Thursday, April 16, 2009

Finding company on the journey

As any reader of this blog knows, over the past year I have come to believe in evolution, and in a way that fits quite comfortably with belief in God and in the Bible as divine revelation. To my surprise and relief, a fog of questions that for years had seemed impenetrable has been clearing before the bright rays of the sun. And I can say that the end result is no watering down of vital faith, but a new unleashing of passion for the kingdom of God. I documented the main points of this journey in a post of Dec. 20, 2008 (re-posted to this blog earlier today).

By way of update, let me heartily recommend a book that I have read since then, and mentioned in another post today--Understanding Genesis, by Nahum M. Sarna. Sarna makes me feel like I've got my Bible back, finally, after it had been long held hostage to forced interpretations motivated by extraneous agenda arising out of Darwinian controversy of the last century and a half. This feeling of "getting my Bible back" is similar to what I felt years ago when the "biblical-theological" tradition of Westminster Theological Seminary and related Dutch Reformed currents liberated my understanding of the Bible from the extraneous agenda and assumptions that the dispensationalism in which I had been raised had imposed upon the text, and which had turned biblical faith into a private, other-worldly affair that had little direct impact on the suffering and injustice of our world. I believe that both these developments constitute advances toward reading the Bible on its own terms.

Sarna, a Jewish scholar who wrote in the 1970s, strongly confirms what I had long suspected (from at least the time I read I Believe in the Creator, by James Houston, who evidently also benefitted from the stream of biblical and ANE research to which Sarna contributed), namely, that Genesis is best understood as using a shared regional literary idiom (that is not literal history in any sense in which we moderns understand that) to deliver a pointed polemic against debased views of humanity and society and the gods held to by the Babylonian imperial ideology and other prevailing belief systems of the region, and to school the people of Israel in divine call to reverse the state of corruption that had come to dominate the world. Combined with a spate of readings of N.T. Wright on early Christian origins and the mission of Christ, all this makes for, not a weak and vitiated faith, but a vital, passionate, fighting vision of the meaning of our lives and the glorious end to which God is bringing us in Christ.

Also, shortly after reading Sarna, I stumbled onto an excellent resource, which I highly recommend for those who wish to discuss and reflect on these matters, together with others who have been seeking to make sense of things. It is the Jesus Creed blog of Scot McKnight. Anybody interested in these issues can visit the site and search for posts by "RJS," who is a working scientist who I think has read Sarna and, together with readers who contribute responses to his posts, is processing the work of authors like Kenton Sparks, John Walton, and a number of others who get to the heart of these matters. Finding others who have come to nearly identical conclusions in light of the same sorts of evidence reassures me that it is not some rare form of insanity that has not gripped me to make me believe that evolution and biblical faith actually go quite well together! Finding this blog was like finding "home."

Peter Enns and his website is another valuable resource. I think it was via Internet searches prompted by book reviews on Enns' site that I came across the Jesus Creed blog, which also links back to Enns. I came to know of Enns by virtue of the fact that I graduated from a sister seminary to Westminster Theological Seminary, the institution that fired him. I am not surprised at the firing, but I do think Enns' thinking is in many ways a natural development of conversation that had long been in the making in such WTS scholars as the late Ray Dillard and the late Harvie Conn. Nor am I surprised that the OT professor Tremper Longman, formerly of WTS, recommends reading Enns' book Incarnation and Inspiration. Perhaps if these scholars were still at WTS, Enns would not have been fired. Not at all to suggest that these scholars' views are the same as Enns', but they all make for productive dialog in the community of faith. As I read Enns and interaction with other scholars, something gnaws at me making me wonder if he has really got discussion off onto quite the right foot on a number of things. But I think he is to be commended for prodding more explicit discussion of the issues he addresses among evangelical biblical scholars.

