Martin Luther on Creation (III)

69FC4E73-769C-4A4B-AC5E-5005F505F527Continuing our journey through Volume One of Luther’s Works, we come to another point that we have addressed here previously, and that is the claim that “young earth six-day creationism” is a relative newcomer on the theological scene, and specifically the product of American “fundamentalism.” 

Once again, even a cursory study of historical theology disproves these claims, and a study of Martin Luther’s teaching makes it clear. 

“We know from Moses,” Luther writes already in the third paragraph of his first lecture, “that the world was not in existence before 6,000 years ago. Of this is it altogether impossible to convince a philosopher, because, according to Aristotle, no first man or last man can be conceded.” 

My point here is not to argue that the world can be no more than 6,000 years old. That’s not a hill I’m willing to die on, although theologians that I respect do argue for a strict Biblical chronology, basing themselves on the genealogical record included in Scripture to estimate that about 6,000 years have passed since the creation week. My point is, first of all, that “young earth creationism” is no novel idea; far from being the product of an American fundamentalist response to evolutionism, this has been the default view throughout the history of the church. Luther knew nothing of the developments that would arise in the 19th Century, when evolutionary geology would open the doors to the development of evolutionary biology and the idea that the universe is billions, and not thousands, of years old. But his conclusions, developed in the context of debates with non-Christian philosophers, were that the earth is, in relative terms, “young.” 

As for a “literal” six days of creation, this understanding of Scripture’s teaching also has a lengthy pedigree – as do competing viewpoints which deny that creation occurred during one week of regular days. Luther turns his attention to this topic in his discussion of the creation of human beings on the sixth day, and declares his opposition to “Hilary and others, who maintained that God created everything at the same time”:

“Here our opinion is supported: that the six days were truly six natural days, because here Moses says that Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day. One may not use sophistries with reference to this text. But concerning the order of creation of man he will state in the following chapter that Eve was made sometime after Adam, not like Adam, from a clod of earth, but from his rib, which God took out of the side of Adam as he slept. These are all works of time, that is, works that require time. They were not performed in one moment; neither were these acts: that God brings to Adam every animal and that there was not found one like him, etc. These are acts requiring time, and they were performed on the sixth day.”

Today, “six-day creationism” is opposed to the evolutionary idea that the world as we know it is the product of billions of years of development, whether guided by God, in the case of theistic evolution or progressive creationism, or not guided or directed by anything at all. In Luther’s day, and before, this understanding stood in opposition to instantaneous creation (which Augustine and Hilary held to), and the philosophical idea of the eternity of matter. But regardless of the nature of opposing viewpoints, the Biblical argument remains the same.

And that Biblical argument, far from being peripheral or a minor point on which we can simply “agree to disagree,” is in fact a foundational one. God has spoken. His Word is perfect, and is our ultimate authority. With Luther, we must strongly maintain that “one may not use sophistries with reference to this text.” What is sophistry? According to the definition I found, sophistry is “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.” We have received the Word of Truth, and we need to do our utmost to “rightly handle” that Word (2 Timothy 2:15). The issue of our origins is intimately linked to the issue of our fall, and that of our redemption. All must be rightly handled. May God help us to do just that.

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.