Guest Review: God’s Good Earth

God's Good Earth

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, Jon Garvey. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books,

Summary: A biblical, theological, and scientific case for no fall of nature.

In this book, Jon Garvey, a retired medical doctor, challenges “some of the underlying assumptions now made in the discussion of natural evil, particularly within the evangelical Christian tradition, about what Christianity itself has taught on it, both from within its biblical foundation, and in its theological history.” (p. xvii) He presents “the true position of biblical and historic church teaching as clearly as possible.” (p. xviii) “It has to be a worthwhile goal to take an authentic view both of what science and Christian doctrine actually reveal about the world.” (p xix) “[T]he aim of this study is to point out that what happened to humankind in the garden did not spread to the rest of the world”. (p. 4)

In section one, Garvey surveys the relevant biblical material and showed that the Bible’s position is that the natural creation remains God’s servant, and has not become corrupted or evil because of human sin. This section included some interesting and new (at least to me) observations from Scripture supporting the case for an unfallen world by pointing out how good God’s creation actually is. Garvey concludes that neither the sin of humanity nor the corruption of the angelic powers is associated in Scripture with any major changes in nature.

The second section documents the history of “the doctrine of nature, with reference to the fall, through the past 2,000 years, to show how the balance shifted from a strongly positive view of the goodness of creation to a seriously negative one” (p. xix), including possible reasons why the traditional view rose to prominence around the sixteenth century. He includes a little more than I wanted to know about that history, but obviously believed it was important in order to make his point. Chapter 7, aptly titled “Creation Fell in 1517,” describes a profound reversal in the writings of the reformers. Garvey attributes at least some of this to the Greek Prometheus cycle, particular Pandora’s jar (aka Box), suggesting that natural evil flew out of a jar in a Greek myth, and not primarily from Christian Scripture at all. (p. 112) This section was well worth getting through for what came next.

In the third section, Garvey looks at natural evil as evidenced within the world itself and why nature is now so widely perceived as cruel and malevolent, when once it wasn’t. Garvey makes good use of his medical training and practice to frequently provide a fresh perspective on the usual arguments for “nature red in tooth and claw,” suggesting that they have been somewhat exaggerated. For instance, he completely discredits the claim that most animals suffer an agonizing death. Garvey proposes that “since evolution and the living world generally are found on close examination not to be steeped in selfishness at all, but overwhelmingly founded on cooperation and interdependence, human sin and selfishness may be seen for what they truly are—an aberration within God’s good creation.” (p. 146)

In the final section, he sketches out the differences it makes to Christian life and hope to accept either the traditional view that creation is tainted by the fall, or the view that it is not fallen. For instance, “one is much more likely to wish to preserve what one loves because it is God’s good handiwork, than if one views it as irretrievably corrupted by evil” (p. 199) There is also “the Christian hope engendered by the resurrection of Christ [in] the renewal of all things in heaven and earth, not their complete replacement . . .” (p. 199)

Finally, “This understanding will demand, for many of us, some fundamental readjustments of beliefs and attitudes, but we may take comfort in the fact that we are not, by making those changes, moving away from the faith of the Bible and the church of Christ, but closed back towards both.” (p. 202)

This book was written by a Christian layman, and it is suited for Christian laymen as well as anyone else interested in a fresh perspective on the fall of nature. I highly recommend it.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

the lost world of genesis one

The Lost World of Genesis OneJohn H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: Walton argues from our knowledge of the ancient cultures in Israel’s context that Genesis 1 is a functional account of how the cosmos is being set up as God’s temple rather than an account of material origins.

Some time back, I reviewed The Lost World of Adam and Eve, which is the sequel to this book. I thought it did one of the best jobs I’ve seen of showing how we must try to understand the book of Genesis as its recipients would have in their own cultural context, rather than trying to make it answer questions about origins in the light of the theories of Darwin and the evolutionary science that has developed over the last 150 years. I’ve always had the sense that we’ve been asking of the text of Genesis questions that neither the writer nor the inspiring Holy Spirit never intended to address. The question that remains is what does the early chapters of Genesis affirm? John H. Walton offers a strong argument that these were written out of a very different world view that was considering the cosmos not in terms of the causative factors in their material origins (although Walton is clear to attribute ultimate causation of and sustenance of the creation to God), but rather as an account of how God establishes the functions and places the functionaries in his cosmic temple over which he rules.

Several insights were particularly helpful. One was his demonstration that the cultures of Israel’s day looked at the world in terms of functional rather than material origins. With the rise of modern science we see the world very differently and this results in some of our difficulties in reading the Genesis texts. Also, he explains the seventh day rest of God, which always has seemed anti-climactic to me as in fact the climax of this account as God enters and sits down, as it were, on the throne of his cosmic temple and begins his rule over what he has set in place. Finally, there is the important implication that because this is not an account of material origins their need be no conflict between Genesis 1 (and indeed the chapters that follow as he argues in his sequel) and scientific accounts of origins as long as science does not try to address teleological questions and conclude there is no God.

