Conference Talk on Science and Religion

I have recently spoken at an Australian conference that happens every couple of years called the Conference on Science and Christianity (COSAC), held this year in Melbourne via digital media. I spoke on the historical interaction of science and Christianity in the specific medium of the proto-scientific literary genre, ‘theories of the earth’, which have long interested me. They flourished around 1700, particularly in Britain. As they slowly morphed into the beginnings of the science of geology in the early 1800s, they provided several examples of quite different approaches to the intersection of science and Christianity. There is a focus on the use of Genesis, especially Genesis 1 and the flood narrative. Here is the video of my talk for those interested:

The LORD Has a Day

There is every reason to be cautious about interpreting presently-unfolding history theologically. Christian end-times doomsayers have been doing it for 2,000 years in a steady series, and their hit rate for overall accuracy is 0%. We should all be warned if we presume to know what God is doing when the twin towers fall or a hurricane floods a city, or when a plague strikes.

But I feel as if I’m seeing one pattern. This is not about offering a unique interpretation of these events, but seeing a kind of spiritual principle expose itself through coronavirus. The principle is expressed in Isaiah 2:12:

The LORD Almighty has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled).

I’m reading from the 2011 NIV, whose non-gender neutral language a few verses later (2:17) might be strangely appropriate:

The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.

Because COVID-19 acts like a pride-seeking missile, and if I can dob in my own gender, it seems to sniff out a peculiarly masculine kind of pride. Check out this story found on the website of Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, this morning local time:

President declares ‘no-one will die of coronavirus’ in Belarus

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko says nobody will die from the coronavirus in his country and again rejected any need for the strict lockdown measures adopted by most countries to contain the spread of the pandemic.

It was the latest show of defiance by the strongman leader, who has dismissed worries about the disease as a “psychosis” and variously suggested drinking vodka, going to saunas and driving tractors to fight the virus.

In stark contrast to other European countries, Belarus has kept its borders open and even allowed football matches in the national league to be played in front of spectators.

“No-one will die of coronavirus in our country. I publicly declare this,” Mr Lukashenko said.

The health ministry has reported 2,919 confirmed coronavirus cases and 29 deaths in Belarus. But Mr Lukashenko said the fatalities were the result of underlying health conditions in the patients, such as heart disease and diabetes.

(https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-14/coronavirus-update-new-york-death-toll,-testing-shortage/12145550, accessed 14/4/20)

I don’t have to tell you what the consequences will be for Belarus. We will simply watch the figures explode, if we are permitted to know them. Coronavirus has called the bluff of every trumped-up macho leader, and yes, they all seem to be men, who thinks he can tell a virus what to do the same way he has been used to telling all of the humans around him what to do. Sure, weak foreigners might be wiped out by this, but we are too tough in this country to be hurt by a little sniffle, a bit of a cold. Man up and carry on. We forbid it to affect us. Any indication that it is, like those bodies stacked up in recent images out of Iran, must be fake news. We’ll be open by Easter. Yes, indeed. Just not this year.

I hope you see that this is not meant to be partisan. Masculine bluster has occupied skins of various colours in various parts of the globe for the purposes of this exercise. But how hollow pride is. The pride-seeking missile can smell it, and it’s coming. It has already come. It has found out the powerlessness of mighty men from Bolsonaro to Putin, who all said it could not hurt them.

“There is a day for all that is proud and exalted.” This is one of those days.

 

An Open Note to My Old Testament Students, Facing an Epidemic

I wrote this note to my Old Testament Foundations students just now, and when I thought about it, I wondered whether it might help anyone else. I’ve removed any personal & relational details and hope they don’t mind.

It’s primarily about how Christians deal with fear, and it is not long. Some of you will still be feeling, as Luke Skywalker once said (yes, I’m one of those annoying Star Wars-quoting people), “I’m not afraid.” And I’m saying now, like Yoda, “You will be.”

That’s where I’d like to comment.

