Thursday, January 22, 2009

The proper (separate) roles of Scripture and science

I mentioned the Haarsma's book Origins yesterday. I said I was pleased with how it pushed me to think new thoughts I had never thought before.

Here's one of the thoughts to which it introduced me.
NOTE: I had read books or papers that suggested most of the different interpretive schemes concerning Genesis 1 and 2 that the Haarsmas summarize, but I had never heard any Christian address what I am about to tell you in the way that the Haarsmas do.1 Indeed, the only people, up until the Haarsmas, whom I had ever heard mention this interpretive schema were diehard atheists. And, I will confess, the atheists' "arguments" for their interpretation disturbed me greatly. They say their schema clearly demonstrates the very human foundation of the Bible; God, they say (or a god, any god), had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of biblical "inspiration." The Bible is "just" a human document.

In one fell swoop, however, the Haarsmas not only present the outlines of the exact same schema, but, in my opinion, by means of their presentation, they declaw it; they remove the atheists' ability to use it against Christians. Suddenly--I say this with great joy--the atheists' "arguments" no longer bother me. I sense a freedom from fear concerning the atheists' arguments that I have not felt in years. If you are familiar with what I am about to discuss, I hope what the Haarsmas (and Gordon Glover) have to say will be encouraging to you as well.
The Haarsmas say that a growing number of evangelical scholars are interpreting Genesis 1 and 2 (plus a large numbers of other passages from the Old Testament) with the idea that its primary outline, its "furniture," if you will, the "scientific" "facts" to which it alludes, come from the standard Ancient Near Eastern [ANE] cosmology (i.e., the way virtually all Ancient Near Eastern cultures viewed creation--the cosmos). Among other things, the peoples of the Ancient Near East were convinced
  • The earth is flat.
  • It is surrounded by water (both above and below).
  • The sky is a solid structure [which is, literally, what the word translated "firmament" in the King James, and "expanse" in the New English Version, means].
  • The firmament holds back the waters that are above it. [After all, what else--besides a solid object--can possibly hold back water?]
  • The firmament has floodgates or windows in it (Genesis 7:11; 8:2) that let the "waters above" sometimes pour out upon the earth.
Gordon Glover, in Beyond the Firmament, provides additional details of the ANE cosmology . . .
  • The "four corners" of the earth (Isaiah 11:12; Proverbs 30:4) rest on the "pillars of the earth" (Job 9:6; Psalm 75:3).
  • The "pillars" themselves stand on the "foundations of the earth" (1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 104:5; Job 38:4-6; Jeremiah 31:37).
. . . And so on and so forth.

The Haarsmas note,
This physical picture of the world is woven throughout the Old Testament. It reflects the way the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, and Israelites literally understood the world around them. In the account of Noah's flood, the waters come from the floodgates of heaven and from the springs of the deep (Gen. 7:11), not from clouds. In Psalm 19:4-6, the sun rises at one end of the heavens and travels its path to the other end, just as the Egyptians viewed the sun as a boat sailing on the firmament.2

--pp. 113-115

Having explained the basic ANE cosmology, the Haarsmas then go on to describe the ANE cosmogony--the ANE story of creation--with special reference to the Babylonian epic, Enuma Elish. The distinctions between the Scriptural cosmogony and Enuma Elish are remarkable.

Some of the key differences the Haarsmas note (p. 116):
  • Bible: There is one God. Enuma Elish: There is a pantheon of gods.
  • Bible: God created an ordered world by the authority of his Word.  Enuma Elish: The world was formed by battles among the gods.
  • Bible: No part of the physical world is divine.  Enuma Elish: The sun, moon, and other objects are gods that control human fate.
  • Bible: God said his creation is good.  Enuma Elish: Some portions of creation are related to good gods; others are related to bad gods.
  • Bible: God purposely created human beings to be trusted stewards of his creation.  Enuma Elish: Humans are an afterthought made to be slaves to the gods.
The Haarsmas suggest that the point of Genesis 1 has nothing to do with science and the structure of the universe (i.e., cosmology); it has everything to do with theology and anthropology: who is God and who is mankind in relation to God?
Because of [their cultural] context, the original audience would not have heard Genesis 1 teach that the earth was formed out of a watery chaos or that there was a solid dome firmament holding back waters above the sky. They already believed that physical picture! Rather, the original audience heard Genesis 1 as a powerful theological manifesto proclaiming the true authority of the God of the Israelites and the true status of humanity.

God inspired the human author of Genesis 1 to communicate these theological truths using a physical description of the earth that was familiar to them.