As in the sequel, Walton develops his treatment of Genesis 1 as a series of propositions. The chapter titles will give you a sense of the flow of his argument:

Prologue
Introduction
Proposition 1: Genesis One Is Ancient Cosmology
Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented
Proposition 3: “Create” (Hebrew bara’) Concerns Functions
Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis One is Non-Functional
Proposition 5: Days One Through Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions
Proposition 6: Days Four Through Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries
Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is In a Temple
Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple
Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration
Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins
Proposition 11: “Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face-Value Exegesis
Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough
Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature
Proposition 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer are Less Different Than We Have Thought
Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose
Proposition 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable
Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker
Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose
Summary and Conclusions

Walton, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, contends that this reading of scripture that takes the cultural-historical context of Genesis seriously is in fact the most faithful to an evangelical doctrine of scripture. It does not start from the questions we want to ask, but asks what truths the text was affirming, first for its original readers, and only then for us. He argues that his approach can take the text at face value rather than needing to apply the hermeneutical gymnastics of those who try to reconcile Genesis and scientific accounts. The result is one that explains away neither scripture nor science.

I also think he makes wise recommendations about public science teaching needing to be neutral about metaphysical questions, excluding both atheist and creationist agendas from the classroom. Whether scholars agree with Walton in all the particulars (and some consider his denial of ancient near east culture interest in material origins in the Genesis text over-emphasized) Walton offers a proposal that defuses, at least from the Christian side, the perceived warfare between science and faith. It seems that there are many concerns from the care of creation to the alleviation of suffering in which both Christians and all thoughtful scientists may make common cause rather than be adversaries. Would that it were so.

Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.

Review: The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science

The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science
The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science by Christopher C. Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the challenges for anyone who is a theist is how to explain God’s interaction with the physical world. Of particular concern is explaining the “miraculous” or the “supernatural.” Classically, God’s interaction with the world has been described in terms of “general” and “special” providence. General providence is his work in and through the “laws of nature” established in his creative work. Special providence refers to his “interventions” in the miraculous, and perhaps also to God’s work through intercessory prayer.

These kinds of “breaking in” events are problematic to scientists committed to the regularity of the natural order. For some who retain a belief in God, the response has been to maintain some sort of theistic naturalism, which often seems to incorporate miracles into God’s creation instructions. The difficulty is that this is hard to distinguish from deism, the idea of a clockwork universe that God has wound up and set running.

Christopher C. Knight explores this landscape and seeks to provide a different framework that would see the miraculous as a “breaking out” or “breaking through” a fallen creation where God is working within to restore and fulfill his purposes. Key to his thinking is the Incarnation and an understanding of that which draws heavily on Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly its understanding of the logos, in and through whom creation came to exist and is sustained. God is a continuing “primary cause” of all that occurs in nature even if scientists may only have access to “secondary” causes. Because of the fall, sometimes God’s activity consists in breaking out or through the grime of the fall to restore and fulfill his purposes, supremely in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.

This seems to me to be an intriguing proposal but one about which I have some questions. In taking this stance, Knight identifies his position of “incarnational naturalism” with panentheism, the idea that all that exists is in God (rather than pantheism, which says that all is God). While panentheism seems an attractive alternative to classical theism which emphasizes the distinction or transcendence of God vis a vis the creation, I think it means giving up some essential and distinctively Christian truths. If all the creation is in God, then in some sense evil is as well. And if God is identified with this then salvation is not a Holy God acting on behalf of a fallen world in redemption but rather God and the world striving together to attain God’s creation purposes. Furthermore, I am concerned with the reality that panentheism may collapse into eastern pantheism or into some form of universalism, which I do detect at points in Knight’s writing, particularly in his pyschological-referential account of revelatory events which seems to put other revelatory experiences on a par with Christian revelation. [I will note that for me this account was the most difficult to understand part of the book.]

What I found of value was that, classically we have spoken of God being both transcendent and immanent, but often seem to be at a loss to reconcile how God is immanent with the laws of nature. I would argue that one needn’t resort to panentheism to argue for the incarnational naturalism Knight contends for. The presence of the Logos in his creation that reaches fulfillment in Jesus, the God-man is fully consonant with the biblical narrative and an understanding of God who is both transcendent and immanent.

The book is closely written and assumes a certain familiarity with historical theology both Eastern and Western. Chapter 15, titled “A New Understanding” serves as a good recapitulation and summary of his argument that was helpful to me in pulling it all together. Before his “Afterword” he includes a chapter on intercessory prayer within the model he proposes.

While I take issue with the panentheism this author proposes, I believe his efforts to draw upon Eastern Orthodox thought, his thinking about the incarnation, and his effort to propose a “non-interventionist” explanation for miracles needs to be considered in the ongoing dialogue about faith and science and is a worthy addition to Fortress Press’s “Faith and the Sciences” series.

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