Archives For Science

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I realize the title is a bit clickbaity. But, it is the name of an actual book from IVP Academic that I actually read. How I Changed My Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science is a collection of essays edited by Kathryn Applegate and J. B. Stump. The former is the program director at BioLogos and the later is senior editor there. This volume is the first in a new series from IVP in tandem with BioLogos called, not surprisingly, BioLogos Books on Science and Christianity.

As far as the book itself, it is clearly aimed at the lay level. The essays are short and mostly non-technical. Most all were written specifically for this volume, with the exception of the excerpts from larger works by N. T. Wright and Francis Collins, and an adaptation from a sermon by John Ortberg. There is a wide range of contributors, some are scientists, some are pastors, some are theologians, some are biblical scholars. Each lends an authoritative voice to give credibility to a divisive topic. To me, the interesting inclusions are:

  • James K. A. Smith
  • Scot McKnight
  • Tremper Longman III
  • Oliver Crisp
  • Richard Mouw

None of these are particularly surprising, but they were the essays I was immediately interested in reading. The rest are people, generally associated with BioLogos, that I hadn’t heard of, and were mostly scientists, pastors, and some evolution apologists I was already familiar with (e.g. Denis Lamoureux).

In reading through the various perspectives here, I tend to doubt whether someone heavily committed to young earth creationism (to give one alternative position) would be swayed. It does have the virtue though of humanizing people who believe in evolution and had someone kind of change of heart. While perhaps not persuasive, it is at least illuminating when it comes to the reasons why a person might change their mind about evolution, whatever that entails in a given story.

What is less transparent though is what is meant in all cases by “evolution.” I’m not talking about the distinction between micro and macro (which is fuzzier than you might imagine). Rather, if I tell you I changed my mind about evolution, I would need to qualify what all aspects of it I have actually changed my mind about. So, if for instance I think that Genesis 1 doesn’t specify the time the universe was created but only discusses, at best, the formation of our solar system, I can affirm a literal (meaning according to the exalted prose literary sense of the passage) reading of Genesis 1 as well as current Big Bang Cosmology. If I previously didn’t, I have now changed my mind about the evolution of the universe. This would be a legitimate change in regards to an aspect of evolution, but should hardly be controversial.

However, this type of change is not really the focus of many of these essays. For several, it is clear that a mind changed about evolution is now a mind that is comfortable with common descent. In other words, for some, evolution mainly means a belief that we share a common ancestry with less complex life forms and through millions of years, life has evolved into what we have before us now. I should also note in passing that this is a reduction of the definition of evolution given by Jerry Coyne in his popular Why Evolution is True (which is interesting, but undermines itself at points). Anyway, common descent is the idea, not so much that I evolved from an ape, but that for an ape and myself, there is, far enough back in time, a common ancestor that will give rise to both of us. The evidence for this, to me at least, is more problematic than Big Bang cosmology and has the side effects of theological issues (though some authors here would deny that).

As a result, not everyone in this collection of essays is changing their mind about the same aspects of evolutionary thought. Some are more clear about the details than others. But, everyone did have some kind of shift in their thinking on the matter. This gives the book a certain apologetic flavor. I think the main audience will be people on the fence trying to decide what they think is true after they’ve been confronted with unfamiliar scientific paradigms.

I was personally less convinced, although I benefited from understanding the underlying thought processes for many of the authors. In my case though, I think I’m a bit too familiar with the exegetical and cultural background of Genesis 1-11 to think it could be used to substantiate an age of the earth. But, I see no reason to not affirm what Christians throughout history have affirmed, which is that God is the creator of the universe as well as life itself.

Given that, I would hardly want to take the title of theistic evolutionist. Mainly because this is a pejorative term, but also because I would rather be defined by my belief that God created life and the universe, and not by what I think the mechanism of change throughout history has been. Depending on what you mean when you say “evolution” I might have changed my mind about it and I might not have not. I’m a creationist first, and tend to be agnostic about mechanisms, if for no other reason than Alvin Plantinga’s brilliant book that demonstrates evolution, particularly the natural selection part of it, doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny and actually undermines the philosophical position of naturalism it is often built on.

At the end of the day, this book will be particularly interesting for people who are engaged in the larger debate. If you are Christian heavily involved in the sciences, you’ll probably want to read this. But, it certainly is only giving one side of the story, so it is best read alongside other books on the topic. I enjoyed the similar book The Adam Quest, and it provides both sides of the spectrum with longer profiles on each person included. I’d also recommend reading Mapping The Origins Debate since it lays out the actual range of options available.

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We all have a story. One thing all of stories unfortunately have in common is incidents of shame. To one degree or another, shame becomes part of virtually all of our stories. For some, it is not an incidental detail in a larger story but the bulk of the story itself.

Along these lines, Curt Thompson introduces his book The Soul of Shame: Retelling The Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He says, “This, then, is a book about the story of shame. The one we tell about it, the one it tells about us, and even more so the one God has been telling about all of us from the beginning. Most important, this book also examines how the story of the Bible offers us a way not only to understand shame but also to effectively put it to death, even if that takes a lifetime to accomplish” (12-13). He continues,

The premise of this book, then, is that shame is not just a consequence of something our first parents did in the Garden of Eden. It is the emotional weapon that evil uses to (1) corrupt our relationships with God and each other, and (2) disintegrate any and all gifts of vocational vision and creativity. These gifts include any area of endeavor that promotes goodness, beauty and joy in and for the lives of others, whether that be teaching our first graders, loving our spouse well, managing forests, conducting healing prayer services, creating a new medical technology, offering psychotherapy or composing symphonies (13)

From this premise, Thompson, a psychiatrist specializing on the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and spiritual formation, unfolds the story and definition of shame in the first chapter. In the following two chapters, he draws on his specialization in IPNB to help readers better understand the nature of shame at that level. This leads to a discussion in chapter 4 about our nature as storytelling creatures and chapter 5 then places this within the biblical narrative.

