Category Archives: Bible

What a Wonderful World

(“What a Wonderful World”: what whimsical words to write while waging war with influenza! Would that I win!)


I’m guessing most of you, if not all of you, have at least heard Louis Armstrong’s classic recording of the song, “What a Wonderful World.” Upon preliminary reflection, it seems to me that the song is, among other possibilities, a song about perspective: namely, the perspective we choose to take on our daily lives, and the attitude that accompanies that perspective. Will we perceive life as a gift with many goods, or as something always falling short? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World” (from Wikipedia)

Last night, propped up in a spare bed, battling flu symptoms and desperately hoping not to infect my wife and daughter, I watched a documentary (Take that, you stupid, vaccine-evading strain of flu!). It was a science documentary about …

Influenza Virus (from Wikipedia)

… fossils. It was a 2016 National Geographic documentary about recent discoveries of human fossil remains.

Get this: A scientist (Lee Berger) in South Africa hired a fossil hunter (Pedro Boshoff) to explore their area for possible fossil-rich sites.  (Africa has numerous sites where human fossils have been found.) Boshoff found an underground cave that he got two cave divers (Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker) to explore  more thoroughly. Deep inside the cave, Hunter and Tucker found a large chamber with numerous fossils buried in sediment. They took pictures, which they shared with Boshoff. Boshoff, in turn, shared them with Berger.

Berger immediately began organizing a multi-week, multi-person (including multi-scientist) exploration of the site. To make a long story short, fossils of several (about 15) individuals were found, all judged to be members of the same species, and all belonging to our genus Homo, but of an extinct species. The discoverers named the species Homo naledi. You can read the Wikipedia article about Homo naledi here. You can read the first scientific report here.

Homo naledi Skeletal Specimens. From the Lee Roger Berger Research Team (https://elifesciences.org/articles/09560#fig1), which does not necessarily endorse my article or my use of this photo.

At this point, rather than focus on the fossils themselves, I want to say that I found myself struck by how excited the participating scientists were about their work. They were filled with wonder before, during, and after the fieldwork, lab work, and reporting. The documentary’s first-hand footage of the expedition helps us viewers see the role of emotions in science. Scientists are human. In the documentary, you see smiles, laughter, tears, shouts, and hugs.

To be sure, there are other emotions to behold in the documentary — and in science as a whole, as evidenced by pushback against the discovery from several prominent scientists, reported in the March 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine (article “Mystery Human” by Kate Wong). From the article, I sense anger and irritation, for instance. But here I wish to focus on the wonder and joy.

To watch these scientists, you could tell that, in powerful ways and at least for significant moments, they loved what they were doing. The world was wonderful to them. Their work was wonderful. The fossils they found were wonderful. So much wonder. So much awe. So much appreciation for life, for curiosity, for unexpected discoveries, for shared (and sharing) experiences.

An Old Testament scholar, Bill Brown, has written about the experience of wonder that frequents, not only the work of scientists, but also the Old Testament Scriptures. In 2010, he had a book published entitled The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder.  In short, throughout this 240-page, Oxford-published book, Brown argues that Old Testament authors and modern scientists alike see the world as wonderful.

William Brown’s The Seven Pillars of Creation (from Amazon)

In Brown’s view, the concept of wonder provides common ground on which Bible readers and scientists can meet to talk about each others’ views, beliefs, and work. That is, Brown is trying to promote peace, and he believes that our wonderful world itself has a role to play in bringing about that peace. Picture a scientist scraping away sediment from a fossil, revealing it more clearly, and smilingly exclaiming, This is wonderful! Now picture a Bible-believer reading a nature-psalm (e.g., Psalm 104), which exclaims, This world is wonderful! Thirdly, now picture a Bible-believer alongside a scientist exploring the world and together exclaiming, This is wonderful!

Brown does not think that wonder is a magical concept. Just getting two people alongside each other and saying that the world is wonderful will not automatically bring about peace between science and Christian faith. But if scientists and Christians alike — and I should note that there are many scientists who are Christians — can posture their relationship with each other based on their agreement that the world is wonderful to them both, then perhaps they will lower their guard enough to listen and share their wonder. Perhaps understanding will emerge, even if some disagreements persist.

