Knowing: The Gnostic Lure of Knowing It All

“According to Irenaeus, sin in its primitive form is Man’s attempt to be God.”

(Jacobsen, Anders-Christian. “The Importance of Genesis 1-3 in the Theology of Irenaeus.” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum 8, no. 2 (2004): 299–316 @ 303)

A few things have converged lately for me:

  1. A sermon I preached on the nature of sin in relation to Romans 1–3. This, by the way, led to discovering the curious facts that:
    • Oscar Wilde died at 46, having in some practical ways arguably explored the meaning of sin, at least as his society understood it, as a participant in the ‘Decadent Movement’.Doriangray_Raoul Van Coneghem[Raoul Van Coneghem, 28/01/2016, Wikimedia Commons]
    • Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, his sole novel, which has long fascinated me as a story concept, seems to have been inspired by the kind of life lived by another member of the movement, the Frenchman Charles Baudelaire, who also, it turns out, died at 46.
    • I am presently 46, so I had better watch how I conduct my affairs.
  2. Reading 1 Corinthians 1–2 with its deliberate antithesis of ‘knowing’ and ‘not knowing’. In 1 Cor. 1 Paul seeks to undercut the Corinthians’ smugness about their wisdom by showing how the gospel of Christ frustrates human expectations of wisdom. Then in 2:1–5 Paul recalls having adopted, at his previous visit to the Corinthian church, a policy of knowing nothing but “Christ and him crucified,” as if to avoid getting into a knowledge contest or encouraging that smugness. But in 2:6ff. Paul begins overtly to use a whole vocabulary associated with ‘gnosis’, e.g. ‘sophia‘, wisdom; ‘teleios‘, perfect, complete, ‘arrived’; ‘archōn‘, ruler; ‘mustērion‘, a hidden truth, and that’s just vv. 6–7. Just as familiar in gnostic discourse are the categories ‘pneumatikos‘, spiritual (v. 13) and ‘psychikos‘, natural as two different categories of persons. Paul clearly is no longer bound to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified,” because he is applying to himself and his fellow apostles the full vocabulary of spiritual enlightenment that we will see in later gnosticism, though not necessarily with the range of gnostic associations yet to come.

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Micro Book Review: Dembski, End of Christianity

William Dembski, The End of Christianity (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2009). Hardcover $16.38, Kindle $6.09 on Amazon 18/12/15.

Dembski End of Cty

This will be a quickie – supposed to be packing for summer holidays! A few comments on this book from perhaps the most recognized name in the Intelligent Design movement, Bill Dembski.

This is an ambitious book, trying to address two philosophical problems for Christianity simultaneously. The problems are:

  1. The problem of evil and pain, a perennial chestnut, and
  2. The clash between an apparently old earth and a biblical soteriology (teaching about salvation) that, notably in Romans 5, apparently attributes death in the world to the sin of Adam, and the re-entry of life likewise to the saving work of Christ.

I’m resisting the temptation here to exegete Romans 5. That would ruin our holiday plans. But here in nuce is Dembski’s solution: the destructive effects of the first sin of the first couple, yes, the true blue Adam and Eve, can apply retrospectively in time and be the cause of all pain, decay and death in the world from the very dawn of time. This allows Dembski to retain:

  1. An old earth in co-operation with mainstream scientific consensus, and,
  2. A full-blown, classic Christian doctrine of the Fall in its undiminished traditional form.

My final assessment: this is, despite appearing in a moderately-sized book, a grand intellectual venture, a tour de force if you like.

Ultimately, it never quite persuaded me. It would solve some philosophical problems if it did, and I could appreciate the ambition it represented. I like the Augustinian perspective of God being outside of time and able to operate independent of the flow of history. But every hint of corruption and decay, every hint of mortality in any creature, every star destined to burn out…all due to the transgression of a couple short of duds in Mesopotamian garden? I think there’s a problem of proportionality here that means it doesn’t win me over.

Happy to hear what you thought of it.

Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1–2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #3

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2

My last post in this series offered my opinions on Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Now I offer a few thoughts on the next chapter:

Chapter Three: Reading Genesis 1–2 with the Grain: Analogical Days, by C. John Collins (+ the four responses of the other writers)

At the time of publication, Collins was/is “Professor of Old Testament in the Dept. of Scripture and Interpretation at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He has a long list of achievements and publications in the interpretation of Genesis and understanding of creation, and brings scientific as well as theological training to the task. I was quite impressed years ago with his article, “How Old Is the Earth? Anthropomorphic Days in Genesis 1:1-2:3,” Presbyterion 20 (1994), 109-130, and he has more recently published:

C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsberg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006).

