My Ambiguous Relationship with Carl F. H. Henry (Heading to the Dabar Conference on Genesis and Science)

I’m about to head off to a four-day conference (June 8-11, 2016) that will address the topic of “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science.” This is the kick-off conference of a three-year “Creation Project,” sponsored by the Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

The Dabar Conference

The conference is known as the Dabar Conference (this is the Hebrew term for “word,” pronounced davar). The name evokes Scripture as God’s Word and the biblical theme that God creates by the word (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6-9; Psalm 119:89-91; John 1:1-3).

Although the Creation Project involves more than the annual Dabar Conference (it involves research fellowships and smaller meetings throughout the year), the Conference is meant to gather “evangelicals together from different disciplines, denominations, and institutions with the goal of orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and promote scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.”

The Creation Project’s topics for the next two years are “Affirming the Doctrine of Creation in an Age of Science” (2017) and “Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science” (2018).

This Year’s Conference Topic

This year’s emphasis on “Reading Genesis in an Age of Science” is meant to address a number of questions, the core of which is the following:

“How are the opening chapters of Genesis and other origin texts throughout the Christian Scriptures related to the claims of modern scientific advance?”

Although it is not stated explicitly, evolution (of the cosmos and of humanity) is an important aspect of the science that will be addressed.

You can see the full 2016 Dabar Conference schedule here.

My Contribution to the Conference

The Dabar Conference is billed as a “working” conference, where position papers are presented, followed by respondents (of which I am one), and then open discussion.

I was invited to participate likely because of my work in Old Testament (especially Genesis) and also because of my connection to BioLogos.

I’ve been asked to bring my philosophical and biblical studies backgrounds to bear as a respondent to C. John (“Jack”) Collins’s paper, entitled “Reading Genesis 1-11 in Biblical and Social Context.” Although I’m mostly on board with his reading, I’ll be exploring some of the implications of Collins’s framing of matters, wondering out loud about how we might better articulate some of his points in light of important issues in contemporary science.

Charitable Disagreement among Christians

There is no guarantee that everyone at the conference will agree (in fact, we are likely to disagree), but we are coming together as Christian sisters and brothers to explore the questions in an atmosphere of critical and charitable inquiry.

I’m glad that the stated intent for the conference is to cultivate “clarity, humility, and mere orthodoxy, all of which are important for developing innovative future research projects and in providing public guidance to the church.”

Carl F. H. Henry vis-a-vis Middleton and Walsh

I’m particularly glad for this stated intent since, paradoxically, my own work on postmodernity and biblical faith back in the mid-nineties was summarily dismissed by none other than Carl F. H. Henry (after whom the Henry Center is named).

Carl Henry heard a paper that Brian Walsh and I delivered at the Wheaton Theology Conference back in 1994 (based on our book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, which was published by IVP the following year). He wrote a single-page scathing critique (in World magazine) of the conference and of our book, which he had not actually read. Instead, he based his critique on lines he quoted from a phone interview that IVP did with us about the book .

While there were undoubtedly legitimate differences of opinion between Henry’s point of view and our own position, the tragedy is that his critique (in the article) was based primarily on out-of-context quotations from the phone interview, which omitted important clarifications of what we meant.

For example, Henry quoted me as saying: “Even the truth of the gospel . . . is a human construction.” And he took this to mean that I denied the reality of revelation from God (something no-one who knows me would ever think).

Here it is important to note that something crucial was left out of the quote (signified by the ellipsis dots).

Brian had just commented about truth as both given from God (revelation) and our responsibility to formulate it in human language in order to communicate it.

Then comes the full sentence in which I followed up on Brian’s comment: “Yes, because even the truth of the gospel—which we constantly articulate in the church, in liturgy and proclamation and evangelism—is a human construction. I mean, the Four Spiritual Laws is a human construction in response to the truth of Jesus.”

I first read Carl Henry’s works when I was an undergraduate theology student in Jamaica and found that he was someone I could respect. So I was quite disappointed by this dismissive misreading.

Even though Carl Henry is no longer alive (he passed away in 2003), perhaps my participation in this conference (sponsored by the Henry Center) will serve to bring a certain reconciliation.