As a Bible, theology, and ministry guy, I’ve seen (but also often missed) the nature-wonder throughout the Bible. Even so, I have experienced wonder in the natural world. And I have also shared time with a scientist (a paleontologist) who wonders at the fossils he finds and shares with others. In fact, I’m cleaning some fossil sea shells for him now. He puzzled excitedly over something I found, and his joy at my discovery made me happy — a contagion much more welcome than this flu virus. And that’s Brown’s point: wonder is a healthy contagion for Bible readers and scientists alike.

So then, what if we gave the song “What a Wonderful World” new lyrics for the science / faith relationship? How might they read? Could they, like Armstrong’s singing of the song, gently invite us to look at the world with resolve and intentionality? And do our own habits of talking about the world posture us to spread the contagion of wonder so that more and more fighters in the science / faith battle lay down their weapons and enjoy the world together? Perhaps choosing to see the world as wonderful can transform us.

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 2)

The Christian doctrine of the Fall is many things: it incorporates interpretations of biblical texts, whole traditions of thinking in Christian history, and the first-hand experiences of people in every age. In short, the Fall is the Christian description of how humanity went from the state in which they were originally created by God to a state of sin and rebellion against God — that is, a description of how humans fell from God’s created intent. Or, to say it differently, the Fall is the Christian description of what’s wrong with us.

Since scientific investigations of humans include claims about the origins, history, and nature of humans, Christians frequently respond to the science in order to stake their own claims about the meanings (or not) of the science for Christian understandings of the Fall. They are trying to answer a question like this one: What bearings, if any, do scientific claims about humans have on Christian understandings of what is wrong with us humans, and of how we humans came to have these things wrong with us?

James Smith’s “What Stands on the Fall?”

Just this year (2017), a group of Christian authors collaborated to give their answers to these questions in the book Evolution and the Fall (Eerdmans, 2017). James K. A. Smith, a Christian philosopher from Calvin College, contributed a philosophical analysis of the issues in an essay entitled “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration.” This 17-page chapter is divided mostly into two parts: the first part elucidates the core claims of the Fall, and the second part evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Christian efforts to relate these core claims to scientific claims about humans.

In my estimation, Smith’s essay has several strengths. First, it pushes readers to clarify what the Fall really is and is not about. Second, it bears the marks of humility, taking a tone that is more along the lines of thoughtful suggesting than dogmatic insisting. Smith is seeking to stir readers’ “theological imagination” (p. 56), their abilities to imagine a God that is bigger than their preconceived ideas. A third major strength of the essay is its clear and explicit desire to honor God and to be faithful to the gospel entrusted to Christians. Fourth, Smith is humble enough to take science seriously.

Despite the value I place on this essay and its potential for helping Christians, I also find two significant weaknesses in the essay. First, there is a lack of clarity as to the meaning of the words good and goodness. Second, there is a lack of attention to free will. Let me explain these weaknesses in context.

A Good God Created Good Humans

Smith’s central thesis is that any faithful Christian response to scientific claims about humans will insist on the goodness of God and the original goodness of humans. In short, a good God created good humans. There was nothing wrong with us when God created us. Something later went wrong with us, but it was not God’s fault that things went wrong and when things went wrong.

I will set aside the goodness of God as a given. Instead, what I want to ask is, What does it mean to call humanity “good”? I submit to you that this question is harder than it seems. As I read Smith’s discussions of humanity’s original goodness — discussions that both summarize certain Christian traditions (e.g., Reformed) and present Smith’s own views — I find myself unclear about Smith’s own understandings of the words good and goodness.

For example, the Reformed Belgic Confession seems to have identified original goodness as original righteousness (p. 52). This is a moral meaning of the word good. In short, a good God created morally-good humans. Thus, even if humans weren’t morally perfect, and even if they had room to mature, they were still morally good in their first created state (pp. 56-57).

