Tag Archive | Church Dogmatics

How To Read The Bible Or Why Creationists Aren’t That Bright

Perishing with commencing time, in the light which was created by God, by the second day, the infinite waste of waters is revealed as the absolute antithesis of the ordered world of “heaven and earth,” as an enemy of all life, as the death of every possibility of life. It is this power as such which is radically broken by the creative work of the second day. What is basically secured by thisw ork is the theatre of life, and therefore of man. In precise correspondence to the announcement made in the creation of light, it consists in the establishment of a boundary. The delineation of this boundary will be continued in the work of the third day. Its commencement consists in the radical crushing of the sovereignty of the element of chaos; in the liquidation of its finality, form and structure; in a division in to “waters above” and “waters below” in which it can no longer speak a fina linimcal and moral word, but can only be a last threat which cannot make man and his world impossible and thus destroy them. It is separated. It can exist only in this separation. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol III, Part 1, p.133.

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

St. Jerome receiving some Divine assistance translating the Bible to Latin

The other day I mused on the possibility – or even the need! – for a so-called “theology of the natural sciences”. My reason for these thoughts are my current reading of Vol III, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in which the great Basel doctor pays careful attention to the two creation stories in Genesis. It occurred to me today, after reading Barth’s careful work on Gen. 1:6-8, the work of the Second Day of Creation, that a careful look at how Barth reads just these two little verses should be a demonstration both in how to do theology (Biblical exposition), and how different are the questions it asks and the answers it offers from those of the natural sciences. This is an object lesson in why Christian Doctrine, particularly the doctrine of Creation, have nothing at all in common with astrophysics, cosmology, or quantum mechanics. It also demonstrates just how stupid creationists really are.

By way of some general observations, Barth’s strengths moving forward are a focused dedication both to the text as text and his prior methodological principle of the priority of such a focused reading always being done through the lens of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the real revelation of who God is and what God has done and is doing. I doubt such a careful and thorough theological hermeneutic will or could exist in the future; relying as it does on a certainty that the particular narrative of the Christ-event defines how we approach the entire canon of Christian Scripture, living in a time when such meta-narratives, even as a functional device, are no longer tenable, such dedication and clarity and thoroughness are no longer either possible or desired.

This particularity of focus, however, gives Barth the power and authority to declare both that the events in the first two chapters of Genesis are real history and to set aside any conflict with a scientific account of the creation of the Universe as a primary misreading of the texts in question. Yet it is precisely here at his boldest that Barth’s weaknesses become most apparent. He spends an inordinate (to this reader at least) amount of space trying to define the Creation-event both as historical and outside the ability to research using proper historical (or one could add scientific) methods (pp.59f). Part of the confusion here stems from the tortured use of a weird German distinction between two kinds of history, reflected in the development and growth of meaning of two different words English translates as “history”. One refers to History with a capital “H”, History as meta-history, the overarching movement of forces – either metaphysical (Hegel) or theological (Barth) – that determine, define, and provide meaning for what most of us think of as “history”, that ebb and flow of events, of names and dates and places and events we usually consider history. Even knowing all this, even vaguely, Barth’s attention to this point is both labored and tortured and – dare I say it? – smacks of more than a little bit of apologetics.

The other weakness, and here we encounter Barth in discussion with his contemporaries in Old Testament studies regarding literary styles, is a curt discussion of “saga” (pp. 42f). By attempting to define an understanding of the text by defining the literary style, Barth is yet again – gasp! – sneaking an apologetic concern through the back door, as it were, of his stated disdain for apologetics. Which is not to say that our reading of the Bible should ignore matters of literary form and style. It is only to suggest that, in this particular instance, Barth’s arguments are both rather weak (which is rare enough) and seem, in the end, to be beside the point. Historical or just historical, saga or myth or something else entirely, Barth’s focused discussion on each word, each line, each phrase, each day of Creation sets these matters aside almost completely.