Collins, C. John. “Adam and Eve as Historical People, and Why It Matter,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62, no. 3 (2009), 147–165.

Collins, C. John. Did Adam and Eve Really Exist?: Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

Collins’ position has remained consistent over the two decades or so since the first-mentioned article was published, and is reflected in the present chapter. The 2nd and 3rd titles actually reflect where the heat is in Genesis debates at the moment – not the age of the earth, the Genesis 1 days or evolution per se, but whether we should insist that Adam and Eve were literal people. Earlier in the present volume Collins cites N.T. Wright in a kind of cautious support for a historical Adam and Even (see p. 64 and footnotes), but that is not really discussed in the chapter under review.

So what is?

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Five Responses to Reading Genesis 1-2 (ed. J. Daryl Charles) #2

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
Further to my recent post responding to Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, by Richard E. Averbeck, here are my responses to the next chapter:
Chapter Two: Reading Genesis 1–2: A Literal Approach, by Todd S. Beall.

Beall is the head OT prof at Capital Bible Seminary, which appears to fall under the aegis of Lancaster Bible College headquartered at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. He is the lone young-earth creationist voice in this book and seems to represent what I would call a ‘standard’ version of that position.

My response to Beall’s essay is generally that I sympathize with some of his fears about the risks of a less literal view of Genesis 1 for our view of the Bible, but that I don’t think his arguments are very strong at times, and find his thinking at times too simplistic. He lives in a more black-and-white world than I do, though I think it’s vital to believe in ‘true truth’ and not drift into relativism. Let’s pick out a few specifics:

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Five Responses (at least) to Reading Genesis 1-2, edited by J. Daryl Charles #1

Charles, J. Daryl, ed. Reading Genesis 1–2 : An Evangelical Conversation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013).
Charles, ed., Reading Genesis 1-2
This recent book on creation as detailed in Genesis 1-2 has five main contributors from the world of US evangelicalism, and in reality, from a rather narrow conservative evangelical band. I have found that plenty of food for though emerges from each of the five contributors for a blog post each, so I thought I would review the book and talk about biblical creation by engaging one author at a time.

Chapter One: A Literary-Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Reading of Genesis 1–2, Richard E. Averbeck
The first main contributor is Richard E. Averbeck, Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois.

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Mini-Book Review: The Adam Quest

Tim Stafford, The Adam Quest: Eleven Scientists Who Held on to a Strong Faith While Wrestling with the Mystery of Human Origins (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Adam Quest

With a subtitle worthy of the eighteenth century, almost, this book was recommended to me in early December. I saw it on a bookstore shelf in mid-December and bought it, and had it read in about a week and a half.

It’s an evangelical Christian treatment of the evergreen issue of understanding creation (ranging a bit broader than simply ‘human origins’), from the/a senior writer for Christianity Today. Well-researched and well-written, what really makes it reader-friendly is its biographical tack. It is not just about ideas but about people and their personal odysseys (odyssies? I’m not near a dictionary). And people are always interesting to other people. So I finished this book quickly because I found the personal stories so interesting.

But it is also handy to explore ideas by the biographical route. In this book we get to wrestle with issues of truth concerning creation and science through the lenses of other individual persons’ own quests for truth, in the context of all the human hangups, prejudices, social obligations and relationships, human and divine, that go with being human. It’s real thinking in the context of real life, complicated by real politics. So I related to these stories and liked them.

The eleven primary stories feature well-qualified scientists whose convictions about creation are arranged in a steady sequence from strictly young-earth, as it were six-day creationism, through to those who believe in an old earth (progressive creation) and on to theistic evolutionists. The names are on the whole quite well known, another asset for the work. The movement represents an increasing proximity to Stafford’s own theistic-evolutionist sympathies, revealed at the end of the book, and these sympathies are detectable as an undertone throughout the book. That notwithstanding, I found Stafford’s treatment generally even-handed. He sought to avoid demonising or patronising any participants, and largely succeeded.

I should mention that within the eleven major stories are embedded many more in shorter compass. I should give you examples, but I’m on holidays and have snatched the chance for some public wi-fi, and don’t have the book with me. But I recall seeing a nutshell bio of Intelligent Design advocate Philip Johnson offered within a fuller treatment of another ID advocate, one of the researchers at the Discovery Institute, as I recall.