Starting in chapter 6, Thompson presents a path forward. Healing from shame requires vulnerability, and that tends to take place in community with others. He discusses here how the shame that we feel and have internalized often works against us when it comes to actually overcoming it (see for instance the Brene Brown TED talks). Chapter 7 gives readers ways to address their shame using Scripture. Chapter 8 takes this into community and how that can either nurture shame or be catalysts for healing. Chapter 9 finishes with an eschatological touch as Thompson casts vision for how our freedom from shame can lead to joyfully engage our various creative callings.

While I would take a few things here and there with a grain of theological salt, this is a valuable book for those engaged in ministry. You don’t have to be a full-time counselor to encounter people who are burdened by shame. You might even be so yourself. Thompson’s insights from IPNB, as well as the idea that shame can take on a life of its own to be put to demonic means (Thompson prefers personify evil) were my main takeaways from the book. I might have switched chapters 4 and 5 as well, giving the biblical background and foundation first, then expanding the idea of lives as storytelling creatures. On the whole though, this is a well written book that covers an important topic. I’d recommend giving it a read.


Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling The Stories We Believe About OurselvesDowners Grove, IL: IVP Academic, August 2015. 256 pp. Hardcover, $22.00.

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Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy!

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I’m usually skeptical of books like this. However, I was intrigued after seeing someone who teaches astronomy review it on TGC (you’ll notice he has the same feeling I do about books like this). Since I had the ability to easily receive the e-Book from Crossway, I decided it was worth checking into. The endorsements are from a combination of respected astronomers and biblical scholars. The foreword is even written by a guy who is literally a cometographer.

I gave a brief overview of the book already when I posted several excerpts last week. The relevant portion was this:

Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?

Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5

The chapters that follow, which I didn’t mention because I hadn’t read, cover how the Magi would have connected what they saw in the sky to Israel (chapter 8). He suggests the main passages that would have formed their expectations are Numbers 24:17 (alluded to in Matthew 2) and Isaiah 7:14 (quoted in Matthew 2). The latter passage was not necessarily part of the Jewish messianic expectations prior to fulfillment. The Magi could have played a significant role in making that connection explicit. Chapter 9 then turns to a chronology of the Magi’s journey. Assuming the earlier data about what appeared in the sky was accurate, the Magi would have arrived in Bethlehem late November or early December. Jesus is still very much a baby.

Chapter 10 tracks the comet across the sky from its first appearance to its eventual departure. The proposed path Nicholl suggests allows the comet to do some interesting things with the constellations, which might have been what initially caught the Magi’s attention. What he explains about Virgo giving birth (see previous post) would have been the culmination of events that had been going on in the night sky for quite some time.

Chapter 11 and 12 are both on the shorter side. The former makes the case that this would have been the greatest comet in history, given the generally accepted measurements of such a thing. The latter then tells the “on-going” story which mainly includes Herod’s demise (which may have also coincided with an eclipse over Virgo). And with that you are left to pore through the bibliography and notes and the glossary of astronomical terms if you so desire.

Not knowing as much about astronomy, I was actually mostly skeptical of the Revelation 12 connection. It makes sense, but having never heard it before, I was curious to see what the commentaries say. Keener (NIVAC) explicitly denies the connection. He does agree that the term “semeion” can be refer to constellations. However, he notes that the portrayal here differs from Greek mythology, so they can’t be constellations. This seems to be begging the question, or at the very least, assuming that since what is depicted here has no direct correlation in mythology, then the constellations can’t be in view. Not a very strong argument.

David Aune (WBC), as you might expect, goes into the greatest detail and explores the background most fully, especially the combat myth in both Jewish and other cultural backgrounds. I didn’t have all day so I didn’t read his entire section on the passage, but he doesn’t affirm or deny an astronomical connection. He notes such a thing is possible, but not in the kind of detail that Nicholl is arguing.

As far as Beale (NIGTC), Osborne (BECNT), Mounce (NICNT), Morris (TNTC), Kistemaker (BNTC), and Patterson (NAC) go, there is no connection argued. They almost all interpret this passage in purely symbolic terms, but with various literal referents (usually Israel as the woman and Jesus as the boy born). To me this suggests that an actual historical referent is entirely possible. John may very well be describing something that historically happened in the night sky (or rehearsing a version of it) that has multiple symbolic meanings. One of those is the literal birth of Christ in 6 BC. This historical event itself has symbolic meaning against the Old Testament backdrop and John may very well be developing that further in his re-telling of it Revelation (since obviously the passage in question doesn’t end with the birth).

All that to say, I don’t see a good argument against Nicholl’s interpretation of Revelation 12 from any of the major commentaries. They do not argue for it, but what they do argue for doesn’t conflict with Nicholl’s suggested referent. At the end of the day though, it may be best to concur with the previously mentioned reviewer’s conclusion:

So, has Nicholl finally solved the mystery of the Star? I’m tempted to say he has. But until an independent reference to the Christ Comet is discovered in the historical record, I would have to call his theory a speculative historical reconstruction—albeit a sophisticated one that may be the most plausible offered to date.

Historians, take note: even a single brief note of a comet appearing at a certain date and in a particular constellation consistent with Nicholl’s theory would be enough to confirm it.

I was encouraged by reading through this book leading up to Christmas. Even though it is tomorrow, it’s not late to use that Amazon gift card you’re going to get to pick this up for yourself!


Colin Nicholl, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. Wheaton: Crossway, September 2015. 368 pp. Hardcover, $40.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

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Yesterday, the stars aligned in an interesting way. It was the last day of classes before break and I wanted to spend some time reading the Christmas story in class. It was also, as you well know, the opening night for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I saw, no comment). I had also been reading Colin Nicholl’s The Great Christ Comet: Revealing The True Star of Bethlehem. As is my custom, I was at Starbucks before the break of dawn with a cold brew and my iPad. I did my initial Bible reading and then switched to Kindle to read chapter 7 in Nicholl’s book.