In any event, it is the event of Day 2 – the setting of the firmament in the heavens to separate the waters above from the waters below – that, for me, show both how powerful and distinct a theological reading of the Bible can be as well as how little any of it has to do with contemporary scientific questions regarding cosmology. It is also precisely here that creationists – ideologues who use the Bible as a hammer against others – show themselves to be very poor exegetes. First, those “waters above” and “waters below” were once unseparated, those waters over whose face the Spirit shone just before the first creative act. While both the Church Fathers as well as Protestant Dogmaticians of the 16th and 17th century claimed these “waters above” were clouds and mists, Barth uses evidence both from other parts of the Bible as well as the particular description of these “waters” from the opening lines of Genesis to show this is not at all what the author of Genesis had in mind.

On the contrary, the “waters” over which the Spirit hovered is the primordial chaos against which God’s good creation stands both opposed and victorious. Like the darkness that is broken by the creation of light (not a pre-scientific description of the Big Bang), the setting of a firmament separating the waters below – rivers and seas and rain and clouds – from the waters above – the primordial anticreation – these first two events of creation, by setting specific barriers against and separation from those forces and things (darkness and the primordial chaotic waters), creates the space and time and conditions under which the rest of the creation called “good” can proceed. Only by splitting darkness with the creation of light, which creates day, and the First Day, is that darkness that opposes the light created by God defeated and set in its proper place. Only by separating the waters with a firmament, keeping away from God’s ordered creation the chaos whose depths reflected the Spirit and are defeated by it.

The first two days of creation, rather than talking about particular specific acts that can be dated and fixed upon a timeline, offer a theological view of what creation entails: It is the defeat both of darkness and chaos, their subjection to the creative love of the God who wishes ours to be a world both of order and  fitting for God’s very good creation, man and woman. We are not in the realm of “saga” (always a poor word choice to describe the literature of Genesis 1) or “history” at all. Barth’s setting aside such matters once he picks up the cudgels of theological exegesis demonstrate how little such discussions and definitions have to do with understanding the events of Genesis 1. While it is certainly true enough it is possible to read in Genesis 1 an account of events that actually took place on particular dates that can be discovered a la Bishop Usher, such a reading strips the text of their meaning and import. Anyone using this particular part of Scripture to defend a particular ideology robs them of the richness and fullness they actually contain.

Ours is a God of prodigal love who has chosen not to be alone but rather to create an Other to love that would seek God’s glory in return. Ours is a God who saw the original darkness and chaos and banished them, forcing them either to become part of God’s good creation or separating them entirely from Creation because their very existence as what they were posed a threat to the creation God was even then beginning. Ours is a God who would not have us creatures face the terror either of endless darkness or all-powerful chaos. Rather, ours is a world of order, discernible and discoverable, an order that provides space and time not just for survival, but for life, abundant life. We learn about our God, first, and our world and what kind of world it is God has created for us, second. Anything else the text might or might not say is less than unimportant.

As for Creationists who would continue to insist these texts give us a “real” history of “real” events that took place at a particular time, all I can say is by stripping the text of its theological depth and import, they have left nothing behind from which a reader can learn about God, or about the kind of creation in which we live, or any relationship between these events and the Christ event, the light that shines back offering the believer a particular perspective from which to understand the God of love who is the Father of Jesus Christ. Creationists aren’t really concerned that much with Christian faith as much as they are with having power over others by forcing a particular unBiblical and certainly unChristian reading upon others.

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Is A “Theology Of The Sciences” Even Possible?

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philisophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God. – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 175


Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.  Unfortunately, we live in a world in which the obvious is overlooked as a matter of principle. The obvious must be observed and re-observed and argued for. This is a thankless job. It carries with it an aura of petulance and insensitivity. – Sam Harris, “An Atheist Manifesto”


[Creationist Ray] Bohlin managed to recruit state board members to join in his quest, even going so far as to claim that removing any mention of creationist opinions in science would somehow prevent students from being able to ask questions in classes. (A false claim). He further claimed the majority of the committee was engaged in “a quick and concerted effort by the majority of the committee to remove the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).”

