Friday, August 28, 2009

New Semester at Kilns College

Well, we're only a couple of weeks away from a new semester at Kilns College. Go here to check out the brand new vimeo plug for the college. I'll be teaching a class in Critical Thinking on Monday evenings.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Creation Out of Nothing

(This post is the 5th in a series discussing John Walton's new book, The Lost World of Genesis One.)

A good friend of mine (and I mean that both in the ordinary sense and in the Proverbs 27:17 sense) interacted with my last post. He said he found some support for Walton's interpretation in the fact that his English version of the Jewish Torah reads (in Gen. 1:1)
When God began to create heaven and earth...
In other words, maybe Genesis 1:1 is not an independent clause discussing an absolute beginning but part and parcel of verse 2 (and following) that warrants a construct reading.

The issue my friend raises can be used to demonstrate some of my problem with Walton's arguments... There is a debate among scholars as to whether Gen. 1:1 should be understood as a construct (as my friend's "Jewish Torah" renders it) or as an absolute (and independent of verse 2, 3, and following). Walton, who is about to advance a radical new theory all about Genesis 1, doesn't interact with this debate at all. Rather, he assumes the interpretation that will support his new view. By contrast, Copan and Craig (in their book, Creation Out of Nothing, which can only spare one chapter for the entire Old Testament) devote 13 pages to this issue, acknowledging and responding to the arguments for a construct view, and then giving half a dozen different lines of reasoning for rejecting that interpretation. Along the way, they quote other scholars who have investigated this at a level at which (at least as far as the evidence available to us in his book) Walton has not...
After surveying the relevant scholarship, Gordon Wenham asserts that 'the majority of recent writers reject [the construct] interpretation.'

Commentators Keil and Delitzsch declare that the phrase translated 'in the beginning is used 'absolutely,' and a translation such as 'In the beginning, when...' simply cannot be a reasonable treatment of the text.'

James Barr, arguing that there is no grammatical evidence that 'beginning' is construct in Genesis 1:1, calls such a reading 'intrinsically unlikely.'
Gordon Wenham writes: "Most modern commentators agree that verse 1 is an independent clause to be translated, 'In the beginning God created...'"
Copan and Craig go on to address other exegetical issues, issues in which Walton's thesis depends upon one particular rendering when scholars disagree that that rendering is correct. You see my point... In almost every case, Walton does not even do an ordinary job of addressing the relevant issues, whereas the radical conclusion to which he comes would seem to warrant an extraordinary level of support.

One exception--one exegetical issue to which Walton gives some attention--is the meaning of the Hebrew word bara, used in Genesis 1:1, 21, and 27. His third proposition (chapter) is "'Create' (Hebrew bara) Concerns Function." He looks at the 50 times in which this verb is used in the Old Testament (always with God as the subject), and concludes that
grammatical objects of the verb are not easily identified in material terms, and even when they are, it is questionable that the context is objectifying them.
I have at least two problems with this line of argument. The first is that he seems to be unable to see this issue from the other side. If one does not begin by rejecting a material understanding of these objects, it is really rather easy to find such an understanding in many of these verses.

More importantly, Walton's reasoning in this particular case highlights a problem found more generally throughout his book. He repeatedly sets up the dichotomy between a functional understanding and a material view. But those who find creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 need not find there a material understanding but instead an ontological claim. To be sure, verse 1 has always been understood to apply to the creation of the matter, energy, space, and time of the universe--the totality of the creation, which certainly includes matter. But most understand the use of create/bara in verse 21 to refer to soulishness, an entirely new, albeit immaterial, thing. Likewise, those who find creation out of nothing revealed in Genesis 1 find the bara in verse 27 to have as its object creaturely spirit, again an immaterial thing.

So a significant portion of Walton's argument--for a functional and against a material understanding--is misguided. Moreover, Walton betrays (early on, in his Proposition 1) general misunderstanding about the material/immaterial issue. His claim here is that God did not correct the 'scientific understanding' of the ancient Israelites to whom Genesis 1 was addressed:
For example, in the ancient world people believed that the seat of intelligence, emotion, and personhood was in the internal organs, particularly the heart, but also the liver, kidneys, and intestines. Many Bible translations use the English word "mind" when the Hebrew text refers to the entrails, showing the ways in which language and culture are interrelated. In modern language we still refer to the heart metaphorically as the seat of emotion. In the ancient world this was not metaphor, but physiology. Yet we must notice that when God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions and will, he did not revise their ideas of physiology and feel compelled to reveal the function of the brain.
Here's the problem: unless we have accepted an inaccurate metaphysical view (materialism) from some modern science (as Walton seems to have), then refering to the brain as the seat of intelligence, will, and emotion is likewise metaphorical. That is, in actual fact, thoughts, beliefs, desires, will, and emotion are mental--and thus immaterial--events, and not material or physical ones. As such, they--and our personhood--are no more accurately described (in our day) as residing in the brain than they were (in Moses' day) as residing in the liver.