Up to this point, Nicholl had surveyed what people have made of the Bethlehem star (chapter 1). Then he examined Matthew’s historical account (chapters 2-3), the main hypothesis about the star (chapter 4) before offering his own case that it was a comet (chapter 5-6). Chapter 7 then tackles the question, “why did the Magi interpret the comet the way they did?” In other words, what could the Magi have seen in the night sky that lead them to not only infer a special birth, but then know where to go to see the child?

Nicholl looks briefly at what Matthew says the Magi say. They allude to Numbers 24:17, a text they would have had access to, if in fact they were from Babylon (which is most likely). He then suggests that the astronomical phenomena they witnessed involved a conjugation of constellations with the comet. Then, surprisingly, he suggests that it is described in Revelation 12:1-5. He defends this in much more detail, but here is his conclusion:

In summary, Revelation 12:1-5 reveals the multifaceted celestial wonder that coincided with the birth of Jesus— the very sight that the Magi had seen in the eastern sky and that had prompted them to make a long journey west to Judea to worship the Messiah. In this astonishing celestial nativity drama, Virgo was playing the part of Israel/ Mary, and the comet’s coma was playing the role of the messianic baby. After rising heliacally in Virgo’s womb, looking like a baby, the cometary coma remained there for many days, growing in size in the manner of a normal human baby in its mother’s womb. While the comet rose in altitude, each passing day would have meant that it was observable earlier and in darker skies. Then, after descending within Virgo’s belly, the coma would have moved down out of it, making it seem that the baby was being born. Eventually, the baby appeared to have completely vacated Virgo’s womb and at this point it was regarded as having been born. At that moment the comet as a whole apparently formed an immense scepter that stretched from the eastern horizon all the way to the western horizon. Those attuned to what was happening and interpreting it messianically would have had no question but that the Messiah was born at that very time. Finally, the cometary baby speedily disappeared into the Sun’s light (i.e., heliacally set), bringing an end to the wonder in the eastern sky.

We infer from Revelation 12:1-5 that the comet’s coma became extraordinarily large, equivalent in size to a large full-term baby at the point of birth; that the comet as a whole took the form of a long iron scepter at the point of the child’s birth; and that it must have been very bright. Further, Revelation suggests that, on the eve of the birth, there was a meteor storm radiating from the tail of Hydra.

What John writes enables us to narrow down when the celestial events took place— during the months of Ululu and Tishratu (Babylon) or Tishri and Heshvan (Judea), namely in September and October of 6 BC. Moreover, Revelation 12:1-5 enables us to narrow down the time of Jesus’s birth to mid-October (early Tishratu in Babylon and early Heshvan in Judea) 96 of 6 BC. This is a plausible time of year for Jesus’s birth— it was when the Romans tended to have their censuses and when shepherds would certainly have been out in the fields (Luke 2:1-18). The cometary baby would have heliacally risen on September 29 or 30 and remained in her belly for about two weeks before slowly descending out of it to be born.

Essentially, the wonder that marked Jesus’s birth was an incredible full celestial nativity drama focused on Virgo and a great comet that seemed to bring her to life (Kindle Loc., 4603-4625)

Nicholl then takes this interpretation and connects it back to Matthew 1:18-2:12:

We suggest, then, based on our study of Revelation 12:1-5 and our fresh analysis of Matthew 1:18-2:12, that while the Virgin Mary was giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem, the zodiacal constellation figure Virgo was giving birth to a cometary baby.

What we have preserved in Revelation 12:1-5 is a series of astronomical observations from 6 BC.

The heavenly birth was the climax of the year-plus cometary apparition. It was also the culmination of a pregnancy that had been apparent from the moment that a cometary baby was observed in Virgo’s womb as she heliacally rose, emerging in the eastern predawn sky. The cometary coma would initially have looked small in her belly, but over the following weeks, as the comet approached Earth, the “baby” would have become larger and larger, just like a fetus in its mother’s womb. In due course, it descended within Virgo until it made it seem that she was in labor. Then, when the coma-baby had fully emerged from its mother’s womb, it was “born.” Revelation implies that this celestial birth coincided with the birth of the Messiah to the terrestrial virgin, Mary. At that time the comet as a whole may well also have formed a massive celestial scepter that stretched from the eastern to the western horizon and seemed to rest on Israel in the west.

According to the New Testament, after the comet completed its time in the eastern sky and crossed to the west, it proceeded to guide the Magi to the place where the terrestrial virgin mother and her child were located. While the Messiah’s Star at its rising had revealed to the Magi the fact, time, and manner of his birth, it subsequently turned into a massive celestial pointer, disclosing to them precisely where the baby Messiah was located. The comet that had played the part of Virgo’s messianic baby in the celestial play eventually led the Magi right to the virgin and her special baby!

The Biblical account suggests that, as the Magi entered the house in Bethlehem, they finally saw on the earth what they had seen in the heavens less than 1 ½ months beforehand: the virgin with her newborn child. Their divine mission was now complete. Heaven and earth were united. (Kindle Loc., 4838-4859)

Ultimately Nicholl then concludes:

From what they saw in the eastern sky the Magi could have deduced certain things about the newborn baby, Virgo’s child par excellence: (1) His mother had conceived him through divine intervention without losing her virginity. (2) He had been born at the point when the cometary coma had in its entirety descended below Virgo’s groin. (3) He was the son of God. (4) He was glorious. (5) He was divine. (6) He had a powerful enemy who was eager to kill him. (7) He was destined to reign over the whole world. However, the celestial wonders by themselves cannot explain why the pagan astrologers came to the conclusion that the one born to a virgin was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. It was the Hebrew Scriptures, mediated through one or more Jews in Babylon, that furnished them with the all-important messianic paradigm (Kindle Loc., 4902-4908)

I still have to finish the book, but I found his explanation pretty convincing and used in class yesterday as we talked through the Christmas story. In a real sense, Christmas was the original “star wars.” The sign of Christ’s birth was signaled long long ago (2021 years to be exact), not in a galaxy far far away, but in our very own corner of the vast universe. While you can read too much into the night sky, it does play a fairly prominent role in the biblical story, and based on Nicholl’s careful study, is something we should perhaps examine more closely.