“I don’t advocate for any kind of creationism to be taught in the school. That does not belong in the TEKS. I’m simply concerned about the fair representation of the evidence for evolution,” said Bohlin. – Sarah K. Burris, “Creationists attack Texas education board for trying to eliminate junk science from school textbooks”, Raw Story, October 5, 2016


The theological principle which I accept without a rival has made it almost compulsory that I should first present the doctrine of the work of the Creator as such in the old-fashioned form of a radical exposition of the contents of the first two chapters of the Bible. This exposition is the kernel of the present book. I realise that it is in many ways strange, for I had not myself expected that this would be the result of a closer consideration of these passages and the problems involved. It will perhaps be asked in criticism why I have not tackled the obvious scientific question posed in this context. It was my original belief that this would be necessary, but I later saw that there can be no scientific problems, objections or aids in relation to what Holy Scripture and the Christian Church understand by the divine work of creation. Hence in the central portion of this book a good deal will be said about “naive” Hebrew “saga”, but nothing at all about apologetics and polemics, as might have been expected. The relevant task of dogmatics at this point has been found exclusively in repeating the “saga”, and I have found this task far finer and far more rewarding than all the dilettante entanglements in which I might otherwise have found myself. There is free scope for natural science beyond what theology describes as the work of the Creator. And theology can and must move freely where science which really is science, and not secretly a pagan Gnosis or religion, has its appointed limit. I am of the opinion, however, that future workers in the field of the Christian doctrine of creation will find many problems worth pondering in defining the point and manner of this twofold boundary. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine Of Creation, Part 1, pp. ix-x

Michaelangelo's The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

Michaelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam, detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City.

The central faith-claim of the Christian Church is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world. This particular claim is perhaps the most radical statement ever made: It says everything there is to know about God, who God is, what kind of God this God of Jesus Christ is, the state of humanity in its relationship to God and its mutual interrelationships, how best to live one’s life, and whether or not death is to be feared or considered part of our broken yet healing creation. The claims of the Christian Church are, quite literally, life and death for those who make them. Far too comfortable in our middle-class “religion” of reassurance, we forget that, in the words of the late Rev. Dr. William Homes, “to live is to risk”.

The bulk of the Christian proclamation should remain focused upon this particular point. It must stress the grace and love that is the beating heart of that proclamation. That this is both confessional and pastoral should be obvious; it is confessional because this is the God to whom we give testimony, and it is pastoral because this beating heart gives new life to those who hear it and believe. The whole liturgy of the Church focuses upon grace and love, and we who go forth from worship have this new heart beating within us.

And yet . . .

Buried within the central proclamation is the confession that this “world” – really everything from quasars to elementary particles, gas giants circling other stars and your pet cat – is the product of the creative act of love of our prodigal God. This faith statement – God created the heavens and the earth – seems both pretty simple and straightforward. Alas, as the natural sciences have pushed further and further what is theorized concerning both the beginnings of our Universe and its constituent properties, that simple faith claim sounds as if it is in direct conflict with our best theories concerning cosmology and the origin and development of life here on Earth.

And yet . . .,

Here in the United States (of all places) scientific knowledge is under attack on an unprecedented scale. Everything from medical science, genetics and food science, through the physics and chemistry of the earth’s atmosphere and climate, to those perennial arguments over the theory of evolution is questioned, has groups organized to protest both the reality of scientific understanding and the growth both of that understanding and various technological benefits from genetically engineered foods and vaccines to the teaching of evolution in public schools. The nation that has both pioneered and benefited from scientific research and the application of that research to technologies that benefit us routinely ridicules basic research, denies scientific theories that have yet to be disproved even in some small detail, and now even has an anti-science advocate – “Dr.” Jill Stein – running for President. These attacks upon the most successful method we humans have yet developed for figuring out how the world works and helping us live better, healthier lives should be of concern to anyone who continues to benefit from all that science and technology has offered us as a species.

We in the Christian churches should be as concerned as the rest. One of the first things we should acknowledge is that the ability to figure out our world and how best not just to survive but thrive on it is indeed a very good gift from a loving God. Just as we recognize the entirety of Christian Doctrine exists within the central proclamation of the churches, we should also acknowledge that “good gift” of understanding is part and parcel of the particular Universe in which we find ourselves. A Universe capable of the kind of relatively stable biochemistry capable of becoming alive would, it should be obvious, endow that life with the ability to understand that Universe and so survive within it. Our rationality, that particular habit of considering evidence in order to grasp particularly important information regarding our world, is a direct result of the kind of Universe in which we live.

