Archive for April, 2013

Genesis 1:2 Primal Elements of Chaos and Primal Fears

Posted in Uncategorized on April 30, 2013 by ancienthopes

The contemplation of creation is an act of worship, and the first line of the Bible is, as we established in the last post, a worshipful shout of joy. In the following verse, we find what the pre-created state looked like. For those who think of creation solely in material terms, or something from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), they are immediately beset with a problem. Where did the chaotic materials in verse 2 come from? This obviously is not the question the ancients thought was of primary importance, or else this would have been addressed here. Creation for them was all about form and function. How did all this beauty come about, and what was it all about?

Verse 2 is a very important verse in the structure of this chapter, and by extension, of the whole Bible itself. In it we are confronted with the three most primal human fears: darkness, formless earth, and the watery deep. Again, the text does not tell us where they came from. The Hebrew knew that they were at some point created by God, for chaos was not co-eternal with God. (The pagans believed the chaotic elements were divine entities themselves, chaos monsters in eternal conflict with the fertility gods and goddesses.) In fact, the Hebrew word for “create” in verse 1 (bārāʹ) tends to have as its object something to do with form and function, not usually something from nothing (Walton). The prepositional phrase “in the beginning” would therefore mean not the beginning of material existence, but the beginning of the seven day process of creating out of chaos the well-ordered and functioning cosmos described in this creation text.

Humanity cannot live in chaos. We do everything we can with our technology to fight back these three primal elements. We invent artificial light to brighten the darkness, and even to grow things. We cannot live in the dry and arid desert regions, unless we irrigate and fight back the encroaching sands. We have yet to conquer the watery deep, but we build bigger ships, and explore its depths with submarines. In the end, we are still afraid of the dark, are appalled at the prospects of being abandoned in the Sahara, and are terrified of the watery deep. In Genesis 1, God creates a livable, functional, and beautiful place out of this chaos.

If there is one action of God in His creating it is that of dividing and giving boundaries, not of creating material things per se. The chaotic elements do not go away, but are separated from livable conditions. From our fallen perspective, it would have been nice if God would have created a cosmos without the chaotic elements, something like we read in Revelation 21. But this would have not served His purpose. When God declares “it is good” to aspects of His creation, He is not saying it is perfect without chaotic elements or without the possibility of chaos breaking boundaries, but declaring that creation is good for His purposes. Yes, our primal fears are always with us, and there is a divine reason for this. It is hidden in the fabric of the creation narrative.

Structurally, the creation narrative is built around these three primal chaotic elements. Days 1 and 4 deal with the issue of darkness, days 2 and 5 deal with the issue of the watery deep, and days 3 and 6 deal with the issue of formless earth, culminating with the creation of humanity. This is capped with the final 7th day, the day of “rest,” the celebration of the completion of His grand cosmic temple fit for God to dwell with man. The Hebrew mind was mesmerized with the movement from chaos to order to rest. How far this mode of thinking is from the modern mind that is driven to pry open the secrets of the material world, wondering how material came about, and plotting how to manipulate it for our purposes!

Genesis 1:1 A Cry of Praise and Worship

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 by ancienthopes

What did the ancient Hebrew mind experience when it read the first verse of the Bible? As strange as it might appear to many of us today, it is a preface to a sacred worship text comprised of Genesis 1:2- 2:4 that brought praise to God for ordering the elements of chaos into a great cosmic temple of beautiful form and function for Him to dwell with humanity. Consider this statement by Claus Westermann who wrote a definitive and very thorough commentary of Genesis:

“The sentence in 1:1 is not the beginning of an account of creation, but a heading that takes in everything in the narrative in one single sentence ─ and it is much more than a mere heading. It speaks of the creation of heaven and earth in the same way as do the hymns of the praise of God … It has often been said that Gen 1 has echoes of a hymn or that as a whole it is very like the praise of God. The reason for this is that the first sentence itself is really a cry of praise.” (Genesis 1-11, p. 94).

What this verse is not is what latter commentators (since the Middle Ages) thought it was, a statement of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing). There are at least two fatal problems with understanding this particular verse as creatio ex nihilo. First, the whole idea of “nothing” cannot be predicated (nothing is … the absence of something) and it is certain that the ancient Hebrews simply didn’t think in terms of “nothingness,” at least in the modern scientific sense of a vacuum. In fact, for them, “nothingness” is impossible since God fills all things (Jer.23:24), and there is no place where God and His glory is not (Isa. 6:3). A clear window into this ontological thinking is Hebrews 11:3 where we believe by faith that God made everything seen from the unseen. You see, there was no separation between the spiritual and the physical; the material has its origins in the spiritual and is necessarily connected to it. Therefore, this whole modern debate of where did material come from is foreign to the Bible. The assumption is that God made it at some point, but this is not what was important to them in the creation narratives (Gen. 1 & 2).

