No Scientific Revelation in the Bible! (RJS)

I have had the opportunity on a few different occasions to listen to John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, discuss the question of origins as related in Genesis. The most recent in fact was just yesterday. John is the author of the Genesis (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) and of a popular book The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate and a number of other books. His emphasis is on the interpretation of the text of the Old Testament, especially Genesis, in its ancient Near Eastern context. He is an engaging speaker with a deep understanding of the language, culture, and text; a text he desires to reads both in ancient context and through eyes of faith.

Over the last six or seven months John has been speaking around the world on the topic Genesis Through Ancient Eyes (he says about seventy times in seven months).  If you are interested you can find a version of his talk on the BioLogos site (linked through the title). The talk has been divided into four segments of 8 to 15 minutes or so for your viewing pleasure. The image above is a screen grab from the first segment (well worth a look … it is less than 9 minutes long). illustrating the waters above and the waters below as describe in Genesis. Today, though, I would like to look just briefly at a concept introduced in the second segment – Science and the Bible.  John opens up this segment:

(0:20-1:20 )I just want to make two quick points here. The first one is that in the Bible there is no scientific revelation.That’s such an important point. Israel is not getting any new understanding of the material world, its mechanisms, its operations, or anything of that sort. No new information. Now they can observe the world, and they might make some of the same observations we make when we observe the world in our modern times. But they didn’t get that by revelation.

In other words, anything that is in the Bible about the workings of the material world were things that Israel already believed and that all the nations around them already believed. Like I mentioned with the waters, the waters above and the waters below in Genesis One. Everyone in the ancient world believed that. That’s not kind of a breakthrough revelation. And that is true all the way through the Old Testament.

He goes on to use an illustration of the heart and “mind” in the ancient context. They knew nothing about the brain and its role in cognition. The word we translate mind is entrails. But we don’t need to try to understand how a blood pump and entrails produce thoughts. This is ancient “science” in the text. It was not corrected as God revealed himself to his people.  The second point John makes concerning science and the Bible is that “the observation of natural cause and effect does not remove God from the picture (Ps 139:13).” We need to avoid a false dichotomy – either God or natural process.

A few years ago I posted on a book by Denis O. Lamoureux, Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution. (For those who find the full book (400+ pages) somewhat daunting Dr. Lamoureux has condensed the book into a more accessible version as well I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution.)  You can find all of the posts on this book in the Science and Faith Archive (scroll down to the section Books on Scripture). Dr. Lamoureaux makes the same point that John Walton is making. In chapter four of Evolutionary Creation, after running through a number of examples of ancient science that are found in the Old Testament, from the waters above and below mentioned by Walton, to that bird the bat, the cud chewing rabbits, and the understanding of reproduction (the male plants a seed in the womb … no egg, no mixing of DNA, a womb is barren when it will not accept the seed).

If we expect scientific concordance between the text of scripture and our present understanding of cosmology, geography, biology, reproduction, and more we have two choices – we can search for reasons why the language doesn’t carry the apparent meaning, the meaning that fits in context with noncanonical texts and other sources, or we can accept that the ancient science is incidental to the meaning. Many, of course, take the first approach – looking at the language as phenomenological or as figurative and poetic. But this doesn’t hold water. It doesn’t hold up under close examination, especially as we learn more and more about the ancient Near Eastern view of the world. And we now have, John Walton told us last night, some one million cuneiform texts to help us understand the ancient context (although not all have been translated yet).

In the same segment I quoted above Walton notes:

(2:12-2:22) God uses what they knew to communicate. This is happening in their world OK. So God’s not giving them new science. He’s giving them what they need to communicate in their context.

God accommodates his message, his communication, to the local culture and context on issues that are of no importance to the theological point. And this isn’t entirely consistent throughout the Old Testament, because the text comes from different times and contexts. Thus we can have differing views of the earth showing up in different texts, with the earth on pillars in Psalm 75 and Job 9, but established on waters in Psalm 24 and Psalm 136.  These texts reflect different times and different views.

Dr. Lamoureux introduces what he calls the message-incident principle to guide interpretation of passages that refer to the physical world and to help Christians think through the impact of ANE “science” in the text. This approach acknowledges ANE “science” and phenomenological language, yet suggests that it is the theological content, not the scientific content, that is the significant content of the text.

This approach contends that in order to reveal spiritual truths as effectively as possible to the ancient peoples, the Holy Spirit used their ancient phenomenological perspective of nature. That is, instead of confusing or distracting the biblical writers and their readers with modern scientific concepts, God descended to their level and employed the science-of-the-day. … According to this interpretative principle, biblical inerrancy and infallibility rest in the Divine Theology, and not in statements referring to nature.  Qualifying ancient science as “incidental” does not imply that it is unimportant. The science in Scripture is vital for transporting spiritual truths.  … In other words, the ancient science in Scripture is “alongside” the “more important” Message of Faith. (pp. 110-111)

There is no new scientific revelation in Genesis, or indeed in the Bible as a whole. Rather God revealed himself to his people in language that they could understand. Scientific concordism, a strict correspondence between the Bible and the physical world, is not to be expected. On the other hand, theological concordism, that is a correspondence between the theological truths of the Bible and spiritual reality, is found in scripture through and through. The central purpose of Scripture is to reveal God, including His character, laws, and acts.