This realization, of course, causes Walton's argument here to fall apart, but it also gives us some insight to the fact that his concern with "scientific consensus" (evidenced by the number of chapters of his book devoted to it) is fraught with fundamental problems. I'll turn my attention to some of those problems in the next post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cosmic Temple Inauguration

(This is the 4th post in a series.)

In his new book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, John Walton offers what he calls the "cosmic temple inauguration" interpretation of Genesis 1. As Walton sees it, the original readers of Genesis, like the people of other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) civilizations, saw the world in functional--and not in material--terms. Therefore, when reading the first chapter of Genesis, we ought to understand it not as describing the material origin of the universe and earth (as has always been done), but rather as God's giving function to an already-existent matter during a concrete (solar or human) 7-day week.

Some of what Walton has to share about God's purposes for the creation, about the universe as God's temple, and about God's role in creating and sustaining the universe is very good. I believe that consideration of this facet of the creation account adds a further level of depth and richness to an already rich and wonderful account. In fact, were his proposal simply that we understand functionality as an important aspect of what God sought to convey in this passage, I would agree. At some points, Walton himself seems to temporarily soften his stance, and limit his claims in this way. For example, he ends proposition 17 (which I discussed in an earlier post as the best chapter in the book) this way...
So what affirmations does the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1 expect of us?

1) The world operates by Yahweh's design and under his supervision to accomplish his purposes.

2) The cosmos is his temple.

3) Everything in the cosmos was given its role and function by God.

4) Everything in the cosmos functions on behalf of people who are in his image.
You'll get no argument from me on any of that. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that Walton elsewhere claims that his functional interpretation is the exclusively accurate understanding of Genesis 1, that this account makes no reference to the material creation of the universe (that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is not found in Genesis 1), and that God did not reveal to Israel any new scientific content. Walton:
This creation account did not concern the material shape of the cosmos, but rather its functions.
Again (the italics are Walton's),
At this point a very clear statement must be made: Viewing Genesis 1 as an account of functional origins of the cosmos as temple does not in any way suggest or imply that God was uninvolved in material origins--it only contends that Genesis 1 is not that story.
As mentioned in chapter one, there is not a single instance in the Old Testament of God giving scientific information that transcended the understanding of the Israelite audience.
I strongly (but respectfully) disagree with each of these three claims. Here's an outline of my response (I'll be happy to support these contentions in a future post)...

1) The truth of God's revelation transcends the understanding of its original readers (and even of the rest of us).

2) Jews, Christians, and Muslims have throughout the ages found in Genesis 1 the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

2a) In fact, historians recognize a view of time as having a beginning and proceeding linearly as one of the most important contributions of early Judaism to civilization.

2b) Ironically, it was partly their finding creation ex nihilo in Genesis 1 that gave the founders of modern science the logical justification for doing science in the first place.

3) A good deal of effective apologetic material is lost if one denies that Genesis 1 claims a material beginning to the universe. With the discovery of evidence for that beginning (the empirical validation of Einstein's theories of relativity and of a big bang model for the origin of the universe), many astronomers, physicists, and others have turned to Christ, recognizing in the conclusions of their science support for the opening claim (understood in a material sense) of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.

4) Walton's thesis depends upon downplaying the much greater differences between Genesis 1 and other ANE cosmologies and focusing only on the rather superficial similarities between them.

5) If creation ex nihilo is found in Scripture at all (and Walton grants that it is), it would necessarily have involved revelation of scientific truth that falsifies Walton's exegetical claims. That is, scientific evidence for a beginning to the material universe did not come until the past century, though monotheists have continued to proclaim it all along by appealing to God's revelation in Genesis 1.

