PowerPoint Presentation: Athens & Jerusalem: Science-and-Religion Strategies among Interpreters of Genesis in the Modern Era

This is a talk I am due to deliver to ISCAST (Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology) at the University of NSW tomorrow night, 4/6/15. It is based on my research into interpretations of Genesis 1 down through time, with an emphasis this time on unpacking the way certain interpreters treated the relationship between scientific knowledge and Christian teaching.

Please note that the formatting of the graphics is a bit corrupted when viewed as an online PowerPoint, but it displays fine when downloaded. View with the notes showing to see my sources. If you prefer, try the PDF version:

Advertisements

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.

 

Days of Creation Book Now Available

Received the first box of print copies this week, and I’ve checked and found that the title is available for purchase:

http://www.eisenbrauns.com/item/BRODAYSOF

Boxa Books

Here’s a better view, though I enjoyed the first one, too:

Days of Creation Book Image

Here’s the rider: it only covers up to around 1860! (Perhaps I should have put that on the cover!) Stay tuned for the sequel. I hope you’re in good health…it’s gonna take some time!

GENESIS AND THE REAL WORLD: THE BENEFIT OF LOOKING BACK

It is clear to me as I teach Old Testament each week that many present-day Christian readers of Genesis still want to know how it interfaces with the sciences.  Some will be happy simply to ignore the sciences, while others know little about them, and still others think science and the Bible speak unrelated languages and have nothing to do with one another.  But as soon as I try to skirt the tricky issues and concentrate purely on the theology of Genesis, or its literary features, I am soon reminded that the burning question for at least some students is, “How am I to regard evolution?”, or, “What do the days of Genesis mean?”

These questions are not new.  The first has been firmly on the agenda for two centuries, and the second has been asked and studied from various standpoints throughout Christian history.  I am firmly convinced that a look into the history of attempts to bring the ‘real world’ (as perceived at the time) and Genesis to terms will bring insights into present attempts to do the same.  This conviction motivated my personal research into the history of Christian interpretation of the creation week of Genesis 1:1-2:3.[1]

Days of Creation Book Image

This study has turned out to be a kind of deep-trench archaeological investigation into the history of Christian thought – rather narrow sideways, but very deep.  Most of the leading thinkers of Christian history, amongst their other output, wrote or said something about Genesis 1, and often at great length – up to 800+ pages on this single chapter of the Bible![2]

It is revealing to discover that the most popular schemes of reconciling the Genesis creation week with ‘common knowledge’ about the world’s origin have deep roots.  The Gap Theory or Ruin-Restitution Hypothesis, which posits a vast and geologically eventful period of ancient time after creation but prior to the creation week, lying concealed within the rather indefinite language of Gen. 1:2, is often traced back to a Scot called Thomas Chalmers, speaking in the early 1800s.  In fact, it was a well-recognized option on the continent after about 1750, as related to geological eras, and in a more vague form, as a lifeless early phase of earth history, has roots all the way back past the Renaissance and to the patristic period.

The Day-Age or Long Creation Day concept, too, while it had its heyday around the 1850s and remains a well-recognized method of reconciling Genesis and geology today, is quite identifiable shortly after 1750, is being mooted in more limited forms before 1700, and finds antecedents in the idealist approach to the Genesis days of the Cambridge Platonists in the mid-1600s and prior…although the often-cited precedent in Augustine is greatly overstated.  One interesting factor is that this strategy, which today represents a realist stance regarding the physical world, has its taproot in Platonist, idealist approaches to the creation week.  On the other hand, a second ancestry lies in the very early trend of interpreting the creation week as a prophecy of a 7×1000 year sacred world history.

