Monday, September 20, 2021

The complete redemption of creation

 I earlier posted about how much I benefited from reading A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming a Biblical Eschatology by Richard Middleton, in our theology reading group. The book centres around elucidating the creation-fall-redemption-renewal narrative of the Bible.

This month we are reading and discussing the second half of the book.

The book can be viewed as an introductory text on biblical theology, as it attempts to provide a model for the narrative of the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

It is helpful for me to consider what the essential message of the book is. In some ways, Middleton is elucidating what the Bible really does say about the theological concepts of creation, fall, redemption, and renewal. He considers that he is correcting common misunderstandings about these concepts.

What is creation?

Sometimes Genesis 1-2 is read solely as a description of material origins. Where did humans come from? When did it all begin? Where did the earth, animals, and plants come from?

According to modernism, humans and nature are distinct (but connected) entities [e.g., they have the same DNA], and both are just material. Consequently, creation is equated with nature, particularly what humans have not touched or used. "Creation care" is concerned with being good stewards of the natural environment and its resources. However, Middleton considers that a more Biblical perspective is that creation (and the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28) is broader. Creation is not just objects (humans and "nature") but much more. Creation is also what humans create by their interactions with one another and with the non-human world: agriculture and art, institutions and ideas,... Creation is the entire human socio-cultural order. The doctrine of creation is not only concerned with some single event in the past, but also the  present and future: how God sustains the world, works in the world, and what God wishes the world would be.

What is the fall?

This has affected everything: humans, the earth, animals, plants,... Sin (the rebellion of humans) has not just broken the relationship of humans with God, but also humans with one another, humans with nature, and humans with themselves. The creation is no longer what God intended it to be, both what God created and the culture that humans now create.

What is redemption?

In Scripture, redemption is conceived most fundamentally as the reversal of the fall and the restoration of God’s good purposes from the beginning. By way of contrast, in our dualistic philosophical inheritance from Plato, redemption is conceived as transferal from a lower, inferior realm (variously understood as body, earth, matter, nature or the secular) to a higher, more valued or esteemed realm (understood as soul, heaven, spirit, the realm of grace or the sacred). This dualistic assumption is often simply superimposed over biblical texts that address redemption and so leads to a distortion of the Bible’s message. Whereas a dualistic understanding of redemption typically devalues the good world God created and encourages an aspiration to transcend finitude, the biblical worldview leads to an affirmation of the goodness of creation, along with a desire to pray and work for the redemption of precisely this world (including human, socio‐cultural institutions) that earthly life might be restored to what it was meant to be. Being aware of the distinction between these two conceptions of redemption helps clarify the significance of the creation‐fall‐redemption paradigm that is utilized by many who are interested in developing a Christian worldview.

This summary is taken from the paper by Middleton, that he developed into the book. 

The human calling is not just to create culture but also to redeem culture, by participating in its transformation. I find it interesting that this redemptive view drove many of the founders of modern science, as chronicled by Peter Harrison in The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science.

What is the final renewal?

What is the end of it all, the eschaton? Sometimes words such as consummation or re-creation, are used instead of renewal. How does this relate to the idea that "when Christians die they go to heaven"? There will be a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21) that will be free of sin, suffering, and death. Middleton gives particular attention to critiquing interpretations of 2 Peter 3, that claim that all of the existing creation is going to be destroyed/burned up/consumed and God will create something new from scratch, and the disembodied "souls" of Christians will live in a new place, "heaven". Rather, at the eschaton, God will complete the work of redeeming the fallen world that began with Abraham.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A Scientist Looks at Genesis 1-3

This evening I am giving a talk on the first three chapters of Genesis to Village FOCUS at QUT Kelvin Grove, a Christian group for international students. Here are the slides. 

For background, I recommend comparing and contrasting Genesis with the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish, which is nicely summarised in this short video.

Another helpful short video is Science and Genesis, featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and others.

I have found helpful the book How to Read Genesis by Tremper Longman.

An excellent introductory book that puts my talk in context is Let there be Science: Why God loves Science, and Science needs God, by David Hutchings and Tom McLeish

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

John Stott on true evangelicalism

The kind of evangelicalism which concentrates exclusively on saving individual souls is not true evangelicalism. It is not evangelical because it is not biblical. It forgets that God did not create souls but body-souls called human beings, who are also social beings, and that He cares about their bodies and their society as well as about their relationship with Himself and their eternal destiny. 