6) Given all this, Walton's denial of a material component to the Genesis account is a radical view. Such a radical view warrants an extraordinary level of supporting argumentation. Instead, Walton's argumentation is brief and superficial relative to the arguments offered by those with opposing interpretations.

Walton's position is further undermined by gross misunderstandings that surface in his subsequent propositions. These include...

7) Walton is wrongly concerned (in his attacks on what he calls 'concordism') with 'scientific consensus.' In my understanding, concordists (and anyone seeking to defend Scripture's inspiration and inerrancy) are concerned with reconciling Scripture with the unchanging reality of the universe--not with the admittedly changing consensus among scientists.

8) Walton betrays himself as completely unqualified to discuss the issues that make up his propositions 13, 15, 16, and 18. That is, he is wrong in his understanding of what science is and of who is qualified to define science. As a result, he misses the point at every turn, whether discussing science per se, intelligent design theory, evolution, or public science education. (I suspect I'll take the time to flesh this problem out in a future post, as this is the sort of thing that really gets my blood boiling.)

Again, I appreciate Walton's understanding of the Genesis 1 account as having a distinctly functional component to it. This view adds richness to an understanding of what God has revealed to us in this creation account. As such, the 'cosmic temple inauguration' view is not incompatible with other interpretations of Genesis 1. That is, one can find simultaneous validity to, say, this view and the framework interpretation and the progressive (or old-earth) creation view; they are not mutually exclusive. But I part company with Walton at the point at which he seeks to claim the contrary--that any view that finds in Genesis 1 an account of the origin of the matter of the universe is wrong.

We now have overwhelming evidence from the creation itself ('scientific' evidence, if you will) that the matter, energy, space, and time of this universe had a finite beginning whose Cause transcends that universe. Lacking that evidence, monotheists throughout the ages have nonetheless proclaimed it to be true, having found in Genesis 1 a clear declaration that God created everything out of nothing. Walton's repudiation of that idea (that Gen. 1 declares creation ex nihilo) is a radical view, acceptance of which would require a much greater set of supporting arguments than that which he offers.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Walton's Theology

(This is the third post in a series about John Walton's new book The Lost World of Genesis One.)

Before critiquing (in a subsequent post) John Walton's main theses about Genesis 1, I want to further affirm some of the conclusions to which his way of viewing creation has led him.

For me, the best chapter in Walton's book is "Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 is Stronger, Not Weaker." In it, he discusses God's power, sovereignty, and goodness, and how one's interpretation of Genesis 1 affects one's understanding of these things. Please note that while I agree with the theological conclusions Walton shares here, I arrive at them quite independently of his interpretation of Genesis 1. That is, I largely reject his main theses and yet agree with him on these points that he finds flowing out of them. That we can arrive at this theology with different interpretations of Genesis 1 is acknowledged by Walton (in the most humble passage in the book, which comes toward the end of the chapter in view):
...even if the reader is not inclined to adopt the proposed interpretation of Genesis 1, his or her theology could still be greatly enhanced by the observations offered here by embracing a renewed and informed commitment to God's intimate involvement in the operation of the cosmos from its incipience and into eternity. We all need to strengthen our theology of creation and Creator whatever our view of the Genesis account of origins.
Amen to that!

Implicit to the discussion in this chapter of God's power, sovereignty, and goodness is the fact that Walton's new and different interpretation of Genesis 1 does not demand the conclusion that the universe and earth are only thousands of years old. But while that (young earth) conclusion has become quite popular within the conservative American church in the last 60 years, there are at least 10 other interpretations of Genesis 1 (each of them more traditional and with a greater historical record than Walton's) that likewise allow for the ancient universe attested to by the creation itself. Nonetheless, Walton is correct when he writes,
...the suggestion that some of God's work of creation may have taken place over a long period of time rather than instantaneously does not reduce God's power. God can create any way he sees fit, and it is no less an act of his sovereign power if he chooses to do it over extended billions of years. It is still accomplished by his word. Some would see the great span of time as further indication of God's majesty. If nothing is taken away from God's works and his sovereignty is not reduced, then there is no theological threat regarding God's person or deeds.
Absolutely. But I was even happier to read the following regarding God's sovereignty in His work of sustaining creation...
If God's work of creation is considered only a historical act that took place in the past, it is easy to imagine how people might not think in terms of God being active today. We have lost the view that nature does not operate independently from God. He is still creating with each baby that is born, with each plant that grows, with each cell that divides, with each nebula that forms. We might find it easy to look at some majestic view like a glorious sunset or the grandeur of the mountains and ponder the magnificence of God's handiwork. But this sense needs to extend beyond the "wow" moments to encompass all of our experience of his world. We have the same problem when we only recognize God in some incredible occurrence in our lives and forget that he provides for us, cares for us and protects us moment by moment, day after day. God did not just create at some time in the past; he is the Creator--past, present, and future.
Wholehearted agreement from this quarter. But then comes the issue of God's goodness. For most conservative American Christians, the idea that creation took place billions of years ago impinges upon God's moral character, since that means millions of years of animal death, something we in our modern, urban comfort find unpalatable. And so Walton addresses this issue as well. He doesn't necessarily do a great job of this (the best treatment of this of which I am aware is the book-length response by Mark Whorton, Peril in Paradise, which I highly recommend), but he is correct when he writes that
...we don't have to explain how predation can be a part of a morally good world.
(As an ecologist with a biblical worldview, I find it rather easy to explain predation, but we can do that another time.)