Since this is true, we ought first to understand what the creation texts have to say in its own context, and then make application, if appropriate, to our modern way of thinking. We need to set aside our cosmological assumptions that have little to do with the Bible, and learn to enter into the biblical way of thinking, the biblical cosmology, however strange this may seem at first.

Genesis one is a hymn of praise that joyfully describes how God created a universe of wondrous form, order, and function out of that which was without form, disorder, and without function, that is, chaos. It asks, how did the cosmos get to be so beautiful? Why is there order? Is there meaning and purpose to it? What is it? How do I fit into it? How does the Creator relate with it? These are teleological questions (design and purpose), and these were the questions that were important to the ancients. Modern science, limited by its methodology to empirical experimentation, is not equipped methodologically to explore these teleological issues, but can certainly be shown to be in harmony with them.

The modern western mind is not geared to experience creation with the Creator. Rather, it is geared to explain it. That is why western Christians simply do not understand Genesis one, and really do not, as a whole, have a creation theology.

The Biblical Idea of Creation: Form and Function

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15, 2013 by ancienthopes

If anyone has been reading this blog for any amount of time, it is probably clear that one’s cosmology, how one looks at creation, one’s world view, is prior to one’s interpretation of Scripture. If this is the case, then one needs to take a good look at one’s cosmology, and see what it is, and from where one got it. From there we must begin the long process of adapting a truly biblical world view and cosmology so that we can be true to Scripture and not our own grid that selects what we see in Scripture, and discards notions that may seem strange to our way of thinking when in fact they are true.

The very basic cosmological idea is the idea of creation. I have been teaching creation all my professional life. It is often here at the beginning of our OT sequence in Genesis 1 and 2 that students begin to shed their modern western questions and forms of thinking. Recently a friend and former student sent me a wonderful little book titled “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John Walton (IVP). It admirably brings together much of the scholarship in OT theology on creation over the last 40 years or so. This scholarship is focused on how the ancients thought and what the ancient texts are actually saying, rather than looking at the texts through our cultural eyeglasses.

For us in our culture, since the Enlightenment, and particularly since the advent of the theory of evolution, the whole of western thinking has shifted to the question of origins specifically from a material point of view. The nagging question is where did material come from? Since the culture has become materialistic, this is completely understandable. The Church has joined this viewpoint, partly in that it had to respond to the challenge of evolution, and naturally went to the ancient texts to prove specifically that God created matter, and it was assumed that this was the primary aim of Genesis 1.

Now, we must say here at the outset that the Bible teaches us that God created matter. Matter is not eternal like the pagans thought. The question before us is whether Genesis 1 is specifically teaching us that God created matter (which every Hebrew would know anyways), or if it is trying to tell us something else that we in our culture, because of the questions we have been asking or failing to ask, have missed. Walton tells us that the latter is the case, and I am certain he is right.

What Walton is telling us is that Genesis One is displaying how the cosmos was created functionally, not materially. In other words, the ancients were very concerned with how everything got its form and function, not creatio ex nihilo (how something came from nothing). Something was considered to have existence not because of its material, but because it has received a certain form and function.

To help us with this, let us consider any beautiful thing in creation, whether a flower, or the beauty of a human person. What makes beautiful things beautiful is not the material with which they are made, but how the material takes shape and fulfills specific functions. The ancients were not interested in the material per se or where it came from (they knew that it came from God, and there is not much more one can say about this), but in what makes things what they are. For instance, when we take apart a human being to its basic parts all the way down to cells and basic matter, what we have is something absolutely gross. The Hebrews would consider this mass of cells non-being for it has no form or function. It is chaos.

We are going to spend some time in the creation narratives to see how this fundamental assumption can completely remake the way we look at the ancient texts, and indeed, the world we live in.

Ockham’s Razor

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2013 by ancienthopes

We finish our discussion on the spiritual realm making another attempt to explain why the spiritual realm of saints and angels is no longer meaningful or real to so many Western Christians. What I have to say here has a long history in our culture ranging back to the 14th century philosopher William of Ockham (died 1340). He was what we might call a proto-rationalist. He was not a deistic or atheistic rationalist like we find in Voltaire and the 18the century rationalists, for he believed in the doctrines of the Church and was a Christian. However, he did not believe that we can apply reason to things of faith, therefore beginning the split between faith and reason. In this way he is a precursor to Kant and a very influential theologian who came out of the German pietistic tradition named Schleiermacher who believed that it is our personal experience of religion that is important, and that reason belongs more properly to historical studies and the hard sciences than to theology. This, of course, moves easily into modern existentialism that rejects any theological formulations, such as the Christian Creeds, as relevant to humanity in general at all. Can you see this in our culture? This is relativism, and it snuck into our culture with the split of faith and reason.