But is moral goodness the meaning of good in Genesis 1, where humans are part of the “very good” creation that God evaluates in 1:31? In the scheme of Genesis 1, humans are “good” before there is any discussion of whether they perform good or bad acts — that is, they are pronounced “good” before they make any moral choices. Perhaps good means that humans simply matter to God, before they make any choices. This is certainly a value meaning of good, but not necessarily a moral one. In short, a good God creates good humans — i.e., humans whose existence and life he values and delights in.

Perhaps we could imagine other nuances in the meaning of good as applied to humans as God created them, but Smith’s discussion of sin may clarify for you why I am confused. “Then whence sin? The Reformed confessions are unanimous in emphasizing that sin befalls a good creation — it is an irruption in the order of a good creation. Sin is not ‘natural’ or some natural outgrowth of creation” (p. 53).

I understand the claim that a good God did not create humans such that they had to sin. Christians do not believe that a good God created morally-bad humans. So yes, in this sense, “sin is not ‘natural’ ” (p. 53): God did not include sin as such as an ingredient in the nature that he gave to humans. But is it also true that “sin is not … some natural outgrowth of creation” (emphasis mine)?

This is precisely where Smith’s lack of attention to free will confuses me. (It also befuddles a philosopher-colleague of mine who read the essay.) I grant that God did not create sin within humans, but he did, on all accounts (biblical and confessional), give humans free will to choose sin. In this sense, is it not true that sin is “some natural outgrowth of creation”? If free will is natural to humans, and if it was originally the case that humans could use their freedom to sin, then how can we say that sin is not a natural outgrowth of creation? Does sin not grow out of the free natures that humans were given?

My response here is not an effort to find fault with God for giving humans free will. Nor am I faulting God for the human choice to sin. I believe that free will is from God, and that it is good. Nonetheless, if the human ability to choose was good, then it seems to me that the human capacity to sin was part and parcel of God’s good creation. In other words, part of what it means for humans to be “good” is that they had the capacity to do good or evil, to choose or reject God.

Now, to be fair to Smith, much of his essay presents the views of entire Christian traditions (Augustinian and Reformed), and so some of my confusions may have more to do with those traditions than with Smith’s own views. Even so, Smith himself works so hard to avoid “inscribing brokenness into the fabric of creation” (p. 63) that his relative silence on free will is rather deafening to me. Again, if free will is an intrinsic feature to God’s good creation, including God’s good humans, then the potential for brokenness is in fact inscribed in the fabric of creation.

So What’s Wrong with Us?

My confusions notwithstanding, I am grateful for Smith’s essay, and I think Christians will be well served by interacting thoughtfully with it. In fact, I have already been well served by it: the essay prompted me to dust off previous studies of Augustine and other Christians who have written influentially about the Fall. These renewed studies will surface in the next posts in this series.

For now, let’s return to our original question: What’s wrong with us? Christian doctrines of the Fall all more or less answer that we humans are born into a world that has a lengthy history of people doing bad things, with consequences that ripple well beyond the perpetrators, and outlive them as well, influencing more people than ever can be fully anticipated and calculated. The Fall is one way in which Christians assert that this human condition was not the only option available to us. God gave humans options.

What is more, once certain choices have been made and certain actions taken, the effects alter the character of human life (and the world) significantly enough that we can never go back to an earlier time when the better options were less cluttered by the tangled web of human actions and reactions. All of our choices take place in our cluttered setting. Rather than despair, though, I think the doctrine of the Fall can help us take both the impact and the limitations of our actions more realistically. Perhaps in its own way, the Fall can help us be better humans, and maybe think more carefully before we act.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Adventures in Thinking about What’s Wrong with Us (Part 1)

Three and a half years ago, my wife and I took a (nerdy) vacation that included a special program in Dayton, Tennessee, at the Rhea County Courthouse, site of the (in)famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Before returning home to Middle Tennessee, we stopped off at Tennessee’s Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Historic Blythe Ferry. If you believe in the concept of holy ground — places where you take off your shoes and listen — this was one of those places.