For there to be some kind of conflict between science and Christian faith, one would have first to deny that we are creatures endowed with the ability not just to understand but to act upon an understanding of the world so that we can thrive and grow in it. To deny scientific theories, whether it’s about global climate change, the Big Bang, the chemical theories regarding mental illness that have produced successful drug treatments, or the theory of evolution, is to deny that God has made us as we are – as creatures able to learn stuff and use that learning. A denial of science at any level is, at heart, a denial of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.

And yet . . .

Science’s success has led some scientists (and non-scientists) to come to accept it not just as the best method yet of figuring out our world and how best to live in it; they believe the very existence of science both as a method and as a body of knowledge excludes other ways of understanding. Not just religion in general and the Christian faith in particular (because both Christianity and science are European phenomena what points of contention exist between the sciences and “religion”, by and large, involve Christianity), but a  kind of scientific reductionism across all sorts of human activity from patriotism through individual behaviors and deviance to romantic love can be encountered. Which isn’t to say that science doesn’t have something to say about why it is we human beings prefer the company of those more like us than not, say, or why it is we not only fall in love but some cultures persist in enforcing life-long pair-bonding over and against what seems a far more likely serial mating among the best candidates available. It does have things to say, and should say them.

The problem is, they aren’t the only things that can and should be said about these and other phenomena. When it comes to religion in general, and the claims of any particular faith, science should recognize, first and foremost, that the claims of believers are not and by their nature cannot be addressed as science addresses such matters. This isn’t just a question of “falsifiability”, as only those questions to which a negative answer is at least potentially possible were the only questions worth asking. It is precisely because science and religion, in fact, do not inhabit the same sphere at all. They do not address the same specific questions; they do not attempt to answer them using the same tools; they do not offer answers that can be stated interchangeably in the vocabularies of science and religious faith. At heart, the efforts of some scientists and some people of faith to fan the flames of conflict is fundamentally to misunderstand that we are dealing with two distinct vocabularies developed to address distinct issues and problems and offer solutions to those problems in terms that exist wholly within the distinct vocabularies used.

The Christian faith has nothing much to say at all about “the reality” of the Big Bang, biochemistry, or the evolution and development of life. Science has nothing much to say about the revelation of the God revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, the salvation of our broken Creation, and the promise of New Life and New Creation to come. In the first case, the only thing Christian theology should do is give thanks to God both for a Universe in which scientific knowledge is possible and that we are creatures so endowed in order to grow and thrive. The only thing science should say about Christian proclamation regarding Creation is that it answers questions that have nothing at all to do with what science teaches us. To do other than this is, in the end, to devolve into arguments that are, for all intents and purposes, like one German speaker and one Danish speaker arguing with one another in their own languages over which language is better.

So is a “theology of science” even possible? I’m not so sure it’s as much a question of its possibility – for surely we humans are ingenious enough to come up with all sorts of things that sound convincing – as a question of its scope and place within the larger concerns of Christian proclamation. At best it is and should always be considered a peripheral matter, sitting at the edge of the proclamation of creation. Recognizing both that science both as a body of knowledge and a way of coming to that body of knowledge exist should be yet more reasons for praising our good and loving God. Beyond that, however, I guess I’m not sure what more can or should be said.

The Paper Walls Of Time

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and
Heaven ring – James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice And Sing”

—–

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ – Luke 19:39-40

—–

 

There is a creek the runs by the house in which I grew up.  I can’t count the hours I played down there, sometimes with friends, sometimes by myself.  One of the great things about this little creek was that it was filled with fossils.  I don’t mean to say there were dinosaur bones in my little creek.  There were, however, an abundance of sandstone and shale bits, sometimes filled to overlapping, with the tiny imprint of all sorts of little creatures.  If I found one of these, I might go back up to the house and sit on the back porch, turning the stone over in my hand, looking at each and all of the little impressions, thinking about time.  Even now, as a middle aged man, I don’t really have any idea of the time it took to go from various kinds of mud covering the remains of these small animals, their remains eventually drying out and crumbling even as they left their impressions in the stone.  The stones were buried – who knows how long?  tens of thousands of years?  millions? – then, at some point, uncovered.  Then, perhaps during a heavy rain, perhaps something else, they wound up sitting in the bed of the creek behind my house.