It’s getting beyond a joke now, isn’t it? We have all seen the charts. Infections are rising exponentially in most countries of the world. It’s the big one in our lifetimes. This is a time for Christians to show what the control of the Spirit of God does in a person’s life under pressure. Our Principal reminded us yesterday that Luther had some real wisdom to offer for plague situations. It reminded me that some of our Christian heroes lived with epidemics and had to man and woman up and face it like real believers.

Let me share a scripture and then couch it in context. It’s Psalm 46:1-3:

God is our strong refuge;
he is truly our helper in times of trouble.
2 For this reason we do not fear when the earth shakes,
and the mountains tumble into the depths of the sea,
3 when its waves crash and foam,
and the mountains shake before the surging sea.

Read the whole psalm. It tells one side of the coin. We are not immune to fear either. I guarantee you that this situation is going to put chills down your spine in the coming days. Imagine the people of Judah’s feeling when “The snorting of the enemy’s horses is heard from Dan [in the far north] …They have come to devour the land and everything in it, the city and all who live there (Jer. 8:16).” What does Jeremiah say? Two verses later – “My heart faints inside me” (v. 18) and “Since my people are crushed, I am crushed” (v. 21). So we will face fear and sadness, especially for those around us – just not like those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).

For ourselves, I believe the goal is to hold our life palm upward and fingers open. God can take it when he wishes. Then we can live freely. It’s those who are ready to die who are most ready to live. But these things come along to remind us how that’s done, and if it isn’t society-wide, it’s personal, a health scare or near-miss car accident.

It’s His breath, and its ours on loan.

So keep breathing.

The Flesh and the Spirit in Paul, Provisionally

I spoke on this topic a month or two ago in our college’s chapel service, and a student expressed an interest in having a written version of my thoughts for reference purposes. It emerges from a series of encounters I’ve had with the early chapters of 1 Corinthians throughout 2019. Yet any regular readers of this blog will know that I am an Old Testament guy, not a New Testament specialist, so please take that into account. Moreover, all I can offer is my understanding of this dichotomy in Paul in its present state of progress — hence, ‘provisionally’.

When Huskies Go Off Course…What?

I often have a guiding illustration, keeping my audience and myself on track. For this talk, I was thinking about sled dogs. My grandmother on my Mum’s side had two samoyeds, woolly white things that looked as though they must have been dying in the summers in Belmont, New South Wales (Australia), though apparently they can take it reasonably well. They needed grooming practically every day, and so they are a great breed for those with a lot of time to kill. Nice dogs, all the same.

Those who encountered ‘CCM’ (contemporary Christian music) in some form a couple of decades back might remember the Newsboys song, “It’s all who you know”. The Newsboys, an Australian band originally, had a lyricist called Steve Taylor who had a bit of a knack with words, and I think he was responsible for this effort. One verse says,

For the want of a cough drop,

The musher’s throat went hoarse

For the want of direction

The huskies went off course

Then the sled got snowbound

It took some time to free’em

Now they’re on display

Inside the British Museum

It’s a version of the Butterfly Effect, I guess – lack of a cough drop altering history in an unforeseen way. Nevertheless, it allows me to talk about huskies going off course. I promise to come back to this.

The Problem of Paul’s Teaching on the Flesh

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24–25).

Continue reading

Top Ten Surprises in the Septuagint

You may know that the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX by common agreement, with reference to the ancient legend of its drafting by seventy scholars) is the umbrella term for the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was already complete in at least one version by the end of the third century BCE or so, thanks to the thorough Hellenization of the eastern Mediterranean world in the wake of Alexander’s conquests, and thus of the dispersed Jewish communities in those lands. The first edition generally goes by the name of the Old Greek, and revisions followed that go by the names of Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion and Lucian in the centuries either side of the time of Christ, as well as Origen’s rendition in his Hexapla and others.