So true Christian love will care for people as people, and will seek to serve them, neglecting neither the soul for the body nor the body for the soul. As a matter of fact, it has not been characteristic of evangelicals in the past to be shy of social action, or even, when necessary, of political action. Perhaps the two most notable examples in England, both of which belong to the last century, are William Wilberforce, whose indefatigable campaign led to the abolition of the slave trade and later of slavery itself; and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, who introduced legislation to improve the working conditions in factories and mines, of colliers and chimney sweeps. 

[He was also a strong advocate for the care of the mentally ill]. 

We saw earlier how brightly Christ's compassion for outcasts shone against the dark background of the Pharisees' indifference. Still today there are neglected groups of our human society? for example drug addicts, alcoholics, the mentally sick, and the elderly ? who need what might be termed 'total care'. They challenge evangelicals to bold experiments which would combine gospel truth and practical service in a balanced expression of love. 

The kind of ecumenism which concentrates exclusively on questions of social justice, however, on eliminating racial discrimination, hunger, poverty and war, forgets the Christian saying which is 'sure and worthy of fall acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners', and forgets also His plain commission to the church to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations.

This was written by John Stott, way back in 1970 in his book, Christ the Controversialist

I became aware of this when it was quoted by Steve Bradbury in a recent Theology on Tap talk, "John Stott: Teacher and Model of a Radical Biblical Faith".

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Alternative models of contextual theology

Christian theology is a discussion that aims to apprehend and understand the triune God; the God that is claimed to be revealed by the Bible and the accounts therein of God's action in history.

But this discussion of God always occurs in a particular context: social, economic, political, cultural, linguistic, historical, and intellectual. Furthermore, the discussion is always conducted by groups of individuals who all have their own personalities and life experiences. Yet, the God of the Bible is so much greater than these contexts and individuals. 

Hence, I agree with the claim that "all theology is contextual". To me, this is almost stating the obvious. Contexts matter. However, to some, this claim is contentious and they may see it as a slippery slope towards relativism (all views are equally valid) and/or towards syncretism where the radical counter-cultural message of the Gospel is compromised and absorbed into a local culture. But, to me, this claim is more a position of humility and a desire to understand others and their context, and be willing to learn from them. It can help me explore how my own theology (both implicit and explicit) and the theology of those that I interact with, has been influenced, for better or worse, by our contexts.

Key questions I would like to explore include the following.

How does one define a context? 

What elements of a context are key to understanding how they influence the development of a particular theology?

How does one discern what should be normative in any contextual theology?

Behind the last question is a general philosophical problem that reflects the is-ought problem, the fact-value distinction, and the relationship between descriptive and prescriptive statements. Just because we observe something is, does not mean that is the way it should be. For example, someone observes that "teenagers are disrepectful," or "boys will be boys," or "there will always be poor people." That does not mean that the behaviour is morally correct, that one should not seek to change it, or that it is impossible to change.

There are many contextual theologies: liberation theology, Dalit theology, Catholic theology, Reformed theology, ... The fact that we observe them, describe them, and try to understand their relationship with the context from which they emerged does not mean that they are "true", appropriate, useful, or should not be changed.

A widely used text is by Stephen B. Bevans, Models of Contextual Theology. Laurie Green has a helpful dot-point summary of the book.  Bevans's more recent book, An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective  has a nice summary including the figures below.

This frames how contextual theology can be viewed as critical dialogue between the experience of the past (embodied in Scripture and Tradition) and the experience of the present. There are several reading and interpretation exercises (hermeneutics) going on. The Bible must be read and interpreted. A specific context must be read and interpreted. There is a hermeneutical circle for the Bible and for the context. The parts must be interpreted in light of the whole and the whole must be interpreted in light of the parts. Contextual theology will also involve a hermeneutical circle. The context is interpreted in light of the Bible and the Bible is interpreted in light of the context.

Bevans proposes six distinct models of contextual theology. They put different relative emphasis on the past and the present, leading to their different locations on the diagram above. Those on the left emphasise the goodness of creation and have a higher value of general revelation than special revelation. Those on the right emphasise the fallen nature of the creation and the need to redeem it, and put a low value on general revelation.