Instead of a burning bush, what we saw was a body of water: a river across which large groupings of Native Americans were ferried for the rest of their (forced) journey westward to lands that were less in the way of white peoples’ ambitions — for the time being, that is, because the time would come when more populations of white people would want that western land, too. (I wonder why I never hear the language “Trail of Tears” used by certain Christians who try to argue for America being a Christian nation?)

At any rate, the holy ground that is Blythe Ferry is one of many places that will push people whose hearts are still pliable to ask themselves, What is wrong with us?

Recent political happenings in this country have given additional promptings to ask what’s wrong with us, but the main impetus for my current series stems from a book I just finished reading: Evolution and the Fall, just published this year (2017) and edited by William T. Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith. The book is a collection of essays by Christian authors who think carefully about the relationship between evolutionary theory in science and Christian beliefs about humanity — what we might call Christian anthropology.

Evolution and the Fall (from Eerdmans Publishing)

The first essay I read was in chapter 3: “What Stands on the Fall? A Philosophical Exploration,” by one of the book’s editors, James Smith. Suffice it to say that this essay took me down memory lane — to courses I have taken in church history and historical theology — and especially to those courses’ treatments of the doctrine of the Fall. My recollection of specifics was dustier than I care to admit, and so I found myself revisiting old texts and prying open other books on my shelves for the first time. What fun it has been!

Yes, I have found myself embarking on adventures in thinking about what’s wrong with us — and I say “us” because it is often enough that my choices and interactions with the world betray that something is wrong with me, too. So, no, I don’t embark on these adventures from some high tower looking down on the broken people below. Rather, I move from one setting to the next, keenly aware of the interwoven ways in which our shared brokenness ties us together in the same plight, from which we might all wish for rescue.

In the next post, I plan to engage some of the salient points from James Smith’s essay “What Stands on the Fall?,” and then invite you on my subsequent journey into Pelagius and Augustine, with intentions to stop off at later thinkers like John Calvin and understandings of the Fall in my own tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement and the a cappella Churches of Christ. If you’re up for this journey with me, stay tuned. More is on the way.

For now, I close this post by inviting you to think about the question, Is humanity fundamentally good or bad? My series title and preceding comments betray my answer to this question, but I ask it nonetheless to get you thinking about the basic assessment of humanity you carry with you from day to day. When you go where you go and do what you do — and, most importantly, when you interact with other people — what is your basic assessment of them? And, of course, what is your basic assessment of yourself?

For my part, and despite the tone of my post thus far, I do posture myself toward my fellow humans in ways that allow for them to contribute to the picture I paint of them.  That is, I believe that there are things right with us, too. I may be a cynic in general, but I also believe in complexity and disbelieve in oversimplifying human nature and human character. Life’s just not that easy. We must face our daily interactions postured to receive what may occur, and not predetermine the outcomes based on attitudes that may turn out to be fallacious. So, for today at least, in the encounters with humans I have today, I will push myself to ask not just, What’s wrong with us?, but also, What might be right with us?


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Believing in a Creator God (Part 5): Science and Faith

It has been some months since I last contributed to my series on the meaning of creation. Now, at last, I bring to you my fifth and final post for “Believing in a Creator God.” The reason I have written this series is to share the fruits of private studies and, more importantly, to provide clarity to my readers on what the Old Testament’s word bārā’, “create,” does and does not mean.

This clarity is important to me because numerous Christians in the United States use the language of “create” (e.g., “creation,” “creationism,” “creationist,” etc.) to talk about their faith, and about science, in ways that actually misrepresent what this word meant to Israel. In my view, if Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words — all the more so when they presume to respond to science on the authority of God.


If Christians are going to use Israel’s words as holy Scripture, as God’s words to them, then they should expend significant energies to understand those words.