You may also know that the Septuagint is the most important source for the textual criticism of the Old Testament, being the oldest complete witness to the state of the Hebrew text lines a couple of centuries before Christ. When there are significant differences between the LXX and the Hebrew Masoretic Text lying behind our modern English versions, the sixty-four million-dollar question is often whether the LXX reflects roughly the same Hebrew text but paraphrases or amends it freely, or instead whether there is a quite different Hebrew text tradition lying behind the LXX that has since gone the way of the dinosaur. Continue reading

Now Something for Easter

I couldn’t help but relate to this, passed on from the ACT (Australian College of Theology) head office in Sydney, a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830–94):

Good Friday
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Time for a Quickie: The Ox and Ass of Christmas

Just have to wake my somnolent blog from its slumber to mention this, a firstfruits offering from John F. A. Sawyer’s Isaiah through the Centuries (Wiley Blackwell, 2018). Have you ever noticed that the Gospel nativity stories mention no ox or ass/donkey in connection with the birth of Jesus? This is one of those Christmas traditions that’s so ingrained you can’t quite believe it isn’t actually there. So where does it come from?

Sawyer points out the presence of this benevolently beastly pair in Christmas carols, Renaissance art (Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, c. 1500) and medieval traditions, right back to “the eighth-century apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” (ah yes, I know it well!), but Sawyer finally traces them back to a Christian interpretation of the opening verses of the ‘fifth Gospel’, a name for Isaiah whose contemporary currency (with me, at least) is thanks in some degree to Sawyer’s own book of twenty years ago, The Fifth Gospel (for the detail, see Isaiah through the Centuries, 11–13)This is Isaiah 1:3 (NIV):

The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

‘Manger’ in this translation is apt; combine this verse with Jesus’ post-natal bedding arrangements, and you have stock animals outshining their human contemporaries in their recognition of their true master. As you might imagine, every possible anti- and pro-Semitic battle can be fought right over these words, but I thought I’d put this out there as a fascinating tidbit from reception history that demonstrates how we don’t simply formulate our sense of a text from our own direct reading alone, but read in community across space and time.

By the way, I still like it how many donkeys, like the one living at our old favourite holiday camping spot in Australia’s New England region, have a cross displayed across their shoulders, as if for pure symbolic value alone.

Isaiah Sermon Pair – Former Things, New Things

In November I presented a two-part sermon series attempting to cover the whole book of Isaiah – ambitious, right? I used a close look at Isaiah 48 as my jumping-off point, since it talks about the ‘former things’ in 48:3 and the ‘new things’ in 48:6. Some scholars, namely Brevard Childs, R. E. Clements and Christopher Seitz, I believe, consider this former things/new things language as a deliberate internal clue to the double setting & audience built into the book. My approach to surveying the book using these double-door terms is based on this scholarly concept. Here are the links:

Isaiah sermon #1: The Former Things: Remembering the Past

Isaiah sermon #2: The New Things: Readiness for the Future

 

Isaiah Former Things Clip

Have somehow forgotten how to embed these things. I know I could once. In any case, this gives you access if you’re interested in understanding Isaiah at a glance.

 

Book Review: Lester Grabbe, Faith & Fossils

Faith & Fossils: The Bible, Creation, and Evolution. By Lester L. Grabbe. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6910-4. xiii + 182pp. A$33.60.

= a supplemented edition of a book review submitted to the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology for a 2019 issue.

Lester Grabbe’s name will be familiar to anyone who has had much cause to read thoroughly in Old Testament scholarship, notably the history and historiography of ancient Israel, with a focus on the exile and early second temple period, having authored A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period (Continuum/T&T Clark, 2004, 2008) and Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (Continuum/T&T Clark, 2007) as just two examples from his prolific output. Faith and Fossils therefore represents a branching-out into a side interest for Grabbe, rather than his core expertise, yet he determines to balance the scales in Bible and evolution discussions by approaching the topic with biblical scholarship backing in contrast to the scientific expertise that often motivates such writings (p. ix). The book combines three primary themes, autobiography, biblical genre & backgrounds, and certain lines of scientific evidence into an argument for Christian openness to evolution as a practical reality about the world’s origin that need not clash with the fundamentals of the faith or the relevant biblical texts when rightly understood.  While the world does not lack books seeking to persuade the person in the pew for or against evolution, Grabbe’s scholarly credentials and clarity win him a deserved place in the debate. Continue reading