The names of the six models are given below.

Anthropological model

Local cultures can reflect the goodness of God and theology needs to affirm them and be adapted to them.

Praxis model

Practice and theological reflection cannot be separated.

Synthetic model

There are strengths and weaknesses of all these models and so one tries to take the good things from all the models.

Translation model

There is a message that is independent of any context and the primary task of theology is to translate that message into that context.

Countercultural model

Without Christ, cultures are fallen and stand against Christ. They need to be changed.

Transcendental model

The focus in on the subject, the person. Revelation must be experienced. In ones context, one experiences God.

In another post, I will discuss these models in more detail. Before, doing so I would state again that "all models are wrong, but some are useful." Bevans makes several pertinent observations about models. 

Models are a kind of pattern or template that offers a way of performing a task... Models... are streamlined, artificially constructed ways of thinking... like symbols... they should be taken "seriously, but not literally."...

Models may be either exclusive or complementary.

Models of something [that people have done] might also be models for something [that people might do].

Later I will also explore how some of these ideas may be relevant (or not) to considering science-theology interactions in different contexts.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Models for the grand narrative of the Bible

Does the Bible have a grand narrative? If so, how does one make sense of this narrative? 

The Bible is 66 separate books, written by (at least) 35 authors, over a period of several thousand years, in diverse locations, and contexts. Nevertheless, there are major themes that seem to run through the whole Bible, such as creation, sin, redemption, and renewal. But, how do these themes fit together?

George Box was a distinguished statistician who said, "All models are wrong. But some are useful." Scientific models can never capture all the details of complex physical, biological, and social phenomena. Hence, in some sense, any model is "wrong." Nevertheless, some models can make successful predictions, provide insight, and even suggest courses of action. The use of mathematical models to describe the current pandemic illustrates Box's aphorism, all too painfully.

I would contend that theology is also about building models: schemes that aim to help us describe and understand very complex phenomena and issues: the Bible, humanity, society, God, churches, ethics, nature,...

Some may disagree, but I think everyone uses models, it is just whether or not they acknowledge they are using a model.

Over the years I have been introduced to many different theological "models". Some I have found helpful, particularly in providing a "big picture" perspective. But, some models leave me cold or I think are unhelpful. I have also become aware of that over time: 

  • even the models that I have found helpful, I realise have limitations
  • in hindsight, I am too slow to see these limitations and to abandon models that I have loved and advocated
  • some proponents of a specific model are unwilling to acknowledge its limitations (I feel this is sometimes the origin of sectarian denominationalism)

Interestingly, the history of science provides many similar examples.

Over the past decade, I have found the schema: creation, sin, redemption, and renewal extremely helpful. For example, I have used it in trying to help myself and others think about a Christian perspective on their own academic discipline and to sketch a Christian vision for the modern secular university.

One model of the Gospel (the good news that Jesus brings) is that provided by the sketch below, known as the bridge illustration. I learnt this while an undergraduate through involvement with The Navigators.

Although there is truth in this model, questions one might ask are "how wrong is this model?" and "how useful is it?" More specifically, is this a good summary of the whole message in the Gospel according to Matthew (and Mark, Luke, and John) in the Bible? Furthermore, is this model consistent with the grand narrative of the Bible? 

As I read through the Bible, I encounter passages that just don't seem to fit with this model, particularly when it is presented as a definitive and complete summary of the message of the Bible. In the Old Testament, there are numerous exhortations that Israel should care for widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. The prophets proclaim God's judgement on Israel, including sending Israel into exile. Why? It is not just because of the idolatry of Israel, but also their failure to exercise social justice as a community.

Jesus proclaimed an Upside-Down kingdom. He had a particular concern (both by his actions and his teaching) for the marginalised. He often spoke about the dangers of pride, self-righteousness, and the love of money. He condemned the religious leaders of his time for these sins. Two parables told by Jesus that I find particularly troubling are Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) and the judgement of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The former has featured in more than six blog posts that I have written.