Again, I am unconvinced of Walton's new interpretation of Genesis 1, but find important areas of agreement in our respective theologies. And so I find reading--and thinking about-- his perspectives a worthwhile endeavor. More importantly, I believe God is honored when we have these sorts of thoughtful discussions--even when we disagree in some of our conclusions.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Walton's New Thesis

(This is the second post in a series discussing John Walton's new book The Lost World of Genesis One.)

Walton's book is a series of propositions--eighteen of them in fact--with each one given a chapter. The number of propositions is a problem: in order to get to the implications of his theses, he does a rather poor and hurried job of supporting those main theses. Moreover, he ventures far outside his area of expertise (Old Testament) in the later chapters, and this becomes quite obvious (especially) when he discusses science and public education.

In this post, let me just tell you what Walton's main theses are (without further comment) and then highlight one of the tangential points about which I agree with him. His main theses are:

1) That Genesis 1 is an ancient cosmology and that we can better understand it by looking at other cosmologies contemporaneous to it.

2) That Genesis 1 is function-oriented and not an account of the material creation of the universe. What God is doing during the seven 'days' of creation is inaugurating the cosmos (already in existence) as His functional temple.

One of the propositions with which I agree--and which I think is a discussion that needs to be had--is this... "God's Roles as Creator and Sustainer Are Less Different Than We Have Thought" (Proposition--and thus chapter--14). In this chapter, Walton seeks to avoid two extremes, seeing creation as a finished act of the past (on the one hand) and a form of micromanagement that denies God's use of natural process at all (on the other). His contention is that
The Bible to some extent offers the idea that creation is ongoing and dynamic.
The chapter itself bogs down a bit, but Walton elsewhere makes important points that relate to this proposition. In particular,
In chapter one we pointed out that the common dichotomy drawn today between "natural" and "supernatural" did not exist in the ancient world. I would also propose that it is not theologically sound. God cannot be removed or distanced from those occurrences that we so glibly label "natural." When we so label phenomena, it is an indication that we understand (at least to some extent) the laws and causes that explain it. Be that as it may, that does not mean that God does not control that process. What we identify as natural laws only take on their law-like quality because God acts so consistently in the operations of the cosmos. He has made the cosmos intelligible and has given us minds that can penetrate some of its mysteries.
He is, of course, right about this, and his subsequent illustration and discussion constitute some of the best writing in the book. Earlier (in Proposition 1), he appeals to Richard Bube (The Human Quest) for an explicit statement that I frequently make myself, that...
if God were to unplug himself in that way from the cosmos, we and everything else in the cosmos would simply cease to exist.
I agree. We understand (in part) what gravity is, but we cannot explain why it works. Nor can we expect it (or the strong nuclear force, for that matter) to continue its operations were God to cease His work of sustaining creation. Indeed, on a biblical understanding, we would expect everything to cease without God's continuing sustaining of it.

The problem--for Walton's more central theses--is that it does not require acceptance of his view of Genesis 1 (that the account concerns function only and does not treat material creation) to arrive at this conclusion. I--along with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers throughout history--see Genesis 1 as dealing with the material creation of the universe (which is what Walton denies), and yet am in lock-step with him that God's creative activity is ongoing and that natural laws do not operate independently of His sustaining work. He is wrong, then, when he claims that (italics mine)
In the position of this book, the idea that Genesis 1 deals with functional origins opens up a new possibility for seeing both continuity and a dynamic aspect in God's work as Creator...
So, I disagree that one need accept Walton's more radical thesis about Genesis 1 to arrive at a biblical understanding of God's work as Creator/Sustainer. Nonetheless, I appreciated his statement and discussion of this understanding.