What do you think? Is there scientific revelation in the Bible?

Should we expect to find such revelation?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Norman

    We are indebted to John Walton for his extensive work on
    Genesis and ancient ideas that come into play when attempting to understand
    biblical language. However I don’t believe Walton nor Lamoureux delve deeply
    enough into how the literary application of ancient Creation and Temple
    understandings are actually applied. The classic example of this limitation is
    Walton’s understanding of the creation of the Heavens and Earth as a Temple
    creation account in Genesis 1. Walton I
    believe rightly recognizes this ancient application of creation as a creation
    model that is not what we think in terms of a material creation to an
    extent. He calls it functional creation,
    yet I believe he fails to follow through with how this functional creation
    application is used theologically within OT and NT scriptures. He seems to
    believe that these ancient theological writers were limiting themselves to a
    literal application of their worldview when the evidence strongly suggest that
    they were quite flexible with this language.

    A functional creation of the Heavens and Earth also has its
    functional manipulation and decreation application that is used to explain
    changes about God’s ways and how His people are governed and interact with Him.
    In Hebrews 12 we see the writer apply
    the term “shaken” to describe what happened at Mt. Sinai when Moses gave Israel
    the Law. The earth/land was shaken
    describes a change in government for God’s people at that time. The writer is
    saying that a similar shaking is taking place with the exchange of the Mosaic
    governance being replaced with Christ higher authority and governance regarding
    the New Kingdom. Heb 12:28 Therefore let
    us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,. Not only the earth/land will be shaken but
    the Heavens will be shaken which indicates from the writers perspective that the
    spiritual approach to God is being amended through Christ. This “shaking” takes
    its cue from Isaiah 24:19 which is messianic prophecy.

    However there is more to creation and decreation examples
    such as Isaiah 65-66 which is also messianic in its declaration seeking a “new
    Heavens and earth/land”. I believe it’s
    easy to see unless we get wrapped back up in our literal reading style. What
    was created in Genesis 1 that produced Adam is going to be replaced with a new
    governance “Heaven and Earth”.
    Evangelical Christians especially like to read these poetic expressions of
    a coming messianic time and change to the H & E as a physical account where
    even the lamb and the Lion will lie down together physically. They often think this is returning to the
    original garden when it is simply the ancient’s method of telling story that
    illustrates that humanity (Jews and Gentiles) will come together in harmony
    under the coming messiah.

    When we get to Hebrews 1:10-12 and Rev 21 we most often get
    off track when we do not recognize that this is the antithesis of Genesis 1
    creation account. This language is not
    talking about some distant future but is speaking to the reality of the messiah’s
    coming and how the Heavens and Earth of Old will be rolled up like a garment
    and discarded (it is a change in covenant governance). Or in the case of Rev 21 there will be a new
    H & E but there will be no “sea” “sun nor moon” nor “temple” in this new
    world order. The “sea” or “waters”
    represent the people beyond the “land” (Gentiles) which surrounded the “land”
    (Jews) and indicates just what Ephesians 2 says that there will only be one
    people from now on as there is neither Jew nor Gentile. The
    decreation of the sun and the moon is due to the fact that there will no
    longer be a “temple” in the new city in which times and seasons will be counted
    for worshiping God. This chapter is an
    exact decreation of the old Heavens and Earth that was established in Genesis
    chapter 1.

    Walton and others help us greatly when they point out the
    type of language that is being used in Genesis 1-11. However they do us no
    service when they do not follow through on how the ancients utilized this
    creation/decreation language theologically throughout the scriptures. I believe it is a result of many scholars
    trying to keep one big toe in the Evangelical camp of our heritage without
    distancing ourselves further. It is similar with N. T. Wright who provides as good as commentary as
    one can find regarding Genesis to Revelation but Wright also is comfortable
    with taking the language to its full literal expression thinking we must return
    to a mythical Garden here on Earth someday. It will take decades to rid ourselves of the tendency
    to read scriptures litearly when it suits our present worldview. The challenge
    for students of the bible is to recognize that even Walton, Lamoureux and
    Wright all still bring evangelical applications with them. The lesson of science and the ancients is
    interesting but it’s really about learning to read them theologically.

  • NateW

    This is all good stuff. I guess the next thing to consider is what this says about those natural events to which these historical people ascribe theological understandings. I’m thinking of things like this:

    Job 1:16 (ESVST)
    While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

    Is “fire of God” just evidence of the limited ancient capacity to understand lightning, or are we literally to think that fire rained down from heaven at God’s command?

    In other words, do we take ANE descriptions of natural phenomena ascribed to god at face value (that is, as miracles performed directly by God) or do we allow for the possibility that these people are ascribing them to God because they don’t understand them? Or, as I suspect, is this simply a false dichotomy?

    How far can we take this concept? Does the bible actually mean to say that God gave the Israel army victory in battles, or is it just a normal thing for ANE cultures to give credit to their tribal deities for their victories and blame their own disobedience for their defeats?

