Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

Millenniums and Mandates

One of the key differences between amillennialism and postmillennialism is how they relate the economy of redemption to the economy of consummation. To put it differently, amillenialism and postmillenialism disagree on the relationship between the Great Commission and the cultural/creation mandate. This seems more or less to be the crux of the issue, at least at the dogmatic level (not necessarily at the exegetical level).

The issue works as follows. In Scripture, there are two basic projects: creation and reconciliation, or consummation and redepmtion. The project of creation is the original setup. You could say “Plan A,” ignoring for now the fact that God always knew and planned for everything else. In creation/consummation, God creates the world and humanity good but incomplete. They are both designed to bring Him glory and receive His grace, but man as God’s image is tasked with bringing this end to its fullness. Man is to take the raw goodness of God’s creation and fashion it into something greater and more beautiful, taking the world from glory to glory. This is what has been called the cultural mandate.

Of course, man’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate was almost immediately upset by sin. The Fall represented the introduction the intrusion of a foreign element, sin, into creation. Sin is diametrically opposed to God, the darkness to His light, and thus its introduction into humanity and the rest of creation prevents the complete fulfillment of the cultural mandate. While man can still advance the creation toward God’s glory to some extent by industry, art, language, and other products, the ubiquitous taint of sin will obscure the image. There will be dark spots, stains, and structural weaknesses at nearly every point. If the cultural mandate is to be fulfilled, sin and death must be removed from the world. This is the project of redemption. The work of Christ is the means by which sin is removed, restoring man to his proper status and role as God’s image.

The division between millennial views emerges here, at the intersection of creation and redemption. If redemption solves the problem of sin which interrupted the project of creation and consummation, then when does the creation project get back on track? The world still needs to go through the process for which it was intended: being brought by humanity from glory to glory in order to display the glory of God in as much fullness as creation can. When and how will this take place?

Amillennialism and postmillenialism answer this question differently. In amillennialism, the project of consummation cannot truly get back underway until the project of redemption is complete. As long as sin and death still exist, mankind will not really be able to fulfill the cultural mandate. Until humans are fully redeemed, the unredeemed elements of human culture will so poison the project as to make its effects null. Only once Christ returns and completes our redemption will we be able to move on and fully glorify creation as intended.

Postmillennialism offers a different answer. In postmillennialism, the projects of creation and redemption operate in parallel. As God redeems, He enables and calls forth the fulfillment of the cultural mandate. This means that the cultural accomplishments of redeemed man are not going to be perfect, since redemption is not yet perfected, but this can be improving in an ongoing way, and in the end purified when Christ returns. So in the time between the first and second advents, we are able to make real progress on both the Great Commission and the cultural mandate simultaneously. The atonement has not only brought redemption to the world, but in bringing redemption has put the work of consummation back in business.

This difference is basically why theonomists and Christian Reconstructionists are nearly all postmillennial. Their project assumes a degree of temporal unity between the two great projects. Work on creation and work on redemption can overlap and interlock. By contrast, this is why so many Reformed Baptists become amillennial but few become postmillennial. Baptist ecclesiology and anthropology tend to assume that the economy of consummation is entirely separate from the economy of redemption, and thus that the cultural mandate is mostly impossible to implement on a scale of any consequence before the Great Commission is finished and Christ returns.

Millenniums and Mandates

Wondering about Biblical Anthropology and African Kings

Here’s a post to get you all pondering the real meaning of Genesis.

I recently ran back across two odd little websites I had found a couple years ago, namely Just Genesis and Biblical Anthropology. The two blogs are run by Alice C. Linsley, an Orthodox Christian anthropologist. She is essentially on a one-woman project to correct bad interpretations of Genesis by studying the book from the perspective of anthropological study. She makes use of genetics, archaeology, studies in ancient mythology, and other such things to understood Genesis in a way which, she claims, is far more faithful to the text, the culture, and reality itself than the common approaches.

That said, Linsley has no interest in being a revisionist or progressive or liberal or whatever else. Her goal, as far as I can honestly ascertain, is simply to understand the Bible as God gave it. For example, in a welcome post to new readers of Just Genesis, she says:

People often say “I read the Bible, but I don’t understand it.” It is important to pray for wisdom before reading the Bible, seeking the Spirit’s guidance to understand and not misrepresent Scripture. People who insist on using Bible verses as ammunition in disagreements are not under the Spirit’s guidance. They are attempting to co-opt Scripture to serve their agenda.

Understanding the Bible requires looking at the material with fresh eyes. If you are attempting to force the material into a pre-conceived idea, you will never see the big picture. Outdated and erroneous interpretations are set aside when fresh eyes investigate the Scriptures. Biblical Anthropology is simply another tool to help us better understand God’s plan for humanity as it is revealed in the Bible. Biblical Anthropology does not rely on a single discipline, but rather seeks to understand by looking at how Biblical data aligns with findings in multiple sciences, including linguistics, DNA studies, anthropology, archaeology, and climate studies.