Especially if you happen to teach at a school whose mascot is the Comets!

Genesis Rebooted

April 29, 2015 — 3 Comments

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A perennial interest for me over the past several years has been understanding the early chapters of Genesis. This reached its height while I was in my last couple of years at Dallas and I was able to take Hebrew III and IV, as well as a Ph.D seminar on ancient Near East literature. Couple all this my reading of John Walton, and you get this blog series:

For reasons I don’t quite remember (probably busyness), I obviously didn’t finish Genesis 2. Other concerns came to the forefront as I wrapped up at Dallas, but you can tell by this string of reviews, it was still a subject of interest:

Now, as you can see from the stack of books pictured above, I’ve got quite a few books on the topic to work through. The top 2 are for actual reviews and the bottom three are books I picked up at TGC because they were good deals.

I’m not particularly sure what this series, if it even becomes that, will look like. Needless to say I’ll probably be posting thoughts on my reading over the summer. But beyond that, I’m not sure if it will all take systematic shape. I’d like to pick back up with Genesis 2, but I might need to go back and reshape my thoughts on the first chapter in the process. My views, to pardon the pun, haven’t evolved drastically since I wrote the Genesis series and then taught high school biology for a year. But, there are many questions I still have and am working through so I thought it’d be best to do that on here. If there’s something particular you’d like to see me wrestle through, let me know!

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Yesterday, we resumed the series review of Four Views on The Historical Adam. C. John Collins provided an alternate old-earth perspective on a historical Adam to go alongside John Walton’s. Today, we’ll look at the final view, which is William Barrick’s young earth creationist perspective on the historical Adam.

Barrick opens with a section on the importance of a historical Adam for Christian thought. He says that “without Adam’s historicity many of the teachings of Scripture will look very different from common evangelical theological concepts or fail the test of logical consistency” (198). He goes on to affirm what all is at stake for maintaining the traditional view, and in doing so explains that young earth creationism and the historical Adam are “integrally related” (199).

This relationship is made plain by Barrick’s explanation of four assumptions the traditional view holds:

  1. God gave the Genesis account of creation to Moses by special revelation (199)
  2. The declarations of Genesis bear the stamp of divine truth, historical fact, and historiographical accuracy (200)
  3. The Genesis record does not limit its scope to one ethnic or national group (201)
  4. The biblical writers in both testaments appear to take for granted a common origin of all human beings in Adam whenever they touch on topics related to Genesis 1-11 (201)

Barrick then unpacks the biblical evidence for the traditional view. He starts with Genesis 1:1-25, and asks why it is structured the way it is. He then quotes David Cotter’s insights on the “orderly sequence of days”:

This storyteller must convince the reader that this account can be trusted; to achieve this, the storyteller creates the impression that everything is being told, that nothing is being held back. Therefore the narrator has to be omniscient. (202)

Barrick then makes an unwarranted jump and concludes, “In other words, by taking a detailed, step-by-step, objective tone the author reveals everything just as it actually happened.” Unfortunately, this is not what Cotter says. Note, Cotter says the storyteller “creates the impression that everything is being told,” which is quite different than revealing “everything just as it actually happened.” Accordingly, Barrick has a hard time with anyone pointing out similarities with other ancient Near East accounts. If we all agree those accounts are mythological, we shouldn’t use them to inform our understanding of Genesis. Especially if Genesis is recording events in exact detail.

As he transitions from Genesis 1:1-25 to 1:26-2:3, he mistakenly calls the entire story a metanarrative (206). He does it twice within the span of 4 sentences, and then again when referring to the fall in Genesis 3 (213). I could see why he might refer to Genesis 1-3 as a metanarrative. But it is a common word in philosophical discourse, so a consistent misuse is concerning. I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it, but then again, he keeps using a word when I’m not quite sure he knows what it means. This doesn’t inspire confidence in trusting his presentation.

The rest of Barrick’s survey covers Genesis 4-5, the rest of the OT, and the NT). Ultimately, he concludes, that a historical Adam is a gospel issue (222). As he says, “Denial of the historicity of Adam, like denial of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection, destroys the foundations of the Christian faith” (223). When you look at the argument from this point of view, some of Barrick’s rhetoric makes more sense.

In his concluding thoughts, Barrick drives the point home by looking at interpretation itself. Here, he asserts that the reasons for re-thinking the historical Adam are first, evolution, and second, seeing ancient Near East myths as prototypes for the Genesis account (223). On the latter, he suggests a possible reverse flow (Genesis 1-3 is the original that has been corrupted in other culture). While plausible, there isn’t any evidence for this.

More problematic is Barrick’s understanding of interpretation itself. We can this in the first two of the four assumptions he presents for the traditional interpretation. If God dictated to Moses the events of Genesis 1, and it is also pure historical fact (with something similar to modern notions of historiographical accuracy), then it is by definition unlike any other ancient Near East creation account. Even if it looks very much like all of Israel’s neighbor’s creation stories (from a perspective of genre), it is still sui generis. This understanding of what the text is goes hand in hand with how we understand what the text means. Barrick says that “we should assume that the Scriptures are accurate until proven otherwise by equally accurate, equally authentic, and equally ancient evidence” (226). This is clearly impossible. But it is also conflating the Scriptures themselves with our interpretations of them.

Interpretations can be accurate until proven otherwise, and that is exactly what the debate is here. Barrick recognizes this with respect to science when he says “we must remember that declarations by scientists represent their interpretation of the evidence, not the evidence itself. Science changes, the Scriptures do not” (227). He should also recognize that declarations by biblical interpreters represent their interpretation of the Scripture, not Scripture itself. Interpretations change, the Scriptures do not.