Now, I have some rules – believe it or not – about things on this blog.  They’re kind of carry-overs from my years of blogging on my previous site.  Among those rules is I do not “debate” creationists.  That my children attend a private Christian school where creationism is taught doesn’t mean I’m silent on the issue.  It just means, here in this space, I refuse to discuss creationism, or debate the matter with those who adhere to creationism.  Which, obviously, doesn’t mean I don’t hold to or celebrate an understanding of Creation as an act of Divine grace and love; on the contrary, among the many testimonies to the greatness, the love, and the freedom of God is our ongoing adventure of Creation, discovering how it works, that it is massive beyond our ability to comprehend, that it is violent and beautiful beyond our imaginings, and that each second of it, each moment in which it exists is both a and the moment of Creation.

One of my professors in Seminary, the late Dr. James Logan, said that Karl Barth was the great theologian of grace of the 20th century.  As much as I admired Jim Logan, I would disagree.  Barth was actually the great theologian of freedom of the 20th century.  I believe Barth’s understanding of grace was a subset of his understanding of Divine Freedom. Barth’s initial and final (and succinct!) definition of God’s identity is: God is the God who loves in freedom.

Part of the evidence for this, worked out in meticulous detail in the four parts of Volume III of his Church Dogmatics, is Creation.  Studying Philosophy at The Catholic University of America, we were told the basic philosophical question is: Why is there something rather than nothing?  Barth’s answer to this question is: freedom.  Specifically, Divine Freedom.  There is no necessity about any of what we see.  It is, in its minutest detail and its grand magnificence, sheer, gratuitous freedom, an expression of Divine Love.  Each moment of time is both the sum total of all that has gone before, and the unique opportunity for something new to be.  That is part of the doctrine of Creation about which we rarely think.  As beloved children of God, freedom is part and parcel of what it means to be, to live in the love that holds it all together.

I look around  the rolling hills not far from Jerusalem, and amid the grass and trees I see all sorts of stones.  Large ones, pebbles, some with marks that show their age, others with marks that show they’ve been overturned by farmers tilling the land in the neverending cycle of life.  Each of these stones makes me think of time, of the immensity of God’s creation, of the freedom that is ours because this is God’s creation.  Most of all, it reminds me that even that part of creation we call inanimate understands its place.  There are so many places, particularly in the Psalms, in which we are reminded that all creation does now or soon will offer God glory.  We are surrounded by mute testimony to the greatness of Divine love, a love expressed in and through and as freedom.

I pick up a pebble, and drop it in my pocket.  It is there to remind me of a couple things.  First, it reminds me that I am not needed.  None of us are.  No matter how “necessary” we believe we are, whether it’s to the continuation of the church and its mission, to the spreading of the Gospel, or making disciples, that pebble reminds me that, in the end, there isn’t a particle of my existence, or a moment of my life, that has any necessity to it.  Especially before God.  That pebble will cry out praise to God were none of us here to do so; indeed, it might well be possible to hear that praise, if we have the ears to hear it.

The other thing that pebble reminds me is that I don’t really understand Creation.  Oh, I understand how science explains various processes and what-not.  I understand that the Universe is both far larger and far older than I can comprehend.  In and of itself, this brings about praise: That something as insignificant as I am loved, upheld, and continue to be in the midst of all this immensity is certainly worthy of praise.  I am not needed, which is why just being at all is such a wonder.  That pebble, it tries to shout through my pocket, and I shut out all the other sounds and hear the praise of all Creation in that tiny voice and know it does so because of all the times I have failed to do so.  This pebble, it does what I in my sin of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness, of hubris, and ignorance, it sings out louder than I have throughout so much of my life.  When I get to that place called The Skull, I’m going to have to turn out my pockets, and let that pebble drop to the ground so that, at that moment, it can weep for the one dying on that cross.

And I so look forward to hearing it on Easter morning.

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More On Barth At Reflections On

Some more reflections on the first few pages of Volume II, Part 1 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics.  In which I agree with a pretty radical claim Barth makes right off the bat.  I know, hard to believe.

From Reflections On . . .

As a way to get people to read my other blog, for a while I’m going to be posting links here, because I have quite a few folks who follow me here.

This morning, it is an introduction to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, Vol II Part 1, with a consideration of Barth’s literary style.