Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Confusing Conversations 4: Literally true, and truly literal.

"If you don't believe that the first chapter of the bible is literally true, then how can you believe that the rest of it is?"

I hope that every Christian believes that the bible is literally, true. That is absolutely and entirely truthful in everything it affirms. So, wherever the bible affirms something as scientific fact, then it is scientific fact. Wherever it affirms something as accurate history, it is accurate history. But, the Good Samaritan is not historically accurate (it is a parable). Ezekiel 1 is not scientific fact, it is a vision.

However, this doesn't mean that to truly understand the bible, one must take the most literal interpretation possible. It is always literally (in the sense of totally and utterly) true; the truth is not always literal (in a sense that excludes all metaphor, parable, poetic licence, verbal imagery etc.)

Obvious other examples of this in the realm of cosmology are found in Psalm 19:6

"[the sun] rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is hidden from its heat. "

Are we to believe that the sun literally moves from one end of the heavens to another? No! We don't have to believe in a geocentric universe in order to believe that Psalm 19 is utterly true. It is just not true in a literal sense. In fact, to try to understand it as a true scientific account of the orbit of the sun is to utterly misunderstand it; to miss its truth; to distort it. This is fairly easy to see, as Psalm 19 is undeniably poetic. The sun has already been described as a bridegroom, and champion. Are we to envisage a marriage to the moon, or a little horse that the sun rides on? No, it's poetry that teaches how this majestic sun, seen everywhere, giving heat and light shines for the glory of God. But the poetry is more than just those statements; as poetry it attaches an appropriate emotional response of awe and wonder and splendour to those truths. The poetry conveys the truths in exactly the inspired fashion that its divine author intended.

Is Psalm 19 made more problematic had many (or all) of the early readers would have believed in a geocentric universe, and thus, if read literally, understood it to correspond better to the cosmology they held than we would understand it to. No: for that is not the intention of the passage.

What then is the intention of Genesis 1? Is it true literalistically? Does it employ poetic imagery? Does it even employ culturally accepted views of the world in order to convey truths?

These are legitimate questions to ask in bible interpretation. Let's not assume that if we come to different conclusions as to the intention of a passage, and therefore a different conclusion as to which truths are being affirmed in a passage, that we therefore have a different understanding as to whether the text is truthful. Let's all agree to trust what the bible really teaches and then work jolly hard at trying to understand it on its own terms.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Confusing Conversations 3: "Deism" is an accusation that can cut both ways.

It seems common among Christians on both sides of the "Creationist vs. Theistic Evolution" debate to accuse one another of Deism rather than Theism. Deism is the idea that, while God was intimately involved in the creation of the world, he is largely, or totally uninvolved in the intricacies of its ongoing existence. This is contrasted with Theism, in which God not only made the world, but sustains its existence. He remains intimately involved with everything that continues to happen in his creation. The contrast is therefore the difference between a watchmaker who made it, wound it up and let it go and a composer who note only wrote all the notes, but also conducts the orchestra.

Some creationists accuse theistic evolution of deism: so, Wayne Grudem writes "The fundamental difference between a biblical view of creation and theistic evolution lies here: the driving force that brings about change and the development of new species in all evolutionary schemes is randomness.... But the driving force in the development of new organisms according to Scripture is God's intelligent design." (Systematic theology, 276)

Yet it seems here that Grudem has assumed, a priori, that the view of "randomness" that theistic evolutionists tend to believe in is one that is outside of God's theistic design. Yet every theist ought to believe that though there are apparently "random" and "chance" events the Lord is utterly sovereign in them all. The Lord has "designed" intentions in them. From the roll of the dice to the decision of free agents the Lord has intentions that are most certainly NOT random.

Proverbs 16 reminds us of both of these facts

9 In his heart a man plans his course,
but the LORD determines his steps.

33 The lot is cast into the lap,
but its every decision is from the LORD. (NIV)

Undoubtedly there are some who hold to theistic evolution who themselves tend towards deism. I have had conversations with people who suggest that God set it up in such a way that he knew something good would come out of it, but could not be sure what. So, Deistic Evolution posing as Theistic Evolution exists. But, I fear that it may betray some deistic assumptions on the part of creationists if they will insist that apparent randomness is incompatible with intelligent divine design.