Brief Review of bārā’

In Part 1, we met our word bārā’ in overview. Since bārā’ is a verb, in Part 2 we sampled some passages in which it occurs to look for clues to the kinds of action being conveyed. Especially helpful in this connection was seeing other verbs used alongside of bārā’. Beyond the kind of action itself, the meaning of verbs includes the time dimensions involved: when it is that the actions occur. In Part 3, then, we looked at the tenses of bārā’. In Part 4, we discussed direct objects: what kinds of things are acted upon by, or are the results of the action of, the verb bārā’.

I consider several important lessons to have emerged. First, Israel used bārā’ to denote the act of God making and forming things, both entities and events. Second, we learned that Israel quite regularly used bārā’ to refer to occurrences in the world in which agents other than God were fully active at the same time. In other words, “create” was not a way of saying that God had acted alone. Nor was it a way of saying that God did part of the action and something or someone else did the other part (50% God + 50% nature). It was more like overlapping ways of referring to the same occurrences.

Third, Israel used bārā’ in ways that denote past, present, and future action: God created, God is creating, and God will create. God is always active creating, and thus God is always a Creator. New events, ongoing occurrences of regular processes, new generations of living things, etc., are all God’s creative work.

Fourth, Israel identified a fairly comprehensive scope of objects with God’s creating. God creates the universe and everything in it. He creates humans and animals, not just in the past, but in ongoing generations. He creates Israel as his special, covenant people, including their experiences of judgment and destruction and of hope and deliverance. God creates the wind and other regular, mundane features of the larger natural world. It is thus difficult to detect anything that is off limits for the creating action of God.

To support my summary, I quote a summary of bārā’ that appears in a professional theological dictionary of the Old Testament: “Both human and cosmic, natural and historical entities are brought into existence by God; temporally, creation includes not only acts of origination but the ongoing succession of entities and conditions within the cosmos up to the present of the biblical writers. Finally, the OT can describe the same creative events as occurring both by God’s word and by natural means and processes over time (Stek). The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation” (Van Leeuwen, 1997, p. 730).


The OT does not separate, though it may distinguish, divine and ‘natural’ causality in creation.


Before I proceed with the implications of all of this for Christian thinking about science, I should address what, in biblical studies, is called the overload fallacy. The overload fallacy is a fallacy that occurs when a person (1) sees one word used in different places, (2) observes different meanings for that one word in those different places, and then (3) combines many or even all of those meanings for each individual occurrence of the word.

In the present case, the overload fallacy would occur if we took all of the meanings we have seen for bārā’ and then argued that each use of bārā’ contained all of those meanings. We would be overloading bārā’ with more meaning that it could possibly contain for a single use of the word. That is not how language works. Just because a word can mean different things in different contexts does not lead to the conclusion that a word means all of those things at once.

Here is my point: By summarizing the uses of bārā’ in the Hebrew Old Testament, I am showing the scope of the word, learning how extensive and flexible the word was. This enables us to draw better conclusions about Israel’s beliefs about God as one who creates. I am not, however, trying to suggest that all possible nuances of bārā’ are present with each use of the word.

Christians, Creation, and Science

Given all of the foregoing, I would like to make some suggestions for how Christians think about God’s creating, especially as such thinking relates to scientific investigations of the world.

First, we have seen how Israel often used bārā’ as a way of focusing on God’s action on occasions that still involved fully the actions of other agents (humans, animals, etc.). Since scientists study natural occurrences and try to explain them in terms of natural, observable causes and effects, science will focus on natural agents, and not on the action of God. Science as such is neither equipped nor qualified to make definitive claims about God’s action or inaction. Sometimes, scientists forget this limitation on their part.

Often, though, Christians are the ones at fault here, expecting science to uncover proof of God’s action. When it comes to creation, some Christians want to use science to prove that God must have created something, and, by this, they mean that God must have acted alone, without anything or anyone else being involved or fully active. In light of how Israel actually used bārā’, this is not a defensible use of the Old Testament.

Christians should think of create as a faith claim about God’s action: a way of stating belief that God is the ultimate, sovereign, governing agent acting in and through the world.

“God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope: God is present and active wherever there is world. God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. … God is present on every occasion and active in every event” (Fretheim, 2005, p. 23, emphasis in original).

