits. For example, In Matt. 23:37 God is compared to a hen who “gathers her chicks under her wings” – this analogy applies to the loving, protective nature of a hen, and should not be understood to reveal that God is feminine. That’s not what it is about.

Clearly Nature is not a book – the universe is not made up of pages and text, and it’s not enclosed in a cover or held together by a spine. The Belgic Confession is making a specific, very limited, point of comparison when it likens God’s creation to a book. How exactly is it like a book? In how it proclaims “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature.” It does so with book-like clarity, “so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

But in the Creation/Evolution debate some Christians extend this book analogy in a completely different, and entirely inaccurate, direction. It has been taken to mean that Creation can teach us about our origins with book-like clarity. This misunderstanding then presents us with a dilemma: if we have one book saying we were created in just six days, and another saying it took millions of years, and both are equally clear on this matter, then what should we believe?

We need to understand that this dilemma is entirely of our own making. Creation is not like a book when it comes to teaching us about our origins. As Dr. Lisle has noted, it does not speak with that kind of clarity on this topic.

ONLY ONE ACTUAL BOOK HERE

In contrast, the Bible is not merely like a book, it actually is one! It is there, and only there, that we get bookish clarity on how we, and the world around us, came to be.

So, yes, the two-book analogy remains helpful when it is used to illustrate the clarity with which God shows “his eternal power and divine nature” to everyone on the planet. But when it comes to the Creation/Evolution debate, the way the two-book analogy is being used is indeed fallacious. God’s creation simply does not speak with book-like clarity regarding our origins.

We can be thankful, then, that his Word does!

Jon Dykstra also blogs on at www.ReformedPerspective.ca

 

If Evolution is True, What are You? (Noel Weeks)

In the past three weeks, we’ve featured two scholarly essays by Dr. Noel Weeks, as well as a video lecture in which he highlights the arguments of his essay from 2016.

If you have more time, and if you caught on to Dr. Weeks’s very endearing lecture style from the last video, you will no doubt find very helpful this online lecture by Dr. Weeks, given at the Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Tampa, Florida. He spoke on the topic, “If Evolution is True, What are You?”

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Weeks opens with a cute story—and did I mention that he also has a charming style of lecturing : )—about a zoologist improving the lives of zoo animals. Gibbons at the Santiago Zoo had to learn to press levers to get their food. After learning this, the gibbons were given the choice to have their food for nothing or by working for it. Surprisingly, they chose the latter, and the zoologist suggested that the gibbons were “enjoying” themselves. But, says Weeks, she “caught herself,” for she realized that she was looking at animals from our perspective, which is no longer permitted in the animal sciences. Instead, we ought to think of ourselves in terms of animals. He asks: Which way should we look at ourselves? Who are we? If evolution is true, who are we? 

As Christians we must think from the top down, from God to us. Evolutionists think from the bottom up, from atoms to life to animals to humans to, perhaps, the gods.

The lecture then seeks to explain how we in the West came to these two ways of thinking. Whereas the top down account is from Christianity, its the bottom up account that needs to be explained.

Explaining the Bottom Up View

Weeks begins with the Enlightenment and its scientific discoveries and the idea of a regular world ordered by laws. Next he mentions the European Wars of Religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Seeking to get away from this, European thinkers moved towards Deism in their thinking. By this they could get rid of fanaticism. They also reflected on the regularity of the universe, its laws. God drifts further and further back, creating just the simplest atoms which slowly arrange themselves. The more God is considered to be distant, the more the system drifts to atheism.

Coming to the late eighteenth century Weeks introduces the Scottish economist Adam Smith and his views of economics, competition, and efficiency. A law of competition came to be seen as something good. Greed is okay because everyone benefits.

Here, like a good detective, he drops a clue. You’ll have to listen (21:40).

At around the 20 minute mark Dr. Weeks explains in very clear and helpful terms the development of racial theory in the 19th century. People sought to approach the problem from a “rational” and “scientific” mindset, and combined Adam Smith’s theory of competition with this. Decimation of natives was considered to be a “law of nature.” One race is simply “pushed out of business.” Weeks thinks this is appalling. What happens when some powerful culture considers a certain race to be “inherently evil”? The “Final Solution,” presented as scientific and rational. It makes us shudder to think of it.

At around the 25 minute mark he shifts from questions of race to questions of social class, alluding to how Marx and Engels depended upon evolutionary theory.  They argued that history shows an unstoppable progress of one class overcoming and destroying another. This, they said, is normal and good. It must not be stopped, and if you try to stop you must be destroyed.