On the other hand there are those who hold to theistic evolution who accuse creationists of deism.
Ever since Henry Drummond coined the phrase "the god of the gaps" it has been used as an accusation against those who hold to creationism, and more recently Intelligent Design. The idea is that people seem to think that science runs itself quite nicely, thank you very much, but there are a few things that cannot be explained without some kind of miraculous intervention from God. Like Drummond, they urge instead belief in "an immanent God, which is the God of Evolution, is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology."

Well, though once again this accusation of a God only occasionally involved in His world may be fair for a few creationists, sure theistic creationism is also possible: that God is utterly involved in every moment, but differently involved in the miraculous.

Whichever position you take on the Creationism vs. Evolution debate, make sure that in avoiding falling into materialism, you don't inadvertently fall into deism: that would be a far more serious error than getting the Creationism vs Evolution question wrong.

Make sure also that you don't wrongly accuse a brother or sister in Christ who believes in the same God as you do of a theology to which they do not hold.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Confusing Conversations 2. "Creation vs. Evolution" is not a conversation

I think it was Thomas Renz, a then lecturer at Oak Hill, who was the first to point out to me that Creation vs. Evolution really isn't a real conversation. It is the confusion of two conversations.

Really there is one staggeringly important conversation: Creation vs. Evolutionism

And one real, but far less important conversation: Creationism vs. Evolution.

The first conversation is vitally important because it is a conversation about worldviews. Is there a creator or not? Is the world utterly dependent upon that creator, or is "evolutionism" (the idea that evolution can explain everything) true? "Evolutionism" is a term used in different ways, but where used appropriately and not merely as a sneer, it is a materialistic philosophy that believes that evolution is not merely an historical explanation of what has happened, but also a philosophical explanation. Matter is all there is; matter happens to have thrown up these incredibly evolving organisms that have eventually, through an entirely materialistic process, led to the existence of humans.
By contrast, "creation" presupposes a theistic worldview: it assumes that the world is created by a divine being who is utterly in control of whatever processes have taken place to bring about humanity, and every other thing in existence, from the smallest molecule to the largest supercluster of galaxies. Whatever processes there may have been to get to where the creation is now, in a very real sense these processes can be described as his acts of creation.
All Christians should obviously be in agreement that "creation" rather than "evolutionism" is alone a satisfactory worldview that makes sense of the existence of our universe and everything in it.

The other debate is not about worldviews at all, though it is often confused as being so. It is a debate about ancient (Natural) History, the debate between Creationism and Evolution. It is a debate about the age of the earth; the time it took for certain species to come (be brought) into being. It is a debate about taxonomy: are the species fixed, or can there in time be sufficient divergence within a species that eventually one has multiple species.

These are, of course perfectly valid questions to be asking. But I hope that every theist at least recognises how these questions are far far less important than the questions of worldview.

The methodology by which we come to a particular conclusion on this second question might betray a worldview, and more of that anon; but it is inaccurate to imply that either position, in and of itself, encapsulates a worldview.

So in summary, we have two debates.

1) Worldview Debate: Creation (theism) vs. evolutionism (materialism)
2) History / Taxonomy debate: creationism (young earth / fixed species) vs. evolution (old earth, unfixed species)

Two questions to think about.
a) which debate is more important?
b) which debate is nearer the centre of the force of Genesis 1?

I think that all Christians who have read Genesis 1 carefully should be in no doubt at all that the answer to both these questions is (1)

For other posts in this series see here

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Confusing Conversations about Creation

In preparing for preaching a sermon series on Genesis 1-3 I thought it would be good to get a little more up to speed on where the lay of the land is at the moment in the debates between creationists / intelligent design movement / theistic evolutionists and the new atheists.
I have to admit, that the issues involved, and particularly their relationship (or lack of it) to a right understanding of Genesis One can be enormously confusing. Many people seem to be talking past each other. They thing they are having one conversation when their discussion partner thinks it is an entirely different conversation. The conversations are confusing, precisely because one conversation is being confused with another.
I thought I'd do a few posts to examine the confusing of the conversation conversations and how confusing it can be. And if you are not confused yet, just wait!