    Must Moses have really struck a rock in the wilderness from which water flowed, or is this a mythologized cultural representation of a moment in their wandering that they desperately needed water found a spring coming out of a rock? Does the way it really happened (or that it actually happened at all) change the theological point that is being made? Is there a difference between saying That the story teaches that God is powerful and does miracles for his people vs. God provides for his people’s needs?

    I’m not asking these questions as a skeptic, trying to get answers, but just to give some more to think about on these issues, some things I think the church body needs to work through.

  • http://prodigalthought.net/ Scott Lencke

    A very good article. I especially appreciated this point:

    The first one is that in the Bible there is no scientific revelation.That’s such an important point. Israel is not getting any new understanding of the material world, its mechanisms, its operations, or anything of that sort. No new information. Now they can observe the world, and they might make some of the same observations we make when we observe the world in our modern times. But they didn’t get that by revelation.

  • Rick

    “He calls it functional creation,yet I believe he fails to follow through with how this functional creation application is used theologically within OT and NT scriptures.”
    But is such a systematic theological outlook what he is attempting? Or is he (they) focused on just the biblical theology of those certain books?

  • NateW

    Great point. I like to say that Truth and facts are not the same thing. The story of creation in genesis need not be factual to be True. I would be very surprised to hear that the ANE people who passed down the genesis creation narrative through oral tradition believed it to be literally factually true. It’s not as if they were “wrong” they were trying to pass on a different kind of Truth than the modern anemic scientific variety.

  • The Leap of Doubt

    “There is no new scientific revelation in Genesis, or indeed in the Bible as a whole. Rather God revealed himself to his people in language that they could understand.”

    I used to believe statements like this. Now I find them presumptuous. Historically-speaking, some human wrote Genesis; this is not a matter of God revealing anything through language.

    It’s possible God may have revealed something to the human author who then documented it, but it’s still a human documenting it in their own words, with their own foibles and fallacies, and their own skewed understanding of the meaning of such revelation in their culture.

    I wish I could still believe the Bible is a “magic book that God wrote (or inspired)”, but I can’t anymore – too much circular reasoning is required to bolster this man-made teaching.

    In spite of that, Walton’s explanations are very helpful in understanding what was most likely understood in those times. Pete Enns has also been helpful. And I appreciate the willingness of RJS to discuss the science alongside of faith. Keep up the discussion…maybe it’ll help us all get somewhere.

  • Norman

    Rick,
    Possibly not, but IMO you need to have a systematic understanding of how scriptures are used throughout the OT, 2T and NT period. If one isolates an application then you likely loose the applied hermenutic of the writers and these periods interpreters. We can look at Genesis in isolation but it likley should not be interpreted in that manner. The better approach is to see how it’s terms have been applied throughout the ages.
    However I exclude interpretations post first century by and large as they were already drifting into western interpretive methods of reading thus why we have early 6 day creationist by some of the church fathers.

  • Norman

    NateW,
    I like to remind students of the bible that we have a great example straight from the first century Christians on how they interpreted scripture.
    It’s called the Barnabas Epistle and is essentially a commentary to it’s readers on how to apply the correct hermenutic (interpretation) to what seems to require a literal reading. It is often set aside because it doesn’t agree with historical church and evangelical interpretive methods. However it is the method of the day that allowed those looking for messiah to validate their beliefs. Modern scholars think they (Barnabas Letter) reinterpret the scriptures but they would say they were reading veiled language that was meant to project messiah.

  • AHH

    This is a hugely important and underappreciated point. While in principle God could have chosen to reveal science beyond what was known in the cultures of the Biblical writers, it seems pretty clear from the Bible we actually have (as opposed to what some wish the Bible would be) that God did not choose to do so. I think it was Calvin who pointed out that God didn’t do so “because it was of no use for our salvation.”

    The logical followup question is why so many people DO expect the Bible to give scientific revelation. Probably comes in part from wanting to read Scripture with modern western eyes, where since the Enlightenment we have tended to make science the #1 way of apprehending truth. And maybe more generally from the “perfect book” assumptions about Scripture that dominate in modern fundamentalist-leaning circles.
    All this leads to silliness like people wanting to read OT verses where God “stretches out the heavens” as a reference to the expanding universe, or interpreting Genesis 1 in highly unnatural ways to try and make it “line up” with modern scientific knowledge.

  • Rick

    “why so many people DO expect the Bible to give scientific revelation”

    Apart from the issue of assumptions about genre, I think part of the reason is because we assume that it gives historic revelation. It is a faith based on history, and God’s role in it, so the next step would be (to some) to include scientific info as well.

  • LT

    Should we not challenge the assumptions here? Walton declares that there is no new revelation, that everything there is what they already believed. And we are just supposed to take his word for it?

    At other places in the OT, we see God correcting what ancient peoples believed, not accommodating himself to it. Why would this be any different? Why would we expect God to further and support an idea that was clearly untrue? That seems so clearly contrary to the nature of God as revealed in the Bible.

    That people X believed something is not necessarily evidence that people Y believed something. Given that Israel’s religion called on them to believe different things, it is entirely expected that they actually did.

    Remember, all of the kinds of arguments that Walton puts forth are arguments in which he superimposes his 21st century understanding back on Israel 3000-3500 years ago. That is not a good way to make an argument.