Then there is creation. What are the opening chapters of Genesis actually about? I find it hard to see them as presenting something that is in conflict with or in competition with science. As a keen bushwalker in my youth, I developed a love for the beauty of nature, particularly for wilderness areas. There was something spiritual about being in these spaces. As a scientist, I also see immense beauty in the natural world through science. What we learn about the world is amazing and the process whereby we come to this understanding is also awesome. Is this what humans were made to do? Something that brings me incredible joy is hearing of others serving marginalised communities, along the lines of (literally) good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and the oppressed are set free.

Many of my concerns were relieved when four years ago I read A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming a Biblical Eschatology by Richard Middleton, in our theology reading group.

Middleton, an Old Testament scholar, presents a coherent and compelling picture of the whole Bible that resonates with my own reading of Scripture and (limiited) life experience. It is built around the motif of creation, fall, redemption, and renewal/re-creation. The Bible is not just about how individuals can go to heaven when they die. It is also about God's grand plan to "reconcile all things to himself" and create a world where there is no sin, injustice, suffering, and pain.

We are now re-reading the book and discussing it in our next two meetings. This may be one of the few times I have ever re-read a book. (Something, that I now belatedly realise can be a rich experience).

The book is based on a paper that Middleton published in 2006. The book received a warm review by Christopher Beetham in Themelios on the Gospel Coalition website.

Nevertheless, Middleton is presenting a model which also has its limitations. More on that later...

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The integral mission of William Carey

There is a beautiful chapter, "Missionary Science", by John Stenhouse in the recently published volume 8 of the series, The Cambridge History of Science.

Here is one of many gems.

William Carey (1761–1834), an ex-cobbler who led the British Baptist mission to India from 1792, urged readers ... to imitate the “universal benevolence and genuine philanthropy” of “God himself ” by spreading useful knowledge with the gospel. An avid gardener and self-taught botanist, Carey hoped to help Indians periodically decimated by famine by introducing Western agriculture and horticulture, including crop rotation, land reclamation, experimental introductions of new plants, and the European plough and harrow. Establishing the largest private botanical garden in Asia (in which he prayed each morning), Carey founded an Agricultural and Horticultural Society, exchanged seeds, plants, and ideas with gardeners, botanists, and missionaries around the world, and wrote and lectured on the natural history of Bengal. The East India Company had long opposed missionary work as likely to anger Hindus and Muslims and disrupt trade; Carey oiled relations by befriending Company botanists and publishing their major botanical works (such as William Roxburgh’s Flora Indica) on the mission press. 
When an American evangelical wrote threatening to withhold money unless the Baptists focused on theological training, not science, Carey replied: “I have never heard of anything more illiberal. Pray can youth be trained up for the Christian ministry without science? Do you in America train youth for it without any knowledge of science?”

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Context matters

 "A text without a context is a pre-text". I have sometimes heard preachers say this in the context :) of interpreting a verse or passage in the Bible. Verses need to be interpreted in terms of passages. Passages need to be interpreted in terms of whole books. Books of the Bible need to be interpreted in terms of the context in which they were written.

Context also matters in many other areas of life. Everything that happens, whether a thought, a political revolution, a work of art, or a new technology happens in a context. There are many dimensions to a context: social, political, cultural, historical, geographic, linguistic, and economic. When trying to understand a specific event important questions about the context of the event include:

How do you define the context of the event? Specifically, what dimensions to the context may be relevant to understanding the event?

To what extent does the specific context influence the specific event?

On the latter, there are two extreme views. I will call them universalist and determinist. A universalist will say the context does not really matter. A determinist will say that the context determines the event. 

These questions are relevant to issues in the philosophy of science. Consider Einstein's theory of special relativity. It occurred in the context of Einstein working in the Swiss patent office, a time of rapid social change with Europe heading towards world war I, the beginnings of the decline of modernism, new "relativist" perspectives in art (Picasso),... Universalists say the context is irrelevant. The theory is true, was developed on purely scientific grounds, and the only thing contextual about it is that its development required the brilliance of Einstein. The social constructivist view of science tends towards a determinist view. Although, that tends to mostly focus on the influence that the scientific community as a social entity has on the acceptance of theories.

Broadly, these questions are at the heart of one of the biggest and most contested questions in sociology: what is the relationship between human agency and social structures?

There are several reasons why I am interested in the question of context. One concerns the issue of contextual theology. Another motivation is to understand how contexts influence discussions of the relationship between science and theology. But, more on these topics later...