Ockham is famous for his theory that the simplest way to explain the nature of things is always preferable to a more complex model. This is a simplified form of what is now called “Ockham’s razor.” The word “razor” is employed to demonstrate that anything at all that seems superfluous can and must be shaved off for simplicity’s sake. William of Ockham lived in a time of scholasticism, and admittedly, there were extravagant flights of fancy in some theological constructions, a famous one being the question, “how many angels can dance on the point of a needle?” (I am not sure this was, in fact, a serious question at the time, but no doubt such things were debated.) The legitimate question to ask here is whether our reason and theological construction can be applied to the spiritual realm. In reaction to scholastic abuse the West decided against this. What has happened over time is that in the west the cultural drift is to believe that nothing universal can be said about spiritual realities. We might believe by faith that there are spiritual realities, but the less said about them the better.

In our discussion of cosmology, we can see why so many Western Christians simply have no room for a spiritual realm of saints and angels that intersects with our material world. All of this simply does not belong to our cultural way of thinking. There are no channels in our minds to take us there. It is simpler to believe with Scripture that there is a heaven out there with God and His angels, but it is absolutely separate from this world. This is Ockham’s razor in action shaving off anything not deemed necessary. It is clean and neat. This methodology dictates to us what we see and what we do not see in Scripture. The multitude of references to angels in the Bible is virtually ignored. The cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12 is dismissed lightly as mere poetic language. The saints die and their souls are shoveled off into some holding place near Jesus in utter transcendence.

The question to ask, however, is whether our cosmology is truly Biblical. How much is our cosmology affected by the culture that we live? Like a fish in water, all of us are submerged in rationalism and Ockham’s though (called nominalism) without even studying these things, yet they are mother’s milk to us. Do we want to make the effort to question our presuppositions about our world view? Are we satisfied with our understanding? It takes a huge amount of time and effort to venture out into the exploration of another world view. If we are comfortable with the way things are we will not do this. But comfort is not where Jesus would have us be; nobody ever felt comfortable around Jesus because he was always challenging people with regard to how they viewed the world and reality.

Let me end with a quote from Abraham Heschel concerning the changing of a world view. “Indeed, it requires much effort to learn which questions should be asked and which claims must not be entertained. What impairs our sight are habits of seeing as well as the mental concomitants of seeing. Our sight is suffused with knowing, instead of feeling painfully the lack of knowing what we see. The principle to be kept in mind is to know what we see rather than to see what we know … Insight is breakthrough, requiring much intellectual dismantling and dislocation” (The Prophets, vol. I, Introduction, pp. xi-xii).

Greatness and the Spiritual World

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2013 by ancienthopes

“To him who conquers … I will give him a white stone with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it” (Rev. 2:17). To him who conquers I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Rev. 3:12).

Once when I was a young man in seminary days my mother came to me in an unusual frame of mind. She seemed anxious to tell me something from her heart. She said, “You know John, I spend my days washing clothes, making dinner, cleaning the house, and other very small and unimportant chores, but someday I will be great!” She then promptly turned around and left. I never had a chance to say a word, and I would not have known what to say if I had the chance. Be this as it may, I saw her for the first time not as a mere mother, but as a person. I always knew she had a great soul, but now I began to understand something about greatness. In the Bible, to have a name is to have fame, to be known, such as Abraham (Gen 12: 2) and David (II Sam 7:9). My mother, who is now among the saints, fits in comfortably right along with them.

We have all been made for greatness. This is why we all are innately interested in famous persons; they attained something in this world that is symbolic of something far more real and lasting in the spiritual realm. You see, we have been made in the image of God, and God, by definition, is great, and His fame is all encompassing. We all are to be like Him. Not to have a name is not to have an identity. This is behind the Revelation passages above. To have a name written on a white stone from God that only we “know” means that we, if we are among those who conquer, will have a unique fame in all of the New Jerusalem, among the great cloud of witnesses consisting of all the just souls of the ages made perfect. The point, I believe, is not that our name is secret and unknown amongst the saints and angels, but that we have accomplished our unique destiny and have grown into a fame etched eternally in stone. In heaven everyone knows everyone else, and it will take eternity to take in the richness and wonder of each person’s identity and person-hood. As we said in an earlier post, in the spiritual world, everyone is known, and everyone knows. It has to be this way. Ignorance and the loss/lack of identity belong to this world of shadows. Even those who attain fame in this world find it very illusory, as Milton tells us in one of his poems: “Fame is no plant that grows in mortal soil.” True fame consists of our name being associated with God and His holy city, as the text in Revelation above tells us.

True, from our perspective in time as we know it, all will be accomplished at the Second Coming and the great descending of the New Jerusalem to this earth, making the spiritual and physical world one. But the New Jerusalem and the Kingdom exists now. It is a reality that we can enter into now through prayer and worship. The names of the great saints of the past are not mere names, but actual persons who are involved in our lives right now. They know our greatness and the importance of our hourly moments in light of eternity, though we may be only vaguely aware of it in the haze of our daily lives.

It is a wonderful thing to hear in the ancient liturgies the names of many of the saints who have gone before us. It tells us that we must not only be rooted in history when these saints lived and influenced their cultures, but that they are very much alive and part of our experience now. What a terrible loss not to be aware of this. How shallow is the experience of Christians who live with little sense of history or the spiritual realm!