  • Dan Arnold

    LT,

    Have you read what John Walton says? The thing is, when he says “anything that is in the Bible about the workings of the material world
    were things that Israel already believed and that all the nations around
    them already believed,” this not an assumption but the conclusion he comes to after studying ANE artifacts and writings. I personally find it difficult to disagree with Walton after reading Babylonian, Akkaidian and Ugaritic literature. There are definite correlations in world view, even as there are also distinctively Hebrew differences. To say that”the kinds of arguments that Walton puts forth are arguments in which he superimposes his 21st century understanding back on Israel 3000-3500 years ago” seems to demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Walton’s work and what he is driving at.

    Note also that there is a difference between correcting what ancient peoples believed *about God* and what they they thought in general. I notice, though, that you don’t give any examples of what you mean, so it’s hard for me to say for sure what you are getting at. But as to the general point that God shouldn’t have to accommodate himself to

    ancient thought, well, of course God doesn’t HAVE to do anything. But the mere fact that God used the Hebrew language, along with Aramaic at a later time to speak to the Hebrew people and Greek to speak to a world where Greek was the lingua franca (to mix metaphores, a bit) demonstrates that God does indeed accommodate revelation to the people at the time.

  • LT

    Yes, I have read Walton, and my question stands. He is assuming that his understanding of what people believed based on ANE texts he reads is also what Israel believed. That is an assumption — That Israel believed what others believed (and that’s assuming that we have understood them properly). Why would we believe that Israel believed what others believed, particularly given that life in Israel was so drastically different than other ANE cultures?

    To confuse the accommodation of language with the accommodation of false beliefs is to confuse two very different things. God uses human language to express his requirement for different beliefs.The use of language is quite different than the espousing of beliefs.

  • Dan Arnold

    Why would we believe that some beliefs and the worldview of the Hebrews overlapped with that of their neighbors? Well, could it be because they had some of the same gods, some of the same religious practices, similar founding stories (each with key differences), similar governing practices (especially post Judges for Israel), similar views of the material world? I personally can’t get past the similarities between what we read that Israel’s neighbors believed and what we read that Israel believed. Are they identical? Of course not, that’s what made Israel distinctive. It’s like asking if people in Southern California believe the same as those in North Dakota. Of course there are difference, but there is far-and-away enough similarities to make valid correlations.

    Additionally, language and culture, which includes beliefs, are inextricable. Words are never independent of the culture they come from, so to accommodate to language is to necessarily accommodate to the culture and beliefs in which they are spoken.

  • http://www.rollhillchurch.com/ Bill Search

    John Walton will Be at Rolling Hills Christian Church http://www.rollhillchurch.com in the east suburbs of Sacramento, CA on August 18. Come on out!

  • LT

    And yet believing in the same gods and practices was not constant, and when Israel believed in the the same gods and the same practices, God rebuked them for it, right? That was kind of the whole point wasn’t it: Don’t believe like other nations and don’t act like other nations.

    But we are still back to the fundamental issue: Walton (and you) are assuming this. You can’t prove it from the text of Israel’s history, and in fact, it seems to me that you have to explain away the text of Israel’s history because of your assumptions. That’s what this whole exercise is actually about: “The text doesn’t really mean what it looks like it means because (we assume) that they believed (we think) some other people believe. And wow, what do you know, that fits right in with what we believe today.”

    Overstatement? Slightly, but not much.

    Walton and others are trying to explain the text, not on the basis of the text in its historical context conveyed by the actual grammar, syntax, lexicography, etc., but rather on the basis of modern sensibilities about what people should believe. They are trying to find a way to uphold both a view of Scripture that they consider right and a view of modern scientific assertions that they believe are right. And a lot of assumptions are built into that.

    And again, accommodation of language and accommodation of religious beliefs are not the same kinds of accommodation. You might argue along the lines of “Assuming for the sake of argument,” which is a commom method of stipulation without necessarily agreement (and usually without agreement). So we might say that God “assumed for the sake of argument” this beliefs and then worked in that frame. But I think there are some significant issues in that because of the completely countercultural characteristics of Israelite religion and practice.

    That there were some similarities is easily (and necessarily) explained by the image of God in man and general revelation (cf. Rom 1:18ff). But the stark differences cannot be easily ignored, IMO.

    Thanks, Dan for the exchange. My only plea is that we be more cautious and discerning with assumptions, even if they are made by people with whom we agree.

  • Marshall

    “Functional vs. Physical” reminds me of Richard Rorty vs. John Searle; Rorty said that eg “mountains” are a category because we wish to talk about them. Searle persistently (willfully??) misunderstood him to be saying that there was no physical stuff out there until people started to talk about it . Searle (in the NYRB somewhere) quotes some demented postmodernist as saying that Ramses couldn’t have died of dysentery (or whatever it was) since the causative agent wasn’t discovered until 18th c. Whereas Rorty says our categories are meant to be “edifying” … our modern scientific categories give us a different view of Ramses’ death than was current at the time; still, whatever happened, happened. Our modern categories are edifying, but they shouldn’t be regarded as privileged.

  • Jakeithus

    As someone who personally holds to a primarily concordist view of scripture and science, there are a few issues I take. While I understand we will likely not agree on all points, we can hopefully accept our differences as fellow believers.

