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Earth viewed from space

Is a young earth necessary?

Preemptive apology – Trump shall be mentioned.

In some of the circles I found myself in these days, I have found just as much contempt for newly elected Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, than for the new President himself, Donald J. Trump. One American colleague went as far as to say that a Trump assassination wouldn’t do America any good because then “a pro-life, homophobic, evolution-denying evangelical” would ascend the throne.

To avoid contributing to the countless words already spent and spilt on this latest election, I am only going to focus on the last part of this blanket statement. Are evangelicals – those who trust and share the Good News of God saving sinners through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – fairly criticised as the science-haters that so many people seem to think they are? To put the question differently – are Christians required to read the first three chapters of Genesis in a literal sense?

Some readers may be shocked that I am not “taking the Bible seriously” in rejecting a literal interpretation of this passage. Others may be relieved that I have broken the chains of orthodoxy, freeing myself from absolute meaning altogether. These are those who declare “Ask not what this text means, but what this text means to you.” Sorry to disappoint both of you.

What does literal even mean?

Literally

The word literal and its derivatives are having a rough time at the moment. Modern English speakers use the word all the time, ridding it of all meaning in the process. The word means literally nothing right now. In fact, Justin Taylor has recently called for a moratorium on the use of this word in biblical interpretation, due to the varying meanings this word can take.

My experience with literal in a biblical interpretive setting is that of the ‘plain interpretation’ of any given text. In other words, interpreting something in a basic or common sense way, without metaphor or exaggeration. A plain sense reading of Genesis 1-3 seems to suggest a six 24 hour days view with the varying genealogies of Genesis adding up to a rather youthful 6,000 years old.

We could go at it for hours over exegesis and hermeneutics and be no closer to unlocking the meaning of Genesis’ beginning. While I personally think that the text itself does provide strong arguments for particular positions, a much simpler point of view provides some much needed clarity:

What is the purpose of the Bible?

Two Books

In a previous post, I mentioned the distinction between the two books that God has written – creation (God’s general revelation) and salvation (God’s special revelation). Theological concept becomes reality when we approach the creation account with this distinction in mind. God’s intent in Genesis, as with all other parts of the Bible, is to communicate his great plan of salvation for all of those who would trust in Christ. This means that he is not primarily (or even at all) concerned with teaching his people the age of the earth or the precise processes by which it came into existence.

Any serious student of Scripture knows that the plot of the biblical drama is the salvation of sinners by a gracious God, who has cast Jesus Christ in the leading role of Saviour. This story of salvation is only found in the pages of special revelation – nothing in nature contains words this sweet. If God’s book of salvation (the Bible) has the story of salvation as its content, then what does nature contain? A whole lot of juicy content for sure, but nothing salvific, nothing of utmost importance to beggars like us.

So what about the age of the earth? God may well have had a different intent in these chapters of Genesis 1-3, but can we still discern anything concrete via exegesis? I believe so. Study. Read. Discuss. THINK. But if you miss the forest for the trees, as so many “defenders of the faith” have done in advancing a young-earth-or-go-home ideology, you will end up doing an injustice not only to yourself, but to the world at large. 

A sin-sick world doesn’t need to hear the evils of evolution. It needs the gospel.

Old Antique Book

Foundations for interpretation

Some of mankind’s most enduring questions have been those surrounding the topic of epistemology, or the study of knowledge. What is true knowledge? Where does it come from and how do we obtain it? Are some forms of knowledge more authoritative than others? 

Throughout history, man has sought to understand reality (ontology) and how we can know this is so (epistemology). From the pre-Socratics to their namesake, from Plato to his infamous student, Aristotle, from Kant to Nietzsche – a major part of Western philosophy has been the question of, “How can we know what there is to know?” As we will see below, Christianity is no different.

A  primer in Christian epistemology

A distinctly Christian epistemology is grounded in revelation – God stopping down to our level to communicate truth to us. While modern philosophy believes that man possesses all that he needs (his autonomous reason) to scale the summit of reality, Christianity is a little more pessimistic about man’s ability to reason their way to Knowledge. Due to the noetic effects of sin, we are prone to bias and hubris in our philosophical pursuits. At risk of oversimplifying – we need a helping hand in our epistemology.

In Christian theology, there is a distinction between God’s two books –  general and special revelation. General revelation is the truth of God as revealed in creation and providence – his existence, wisdom, power, goodness, and righteousness perceived through the things around us (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p41). All man has access to this level of truth through a logical and scientific interpretation of the world. What we choose to do with these truths – suppress or embrace – is an entirely different matter.

Special revelation, or God’s second book, is his authoritative written Word as found in the Bible. This provides particular knowledge about God, salvation and the human condition that we attain through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, correcting our systematic distortion of general revelation at the same time (Horton, Pilgrim Theology, p40).