Book Review: Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis (2015)

Prior to reading his Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Discovering Biblical Texts; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), I knew of Provan chiefly from I. Provan, V. Phillips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2003). Knowing that to be a quite conservative work on Old Testament history, though theoretically substantial, I was half expecting one of those commentaries on Genesis that borders on fundamentalism. The classic marker in my mind of the kind of naively conservative approach I have in mind is not a young-earth creation, which is almost non-existent in Genesis commentaries outside of the old example of Henry Morris’s The Genesis Record (1976) and what might be its intended replacement from the creationism movement, Jonathan Sarfati’s The Genesis Account (2015), a definite improvement over its predecessor. The marker that comes to mind for me is the assumption, sometimes expressed as a kind of shibboleth that does not even need supporting argument, that because the Pentateuch is traditionally deemed “the Law of Moses,” that Moses naturally wrote 99.9% of the whole five-book set, all the way back to Genesis 1:1. How could we tell that? At the least, it shouldn’t just be stated as if it needs no verifying data. That’s plain assertion, a habit we try to wean our students away from in theological education.

Provan Discovering Genesis

Right, so I was pleased to find that unsupported assertions of that kind did not characterize Provan’s book on Genesis, nor a kind of thoughtless traditionalism. My impression was that he had actually read the scholarship on the chapters he covered, which I found refreshing. He is (trusting Wikipedia on this one) 61 years old, and you get the feeling of a fair career’s worth of mature biblical reflection in this book. I didn’t agree with everything, of course; I’m still a little wary of that rather ancient Jewish position that the first-created human in Genesis 1–2 should be viewed as hermaphrodite (both male and female) until it is split into two sides and made into male & female in Gen. 2:21, a position Provan takes (p. 77). What did I like, then? Well, as an exegete by nature, I like it when a biblical commentator doesn’t let their pre-existing theology blinker them from seeing what the language of the text is actually trying to say. That happens too, I can testify. Provan calls it as he sees it, and I think he often sees it true, e.g.:

  • He does not offer a great deal of theoretical explanation of the value of reception history, or to use a narrower term, the history of interpretation of Genesis 1–11, but he devotes two whole chapters to surveying this history in both Jewish and Christian interpretation, implying the importance of this tradition of interpretation for providing a context for our own reading of Genesis. By labelling these chapters “Strategies for Reading” and locating them prior to his own exegetical efforts, he rightly implies that we do not read our Bibles in a hermeneutical vacuum, but are deeply influenced by the way others, especially in our own ancestral spiritual traditions within the church, have read their Bibles before us. This is an interpretive reality to which it is easy to be blind until we study that interpretive past for ourselves. [This was the topic of my doctoral studies, so I’m sympathetic to the position. See my The Days of Creationnow a Brill title through no real merit of my own, just a providential publisher buy-out.] While we certainly will not want to imitate every past interpretive stance we discover through such a study, and many have been rendered redundant as thinking has moved on, we nevertheless sometimes find that when we read some examples of past interpretation we are looking at ourselves in the mirror.
  • He can tell the difference between the age of the earliest original components of the text and the age of the final edition, done up, as I like to say, for the ‘box set’ of the Pentateuch. Indications are that most of our OT books did not arise in a single authorial setting. (Check out Karel van der Toorn, Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible for a few insights on the process.) This is not to presume the source criticism that classically manifested in the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ of the Pentateuch, and Provan clearly does not sign up to that (pp. 35-37, 44). Nevertheless, materials in Genesis persist from all different times, says Provan. “[S]uppose that (as seems likely) the Genesis tradition, albeit rooted in much earlier times, was receiving its final shape during the sixth and fifth centuries BC; what may we say about the historical, social and religions context…of that time…?” (p. 50). A few pages down, he implicitly retains the value of the literal sense of the Genesis text, adding,