    I do agree, that the temptation can be there to read more into a text than it actually says, and this is something that concordists always have to take into account. The goal should always be to try and present both the scriptures and the science accurately, which I think happens for the most part.

    One question always comes to my mind when I hear people say that the Bible holds no scientific revelation beyond what was common at the time, is what do they make of the Bible teaching creation ex nihilo? In my opinion, this point is clearly made in the scriptures, but was never a commonly accepted idea until the 20th Century.

    “interpreting Genesis 1 in highly unnatural ways” – I’d worry about bringing this up specifically. Many would argue that interpreting Genesis 1 in the most natural way leads to a YEC position, and while I personally don’t agree, questions of how we should correctly interpret something are complex.

  • attytjj466

    I appreciate the insights of both authors. I have read some of Walton’s works and found significant insight there. But while I mostly agree with the overall premise, I wonder if they go too far in saying there is no new revelation of what might be termed of a scientific nature. Just one example: the more detailed teaching in Genesis 2 about the creation of human as having physical bodies that are “of the earth” as animal physical bodies are also from the “earth” was a radical and revolutionary and subversive teaching in the ANE context. It also happens to have true scientific correlation DNA wise and physical substance wise. Now yes, the text does also teach that humans are more than physical, there is also the breath of God and the image of God. But the insight that physically we are “out of and of” the physical earth same as the animals seems to me to be revelation that is both theological as well as scientific.

  • Jakeithus

    Agreed. I think it goes too far to say there is no scientific revelation present in the scriptures. Creation ex nihilo is a remarkable claim, and matches up with what we know of Big Bang cosmology. Most creation myths I’ve studied have the gods fashioning the world from some sort of already existing (and possibly infinite) matter. That space and time had a beginning is a pretty radical idea for most worldviews besides the Abrahamic traditions.

  • AHH

    Reasonable thoughts; here’s some thoughts in reply.

    One question always comes to my mind when I hear people say that the Bible holds no scientific revelation beyond what was common at the time, is what do they make of the Bible teaching creation ex nihilo? In my opinion, this point is clearly made in the scriptures, but was never a commonly accepted idea until the 20th Century.

    I think the scholars would say that one doesn’t really get ex nihilo from Genesis — “formless and void” is not “nihilo” and is closer to other ANE ideas about creation out of primeval chaos. I think Walton would say that the idea of the earth and its inhabitants ultimately being the creation of God (or gods) was taken for granted, so there was no need for Genesis to make that particular point.

    “interpreting Genesis 1 in highly unnatural ways” – I’d worry about bringing this up specifically. Many would argue that interpreting Genesis 1 in the most natural way leads to a YEC position, and while I personally don’t agree, questions of how we should correctly interpret something are complex.

    I maybe should have found a different word than “unnatural”. What we want is not what might appear “natural” in a superficial reading with our modern western glasses that asks the text our modern questions (which as you say might be a YEC reading), but rather what the stories would have meant (as best we can determine it) to the original readers/hearers. What I had in mind as “highly unnatural” were convolutions of certain concordists who for example when the text has the sun and moon made and hung in the sky on Day 4 re-interpret it as those objects having been created much earlier but only then becoming visible to an earthly observer (even though no observers existed yet). Or making the birds of Day 5 into winged insects to make things better line up with the scientific sequence. Or readings that try to explain away the solid “firmament” that Genesis 1 has above the earth by making it clouds or something.

  • Marshall

    I don’t think the point is that the Genesis authors and ANE people in general didn’t look about themselves with curiosity and intelligence, observing for example the continuity between humans, animals, and the rest of the world. It’s just that you can’t get from what they had to work with and what they thought about it to modern statements like “people are made out of atoms and work by chemistry” or “all life is descended from a common ancestor”. Their innovations were how they arranged material that existed in the common pool, such as their treatment of the Chaos Monsters. Don’t really know why we need to prove the Genesis authors were unique anyway … God speaks to all who listen, nie?

    One point is maybe not so much they were like us, as we are (still) like them. W famously claimed to made decisions with his “gut” (a better word than “entrails”) and we all understand what he meant. “The waters above separated from the waters below” means something visceral [stet!!] to us, if we open ourselves to it. The very worst thing people like Jerry Coyne do is to deny the usefulness or even the existence of mythological “thinking”.

    …Speaking of thinking, surely the ANE people knew there was greasy gray stuff inside heads … I wonder what they thought it was??

  • Jakeithus

    Thanks for your reply AHH.

    In regards to the creation ex nihilo, although Genesis 1 does point to creation out of nothing, the case to be made for this cosmological truth comes from numerous verses throughout scripture, not just that point. It partly comes down to interpretation of the Hebrew verb used in “God created the heaven and the earth”. The word used implies creation out of nothing, although some may disagree. Other creation myths point to the gods and the universe (chaos) as being co-eternal, which Christianity rejects.

    My goal here is not to convince you, it just bothers me when it’s stated plainly that the Bible “contains no unique scientific revelation”, when from my view it was teaching Big Bang cosmology 4000 years before science caught up.