An important question then arises – how do we, as fallible human beings, faithfully interpret what God is communicating to us through his Word? If God’s general revelation can in some ways be interpreted through reason and the scientific method, how should Christians approach his covenantal Word? To our detriment, various philosophical trends have attempted to answer this question for us and we may not have even noticed.

Philosophy check

The development of postmodern thought in the 20th century has lead to a form of linguistic reductionism where words are removed from their context and given an entirely different meaning from that of the original author. Rather than the locus of meaning being found in the author’s intent, it is now found in the interpretation of the reader. “What does this text mean to you?” becomes an all-to-frequent question at Bible studies.

Christians are naturally affronted by this turn of events and seek to reclaim the meaning of the author for interpreting texts. The reaction to this postmodern hermeneutic is often not balanced – instead of reclaiming ground via a convincing interpretive framework, the reaction to this textual twisting is to force texts through a grid of literalism that the Bible does not require. Passages containing clear figurative language are interpreted literally and much confusion abounds.

Think about your own experience – we use turns of phrase and figures of speech constantly. Do we ever interpret these with the same degree of literalism that we enforce on Scripture?. A few examples will suffice:

  • “Are you getting cold feet?”
  • “I’ve been kept in the dark on that one”
  • “Speak of the devil”
  • “She has a bubbly personality”
  • “You got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning”
  • “He let the cat out of the bag”

Why would we demand a literal interpretation of all biblical texts, regardless of form, if we don’t do this in our everyday use of language?

A more holistic approach is required – one that takes into consideration the original languages, literary features, historical context, redemptive-historical context, and theological truths to name a few. The Bible is definitely more than a text to be critically interpreted, but it is no less than this and so we should seek to interpret faithfully and in a way that does honour to author and Author alike.

The God who speaks

“The importance of God’s speech as a fundamental means of his self-disclosure cannot be overestimated. Creation itself is the product of God’s speech: God speaks, and worlds leap into being (Gen. 1). Many of God’s most dramatic deeds of revelation would not have been understandable apart from God’s accompanying speech. Moses views the burning bush as a curiosity until the voice tells him to remove his sandals and assigns him his new responsibilities. Abraham would have had no reason to leave Ur were it not for God’s revelation in words. Again and again the prophets carry the burden of ‘the word of the LORD’ to the people. Verbal revelation is essential even in the case of the Lord Jesus: during the days of his flesh, he was, first of all, the teacher. Moreover, apart from the explanation of the significance of his death and resurrection, preserved both in the gospels and in the letters, even these momentous events would have been unbearably and tragically obscure. So central is God’s speech to his own self-disclosure that when John the evangelist casts around for an encompassing way to refer to God’s ultimate self-disclosure in his Son, he chooses to refer to him as ‘the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … The Word became flesh’ John 1: 1, 14).”

D. A. Carson in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. Edited by D. A. Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer, and G. J. Wenham,  IVP (1994).

General and Special Revelation

Last time we looked at different sources and norms for Christian belief, and found there were at least four legs that makes the stool a theologian sits on. These legs were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We also suggested there is another source and norm, and as we begin our overview on the Doctrine of Revelation we will be exploring this fifth leg – creation.

Romans 1:20

For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Psalms 19:1-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history there has generally been acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created. [1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is Scripture, but knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through preaching, or perhaps through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of Scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set its apart from Special revelation:

(1) General revelation is continuous whereas Special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.

(2) General revelation is natural whereas Special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.

(3) General revelation is available to all people whereas Special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the greatest evangelist of all, witnessed to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.

(4) General revelation is non-specific whereas Special revelation is specific. That is Special revelation has the same content as General revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.

(5) General revelation is non-redemptive whereas Special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the Special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation. The first is, “Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation? The answer is Yes!

Romans 2:14-15

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one is without excuse.

The second question is more difficult. If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that all people are without an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness.’[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. That is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive even ourselves. Because people refused to acknowledge God, even though his existence was made plain to them, they were coming under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this tremulous predicament. Paul writes:

Romans 2:21-22

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, . . . [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

What was the result of this? “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (v.21) This was the first step in a downward progression of depravity and wickedness. So pernicious is this trend that Paul, after carefully expounding the gospel, implores his readers to worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. Aquinas is famous for his five arguments for God’s existence, which all find something in the world that, together with reason confirm that the book of scripture and the book of nature both agree with each other. We will explore in greater depth what Natural Theology can tell us when we cover the Doctrine of God, but for now it is enough to note that general revelation is the field in which Natural Theology is grown, and that Aquinas’ views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.

There is a twofold knowledge of God, genaral and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know natually that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are anti general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in out minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place then in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced prods which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognizes that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.

It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.

Psalms 103:11

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;

Psalm 36:5-6

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Next time we will be looking at the doctrine of Inspiration.


[1] Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.

[2] Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.

[3] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. see Romans 1:18-19

[4] Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14

[6] John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 134.