Idealist approaches to the Genesis days, which arguably include Augustine’s final, ‘literal meaning of Genesis’, ultimately find expression today also in the Framework Hypothesis/Analogical Days stance on the creation week, sometimes with quite a Platonist flavour (as in Meredith Kline’s thought)[3] and sometimes without.  As a final example, not all Young Earth Creationists, taking the creation week literally and associating it with a biblical chronology that leads back from datable ancient events in an unbroken chain to creation itself, would realize that one of the strongest defences of this position was published in the 1850s by Philip Gosse in Omphalos,[4] yet failed to persuade the mainstream scientific world.

It’s a fascinating history, and the more it is studied, the more profoundly relevant it turns out to be.  The history of interpretation of the creation week in Genesis emerges as a crucial case study in Christian thought, the history of western thought, and even the rise of modern science, for interpretation of Genesis was the midwife that oversaw its gestation and birth, though its genetics are partly pagan and classical.

Genesis’ version of creation dominated Western thought for most of the last 2,000 years.  It’s a career that deserves to be narrated.

 

Andrew Brown

June 2014

 

References

Brown, Andrew J. The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming.  https://www.eisenbrauns.com/ECOM/_43L1FFT2V.HTM

Gosse, Philip. Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. London: John Van Voorst, 1857.  http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/39910

Kline, Meredith G. “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony.” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2-15.

Mersenne, Marine. Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione. Reprint of 1916. Edited by. ed. Vol. Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623.

 

[1] Brown, The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3 (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

[2] Specifically Mersenne, Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, cum accurata textus explicatione (Paris: sumptibus Sebastiani Cramoisy, 1623).

[3] Kline, “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 48, no. 1 (1996): 2–15.

[4] Gosse, Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (London: John Van Voorst, 1857).

Days of Creation Book Only Days Away

More thoughts about Genesis 1 shortly, but just discovered a happy sight: the listing of my forthcoming book on the Eisenbrauns website:
The Days of Creation

The Days of Creation
A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3
History of Biblical Interpretation – HBI 4
by Andrew J. Brown
Deo Publishing, Forthcoming, spring 2014
English
Paper
ISBN: 9781905679270
Your Price: $37.95
https://www.eisenbrauns.com

I know it’s real, because I just sent the index off this afternoon, the last thing needed.  Please use it, it was a lot of work!

Some tasters to come…

There Was Morning, and There Was Evening: Wistful Reflections on the Cultural Rise and Fall of an Iconic Biblical Text, the Creation Story of Genesis 1

There is light at the end of the tunnel: I have almost completed the indexing, the last stage of preparation of my first book:

The Days of Genesis: A History of Christian Interpretation of the Creation Week (Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, forthcoming).

I conclude the book with three main observations from the long and complex story of the interpretation of this seminal biblical text.  I’ll spoil only one here: I find that it is the story of a trajectory, a rise and fall…meaning that Genesis 1 rises from obscurity in the consciousness of the Christian church until it, like the church itself, comes to cultural dominance in the West by about 400 CE/AD.  Then it rules the Western mind for more than 1200 years, becoming the repository for all knowledge and speculation about the world, visible and invisible.

Then as the modern era unfolds, say from 1600–1900, its dominance is steadily eroded, until the 20th century sees it largely forgotten in the West, treasured only in the special place, and at the same time (or so it feels in Australia) the cultural ghetto that is the Christian church.  I won’t try to explain the reasons for this here.  I have to leave something in the book!  But I can characterize them as a whole using a proverb spoken by Jesus:

“We played the flute for you,

and you did not dance;

we sang a dirge,

and you did not mourn.” (Matt. 11:17)

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be metaphysics, but it didn’t quite want to be metaphysics.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be a mystical key to reality, but it didn’t really work like that.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be an all-embracing philosophy, but it didn’t aim to be philosophy.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be history, but it wasn’t really history in the normal sense.

The Western world wanted Genesis 1 to be science, but it wasn’t really trying to express science.

The West finally reluctantly allowed that Genesis 1 could simply be poetry, but anyone who knows how Hebrew poetry works knows plainly that Genesis 1 is not Hebrew poetry.

Genesis 1 would not dance the requested dances, and now it stands at the wall, unwanted.