    ” convolutions of certain concordists who for example when the text has the sun and moon made and hung in the sky on Day 4 re-interpret it as those objects having been created much earlier but only then becoming
    visible to an earthly observer” – Again, the Hebrew verb used to describe Day 4 can refer to something created in the past that was made to appear at a later time. The word used is not the verb that describes making something brand new. With that being the case, concordists are not interpreting the verse in an incorrect manner, we are being consistent and accurate in how we read the text, which is missing in other some interpretations IMHO.

    Again, we likely won’t agree, and some of the concordist answers to the difficult questions are more convincing to me than others, but overall I personally can’t get behind the point of view of someone like Walton that removes all potential scientific understanding from the creation accounts in scripture.

  • Dan Arnold

    Jakeithus,

    I’m curious, where do you draw your understanding of the Hebrew verbs ברא (bārāʾ) and עשׂה (ʿāśāh)? The theological weight you give bārāʾ seems to go well beyond standard lexicons (HALOT, BDB, DBL) and is even somewhat contrary, given that bārāʾ elsewhere means to cut something (with a sword), which implies, at the very least, the potential for pre-existance.

    I’m not saying I don’t recognize the theological importance of creatio ex nihilo, but without more info, I’d have trouble justifying it based on Genesis.

    Either way, creatio ex nihilo isn’t really a scientific understanding, given that it is unlikely to be verifiable in an empirical manner. It’s importance lies in the philosophical and theological realm.

  • http://godofevolution.com/ Tyler Francke

    There is no new scientific revelation in Genesis, or indeed in the Bible as a whole. Rather God revealed himself to his people in language that they could understand.

    I generally agree with this statement. I think the purpose of the Bible was, as you say, “to reveal God, including His character, laws, and acts” — in other words, to reveal information we as humans could never have obtained on our own. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, is something we are perfectly capable of achieving without divine intervention (though it takes us a little while and no small amount of trial and error).

    I’m curious if you (or any of your readers here with comparable views) would hold to a similar principle in terms of the historical value of the Bible (and I guess, the Old Testament in particular). Would you say “historical revelation” is also not the purpose of scripture, and thus, we can’t necessarily believe its teachings to hold historical truth, unless perhaps, they are clearly eyewitness or contemporary accounts?

    I think it’s generally accepted that the writer of Genesis wasn’t present at any of the events described therein.

  • Bev Mitchell

    RJS,

    “No Scientific Revelation in the Bible!” What a powerful and true statement!
    I hope everyone will take the time to view and listen to John Walton’s four-part talk on BioLogos that you reference in this post. These one liners give a flavour of this excellent package. It’s based on his well known book, but in some ways I like it even better.

    Bible written for us not to us
    Genesis talks about functional existence (purpose) not material existence
    even uses functional language, not material language
    text interested in creation of order rather than creation of matter
    presents a home story (we are honoured guests) rather than a house story
    creates not cosmos (in our sense of the word) but temple
    not talking about time or age but ordaining function
    “good” means functioning properly
    Adam and Eve archetypes (they represent all of us)
    “dust” is not about chemistry, it’s about mortality
    “rib” not a bone but one part (side) of a pair
    Stop making the Bible something it isn’t pleads Walton in his passionate finale.

    To which we can say a hearty Amen!

  • Jakeithus

    That’s always the difficulty when trying to interpret scripture, in that words commonly have multiple meanings. While bara can be used as “to cut” or “to fatten”, it is also used to describe creation, specifically the creation of something new, of miracles, and creation that is only ever done by God. Looking at it’s uses, it talks more of a miraculous creation than a forming of what already exists, although it can’t be shown conclusively to discount preexistence. For that reason, Genesis 1 is only part of the picture, which all of scripture helps paint.

    You’re right about creatio ex nihilo not being a strictly scientific understanding, however that both matter and time have a beginning is a strongly supported scientific fact. Regardless of how explicit this is in Genesis 1, Christians have always held to the idea that the universe is not eternal, and that it came into existence (at the command of God) out of nothing. This seems to be a clear example of a truth revealed in scripture, in opposition to the scientific understanding of the time, and well in advance of scientific proof. This is the type of revelation that some people claim scripture does not contain, and the point I would argue against.

  • Matthew Maslin

    I totally agree with Walton and have read his book. My struggle has been understanding biblical anthropology in this context. i.e Does God reveal what it means to be human (to have/be a soul/spirit) in the bible, or do we only accept about humanity what science tells us? Sorry if its a dumb question or a bit dualist, but I have been struggling it.

  • AHH

    Not a full answer to your question, but I’ve heard scholars (Alister McGrath, for one) say that “the image of God” (which I think one can equate Biblically with being human) is a matter of relationship and responsibility. Relationship in the sense of having a special relationship to God, and responsibility as we are tasked to be God’s vice-regents, serving on his behalf other humans and the rest of the creation. Neither of those things can be measured by science.
    I realize that dodges the soul/spirit question, but I don’t think that question is identical to the question about the meaning of being human.

  • Amanda B.

    This is admittedly coming from an entirely non-scientific position, but I ask this with all sincerity–would love a response from anyone who has invested more study in this than I.

    I can easily believe that God would not distract / confuse ancient people by giving them scientific understanding that was beyond their time. This is not troubling to me. I can easily believe that creation references (e.g. Isaiah 40 “stretching out the heavens like a curtain”) are poetic, employing ancient language that matches ancient understanding. I don’t believe the Bible was ever intended to be a science manual, and therefore it is foolish to expect modern, Western scientific precision from it.