All these developments in the intellectual realm of faith have paved the way for clearer, more urgent yearnings in the realm of practical application. Years ago my exposure to the "biblical theology" movement of biblical scholars like M.G. Kline, G. Vos, Edmund P. Clowney, and Graeme Goldsworthy led me to see that the whole Bible points us to Jesus Christ. (See Goldsworthy's According to Plan for the most accessible eye-opener along these lines that I have read.) A more recent but complementary sea change in my understanding--to which the whole evolutionary question contributed in odd and unexpected ways but which does not depend on any particular stance in evolutionary debates, and to which reading N.T. Wright contributed very substantially--has led me to see that everything about Jesus is aimed at motivating and empowering us to seek justice and mercy and harmony and universal well-being in this world. Of course I've always really known that, and the theology of WTS circles (esp., e.g., Harvie Conn) certainly pointed toward it and affirmed it, but the tendency of elements of my religious background to cast the Christian religion in terms of getting people onto a ship that will someday take us to a place that is out of and unrelated to this world obscured that knowledge and sent it off into a corner. Some forms of evangelical or fundamentalist Christianity seem like those pyramid schemes where everybody is busy signing everybody up to sell the product but precious little time is spent actually selling the product. The only "product" moved was a bit of personal cleaning up in private morals without paying attention to the wider and pervasive social implications of the Bible. The result is that compassionate practical ministry among the poor and excluded took a perpetual back seat to this recruitment game--which suits the interests of religious empire-builders rather than the priorities of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus and his friends. The great need I see is to put justice, mercy, and practical love back in the very center of our lives.

The question of doing that, practically speaking, is claiming the bulk of my prayers and energies these days. I'm still wanting for face-to-face company on that path--it's anything but the kind of path one can walk alone. Some new acquaintances and I hope budding friendships seem promising in that regard.


Steve Martin said...

Looks like you've found the Gems - Sarna's book is excellent - I found it helpful in my journey. Enns, Wright, Walton, and Sparks - agreed. Only one I'd add is maybe Gordon Wenham's "Genesis 1-15. Word Biblical Commentary" ... for an Evangelical scholar to write that in 1987 is amazing. Also agree that almost all the RJS posts on Jesus Creed are very good (I read Scot's posts only occasionally but read all of RJS's)

Steve said...

Hi Steve Martin, thanks for the Wenham tip! RJS's recent posts at Jesus Creed certainly have me curious about Bill Arnold's Genesis commentary from Cambridge Univ Pres. Have you seen that?

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve,
No I haven't read Arnold's commentary - I never came across his until I'd read the others. I'm now pretty comfortable with the ideas in the aforementioned books so another Gen commentary isn't on my to-read list right now. I put my own (non-specialist) thoughts on this down in my post Genesis 1 –11: Background, Context, and Theologyawhile back.

I also looked at your older post What about a "retroactive fall". Very interesting - I've always found that Dembski article very interesting but was surprised to see so little commentary on it.

Steve said...

I very much enjoyed your article on Gen 1-11. Concise and compelling rundown in which, as someone there commented, the relevant message of Genesis for today "leaps off the page."

Steve said...

The idea of a "retroactive fall" used to be the best accounting of things I could imagine, but it always seemed contrived. My current views of how the "fall" took place, of how true moral culpability reconciles with evolutionary origins, are laid out in my post The Evolutionary "Chisel"..., about halfway down, beginning where it says, "How, then, might we conceive how this inherited predicament came about, if we do not take Genesis as literal history?" or a little earlier where I address Romans 5. I'm experiencing a remarkable lack of cognitive dissonance on all this, though it's always possible I'm just being dense! I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Steve,

I read through your post on the Fall – not is one sitting though - a lot of meat there. Right now I’m not really sure where I stand on some of this – but I agree with your comment above that “I'm experiencing a remarkable lack of cognitive dissonance on all this”. For my own take on the Fall (which is really mostly commentary on what others have written) see my post Reconciling the Fall and Evolution.

Re: Dembski's article, I had never heard of “a retroactive fall” before reading the paper and was really intrigued by it. I was hoping I’d see some other discussion of it but the ID community seemed to ignore that paper (the one that made the most sense to me) & focused on his other stuff.

For myself, I’ve now taken a really different perspective and come to appreciate the writing of George Murphy – he’s a scientist, theologian, and Lutheran pastor. His book “The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross” is excellent. George also did a guest-post series on Evolution and Original Sin (with response from 3 other guests) that touches some of the major themes. See here for the index for the series.

Interesting - just noticed your post that Falk's book got "the ball rolling" for you. Same here.