It was fascinating to read about Kurt Wise, Michael Behe, Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, and many other important figures in Christian discussions about creation. It was also interesting to see whose careers really flourished, and whose seemed somewhat stillborn, or remained starved of funding or mainstream acceptance.

Well, enough words! It’s inexpensive and available, and if you’re interested in creation and evolution, and like human stories, I recommend this book to you.

Days of Creation Book Launch Presentation – MST Graduation 1 Dec 2014

Time is short in graduation ceremonies. Here is what I would say about The Days of Creation, if time permitted. What can we say about Genesis chapter 1?

Slide1

Genesis 1 existed in relative obscurity when the Christian church was born, though it was far from being unknown, as passages like these remind us:

For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor. 4:6 Holman Christian Standard Bible)

As centuries passed, Genesis 1 became the focus of increasing interest, including becoming the subject of a burst of preaching and commentary by figures such as Basil the Great and Augustine around 400 AD/CE. Soon it provided the dominant paradigm for Christian explanation of the origin and nature of the physical world (and a lot of other things!).

Slide2

This remained true throughout the Middle Ages and through the Reformation era. But eventually a combination of philosophical currents old and new and a weakening of traditional authority structures began to undermine this intellectual dominance. It began to break down in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth, studies of nature that once would have been carried out with reference to Genesis became independent from it.

The causes for this sombre trend are manifold, and are explored somewhat in the book. In part they have to do with a burgeoning sense of the age of the earth from the late 1600s onward – the increasingly widespread belief that the earth, like humanity, had a history whose relics could be studied, and that in fact the earth’s story significantly pre-dated the human story. One term for this is the ‘discovery of time’, and attitudes to the days of the creation week, in simplified form, can be plotted to show a trend from a time when six literal days was felt to be too long of a time for God to create (Augustine and Origen) to a time when schemes for creation days that were figuratively extended to stand for years or even ages began to be proposed.

Slide3

Learning of this trend often prompts Christians to wonder, “How then should I regard Genesis 1 when I read it now?” In my experience, the meaning of Genesis 1:1-2:3 (as well as that of Genesis 2:4-25) has been clarified by the perspective of ‘discourse analysis’, which simply means paying attention to the literary shape of the narrative and the language signals that communicate to us how the story is moving forward. Reading Genesis 1 with this awareness shows that when creation begins, three things are lacking that prevent a world as the Old Testament would perceive it from existing.

Slide4

What is missing in Gen. 1:2, which is needed to make a world, is 1) form or distinction, clear zones in which various life forms could exist; 2) fullness, i.e. living populations, inhabitants, including humans; 3) light. Light is fittingly the first thing provided, after which increasing distinctions provide places to live, and then beings are created to live in those spaces. If you’re familiar with the scientific concept of entropy or the ‘heat death’ of the universe, where temperature (energy) and other distinctions are gradually ironed out until there is nothing in any meaningful sense, creation in Genesis 1 is exactly the opposite! Creation reaches its highest distinction with the arrival of humans, the image-bearers, on Day 6.

Such an understanding works very well for following the story of human creation in Gen. 2:4-25 also.

I would like to say, then, that Genesis 1 is not only a God-inspired biblical text, but is extraordinarily versatile, given that it stems from an ancient culture in what from our perspective is an ancient world. What other creation story thousands of years old survives as unscathed as the creation week of Genesis 1? What other example presents God’s authorship of all categories of the known world while importing so little of an obsolete cosmology, while avoiding mythology, which is so prone to obsolescence? What is simpler and more practical than to categorize life by its medium, air, water and earth?

Slide5

Where we do sometimes get into trouble sometimes, I believe, is when we read Genesis as if it was written in our time, or if that’s implying too much ignorance, as if it was written just for us, just for our time in history. We sometimes ask it to make perfect sense in the twenty-first century, to sound utterly modern. This is actually selfish; it is in effect to ask that it make little or no sense to the people of God in eras other than our own, or even people in non-Western cultures in our own time. It is an ancient text, and it shows this in various ways, not least in the way it speaks about the ‘expanse’ (raqia) and the waters above it. But in its God-givenness it transcends its ancient birth in a unique way, retaining its ability to proclaim God’s authorship of and sovereignty over physical and human creation to people of every era.

The fact that we forget how ancient it is may be a sign of just how well it succeeds at this purpose.