    What I grapple with theologically, though, are the moral ramifications of God constructing a purely artificial creation narrative. It seems to me that Genesis 1 could easily have been structured along the lines of, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, according to their order and function. He spoke and called these things into existence. He created the light for [X purpose], and called it good. He created the firmament for [X purpose], calling it good.”

    This approach would leave the question of “how long” unanswered. It is vague as to sequence and timing. It has room to fit just about any scientific theory of origins you like. It still includes the important theological take-away points. It gels with the ancient mindset.

    However, the actual passage is very specific about time periods and sequence. I have a hard time squaring this away as a necessary point of communication with the ancient understanding of origins. Why be specific about a seven-day process if that’s not at all what actually happened? Why emphasize a sequence from day 1 to 6 if that’s not the order it all happened in? Why not just say (cumulatively) “It happened, and God did it on purpose”? Would that not have been enough for the original audience?

    It’s hard for me to imagine the God who cannot lie presenting a completely fabricated timeline as if it were history–particularly when it seems like there would be ways to accommodate the ancient culture without actively presenting false information.

    This has been my biggest hurdle to understanding Genesis 1-2. Would someone be willing to explain to me (or point me towards a good resource that explains) how to deal with the statements of time and sequence?

  • Jakeithus

    Hi Amanda,

    I am by no means an expert, but it is something I have great interest in. The concerns that you raise are part of what pushes me towards a soft concordist view of scripture and science. If you’re not familiar, concordism is the belief that, properly interpreted, the book of nature and the book of scripture significantly overlap and can be integrated. It’s a view that is certainly in the minority of Christians, where most either hold to a strict biblical literalism that denies science when it contradicts the Bible, or those who view the Bible as free from scientific content and should be interpreted as such.

    There are those who will disagree with me, but there are ways of interpreting Genesis 1 so that it lines up with what science tells us about the formation of our world, without having to distort either the scriptures or science. As soon as you accept that Genesis is using days to represent ages instead of 24 hours days, you can see a fairly accurate picture of how life emerged. Here’s a condensed version: God creates the universe, then forms the earth. God causes sunlight to reach the earth, although the sun itself was not visible due to the clouds surrounding the world (1). God stabilizes the oceans and atmosphere (2), then causes the continents to form and initial plant life (3). The cloud cover lessens, causing the sun and moon to appear for the first time (4). Life rapidly appears in earth’s oceans (5), followed by land animals and finally humans (6). No new species have emerged since the creation of humans (7).

    Now, there is much more to the story than that, and it’s clear Genesis 1 is not fully comprehensive, but nothing written above contradicts science or the scriptures. It also doesn’t mean I can’t view Genesis as a mythological story of forming and filling, it just means I can view it as more than that.

    If you’re curious about learning more, I’d recommend that you check out http://www.reasons.org . They’re a great organization of scientists and theologians who write from a concordist position, and have been a great help to me. Based on your difficulties, that position might resonate with you the same way it has with me.

  • AHH

    Amanda, I think Prof. Walton (I’d recommend looking at the linked presentation if you haven’t) and others would say that this only appears to be a “fabricated timeline” if we approach the text with our modern western presumptions that texts like this are supposed to tell us time and sequence and so forth.

    If we look at the cultural setting, we find that those just were not the things those people cared about. Many books have been written about the way such stories functioned in the Ancient Near East. And about the way Genesis 1 uses many of the motifs that were common in the culture (including putting things into sequences and patterns — look up “framework hypothesis” for more on that) while communicating its unique theological messages through the vehicle of a creation saga.
    Another way of putting this is that it really comes down to recognizing the genre of the narrative. And we post-Enlightenment westerners seem to have a hard time dealing with figurative genres like creation sagas (or something like Jonah that is basically a parable).

    I guess a related question, looking at your next-to-last paragraph, is whether the parable of the Good Samaritan is also “presenting false information”. It would seem that God, in communicating in those cultures, didn’t mind using “false” stories, even with many details, to communicate true messages.

  • wolfeevolution

    I love all the examples given above of ancient cosmology that we moderns reject uncontroversially: regarding bats, rabbits, reproduction, the brain, etc. When we frame out the thornier issues of evolution in this wider setting, it all makes a lot more sense. Thanks for the helpful talking points!

  • http://descriptivegrace.wordpress.com/ James Jordan

    How would you have trouble justifying creation from nothing from Genesis? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Then they’re without form and void and he fixes them up. Even a complete moron can understand that. You’re trying to be too smart is your problem.

  • Dan Arnold

    Grace, I must be a complete moron then, because בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ does not necessarily mean to me what you seem to think it means. Have you ever looked at other translations, such as the CEB or Robert Alter’s translation and commentary?

  • Susan_G1

    Amanda, I agree with AHH. You say of the narrative you present, “It gels with the ancient mindset.” However, this is not how ancient stories were told. It would most likely not have gelled with the ancient mindset, not as a poetic recounting full of meaningful motifs and symbolism would. I might hazard that you are still looking at the narrative with modern eyes and expectations.