Getting back to whether religion causes all the violence in the world, he asks, “Is the cause religious? Is that what we have to deal with, or is there another cause? If non-religious theories, racial theory, Nazism, Communism, can lead to people being murdered in the millions, is the problem religion or is it something else?” (around 27:30).

Weeks teaches us how Alfred Wallace and Charles Darwin took the  theory of competition and applied it to the development of animal and human species. This is where the earlier clue comes back (34:30). Again, you’ll have to listen. 

The Bottom Up View Forgotten

Weeks points out a fundamental problem connected to his opening story: “According to evolutionists] we’re not supposed to think of animals in human terms. [But ] isn’t that how we think of them in the theory of evolution? Some are more successful, some are more entrepreneurial than others” (around 35:30).

Using the example of photocopiers not handling paper clips very well, Weeks introduces “the problem of intelligent design,” which is that chance does not work well in an extremely ordered, complex system. It doesn’t make sense. One cannot maintain the well-ordered system of the universe by introducing chance changes.

In order to explain the lack of evidence for these “chance moments” by which change was introduced, Stephen Gould argues that evolution involves long stable periods without change and then moments of “terror” when change occurs so suddenly that no evidence for the change remains. A handy explanation for a theory lacking evidence!

Why did evolution have to resort to such explanations? Fundamentally, because Adam Smith’s theories about human entrepreneurial ways were applied to animals, whereas in fact animals are not human and do not have such innovative and entrepreneurial ways (around 41:00).

If evolutionists would embrace the consequences of their theories, and view our ethics coming up from animals, we would have a world like Nietzche’s, Marx’s, and Hitler’s.

The Top Down View Restored

Weeks then properly surprises us by stating that the problem of people killing each other is not a problem of world religions or of biological theories. Ultimately it is a human problem. We are all inclined to sin. We can only understand the problems in our world if we accept the truth that we are the children of God and we rebelled against him. That’s the problem that we need to grapple with.

The speech ends here, at the 45 minute mark. Following this was about 30 minutes of discussion, also recorded.

And, by the way, we are open to donations to fly Dr. Weeks over here to North America to deliver for more of his high quality speeches, given in his very endearing style.

2016 Gaffin Lecture (Noel Weeks)

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 10.38.21 PM.pngWe’ve pointed out this video already, but thought it should receive a post of its own. Dr. Weeks’s lecturing style is so winsome that we think you should watch just to praise God for his ability to deliver his lecture with such clarity and yet without any notes.

The lecture was delivered in 2016 and serves as an excellent summary of a scholarly article written by Dr. Weeks that appeared in the Spring of 2016 in the Westminster Theological Journal and reviewed by us in our most recent blog post.

You can get to the video by following this link.

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 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.

How I changed my mind about evolution

Review of: How I Changed My Mind about Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science, ed. Kathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump (Downers Grove: IVP, 2016).

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This book features twenty-five autobiographical accounts of evangelical theologians and scientists, in which they explain why they have adopted the theory of evolution. The editors note at the outset that fully “69% of Americans who faithfully attend church weekly believe that God created humans in their present form less than ten thousand years ago” (16). Their goal is to reduce the number of Evangelicals holding this view.

Instead of laying out the evidence of Scripture and the findings of scientists, they opt to tell their stories. Deborah Haarsma, president of BioLogos, acknowledges, “Answers won’t be found solely in intellectual arguments, and sometimes piling on more evidence doesn’t help” (11).

The book’s editors work for the BioLogos organization and share the book’s copyright with it. For those who don’t know BioLogos, it depends on generous funds from the Templeton Foundation and uses these funds to present “an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation” (16).

Each author has his or her unique story. At the same time, one can notice that a number of themes recur in the stories. I will note three major themes.

 

John Walton’s reinterpretation of Genesis 1 & 2

First, the effect of John Walton’s approach to Genesis 1 & 2 has had a dramatic effect in terms of opening the way for Christians to hold to an evolutionary account of the origins of the universe, and even of the origins of life. By appealing to Walton’s arguments, they are able to marginalize the Bible in the origins debate, arguing that the Genesis account only attempts to answer the “who” and “why” of creation, not the “how” and “when” (38, 43). Or, as two other authors put it, the biblical text only addresses the “what” of creation, not “how” God did it (50, 171).