“If the literal sense…is of primary importance in understanding what the book of Genesis has to say, then that literal sense is intrinsically bound up with the historical, social and religious context in which the book [note, not the stories and other materials within it] first came to be, which I am taking to be the ‘axial age’ of the sixth and fifth centuries BC,” offering “a distinctive Mosaic Yahwist response to the ‘old religion’ of the a.N.E.” (p. 58).

  • He points out quite rightly that the doctrine of the Fall seems to be overplayed sometimes in relation to the Genesis text. I’m not putting up my hand to be a Pelagian here, but Provan points out that even outside the Garden of Eden, God encounters Cain (with a warning) and will go on to encounter others in the story, though we might add, mostly within the framework of covenant privileges. The alienation between God and humans is not complete, though serious. For sheer honesty to the Old Testament, I rejoiced to read, “the remainder of the OT does not view the events of Genesis 3 as cataclysmic events that somehow inevitably change everything about the world in which we live. Indeed, the rest of the OT does not ever again even refer back to the events of Genesis 3 as important for human beings in the present” for understanding our relationship to the world or to God (94). This isn’t the last word on a biblical doctrine of sin, but as far as it goes, it is absolutely true (the reference to Adam in Hosea 6:7 being rather uncertain, but probably a place name). This is an issue of biblical ‘framing’; it is Paul in the New Testament who gives a whole new level of emphasis to the primordial realities of Genesis 1–3; references to the details of the Eden narrative are by contrast extremely rare in the OT.
  • He identifies a curious double property of the narratives in Genesis 1–11 (pp. 95–98) that I have long sought to find the best way to explain to my students. The property is that on the one hand these narratives combine a kind of universality, e.g. presenting Adam & Eve as the parents of all humanity, the flood as eliminating all life ‘under heaven’ except what is saved on the ark, the table of nations covering all known peoples, etc. (95). But on the other hand, we not only have Cain marrying a wife (famously), but on the run, afraid he’ll be killed as a vigilante, and founding a ‘city’…for whom? Himself, his wife, and a couple of kids? I thought a three-bedroom place was roomy enough. A whole city seems positively indulgent, even if that word really means a walled settlement. Provan adds the point about the ‘nephilim’ showing up before and then after the Flood (Num 13:33; Deut. 2:11, 20), though on their way out (97). All that swimming, perhaps. I explain Genesis 1–11 as being like the Tardis from Dr. Who – obviously circumscribed in scope from the outside (e.g. covering just known ancient Near Eastern peoples in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10) while being vast almost to limitlessness, i.e. deliberately universal, on the inside. Glad to see both Provan and, in several quotations, Walter Moberly in his The Theology of the Book of Genesis (2009) picking up on this property of Genesis.Phone_box_at_Hadlow_Road_station
  • He finds the figure of Judah nearly as important (on p. 40, he says more important) as the figure of Joseph in what we are used to thinking of as the Joseph stories (pp. 185–188). Joseph in some sense is righteous or blessed from the start. But Judah finds redemption through his offer of himself as a substitutional sacrifice (Gen. 44:18–34), and the brothers are subsequently reconciled. I fully agree with Provan. To read these chapters as essentially a biography of Joseph is not only to ignore Genesis 38 but to largely miss the point of the whole story.

I’ve picked up on some of the more noticeable positions where Provan shakes up the scene a little from a conservative evangelical point of view. In other ways, he is found taking up some more expected positions. But I have been very attracted to his scholarship and independence of mind and sheer honesty to the testimony of the text. At the same time, at under 200 pages, this is a very manageable book — deep and thoughtful, exegetically capable, but not overwhelming in size or cost. Highly recommended.