On Genesis, Job, and Psalms—Five Recent Essays Published

Five essays I’ve been working on for a while have recently been (or are about to be) published.

I wrote this essay last year for oral presentation at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and then again at the Society of Biblical Literature. I conceived it as an introductory exploration of the phenomenon of vigorous prayer in the Bible, which grounds research I am currently doing for a book on lament vis-à-vis Abraham and Job. You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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  • “Reading Genesis 3 Attentive to Human Evolution: Beyond Concordism and Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” Chap. 4 in Evolution and the Fall, ed. by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 67–97.

This essay was written specifically for this collection, at the invitation of the editors. It was the first piece I ever wrote trying to relate the Bible to human evolution. I presented it at a conference in Spring 2015, which led to my becoming a Theological Fellow with BioLogos, writing blog posts for them, and giving a number of related presentations on the Bible and evolution. My approach both in this essay and in the subsequent blogs and presentations on the subject has been to listen to the Bible first, then explore how this might help us understand what scientists are telling us about human evolution.

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For a long time I had been mulling over my sense that most interpreters were misreading God’s response to Job’s complaints; instead of reprimanding Job for daring to question him, I understood God second speech as encouraging him (while his first speech functioned to critique his assumptions and enlarge his vision). So, some years ago I worked up my ideas into a paper that I presented at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies; this led to my being asked to give this paper as the Peter C. Craigie memorial lecture at the University of Calgary. Then I put it away for a while, but reworked it for presentation last year in a Biblical Studies Seminar at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra, Australia. It is now published in their journal with the other papers from the Seminar.  You can download the essay by clicking on its title (or here).

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I’ve always prized Psalm 51 as an amazing articulation of the meaning of repentance. But like the Job paper (above), I had the sense that the traditional reading of this psalm as David’s prayer of confession did not fit the actual story in 2 Samuel 11–12. So I tried out my ideas on the topic a few years back at the Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society and then at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies. I revised the paper for presentation in 2015 in the “Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, and the Theological Disciplines” Research Group of the Institute for Biblical Research. It is published in a volume of collected papers that have been presented in this research group over the last few years.

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This essay is an exposition of the story of the Garden of Eden, to show how it grounds the dignity of work and the equality of men and women in God’s original intentions for human life. Yet God’s intentions in both cases have been distorted by human sin (and our sinful perspective often leads to our misreading of this story). The essay was commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the founding of Roberts Wesleyan College and the title of the volume comes from the name of the newspaper (The Earnest Christian) published by B. T. Roberts, the founder of the College and of the Free Methodist Church. The essays also function as an earnest of the heritage of the College and of B. T. Roberts’s vision of socially embodied Christianity (he was an evangelical egalitarian back in the nineteenth century and wrote a booklet in 1891 advocating the ordination of women). Although the anniversary of the College was last year, the volume of essays is being published this summer.

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My Recent Participation in the Science-Faith Dialogue

I recently participated in two separate events of science-faith dialogue. Both were sponsored by evangelical organizations with Trinity in the name. And both had a significant BioLogos presence.

EVENT #1: The Dabar Conference on “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (June 14–17, 2017)

Two weeks ago I participated in the Dabar conference of the Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, near Chicago (Dabar is Hebrew for “word”).

This was the second Dabar conference that I attended. These conferences are part of a three-year research project on creation that I’ve been involved in. The Creation Project aims to help the evangelical church develop a robust creation theology that can interact fruitfully with contemporary scientific understandings of the world.

Last year (2016) the topic was interpreting Genesis; this year (2017) the focus has been on the doctrine of creation; and next year (2018) it will be on what it means to be human.

The Dabar conference is held each June as the highlight of the year’s theme, and is attended by about 80100 theologians, biblical scholars, philosophers, scientists, and pastors.

The keynote papers weren’t read at this year’s conference, but were circulated to the participants in advance and we were expected to have read them all and to come with our questions.

The author of each keynote paper gave a five minute summary of their paper, which was followed by two short response papers, then by the author’s reply. After that it was open to the audience for Q&A. To see the list of speakers and topics, click here.

Each afternoon, we met in small groups to discuss the ideas raised in the papers and to see what the range of our opinion was on matters of creation theology and the science of origins.

There was a lot of very engaging discussion.

This year two of the main speakers (Deb Haarsma and Jeff Schloss) and two the respondents (Jim Stump and myself) were associated with BioLogos. Deb Haarsma is president of BioLogos, and Jim Stump is senior editor at BioLogos. Jeff Schloss and I are part of BioLogos Voices (the BioLogos speakers bureau).

There were lots of other BioLogos folks at the conference, who often raised excellent questions in the discussions.

This is the second year that I presented a response to one of the keynote papers.

My response this year was to philosopher William (Billy) Abraham‘s paper on “God as an Agent.” I was able to draw on my background in philosophy and my expertise in Old Testament to address the topic of how the Bible speaks of God.

For those interested, you can read my response to Billy Abraham here.

EVENT #2: An Evening Conversation on “Genes, Self, and Soul” (June 26, 2017)

Just a few days ago I was one of two speakers at an evening event in Washington, DC on science and faith, sponsored by the Trinity Forum.