Since I’ve somewhat embedded my response within the exposition, I’ll be briefer here with the other responses within the book. Lamoureux notes that he himself once used “roughly 90 percent of his [Barrick’s] arguments” (228). He then critiques young earth creationism itself, and then points out that while Scripture is inerrant, Christian tradition is not.

Walton’s critique is more devastating, and focuses on Barrick’s method and his rhetoric. Though he gives 10 specific points, the most damaging were Barrick’s slippery slope tactic, logical non sequiturs, frequent hermeneutical missteps, unnuanced readings of his areas of investigation, and treating his conclusions in places as the only possiblity and obvious to anyone. The result was an itemized list of problems that felt like a professor grading an underdeveloped undergraduate paper.

Collins is less brutal in his critique. But, interestingly, he notes that Lamoureux and Barrick essentially read Genesis with the same (overly) literal hermeneutic. He concedes Barrick has a point about the misuse of ancient Near East evidence. But points out that abuse does not negate proper use, and in Barrick’s formulation, there is no proper use.

In Barrick’s rejoinder, he doubles down and asserts that “only God witnessed the six days of creation, so no man can claim to speak of that series of events unless he has received revelation directly from the Creator himself” (254). When it comes to interpreting Genesis 1, this is clearly begging the question. He then concludes by further suggesting that any old-earth viewpoint “relies on human scientific authority to arrive at adherence to partial biblical inerrancy.” Or, to put it another way, the only way you can get to an old earth viewpoint is to reinterpret the “plain” reading of Genesis in light of modern science.

In the end, I agree with Barrick that a historical Adam is important for Christian theology. However, I don’t agree with his insistence that it is integrally related to a young earth perspective, and I don’t think he provides a convincing case for that perspective either. His rhetoric makes it hard to be sympathetic to his position, even if I once held it myself. Overall, his argumentation wasn’t very well developed and he seems to lack of a sophisticated understanding of the literary genre of Genesis 1-11 as well as the nature of interpretation. These aren’t necessarily decisive points against the young earth view, but to the extent that the view depends on these presuppositions, I don’t think it’s viable. We can have a historical Adam (important) without arguing a young earth (not important and not clearly in Genesis) and still believe in a fully inerrant Bible.

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If you were anxiously waiting on the next post from the Four Views on The Historical Adam series last week, I apologize. I decided to take a mini-blogging break and didn’t post from any scheduled series. Because of that, we’ll actually finish the series this week with three posts in a row (today, tomorrow, Thursday). You can see the table contents for this series here.

Today, we’re looking at C. John Collins’ view, which is a more traditional old-earth creationist perspective. Some might object to my use of “traditional” in reference to old-earth positions. But, since there is no single traditional view, I think it is apt.

Collins, like Walton, has written a Genesis commentary. But, in his case, it was just on Genesis 1-4. I found it very insightful and I would highly recommend it to you if you’re interested in this subject. You can read more of my thoughts about that book and my appropriation of it in my Genesis series.

Here, Collins utilizes his work from that commentary, but also more importantly for this book, relies on his own Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Collins is particularly interested in making sure we understand that prose is not equivalent to history in the modern sense. Likewise, we should understand that historical does not mean “complete in detail,” or “told in exact chronological sequence” (unless the text claims that, 148).

With this understanding of history in mind, Collins then addresses the unity of Genesis 1-11. Unlike Lamoureux, he sees it as entirely historical and a unity on the literary level. According to Collins, “these chapters parallel basic worldview-shaping materials from Mesopotomia, it is no surprise to find that whoever put these chapters together did so in such a way that they display their unity at the literary and linguistic level” (157).

From here he moves to the biblical storyline as a whole. After his survey of the biblical material related to a historical Adam, Collins comments:

It is therefore quite a surprise to read in authors who think Adam and Eve are not historical the suggestions that the apostle Paul is really the only New Testament writer to make use of Genesis 3 and that the Gospels and Revelation do nothing with it! (163)

Next, Collins tackles some of the scientific questions, focusing on DNA. This leads to a discussion of what options he sees open to someone who wants to be faithful to Scripture. He is open to Adam being the chieftain of tribe of people who were all created together (172). This is not Collins’ actual position, but is similar to Walton’s hypothetical reconstruction. In his version, Adam and Eve are appointed to be the covenant representatives from a pre-existing group of humans or humanoids who had evolved. For both, these are options presented for someone who becomes convinced that there were more human beings than just Adam and Eve at the beginning.

When it comes to responses, Lamoureux can’t get over the concordism hump. So again, any attempt to “connect” Scripture to science is scientific concordism (177). If God had any involvement that is “special” or “supernatural” in the creation of Adam (or anything else), then that is “God-of-the-gaps” (178). He says this because “every time someone has proclaimed a point of divine intervention, it has later been shown to be not a gap in nature, but a gap in that individual’s knowledge of nature” (179). One wonders what Lamoureux would say about the virgin birth and the resurrection. If you are going to argue that the second Adam came about miraculously, I don’t see why it is so wrong-headed to argue that the first Adam did also. . It seems like Lamoureux’s ardent methodological naturalism is coloring the way he understands God’s providence and it’s not for the better.

As for other responses, Walton’s is brief and quibbles with some of Collins’ approach. This isn’t surprising since they are both arguing for a version of a historical Adam within an old-earth framework. For Walton, Collins takes too many tangents not relevant to the larger discussion. For Barrick, the differences between him and Collins fall more on dating creation (not that kind of dating). He sees any form of old creationism as a rejection of the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretation. Additionally, Barrick has a hard time with the nuance of Collins (and too Walton) about how we understand the creation stories of Israel’s neighbors. Somehow, the stories of Israel’s neighbors are pure myths, while Genesis 1-2 is pure history with no literary flourishes whatsoever. There are no similarities of genre in Barrick’s book. Genesis 1-11 records events “exactly as they happened,” (190) just the way we modern people would expect them to. When it comes to these historical details though, Barrick misses reading the events as they happened. At one point, he argues that “the first recorded animal death in Genesis comes with the description of Abel’s sacrifice” (190). The animals God slaughtered to provide clothing for Adam and Eve after the fall are forgotten. To me, this seems like a rudimentary mistake, but it’s a bit ironic coming from the one contributor most adamant about a plain reading of Genesis.