Imagine if God had instead tried to correct their scientific misconceptions by explaining to them that the earth is spherical (not flat) and the sky is gaseous (not a solid dome), and that . . . It would have baffled them completely! Moreover, it would have completely distracted them from the theological message.

--p. 117

So far, so interesting. But I said I felt the Haarsmas had freed me from a fear that has gripped me more or less since the moment I first heard this idea that the biblical account of creation is based upon or takes its primary form from the creation myths of the cultures round about Israel.

So why would the Haarsmas' reference to this view (again, one of nine different views they outline!) give me any comfort at all?

Because, as they say,
If God's purposes in Genesis 1 did not include teaching scientific facts to the Israelites, then we should not look here for scientific information about the age or development of the world. [According to the conservative Christian viewpoint that suggests we ought to view the cosmology in the Old Testament--including Genesis 1 and 2--as being the same as (because it came from) the cosmology of the cultures surrounding Israel, f]or modern readers, as for the original audience, the message of [Genesis 1] is its powerful theological truths. God does not use the Bible to teach us the physical processes he uses to make the rain fall or the earth orbit the sun or to form the mountains. Instead, in a beautifully crafted and impressively short text, God teaches us all about
  • his sovereignty.
  • the goodness of creation.
  • the honored status of humanity as his imagebearers. . . .
In Genesis 1, . . . the first listeners heard nothing new about the physical universe; all the emphasis was on who created the world and humanity and why they were created.

What does this mean for science? It means that Genesis 1 is not a science textbook. The text was never intended to teach scientific information about the structure, age, or natural history of the world. Thus, . . . comparing Genesis 1 to modern science is like comparing Psalm 93:1 ("The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved") to modern astronomy. Genesis is not in agreement or conflict with the sequence of events found by astronomy and geology.

As scientific knowledge increases and changes over the centuries, its understanding of the physical structure and history of the earth will change. But through all of those centuries, the theological truths of Genesis 1 remain the same: there is one sovereign God who makes light from darkness, creates an ordered world from chaos, and fills an empty world with good creatures. Humans need not fear the capricious whims of a pantheon of gods, but can instead trust in the one true God who made us in his image and declares us "very good."

--pp. 119-121


As we noted yesterday, we don't get upset when meteorologists create computer models and use Doppler radar and thermometers and all the other instruments of modern meteorology to predict the weather for us--despite the fact that Scripture clearly teaches us that God controls the weather. And--I didn't mention this yesterday, but I'm sure you can follow--none of us gets upset when geneticists and embryologists and other students of human development study how our human beings reproduce . . . despite the fact that, we are told, it is God who knits us together in our mothers' wombs. Similarly, we don't turn to Scripture in order to understand planetary motion or how to send a rocket into outer space . . . despite the fact that, again, the Bible tells us God placed the sun, moon and stars where He wanted and controls their motion by His will.

The fact is, we don't turn to Scripture in order to discover scientific information. We understand in every other area, it seems, but not when it comes to Genesis 1--that modern science is asking different questions than those the Scriptures were written to answer.

So, I heard the Haarsmas say, as they quoted the Christians who view Genesis 1 in light of the Ancient Near Eastern cosmological perspective: we ought to handle the "science" of Genesis 1 in the same way we handle all the "science" elsewhere in Scripture. Ignore it. Don't worry about it. Recognize that this "science" is every bit as culturally bound to its time and place as our science, today, is bound to ours.

1 The Haarsmas are by no means first to suggest the schema I am about to share with you. They are simply the first Christian authors I have read (or heard!) who present this perspective. --From reading the Haarsmas' and Glover's books, I get the sense that John H. Walton's The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, especially around pp. 80-85, may be an excellent popular-level source for information on this subject.

2 If we seriously intend to interpret Genesis literally, say the Haarsmas, then we had better keep these things in mind and speak not only about 24-hour days and so forth, but a flat (not spherical) earth; and an earth that rests on pillars rather than orbiting the sun; and a solid-dome sky that has the two great light-giving bodies--the sun and moon--and the lesser bodies--the stars--affixed to its "inside" surface . . . with an ocean of water above and beyond these fixtures and the dome to which they are attached. . . .

And lest you feel I am overstating the case, consider Martin Luther's lecture on Genesis 1 in which he said,
Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of heaven, below and above which heaven are the waters. . . It is likely that the stars are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire, to shed light at night.

--Quoted by Glover, p. 65. Full reference at loc. cit.

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