 

Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution

GENESIS RECAST Conference

For too long Christians in North America have thought the Bible was in conflict with biological evolution. Yet many orthodox Christian theologians of the nineteenth century (including Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield) saw no conflict in principle.

The Manufactured “War” between Science and Religion

This famous “war” of science and religion (of which the creation-evolution battle is the most prominent example) is a relatively recent invention, manufactured from the atheist side by John William Draper (History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, 1874) and by Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896), and on the Christian side by fundamentalists who misread the Genesis creation accounts as scientific.

But this is a serious genre mistake. Many atheists treat “science” as a full-fledged worldview that claims to tell us that there is nothing to reality but the natural world and that the scientific method gives us all the valid knowledge there is. Likewise many Christians treat the Bible as a science textbook, when the point of creation accounts in the ancient world (of which Israel was a part) is to explain the meaning of life and how we are to live.

Of course, the issues are a bit more complex than that. But to find out more you will need to attend an important conference that is coming to the Buffalo, NY area on September 18-19, 2015.

Genesis Recast—The War with Science Is Over

This is the provocative name of the conference, which will headline John Walton, Old Testament professor from Wheaton College, on how the read the Genesis creation accounts. His orthodox Christian faith in connection with his expertise in the Bible and the ancient Near East admirably equips him to guide us in how the interpret the Genesis creation accounts in line with their original intent.

Of course, we need to go well beyond a declaration of “peace” between the Bible and science.

The Positive Role of a Biblical View of Creation

The biblical view of creation claims that the cosmos is “very good” (Gen 1:31) and is imbued with God’s wisdom and order (Prov 3:19-20). Indeed, the wisdom literature of the Bible encourages us to understand the world, in which God’s wisdom is embedded, that we might live better in it.

Furthermore, God’s creation of humanity in his own image, with the task to rule the earth (Gen 1:26-28) and tend the garden of creation (Gen 2:15), implies an exalted role for human beings, which includes the possibility of science. As stewards of earthly life, we are commissioned with a vocation that encompasses (but is not limited to) the scientific understanding of the world in which we live.

Not only can the world be studied scientifically, but a biblical view of God’s good creation suggests that human knowledge of the world (while not infallible) is possible and (when proper testing is in place) is reliable and trustworthy.

So far from being threatened by evolution, Christians who embrace a biblical understanding of creation may see the hand of God in the deep time of the cosmos and the complex processes of biological evolution. In fact, we may be in awe of the amazing creativity of this great God of ours.

Living with Unanswered Questions

Does this mean that we’ve solved all problems of how theology and the Bible relate to what we are learning about the cosmos and the evolution of life on this planet? By no means. I myself am working on these issues and have lots of questions. But whoever said that we would have all the answers, especially within our lifetime?

Expecting all the answers now is a decidedly modern form of hubris.

Instead, Christians need to learn the virtue of patience, and to take a long view of things. If we trust in the God of creation, revealed supremely in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word, we can learn to live with the unanswered questions we have—indeed, to love the questions, as Rilke suggested, until that day when we live into the answers.

More Information on the Genesis Recast Conference

While John Walton is the keynote speaker for the Buffalo conference, there are other speakers, addressing issues relating to the New Testament, genetics, and implications for the church. You can find details about the other speakers on the conference website, as well as in my previous post on the subject.

Registration is so cheap as to be ridiculous. If you live within driving distance, there is no excuse not to go, since a conference of this caliber won’t come this way again in a long while.

I hope to see you there!

If you need flyers (4×6) or posters (13×19) for your church or organization, let the conference organizer know [iyouthguy@gmail.com], and he will send them to you.

The Problem of Animal Suffering in a Good Creation—Engaging Ronald Osborn’s Death Before the Fall (IVP, 2014), Part 1

I’ve been interested in the question of how the Bible addresses the problem of suffering for a long time. This is sometimes called the theodicy problem—from the Greek for God (theos) and justice (dikē). Many writers through history have tried to “justify” God in light of the reality of suffering.

My own interest in this question is based both on theology and personal experience.

First of all, I am drawn to the Bible’s theological vision of a good creation. Having written quite a bit about God’s creational intent for the world’s flourishing (in articles and books), I am keenly aware of the need to grapple with the reality that the world does not at present match up with that ideal.