Walton’s claim is that Genesis is simply the Hebrew version of an Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) origins account (93, 102, 109, 118) and that such accounts only teach what was the function and purpose of each part of the created world. Genesis thus sets out to refute the views of surrounding nations only by attributing the existing world to the Hebrew God instead of the pagan gods, and presenting the earth as God’s dwelling, his temple. The origins of the material stuff of creation and the means of bringing the world into being were not the concern in such accounts. These claims of Walton have been soundly refuted by Noel Weeks in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (78:1 [2016], 1–28). Walton incorrectly interprets the ANE texts, brings together texts from extremely diverse times and contexts, and, I might add, presents an exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 that overlooks all the points averse to his interpretation and makes words like “create” and “make” mean things they simply don’t mean. I’ve listened to Walton deliver his insights in several long speeches and I’ve read one of his books. Unfortunately, J.B. Stump is correct when he writes of himself that Walton’s scholarship “has been a gateway for me (and many others) to consider a more sophisticated treatment of Scripture” (120). It’s interesting that Walton’s interpretation may appear to be more sophisticated for the average Bible reader, but it’s patently incorrect.

 

The “two books” argument

Secondly, quite a few of the authors refer to Scripture and creation as the “two books,” the books of special and general revelation, respectively (60, 78, 115, 175). Theologians draw from the first; scientists from the second; and both of these “professionals” are supplying us with interpretations of divine revelation. This metaphor for equating the findings of certain scientists with general revelation and calling this “complementary” (18) to the message of Scripture has been around for some time; it may emerge from a misuse of article 2 of our Belgic Confession (190). One author even speaks of “reading the big book of creation alongside the little book of Scripture,” telling scientists that they are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” (95). Another says that the “book of [God’s] works is one that he desires us to take, read, and celebrate” (102).

But the Scriptures never speak of general revelation in this way. Rather, the revelation that is available to all people in the world is enough to make them know that there is a God, and that he should be served and praised (Psa 19:1–6; Acts 17:24). This revelation leaves them without excuse when they suppress the knowledge of God and substitute idols in his place (Rom 1:18–20). The discoveries of scientists are not revelations from God, but human interpretations of data that are fitted within particular theories. The Lord never promised a correct interpretation of nature, but he did promise to lead his people in the rich pastures of his Word by the working of his Holy Spirit. Further, since all people because of sin suppress the knowledge of God from creation, Scripture must correct those misconceptions; thus, the clear message of Scripture must have precedence. Our own Dr. N. H. Gootjes wrote some excellent articles about this years ago, called, “What Does God Reveal in the Grand Canyon.” See here and here and here for these articles, plus a final word here. Let us honour our God by keeping his holy Word in its proper place, far above all humanly-devised theories.

 

Straw man arguments

Finally, the third major theme I picked out was not a theme the authors highlighted, but something I noticed. It really felt to me that the arguments they mentioned against evolution were some of the weakest; they were blowing over straw men. For instance, dinosaurs never existed and Satan buried the bones that testify otherwise (30). Or, “Job invented electricity” (49). These are not the types of arguments used by those who argue for a so-called “young” earth and fiat creation. See this page for examples of arguments that have sometimes been used but are no longer recommended.

N. T. Wright’s chapter—an excerpt from one of his books—tries to relativize the entire young earth position by treating it as a tempest in a North American teapot, as if only unsophisticated revolutionaries would ever treat the biblical text in such a fundamentalist way (131–37). Similarly, another author states, “Despite twenty-five centuries of debate, it is fair to say that no human knows what the meaning of Genesis 1 and 2 was precisely intended to be” (73). I would have expected the editors to excise such nonsense.

Readers must also endure the expected jab at Bishop James Ussher, who concluded that God created the world in 4004 B.C. (72). In fact, Ussher was one of the most learned men of his time, and sought to determine creation’s date because this was an exercise that many other scholars around him had sought to do. Indeed, many Jews still give today’s date as determined from the moment of creation—today, as I write, it is 17th of Tishre, year 5779 since creation began. See here for a date converter.

Finally, all sides in this debate ought to agree that pat responses such as “with God one day is like a thousand years,” will never suffice, and, in fact, represent a misuse of Psa 90:4 and 2 Pet 3:8 (35).

 

Conclusion

The book at hand was not composed to marshal all the arguments in favour of evolution. Rather, it tells the stories of various evangelical theologians, pastors, and scientists. As such, its style is completely in line with the purpose of BioLogos, which aims to “translate scholarship on origins for the evangelical church” (back cover, re the task of Kathryn Applegate at BioLogos). In other words, the book seeks to make evolution seem acceptable by holding up a series of twenty-five models for evangelical believers to follow, and thereby to reduce that statistic of 69% that was mentioned at the outset.

However, the book only leaves me more concerned, inasmuch as some of the strongest arguments that seem to have opened the way for these Evangelicals to change their minds about evolution—the three that recur most often in the book—turn out to be very bad arguments.

 

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.