In the next post, I'll highlight another area in which I find Walton's thinking accurate in important ways.

Friday, August 7, 2009

New Interpretation of Genesis One

So there's a new book out, one proposing what I take to be a new interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis one. It's by John H. Walton, professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, and is titled The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. I'll probably take a few posts to blog on it, since it provides fodder for good discussion.

Not counting this one, I'm aware of about a dozen different views on the correct interpretation of Genesis one. A couple of those are no longer live options: I don't know of anyone today who holds the view (believed by some to be that of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) that each of the creation days was a period of 1000 years. Likewise, you'd have difficulty finding anyone today defending the view of Augustine and Origen that the creation 'days' are merely figurative (that is, that they do not involve any time at all), but that the account conveys spiritual truths. [Of the existing views, Walton's new interpretation is perhaps closest to this one, though he would almost surely deny it.]

Of the remaining 10 views, perhaps the rarest now is the Gap Theory, which was popularized by Scofield in his study Bible, and enjoyed a good following for some time. Most folks today recognize overwhelming exegetical and scientific problems with this view.

Another fringe idea (that is, one without a vocal defense today) is that the six days are merely a theological statement, a polemic against the pagan cosmologies of Moses' time. This idea was advanced by Karl Barth and others, and if it has proponents today, they don't seem to take a very active part in the discussion. Walton seeks to distance himself from this view, but it is (as I see it) the next nearest idea to that which he is himself advocating.

Walton's interpretation has this in common with most (at least 10) of the other views... acceptance of it makes it possible to reconcile Genesis one with the findings of modern astronomy, physics, geology, and chemistry. Only the two young-earth approaches lead to the rejection of virtually all of science, those being the plain-day view (defended by the late Henry Morris and by Ken Ham and others, and taught as "what the Bible says" in the majority of conservative American churches) and the Relativity-Day view (of Derek Humphreys and Gerald Schroeder), which at least seeks to come to grips with the plain evidence from astronomy that the stars have been around a good deal longer than 6,000 years.

But whereas this new interpretation allows for the ancient universe and earth attested to by the creation itself, Walton makes it clear that this was not a consideration for him--that instead he had only the goal of doing justice to the text itself in light of the cosmology of the Israelites and other ancient Near Eastern cultures. Indeed, he has nasty things to say about concordists (or his straw-man version of them)--those who seek to reconcile Genesis one with modern scientific understanding.

I think there is a good deal of merit to some of what is argued in this new book, and I'll hope to highlight those points in coming posts. But I also see significant problems with important parts of Walton's theses, and I'll be happy to discuss those as well. Stay tuned for those posts, but better yet, pick up a copy and read it, so that you, too, can be in on the discussion. (It's really a rather small book, the chapters are short, and it's easily read in a few short sittings.)

Though I ultimately disagree strongly with some of Walton's conclusions (and with some of his starting points as well), I welcome this new infusion into the discussion. I believe that God is honored when we take His Word seriously, especially if our disputations are carried out with humility and respect, as befitting Christ-followers.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Blog Recommendations

It's time for me to alert you to some other blogs worth reading...

I've added a blog to my favorites list (at right). It's called Darwin's God and is by Cornelius Hunter. This blog (like Hunter's several books) makes obvious the fact that modern evolutionary arguments--like those of Darwin himself--are religious in nature and not supported by empirical evidence. That is, that while branding evolution's naysayers as religious (no matter how much those naysayers are in fact sticking to scientific evidence), the evolutionist is the one depending upon religious arguments to make his case. Check out the link at right to see how this irony plays out every day in the debate about evolution.

I also want to offer a shout-out to my friend Bob Perry, whose widely diverse posts never fail to impress me. The link to his blog, True Horizon, can also be found at right, and I recommend you check out his actual history of the issue of ESCR (to correct the misimpressions you will have gotten from Mr. Obama and his worshippers in the media); that would be the post of August 3rd.

Finally, I left my oldest son Nathan behind in Romania, and he is blogging about his further adventures in eastern Europe. You can check those posts out at Viva Adventure.