But it isn’t just that the world (out there) doesn’t match up to this ideal. Around the time I was coming to fully embrace a positive biblical vision of a good creation (having just completed a book on the Christian worldview), my life began to experience serious dissonance from this vision. As a result, I found it difficult over a period of some months to trust in God’s goodness. (I’ve recounted some of this story in a previous blog post.)

During this time I was introduced to the psalms of lament as a powerful resource for renewing trust in God in the midst of suffering. One outcome of this experience was an essay I wrote on the problem of suffering and evil that contrasted the attempt of classical theodicy to “solve” the problem with the more experiential approach of the lament psalms (“Why the ‘Greater Good’ Isn’t a Defense”). Another was the book that Brian Walsh and I wrote on Christian faith in a postmodern world.

The Question of Evolution and Evil

I’m now being pressed to think further about suffering, given what I’ve come to understand about the evolutionary processes uncovered by various sciences (including paleontology and genetics). I am interested in how we might think about the Bible’s presentation of origins (origin of the world, of humans, of evil) in light of cosmic, biological, and human evolution.

I will be presenting a paper that explores the origins of human evil in Genesis 3 in light of human evolution at a conference called “The Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” next March in Chicago.

One facet of this issue is the reality of death and suffering prior to the origin of human beings. It seems undeniable to me that that biological death, animal predation, and natural disasters all predate humanity. We are latecomers on the scene, and plants and animals (from bacteria to dinosaurs) were subject to death by extinction, predation, accident, disease, or simply old age (if they were lucky) long before us.

This means that we can’t reasonably attribute these factors to the results of human sin (a “curse” on nature). Indeed, my own re-reading of Genesis 3 and other biblical texts has helped me realize that the common Christian assumption that nature was systemically affected by of human sin isn’t clearly supported in Scripture. (I’ll get to the origin of this idea later.)

Even with this realization, questions remain. This is where Ronald Osborn’s thoughtful new book comes in.

Ronald E. Osborn. Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014.

With vivid prose and an engaging perspective, Osborn addresses the problem of animal suffering for Christians, whether of “creationist” or evolutionary persuasions.

The book is tendentious (in the best sense of that term), arguing both for and against particular positions with passion and verve, yet it does not in the end come to a clear or unambiguous position on its primary topic, namely animal suffering. But the book certainly made me think, which (in my opinion) is high praise.

Osborn on Literalism

There are two prongs to Osborn’s argument, which make it, in effect, two books, or at least a book with two purposes, and two audiences. Part 1 (nine chapters) attempts to help conservative Christians move out of narrow literalism in their reading of the Bible’s creation narratives (by literalism he means an approach to the text that assumes a simple correspondence between what the Bible says and concrete realities in the external world); this approach tends to be associated with a young earth and treats the Noahic flood as the explanation for the fossil record.

Osborn is uniquely qualified to address this sort of literalism, since he was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist church. Although he doesn’t go into details about this, it was the founder of the SDA church (Ellen G. White) who popularized the view that flood geology (and not deep time) decisively explained the current fossil record (this having been revealed to her in a vision, in which she claimed to have actually observed the flood).

This interpretation of the fossil record (along with its assumption of a young earth, and the lack evolutionary descent) informed the hermeneutics of William Jennings Byran, the famous prosecutor in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 (Byran had read SDA literature on this topic). To this day, many in the SDA church are principled defenders of young earth creationism.

Since I do not count myself among those who read the Bible this way, I was less interested in part 1 of Osborn’s book. Nevertheless, there are some good chapters here. These include chap. 2: “Unwholesome Complexity,” which shows just how certain creationist readings end up tying the reader into interpretive knots, and chap. 6: “The Enclave Mentality,” which is perceptive about absolutism and the demonization of the other often found in fundamentalism.

I was particularly taken with the author’s characterization of the anxiety of a literalist reading of Scripture as “a high-stakes game of Jenga” (p. 45), where if you touch one of the bricks near the bottom the entire theological edifice might collapse. However, Osborn’s rhetoric in this section of the book can be dismissive at times, and might put off some readers who need to grapple with the important issues he raises here.

In my next two posts I will address part 2 of Osborn’s book, which explicitly addresses how we might think theologically about animal suffering.