An unappreciated beauty.

Creation Week as Menorah

It had its morning, its cultural high noon, and now its long sunset.

But we stand reminded that in the seventh day, when God finally gets to rest, when the world is as it should be, there is only a morning, and no evening.

Your Kingdom come.

Mini Book Review: To Save the Phenomena

Duhem, Pierre. To Save the Phenomena: an essay on the idea of physical theory from Plato to Galileo (trans. Edmund Doland and Chaninah Maschler; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).

This is a classic work of philosophy of science, incorporating ideas first published by French physicist Pierre Duhem in 1908.  He was widely read in the history of science, and in the content translated here studies the long legacy of a concept first emerging with Greek philosophers such as Posidonius and Simplicius, and to some extent in Plato, certainly his later advocate Proclus, but opposed by Aristotle.  The idea is that the astronomer, and we could read here any physical scientist, is simply trying to offer hypotheses that explain what is observed about the natural world, in this case the movement of the planets in the heavens.  The opposite is to claim that the hypothesis one offers to explain and integrate such observations corresponds to ‘the way things are’ – which is to adhere to ‘realism’.  Greek philosophy was as a rule sympathetic to the goal of simply offering explanatory models that didn’t claim to be ‘real’ or explain true causes, because they mostly believed that the heavens, from the moon’s orbit and upwards, was fundamentally different to the terrestrial (earthly) sphere and so in principle could not be grasped by human thought.  It was the realm of God or the gods, and they alone knew how it truly worked.  Someone like Ptolemy, most importantly, was happy if he could offer a geometrical model that might explain the way the ‘planets’ (among which they counted the sun and the moon) moved.  They debated whether such models should depend mostly on elliptical orbits around the earth, or instead, circular orbits around which planets moved while themselves orbiting ‘epicycles’, a compound cyclical motion that seemed truer to the fundamentally circular nature that seemed appropriate to heavenly motion.  A few proposed that the earth itself might move, but that wasn’t the general mood.

800px-Solar_sys

Duhem shows (or claims), most interestingly, that around the time of Copernicus, many astronomers still acknowledged this principle that they were obliged simply to offer a mathematical model that explained planetary paths.  Some Aristotelians in the Averroist tradition, called Peripatetics, maintained a realist view instead.  Copernicus himself, claims Duhem, was a true realist, and believed that his new heliocentric theory (following the minority classical antecedents) actually represented the true realities of the cosmos.  This was a little unusual at the time, and even the anonymous author of the preface to Copernicus’ groundbreaking De revolutionibus (1543), in which his new model was published, heads in exactly the opposite direction, presenting Copernicus’ theory as a mere model, intended only to ‘save the appearances’.  Duhem cites another astronomer as revealing the writer’s identity as the well-known Osiander.  Copernicus’ proposal was rather popular among astronomers early on, and not too controversial in that most took it as simply a model, such as Osiander.  It even acted as the mathematical background for the Gregorian (i.e. papal-sponsored) reform of the calendar in the 1580s.  But realism was on the rise, and Duhem uses this to help explain why Giordano Bruno and especially Galileo got in trouble with the Catholic church.  By insisting that the Copernican model was not just a mathematical help for astronomy but represented cosmic realities truly, they forced it to impinge on the territory of natural philosophy, concerned with real causes.  In the day, this meant it confronted both Aristotelian metaphysics, which was fundamentally geocentric, and biblical statements that seemed to speak of the earth’s fixity.  And it was compatible with neither.

Galileo.arp.300pix

So Galileo probably could have co-existed with church authorities had he been a non-realist, offering simply to ‘save the phenomena’.  It was his stout realism that got him into trouble!  But Duhem points out that he and his colleagues, even Tycho Brahe in offering a compromise claim, effectively unified physics by seeking common explanations for the movements of heavenly and earthly things.  No longer would the heavens be seen as fundamentally incomprehensible.  It was game on for modern astronomy.