Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creation the Bible and Science Conference: Day One

Interpreting Genesis 1 & 2
Dr. John Currid

The conference kicked off appropriately enough with a consideration of Genesis 1 & 2. In his opening remarks, John Currid, Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Virginia made mention of alarm in the UK media concerning "noisy American creationists". Currid is certainly a creationist, but is not of the strident, shouty variety that seem to do so much damage to the cause. Currid pointed out that the Reformers rejected the allegorising tendencies of the medieval church in favour of sober biblical interpretation. The main point of Reformed interpretation of Scripture is to discover the authorial meaning of the text rather than read hidden meanings into Scripture. Essential to responsible exegesis is the identification of the literary genre of a particular biblical text. This is especially important when approaching Genesis 1 & 2. It is often said that the opening chapters of Genesis are "poetry". But Currid sees no evidence of this in the text. The two key features of Hebrew poetry are absent namely: Line parallelisms e.g. Psalm 19:1 and figures of speech e.g. Psalm 42:1. Moreover a device invariably present in Hebrew narrative prose writing - "vav consecutive plus imperfect" is used again and again in Genesis 1 & 2. Passages of the Old Testament that make reference to these chapters seem to accept them as historical narrative rather than poetry, e.g. Exodus 20:8-11 and Psalm 104. Currid rejected the "framework hypothesis", which tries to accommodate Genesis 1 & 2 with theistic accounts of evolution. This view, associated with Meredith Kline amongst others tries to read our chapters as poetry. But what we have in fact is a highly structured, exalted prose narrative that is suited to the unique event of God's original creation.
In expounding the text itself, Currid drew attention to God's activity in the six creation days. The earth was originally "without form and empty" (Genesis 1:2). In days 1-3, God ordered the earth by three acts of division. In days 4-6, he filled the creation with stars, marine creatures, birds and animal life. Then, after the creation of man, God rested from his creative activity (Genesis 2:1-3). This pattern of ordering and filling followed by rest is replicated by human beings as God's unique image bearers, Genesis 1:26-28. Man orders creation by subduing the earth (Genesis 1:28) and naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). He is called to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28 again). God's rest is the pattern from human rest, (Exodus 20:8-11). This rest day on the completion of creation anticipates the eschatological rest that the creation will receive in Christ.
This well-argued and cogent exegetical paper laid the ground for what was to come in the conference. In the discussion that followed, questions of genre, historicity and the length of the creation days amongst other issues were aired.
Genesis 1 & 2 - History of Interpretation
Dr. Robert Letham
It fell to Bob Letham of WEST to summarise the church's pre-Copernican understanding of Genesis 1 & 2. The church rejected Maronite and Gnostic accounts of creation, which tended to view matter as evil. Early theologians rightly insisted that God created the world ex nihilo. Irenaeus suggested that God used his two "hands", the Son and the Spirit when he created all things. This did not imply subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father as both were regarded as one with God in the work of creation. Irenaeus understood creation Christologically. Christ is the image of God in whose image we are made. Redemption is an act of recapitulation with the second Adam undoing the work of the fist Adam. Origen could make little sense of Genesis 1 & 2 when understood literally. He was opposed to the idea of six 24 hour creation days. His platonic leanings and allegorical bent drove him to try and find secret meanings behind the "flesh" of the biblical text. Basil the Great understood the creation account more literally. He saw God acting purposefully in creating the world from nothing, which he then ordered in the creation days. Augustine taught instantaneous creation. God made the world and time. He taught that the creation days were stages in our knowledge of creation. The One Day was replicated in the other days, with number six representing perfection. Augustine's view seemed to hold sway from his own day right up to the Reformation. Robert Gristeste [not sure of spelling!] taught that the firmament of Genesis 1:7 was some kind of crystallised water, in accordance with the best science of his day. (A warning for us not to follow current scientific trends too slavishly). Aquinas saw a three-fold division of God's creative work in Genesis 1 & 2, creation and division on Days 1-3 and adornment in Days 4-6. With the Reformation, we see a greater concentration on the actual text of Scripture, with a more literal reading of the creation account. Luther held that the world was 6,000 years old. He rejected allegorical interpretations. While Calvin noted that divine revelation is accommodated to our capacity, he taught that God created the world in six 24 hour days, rejecting the view of Augustine. Letham insisted our understanding of the creation days should not be given confessional status. The Westminster Standards take little interest in the matter. The plethora of views on Genesis 1 & 2 should make us cautious in our pronouncements. Copernican science forced Bible scholars to read Scripture differently. We should be open to similar correction. The question of Job 38, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?", should give us pause for thought.
In the discussion afterwards the matter of doctrinal progress was raised. That was a good point. Letham should have given more emphasis to the positive gains made by the Reformers and the fact that the Reformation gave rise to modern science. We should recognise that the Reformers had a better and more accurate understanding of Genesis (see Currid's paper) than Augustine and the medievals. We must be open to revising our understanding of Scripture as we understand the world better. But the theory of evolution plays havoc with the Bible's basic plot line. Doctrines are often clarified in response to heresy and error. Witness the clarification of Christology at Chalcedon. Perhaps the modern creation/evolution debates will have the same effect upon the doctrine of creation? The fact of interpretive diversity in church history does not mean that it is impossible for us to come to a more accurate understanding of Genesis 1 & 2. To suggest that it is is a councel of despair. It seems to me that the best reading of the opening chapters in the Bible is that of the Reformers, which sees God literally creating, forming and filling the world in six days.
Genesis 1 & 2 - A Scientist's Perspective
Prof. Stuart Burgess
The first too papers had been a little demanding, what with all that exegesis and historical theology. It was perhaps a bit ironic that the most accessible and engaging paper of the day was given by a scientist. Burgess, Professor of Design and Nature in Bristol University argued from Romans 1:20 that God reveals his attributes in the creation of time, space and matter. We can see his power in creating and forming the world by divine fiat. He made the stars with his fingers. God's wisdom is revealed in the skilful work of creation. In Proverbs 8, wisdom, is like a master craftsman working at God's side as he made the world. God's goodness is shown in giving us a day of rest, in creating a world full of beauty, with food that is good to the taste. Psalm 104 celebrates the abundant goodness of God in creation. Burgess appealed to evidence of design in nature, referring to the clockwork motion of the stars and the way that fruit provides us with perfectly packaged fast food. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that nothing can come of nothing, which raises the question of a supernatural creator.
In addressing the age of the Adam, Stuart appealed to the the biblical genealogies and historical evidence to suggest that man has only been around for 6,000 years or so. It is a remarkable fact that as far as we can tell, human technology and culture only began to develop 6,000 years ago. If evolutionary time scales are accepted, it is unbelievable that human life should have existed for so long before the wheel was invented or agriculture developed. On the age of the earth itself, he argued for six 24 hour creation days, suggesting that starlight was supernaturally sped up on day 4, thus enabling light from far distant stars to reach our planet. With his background in engineering, Stuart could understand why God did not create the sun and moon to throw light upon the earth until day 4. An architect would build a stately home and only then design and install lights to illuminate the building. Interestingly Hebrews 3:4 compares God to a builder.
The "young earth" position requires that by day 6, the earth looked artificially mature, with fully grown trees and an adult Adam. But there is no deception here. It was God's purpose to create a planet capable of sustaining and enhancing human life and that is what we have. Engineers have found a way of artificially ageing car engines so they no longer have to be "run in". There is no element of deception in placing a mature looking engine in a brand new car. Stuart closed his paper with some thoughts on extraterrestial life, the existence of which (apart from angels!), he holds to be incompatible with Scripture. A lively discussion followed this presentation. It became clear that professional scientists are under considerable pressure not to question the hegemony of Darwinian evolution. This was confirmed on Tuesday with the announcement that Michael Reiss was forced to resign from his role in the Royal Society after calling for creationism to be taught in science lessons (see story in The Times).
So ends my report of the three main addresses from day one. Reports to follow on Monday evening's Lloyd-Jones Memorial Lecture by Philip Eveson and the three papers delivered on day two. The conference was held under the auspices of the John Owen Centre. CD's of each address and a nifty MP3 CD containing all the addresses can be ordered here.