When it comes down to it for Barrick, there is no room for an old-earth interpretation of Genesis that isn’t scientifically motivated (i.e. evolution, 191). As he puts it, “the young-earth view does not accept reinterpreting the Scriptures to force it into the evolutionary mold.” He leaves no room to reinterpret a contested passage in light of better understandings of its cultural background, linguistic features, or literary style. This is unfortunate, especially when it comes to his own exposition. Collins is seeking to faithfully interpret the text of Scripture in light of many variables (go back up and click on his commentary and note the subtitle). He is scientifically astute, but does not seem to be scientifically motivated. In the end, I think that’s the best position to be in, and Collins’ view provides a helpful perspective from that vantage point.

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Last week, we started a play by play through Four Views on The Historical Adam. The opening position by Denis Lamoureux denied Adam as a historical figure. The remaining three all affirm the historicity of Adam in one way or another. Today we’ll look at John Walton’s view.

Walton’s position is called the “archetypal creation view.” He believes that Adam and Eve were real people in a real past (89). But, as Walton sees it, Scripture is mostly interested in their role as the archetypal representatives of humanity. Given this view, Genesis 2 is concerned with establishing their role as archetypes and has nothing to say about their actual scientific origins (90). This makes Adam a kind of “Primeval Man” or “Everyman.”

From this vantage point, Walton then surveys the archetypal role of humanity in Genesis 1, Adam in Genesis 2, and Eve in Genesis as a whole. Then he turns to an analysis of archetypal humanity in other ancient Near East accounts. After presenting this background information, Walton offers comparisons and contrasts with the Genesis account before turning to the role of Adam and Eve in the New Testament.

With this biblical and historical survey complete, Walton then discusses some literary issues, briefly touches on scientific/genetic factors, and then offers a hypothetical scenario. This scenario is for people who are “persuaded by the modern scientific consensus that humans are the product of a process of change over time from a common ancestor” (113). It is not Walton’s personal view, but something he offers as an example of keeping biblical and theological affirmations as well as modern science.

The scenarios runs like this: you accept the evolution of hominid like creatures in the distant past. This process would have to be guided by God (i.e. not simply random mutations), but is still essentially a natural process. At some point, by a special creative act, God endows the entire human population with his image. People continue evolving (and so dying), but are in a state of innocence (because of the absence of divine law), and so are not accountable. Later, “the individuals whom the Bible designates as Adam and Eve are chosen by God as representative priests in sacred space” (114-115). They would thus be the covenant mediators who could bring the revelation of God those outside the garden as the expanded the sacred space and fulfilled the creation mandate.

Now on the one hand, this could work. It is a way to have historical human representatives and human evolution. It takes Walton some work in his essay to make the reading of Genesis plausible. But in the end, it is just that: plausible, but not entirely convincing. Likewise, his hypothesis is almost entirely conjectural. He does say it is not his view and is just an example. But, I doubt many people will be persuaded by it. I would like to see him follow up with more on this angle, and perhaps he will in a later book or full length article.

When it comes to responses, Lamoureux pushes back on Walton’s argument that Genesis is only concerned with functional origins (and not material). I think this is a legitimate point that Lamoureux makes for the wrong reasons (he still basically reads Genesis like a young earth creationist). For Lamoureux, Genesis and science can have no compatibility, so any reading that makes it possible to be compatible is off on the wrong foot from the get go.

Likewise, Collins pushes back on the “functional only” position on origins. He is more exegetically helpful in his assessment of Walton’s argument. Additionally, Collins doesn’t want to divide Genesis 1 and 2 as much as Walton does. He still sees them as complementary accounts. In the end, while he appreciates that Walton doesn’t conflate “archetype” with “nonhistorical,” he doesn’t quite follow what Walton is trying to do by establishing Adam and Eve’s archetypal role.

While Barrick is appreciative, he still holds strongly to the traditional interpretation of Genesis 1-2 (i.e. the young earth interpretation). He also pushes back on some of the comparisons with the ancient Near East background, particularly in the realm of cosmic geography. He also has problems with Walton’s reduction of the “good”-ness of creation to its ordered functional status to the exclusion of morality and/or design (138).

In general, I’ve found Walton’s work with Genesis helpful in my developing understanding. Originally, I was all on board with his functional-only view of origins, as well as his cosmic temple hypothesis concerning Genesis 1. At this point, I’m a little more cautious in my acceptance of both of those views. The same applies here. While his hypothetical scenario is intriguing, it seems more problematic than helpful in navigating some of the issues. It seems very difficult to affirm a group of humans bearing the image of God, yet not accountable for their actions in any way simply because there has been no law given.

I would see it as more plausible (if you grant evolution) that God created the first humans by a special act that interrupted the stream of evolving hominids. Doing this would make the first Adam and the last Adam parallels to each other, in that they both interrupted the normal flow of descent and brought a heightened humanity into the picture. This seems less problematic than having the image given to a group, but then later choosing two members to be representatives. Sticking to the text seems to require de novo creation of Adam and Eve even if we affirm that it as not literally from dust or ribs. The illocutionary force of the text pushes strongly in that direction.

In the end, Walton’s argument is intriguing and helpful in some areas, but I didn’t find the archetypal view that convincing. His hypothetical example does better justice to the text while affirming modern science than Lamoureux’s does. But, “better” isn’t hard to do when the comparison is to someone who simply denies in total what the text is saying (or reduces the illocution to simply “God guided creation”). Walton does much helpful work in bringing the background to reader’s attention and his careful argument is worth tracking closely.