Christians should not look for evidence of God’s action by looking for (currently) scant or nonexistent evidence of the actions of other agents. We may not yet have good understandings of how other agents are involved in the world’s events, but this shortcoming on our part does not somehow constitute evidence of God.

Second, we have seen how Israel used bārā’ for God’s action in the past, present, and future.

Thinking about science and time, science studies the way the world works, and thus conducts its studies in the present. However, since science continues from generation to generation, it builds upon past studies and can preserve ongoing observations of the world, keeping a running record. In addition, science can use its insights from the present to give plausible interpretations of the past, as, for example, in scientific interpretations of rock layers and fossil remains. What is more, scientific methods often make short-term predictions of the future to test hypotheses, as well as make long-term predictions about future occurrences in our world and universe.

Christians who think that God created in the past and ceased creating are mistaken. And, as we have seen already, it is also a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now. Why? Because, according to Israel, God is always creating. Therefore, any time in the history of the universe is a time during which God is active in creating.


It is a mistake for Christians to think that a lack of scientific explanation for things in the past or present are markers of God’s special action then and now.


Third and finally, we have seen how Israel identified so many direct objects with bārā’ that it seems they saw everything as God’s creation. (This is clear in Gen 1:1-2:3.) If the earth, universe, humans, animals, wind, human morals, and human social and political events are all objects of God’s creating, then it would be remarkable if there were things that Israel did not regard as created by God. At the empirical level, then — the level where science takes place — everything constitutes evidence of God’s creating.

Perhaps some Christians would respond, Now, hang on, Daniel: If everything is God’s creation, then how can we prove God’s creating? This is a good question, but does it not start with the prior assumption that the objects of God’s creating were meant to bear some sort of special mark — a divine signature that might as well say, “Made by God”? Israel did not use bārā’ to divide the world into (A) Objects Made by God and (B) Objects Not Made by God. This whole mode of thinking misunderstands the emphasis of God’s creating.

No, Israel seems to have faced their world, in all of its wonderful and dizzying variety, with all of its complexities and ambiguities, with a fundamental belief about God: No matter what has happened, is happening, or will happen — no matter what has lived, is living, or will live in our universe and world — God is the sovereign Creator, the Maker of the universe and all that it contains and does. bārā’ is a faith word, a courageous statement of belief about the world: courageous because so much of what happens in the world offends or troubles us, and to associate these offenses and troubles with God takes courage — provided this belief is confessed, not as a cop-out, but as a response to rigorous engagement with the world.

Israel was not naïve. Their faith was hardly childish or underdeveloped. In fact, the biblical writings evince a theological maturity and courage that put many modern American Christians to shame (myself included). If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did, not because Israel failed to think about the impact of future discoveries on their faith claims. Perhaps Israel’s comprehensive creation faith is meant to push us readers, to pose questions to our precious assumptions.


If we think that scientific discoveries so easily threaten the theological claims of bārā’ in the Old Testament, it is perhaps because we modern readers have a less mature belief about creation than Israel did.


Believing in a Creator God does not have to be an alternative to practicing scientific investigations of the world. Believing in a Creator God does not have to function as a stand-in explanation when we lack a naturalistic one. Believing in God can be a willful, insistent, even experimental mode of engaging the world, choosing to see God in all of the life forms past, present, and future, to see God in all human lives and human events in all their messy and disturbing variety, to see God as intimately and dynamically interactive with a world that he enjoys seeing be and become as it acts with its own integrity, will, and power.

Believing in a Creator God is the choice to see the world and its happenings as God’s masterpiece, a work of art that is itself fully alive and interactive with God — whether it knows it or not — to see ourselves as God’s creations and our lives as blessings and opportunities to contribute to something bigger than we are, to a world that is not ours but within which we’re grateful to play a part.


References

Fretheim, T. (2005). God and world in the Old Testament: A relational theology of creation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

Van Leeuwen, R. (1997). ברא [br’]. In W. A. VanGemeren (Ed.), New international dictionary of Old Testament theology and exegesis: Vol. 1 (pp. 728-735). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5