The Trinity Forum was founded by Os Guinness (who had been an associate of Francis Schaeffer), along with others interested in fostering significant dialogue between Christianity and major intellectual issues of our time.

By a strange coincidence, I actually quoted Os Guinness (from his first book, The Dust of Death) in my response paper at the Dabar conference.

The June 26 event, on the topic of “Genes, Self, and Soul,” was the second in a series of four Evening Conversations on “Discovery and Doxology” that the Trinity Forum is currently co-sponsoring with BioLogos.

According to the Trinity Forum website, this series “features renowned scientists, philosophers, and theologians in conversation on the ways that scientific discovery and spiritual knowledge are complementary and together contribute to a greater sense of wonder and worship.”

Both speakers on June 26 (geneticist Praveen Sethupathy and myself) were members of BioLogos Voices.

Praveen, who is is also on the Board of Directors for BioLogos, is associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University. For his presentation he drew on his perspective as a Christian who does genome research, to suggest what science can and can’t tell us about what makes us human.

Then it was my turn, as a biblical scholar, to explore how the Bible might contribute to an understanding of our biological nature, which we share with other animals, and to our distinctive human calling or vocation to image God .

Given the topic for the evening (“Genes, Self, and Soul”), both Praveen and I made the same distinction between 1) our biological composition (which includes our genetic makeup) and 2) our human calling as the image of God (which distinguishes us from other creatures). This distinction between biology and the image of God was an attempt to address the words  “genes” and “self” in the title of the event.

But what about “soul”?

While “soul” is often a synonym for “self” in modern discussions, I suggested that what the Bible means by “soul” (Hebrew nephesh; Greek psyche) has to do with what we have in common with other animals, rather than anything distinctive to human beings. Here I drew on the use of “soul” in the early chapters of Genesis and how the apostle Paul uses the term.

I told the audience that if they expected the Bible to mean by what we mean by “soul” they should “get used to disappointment.”

For those in the know, I was quoting the Man in Black (Westley a.k.a the dread pirate Roberts) in The Princess Bride.

As is often the case, here the Bible challenges our received wisdom.

The entire Evening Conversation can be viewed by clicking on this link.  The video includes a brief introduction by Deb Haarsma (the president of BioLogos) and then by Cherie Harder (the president of The Trinity Forum), followed by the presentations by Praveen and myself, and the discussion afterwards.

Event #3: Possible Joint-Lecture at Brown University by Sethupathy and Middleton (Fall 2017)

Praveen and I may be speaking together again in the Fall on the topic of evolution and Christian faith at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Our joint- talk, sponsored by a campus ministry organization called Christian Union, would explore evolution from the points of view of a scientist and a theologian; it would be geared to interested students and faculty, both Christian and secular.

Although the details still have to be worked out (including the date), I am looking forward to this possibility since I have a lot of respect both for Praveen and for the Christian Union; I got to know this campus ministry organization when I gave a talk five years ago for them at Columbia University (in NYC) on what it means to be made in the image of God.

 

 

 

The Shift to Young Earth Creationism in the Twentieth Century

There is today a great polarization among Christians in North America (and in cultures influenced by American Christian missions) about the validity of biological evolution.

Part of that polarization has to do with the age of the earth.

It turns out that most orthodox, evangelical Christians in the nineteenth century (and even in the first half of the twentieth century) accepted that Genesis was compatible with a very old earth (and universe).

This view that the earth was very old (millions of years) was a relatively new opinion, developed in response to recent understandings of the geological make-up of the earth. Prior to the rise of geological science, especially developments in the nineteenth century, no-one had any reason to think that the Bible was compatible with an old earth (just as prior to the Copernican Revolution in the sixteenth century, no one had any reason to think that the Bible was compatible with the earth revolving around the sun).

So in the nineteenth century, many quite orthodox Christians had come to accept the findings of geology and interpreted the Bible in ways consistent with an old earth (some even found ways of harmonizing the Bible with evolution; but that’s another story).

However, things changed significantly in the twentieth century. There was a retreat from science and a reversion to belief in a young earth (6,000-10,000 years old) among many American Christians.

Two of the main proponents of Young Earth Creationism (YEC) were Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb Jr. They both tied their view of the age of the earth to what is known as Flood Geology (the idea that all the sedimentary strata in the earth, including all fossils, were laid down by the Noahic flood, and so were quite recent).

Both Morris and Whitcomb were influenced by George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) layman who wrote a famous pamphlet on the subject in 1906, entitled Illogical Geology: The Weakest Point in The Evolution Theory. Price’s ideas were based on the teachings of Ellen G. White, the founder of the SDA (who had claimed that God had showed her a vision of the Flood, in which the Grand Canyon was formed).

This, of course, is not an argument against Flood Geology; you shouldn’t critique a point of view based on its origins or because of those who hold the view (known as the genetic fallacy in logic).

Nevertheless, the story of how YEC (which was common before the nineteenth century), along with Flood Geology, came to prominence among twentieth-century American Christians is fascinating.

You might want to read about it here.