9780310499282Originally, this post was scheduled for Tuesday. But, a) I decided to move this review series to Thursdays and b) I didn’t want to send the wrong message. Even though as you’ll see below, Denis Lamoureux’s view is the one I find least convincing, I didn’t think it was fair to post his position on the one day of the year it’s ok to sit on a throne of lies. So here we are.

The first view in Four Views on The Historical Adam is that of Denis Lamoureux. You may have noticed from the table of contents I presented earlier that the views run along a spectrum. We start with a view that has no room for a historical Adam, and end with a view that has no room for the majority position of modern science. In the middle are two mediating positions. Of the contributors, 2 of them (Collins and Lamoureux) have backgrounds in science. 3 of them (Walton, Collins, and Barrick) are Old Testament scholars. Interestingly, it is the three Old Testament scholars that still hold to a historical Adam, while it is the contributor with a Ph.D in biology who doesn’t believe in a historical Adam.

By his own account, Lamoureux was originally a young earth creationist (40-41). But, after he first got a Ph.D in theology (41), and then in evolutionary biology (42), he is now an evolutionary creationist. You could probably interpret his pathway as one where the seminary study made young earth creationism untenable, and then his study in evolutionary biology completely shifted his paradigm so that he can now say “I have yet to see evidence that falsifies biological evolution” (40). 1

Given that perspective, it is hard to shake the feeling that Lamoureux is interpreting Scripture to fit his scientific paradigm. If you accept biological evolution wholesale, then you cannot simultaneously accept a historical Adam, and so can’t interpret Genesis to teach that, unless you’re comfortable saying “Scripture teaches this, but it’s wrong.” Lamoureux’s essay then is focused on defending his understanding of Genesis 1-3 in particular, and Genesis 1-11 in general. Of the latter, he says that “real history in the Bible begins roughly around Genesis 12 with Abraham” (44). This would be convenient, but Lamoureux more or less just asserts this, and doesn’t really defend or prove the position.

Having de-historicized the early chapters of Genesis, Lamoureux then explains why scientific concordism, of any kind, is wrongheaded. That is, any view which seeks harmony between modern science and ancient text is out of bounds. The reason for this is that Genesis represents ancient science through and through, which we now know is wrong. God accommodated the ancient understanding to communicate big picture ideas (that He created), but not details (the manner and sequence in which things actually happened).

With this perspective, Lamoureux then provides brief commentary on Genesis 1-2, as well as Romans 5. While he acknowledges that much of what he is saying represents a “counterintuitve way of reading Scripture,” (63) it is nonetheless the best way to make sense of the text in light of his presuppositions (as well as what he thinks are the text’s presuppositions). Ultimately, God’s Word only tells us that he created, and in no way explains how he created. While I would grant that position to a certain extent, this would still seem to suggest that God directly created Adam, even if the rest of nature were allowed to unfold by “supernatural” selection. Lamoureux insists that this is not possible, and that pinning Adam on the tail end of an evolutionary sequence is “categorically inappropriate” (64).

When it comes to responses, first up is John Walton. He sees several indefensible leaps in logic and is inadequate in his treatment of the New Testament (68). He also points out that is untenable to suggest that real history doesn’t start until Genesis 12 (67). From another front, John Collins questions Lamoureux’s understanding of what concordism is when it comes to understanding the Bible and science (76-77). He sees Lamoureux as mainly reacting against an overly literal concordism (young earth creationism), and not allowing room for other varieties. Lastly, William Barrick and subtly questions Lamoureux’s salvation. 2 Beyond that, he is having none of Lamoureux’s position. Because it starts off on such a negative tone, it is hard to not read his response with disdain.

Lamoureux is allowed a short rejoinder to the responses, but for space sake, I’m not going to comment on it. In the end, Lamoureux does his best to defend the position that Adam didn’t exist. Though he presents his case from Scripture, it is hard to not see it as springing more from previously accepted scientific conclusions that now require major revisions to how we read the early chapter of Genesis. While some of his points about God’s accommodation in revealing truth, the implausibility of concordism, and the difference between modern science and ancient science may stand, his reading of Scripture does not. It would be hard to validate that you could reach the interpretations he reaches without having your presuppositions driving the train of thought there. That may be unavoidable for all of us, but in this case, if you’re not convinced of the full evolutionary story, there is not enough textual evidence to follow Lamoureux’s reading as well as the implications that follow.

Considering that Lamoureux’s view is the only one in the book that denies the existence of a historical Adam, you can see why this is necessary. Lamoureux’s view general view is called “evolutionary creationism,” and as Tim Stafford noted in The Adam Quest, the biggest problem with that view is the Bible.

Notes:

  1. Speaking as someone who experience his first paradigm shift, but not his second, I would say “I have yet to see evidence that validates common ancestry for humans and other animals. In other words, my paradigm is still one of disbelief in the narrative of the past until more solid evidence emerges. In the case of human evolution, I don’t think it is forthcoming. However, I’ll concede there is quite a bit of evidence for evolution, even at the macro level. The question is more to what extent this happened in the past, a question I don’t think can be answered with much certainty because of the nature of scientific inquiry.
  2. That is the way Lamoureux takes it in his rejoinder. Here is the quote: “Perhaps a born-again believer could deny Adam’s historical existence without losing his or her saving relationship to Christ and everlasting forgiveness of sins” (80). Seems way out of bounds to talk like this. Lamoureux wisely doesn’t dignify this answer with a response. I feel bad for him that it seems like his genuine faith is probably often questioned. I’m gathering that from this response, some anecdotes, and the fact that his essay opens with a long defense of his Christian journey’s authenticity, something none of the other contributors feel necessary.

The Adam Quest

April 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Tim Stafford, The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling With the Mystery of Human Origins. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, December, 2013.  240 pp. Hardcover, $22.99.