  • Susan_G1

    Jake,

    I would be careful of interpreting Genesis this way, for it is not in keeping with what we know, at present, about evolution. Hugh Ross (reasons.org), who did much to help evangelicals come to grips with evolution, still advocates progressive creationism, which is a position no longer held by most Christian scientists. Perhaps you would be interested in the views held by the American Scientific Affiliation (http://www.asa3.org/ASA/resources/). Their position is theistic evolution.

  • AHH

    As a member of the ASA (although not speaking for it), I need to correct Susan’s statement. The ASA takes no official position on how God created. The ASA stands for orthodoxy in theology (broadly defined, with Nicene and Apostles Creeds as examples) and integrity in science. The latter does tend to rule out some “creationist” positions, but not necessarily all of them.

    Probably theistic evolution (some of us would prefer the phrase evolutionary creationism) is the substantial majority position in the ASA, but there are people holding “progressive creation” views and maybe even a few young-Earth believers. Those interested in the group can go to http://www.asa3.org.

  • Jakeithus

    Susan,

    I am well aware that the views held by Reasons to Believe, and myself, are at odds with the majority scientific understanding surrounding the theory of evolution. Personally, I’m fine with that, and if Amanda is too, I wanted to make sure she was aware of the variety of differing opinions that exist.

    I understand the theistic evolution position, and I have no problem accepting it if that’s where the evidence leads. In that sense, I am at grips with it. However, given the evidence, progressive creation makes more sense to me. There are respected scientists who hold that position as well, and I believe Reasons to Believe represents the best of the bunch.

    Usually the debate is limited to YEC (Answers in Genesis) or theistic evolution (Biologos). I didn’t even know that a concordist/progressive creation position (Reasons) was an option till I was taught it, and it made much more sense to me than the more popular alternatives.

  • Susan_G1

    I stand corrected. Thank you.

    Your link is open to members ($85/45), of which I am also. My comment’s link is free for non-members, which is why I posted that one.

  • http://thenaturalhistorian.com/ Naturalis Historia

    Norman, I agree that Walton hasn’t followed through on applying his ideas throughout the Scriptures but if you haven’t read G.K. Beale then I would suggest that Walton doesn’t have to do this job because Beale has already explored this in some detail. In fact, Beale and Walton were colleagues for many years at Wheaton and Walton has obviously gotten much of the temple inauguration stuff from him anyway. Especially useful are Beale’s books “The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dewelling Place of God” and his most recent tome “A New Testament Biblical Theology: The unfolding of the Old Testament In the New”. The latter of a great work and shows that much of what Walton is saying is consistent within a much larger framework of how we understand the Bible.

  • Norman

    Natural Historian,

    I agree with you. Beal’s book “The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dewelling Place of God” is one of the most important theological books one can read and goes naturally with Waltons work. Thanks for the input on Beal’s other book as it fits in nicely with my own work and will put it on my Amazon wish list.

    Part of my issue with Walton and Beale though is I believe they are still too constrained by their evangelical heritage to really explore some of the typological ramificatins of their work. They both lead you right up to issues that I believe need further work but they are likley not in a position to push the boundries much further than they do. As an independant layman student I can go where they can’t and not suffer the consequences.

    Thanks

  • LT

    As soon as you accept that Genesis is using days to represent ages instead of 24 hours days

    The problem is that “day” (yom) as it is used in Genesis 1 never means anything other than 24 hour days. So you are in the place of either accepting Genesis or believing in ages. You can’t do both, based on the language of the text.

    Remember that there are other ways in which YOM is used that do represent periods of time (such as Genesis 2:4 where it reads “the day of his making” (a genitive construct)). But the construction used in Genesis 1 is only ever used of 24 hour days. See Gerhard Hasel’s article on this issue (http://ldolphin.org/haseldays.html).

    If one accepts periods of time, they do it in spite of the text, not because of it.

  • Amanda B.

    I should have responded a lot sooner, sorry for the delay!

    I thought of the parables when considering this, but they seem to be widely recognized as parables/allegories/what have you. Is there internal evidence in Genesis that we ought to take it as such, or is it more of a process of elimination since it doesn’t harmonize with the scientific presentation of the universe’s origins?

    (And thank you very much to everyone also who responded.)

  • AHH

    Amanda, I’m not an OT scholar but I think those who are would say that there are strong arguments for non-scientific readings that come without any consideration of science. These would fall in 2 (not unrelated) categories:
    1) Internal evidence within the text. Like the differences between Gen. 1 and Gen. 2, but also the wordplay and patterns (not quite poetry but close) that point to a genre other than “science text”.
    2) Knowledge of the context in the Ancient Near East. From which we can see how the Genesis stories use many of the same elements but subvert the theology of the surrounding cultures. And that also show us how such stories functioned in that cultural setting — not to provide accounts of material origins but to say deeper things about God(s) and humans.

    There are many fairly accessible books that talk about various aspects of this. I can think of The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton (you could also see the presentations by Walton that RJS linked in the post), Genesis for Normal People by Enns and Byas, The Meaning of Creation by Conrad Hyers, The Message of Genesis 1-11 by Atkinson, The Bible, Rocks, and Time by Young and Stearley, God’s Pattern for Creation by Godfrey, Origins by Haarsma and Haarsma.


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