4 comments:

michael jensen said...

I am sorry, but the 'supernatural speeding up of light' argument is like the old 'Adam's bellybutton' argument from the 19th century. It is utterly circular - and is actually an admission that the evidence from the physical world does not fit the creation scientist's reading of Genesis. (...which I don't accept is the best exegesis of the text anyhow).

Jonathan Hunt said...

Michael - a five year old child would tell you that the text means what it says. Since when does anything else trump God's Word? It is only the desire to accommodate scientific vogue which drives alternative exegesis.

Science is based upon logic. And the logic in play when assessing the evidence to which you refer is flawed because it affirms the consequent.

God is capable of doing what He wants, precisely how He wants. I am a simple man, and I see no reason to play games with what God has said because modern science has rejected His existence.

Guy, looking forward to part two.

Daniel said...

The text means what it says... But that doesn't preclude discussion of what exactly it is that the text says. It wouldn't be allowing science to 'trump' Scripture if I thought that sound exegesis of the two creation accounts in Gen 1-2 (I throw that in purely for the sake of controversy) didn't make any of the points that creation science tries to make from the text.

It's frustrating that creation scientists try to make this an issue of Biblical authority when in fact it is an issue of Biblical interpretation. I'm just not convinced that Gen 1-2 point in the direction of YEC.

Jonathan Hunt said...

I know what you mean. I know where Michael is coming from and I know where you are coming from.

I once changed my views from YEC to OEC, but then back again. It does come down to interpretation alone, and does not have to do with 'scientific evidence' - which may be flawed. One thing we do know is that God's Word is not.

Its not a hill I'm willing to die on but I tend to view it as a can of worms in re how we view the rest of scripture.