Buy itAmazon

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for the review copy!

I had intended to post this review yesterday, but given what day it was, I declined. Also, other things were more pressing than writing a book review. I just decided not posting on April Fool’s Day was ok.

Today then, I want to tell you about Tim Stafford’s book The Adam QuestThe book is in large part motivated by an experience Stafford’s son in his late teenage years. Having grown up in the church, Silas Stafford became enamored with geology. The more he learned about the field though, the more it clashed with views his friends had about what Genesis teaches. Ultimately, their insistence in arguing for young earth creationism drove Silas away from the faith (2). Stafford presents this story not in a way that vilifies the views of young earth creationists, but does drawn attention to how demanding people with a scientific background adhere to that reading of Genesis seems to do more harm than good. To help remedy this situation, Stafford wrote The Adam Quest.

The subtitle gives you the outline of the book. Each main chapter profiles a different scientist, who as a person of faith, had to come to terms with the worlds of science and Scripture. Tim Stafford went to interview them, and then tells their stories in the as a kind of mini intellectual biography. Each profile is around 20 pages long, and in that space, Stafford helps readers to have a clear picture of how that scientist wrestled with the issues related to creation and evolution. Specifically, as you can guess from the title, the focus is on the historicity of Adam. But, as you’ll see when we talk about Four Views on The Historical Adam, you can’t really discuss Adam without addressing larger concerns about creation and evolution.

The subtitle may give the substance of the book, but the internal structure is a different story. Here are the eleven scientists profiled:

  • Kurt Wise
  • Todd Wood
  • Georgia Purdom
  • Michael Behe
  • Fazale Rana
  • Mary Schweitzer
  • Darrel Falk
  • Ard Louis
  • Denis Alexander
  • Simon Conway Morris
  • John Polkinghorne

Of this list, I had only heard of 4 before reading the book (Behe, Falk, Alexander, Polkinghorne). Part of this, I think, is because I am more familiar with the other side of the debate (usually involving OT scholars and theologians). Though I’ve heard of 4, I haven’t read any of their writings. Not to say I’m not interested in the scientific aspects, but just to let you know I was able to approach the book somewhat objectively with only little background knowledge of the scientists profiled.

Of the 11 scientists profiled, there are (in order): 3 are young earth creationists, 2 are devoted to intelligent design, and the remaining 6 are different forms of either evolutionary creationism or theistic evolution (not identical I know). Stafford tells readers they are free to skip around from profile to profile (10). There isn’t an explicit narrative the ties the chapters together in a certain order. But, Stafford suggests that “you will get the most from this book if you take the chapters in the order presented.”

That is the last sentence of the introduction. At the beginning of the conclusion, Stafford explains how he alleviated the concerns of the scientists about his agenda (or lack thereof):

I told all of them the same thing: I was going to get out of the way and let them tell their own stories. I wasn’t going to try to referee who was right and who was wrong. My goal was for readers to get to know them and to understand their points of view.

I told them that I approached the subject of origins with well-deserved humility. I know I am no expert. I know what I don’t know – and it’s a great deal. The issues involved in creation and evolution are complicated and highly technical, and they involve many disciplines. (199)

He then goes on to offer commentary on the range of views and discloses where his sympathies lie. He gives the greatest strengths and weaknesses of each view. To it out, I’ll start with the strengths (203-205):

  • Young earth creationism’s fundamental commitment to the Bible
  • Intelligent design’s assault on the New Atheists and their assertion science disproves God
  • Evolutionary creationism’s offering a coherent scientific account that is attractive to many types

Then the weaknesses:

  • Young earth creationism’s lack of cohesion with the actual world we live in (specifically when it comes to geology)
  • Intelligent design’s wholesale rejection by mainstream science
  • Evolutionary creationism’s lack of harmony with Scripture

Now, keep in mind, these are strengths and weaknesses as Stafford sees them, so read them in light of the block quote above. I think that for the most part I would agree with him, though I don’t think being rejected by mainstream science is that big of a weakness (it’s a problem for sure, but the least problematic of the three weaknesses). It is certainly interesting that in Stafford’s analysis, evolutionary creationism and young earth creationism mirror one another. The strength of one is the weakness of the other, and vice versa.

When Stafford then explains why his sympathies ultimately lie with evolutionary creationism, the overall structure of the book makes more sense. As you can see from the above outline, we move progressively through the book from strong young earth creationism, on to intelligent design, and then to a wide spectrum of evolutionary creationists views, the latter of which is from the only theologian in the group. In this way Stafford unfolds his profiles, it parallels the intellectual journey many people take that were once young earth creationists, but now are not.

At the very least, it humanizes the different viewpoints so that readers will see those they disagree with as other thoughtful individuals who have wrestled (or are still wrestling) with the issues. Ultimately, I think that is the value of the book. Especially in reading through the Four Views on The Historical Adam, which is mostly focused on ideas and positions, one can easily lose sight that this debate involves flesh and blood people, who are also made in the image of God. The The Adam Quest helps avoid this by giving you an inside look at how those with the relevant scientific knowledge wrestle with the issues.

That being said, I don’t think this book will ultimately convince anyone who is confident in their position that they should reconsider. Whether or not Stafford structured the narrative to help young earth creationists along down the road toward evolutionary creationism is hard to know for sure. He doesn’t come out and say it, but I could see it being presented for that purpose (among others). I’m also not a mind-reader. Even if he did, I don’t think the overall purpose is to convince anyone to change their mind. The book is mainly written for people like Stafford’s son who are struggling with reconciling what they know from scientific studies, and what they’ve been told the Bible teaches. It could probably serve as a mini apologetic for evolutionary creationism, but the issues with Scripture aren’t only noted, not dealt with. In the end, I think people from all sides of the debate ought to read this book. It will help to reduce stereotypes, and mostly importantly, will remind us that even when we disagree, we are still interacting with real people, and not just pixels or pages.