So, what’s so interesting about the way that Linsley reads Genesis? I won’t go into too much detail, but here are a few of her more notable claims:

  • The Hebrews of Genesis were actually the same as the Horites, a red-skinned, ruler-priestly clan who first originated in Saharan Africa, not Mesopotamia. In fact, much of Genesis 1-11 takes place in Africa, not Mesopotamia.
  • The genealogies of Genesis 4-5 are not simple birth genealogies, but Horite king lists, and this can be demonstrated on solid anthropological grounds.
  • Cain and Seth were Horite kings who married daughters of Enoch, another important African king.
  • Adam is therefore either a literary archetype for the father of the human race or perhaps a literal ancestor of the Horites.
  • Noah was an African king, and the Flood which affected his entire kingdom (colloquially the “whole world”) probably came from the Nile.

But perhaps the most interesting part of her project is the connection of Israel’s Messianic hope with the Egyptian religion of the Horites. According to Linsley, the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15 actually was originally understood as a kind of Messianic promise (contrary to the conclusions of many modern scholars). This hope was developed and carried on by the Horites (read: Hebrews), who in the early days worshipped God by the Egyptian name Ra and his Son by the name Horus. They anticipated a day when Horus would come and save them, perhaps by his death. (This amounts to an inversion of many secular Horus/Jesus theories: many accuse the Jesus story of robbing from old myths like of Horus, but Linsley basically argues that the Horus myth was the development of a divine promise which Jesus actually fulfilled.)

Honestly, I’m neither an anthropologist, nor an Old Testament scholar, nor a student of Ancient Near East history and culture (or, if Linsley is right, Nilo-Sarahic). So I have no clear way to judge the plausibility of her claims, and I do have to wonder why no one else has picked up on this if it’s actually true. Nonetheless, if there happens to be any truth to what she says, it would be massively important to interpreting Genesis. This makes me very curious, and I wish I could find someone scholarly enough to check on what she says. If anyone has leads on that, let me know. In the meantime, poke around and see what you think about Alice Linsley’s work.

Wondering about Biblical Anthropology and African Kings

Are We All God’s Children?

Are we all God’s children? In this case by “we” I don’t mean specifically Christians, but all people in all of the world. Is it true as some say that all people are children of God? The more pop-theology answer tends to be “yes,” whereas more theologically astute Christians usually tend to answer “no, only Christians are” though there are exceptions. But the best answers have never been quite so simplistic. We should recognize that there are multiple dimensions to the Fatherhood of God, and in fact I would present it as having three aspects in particular. Depending on what you mean, it can be right or wrong to call God “Father” of all people. So what are these three “fatherhoods?”

  • Creational fatherhood: In one sense, because God is the Creator all things He is also their Father. Paul says this while preaching to Greek thinkers in Acts, “as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ Since we are God’s offspring…” As a human father creates a child, so God created the world. (The fact that God creates the world as apart from Himself, rather than enclosing it within Himself like in panentheism, also makes it more true to speak of God’s role as Creator in terms of fatherhood than motherhood.) In this sense, God is Father of everyone and everything He has created. We should not make light of this. God is every bit as much love and every bit as generous in His creational fatherhood as in anything else.
  • Covenantal fatherhood: In another sense, God is specially regarded as Father in His covenant relationships. When God elects and establishes a covenant, He sets Himself up as Father to the newly elect. Of Israel God said, “Israel is my firstborn son,” (Exod. 4:22), and He later says when He makes a covenant with David, “You are my son: today I have begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). Likewise, He now calls those in the new covenant His children (Rom. 9:8). This is a more intimate use of the term “Father,” for in this case God is highlighting a special relationship of love, care, and obedience between God and His covenant partner.
  • New creational fatherhood: As God is Father to all He has created, He is also Father to all that He creates anew. There is a special sense in which those who are born again into the new creation are God’s children. Their new birth involves a change of parentage. They were once, by their sin, children of Satan, but now they are reborn into God’s family. John basically says everything we need to know about this sense of God’s fatherhood in 1 John 3:1-2.

    See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

    We should also understand, though, that in Christ this new creation is already accomplished for all people (John 5:29, 2 Cor. 5:19), even though not all have yet received it by faith in Him (Gal. 3:26). Not all will ever receive this new status as new creation children personally, but it objectively exists in Christ.

So from these three we can see that it can both be appropriate to speak of all people as God’s children and to speak specially of believers as God’s children. The one God is the one Father of all (Eph. 4:6), but it is also true that many are children of Satan rather than children of God (1 Jn. 3:8-10).

What we should see underlying all of this, however, is the eternal Father-Son relation of the Trinity. If anyone else is to be God’s child, it is first grounded in the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. It is is because Christ is the firstborn over all creation (Col. 1:15b) and the image in whom we were made (Col. 1:15a, cf. Gen. 1:27) that God is our Father creationally. Israel became God’s son, but their destiny was always defined by the coming of the only-begotten Son (Matt. 2:15). Of David and Solomon it was said that God became their Father, but Israel’s kings were only ever types of the one true Son and King (Heb. 1:5). And we are God’s children now, but only by union with Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26, Eph. 1:5). Thus it all comes back to Jesus. He is the Son of God, and no one else can claim any such honor except through Him. And in that way it is true both that all are God’s children in Christ, and yet we who believe alone are God’s children in Christ. May we live our lives with the goal of seeing these two groups become one!

Are We All God’s Children?

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

Once upon a time, the Twelve Apostles (including Matthias) came together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write the Apostles’ Creed as the core of Christian belief. At least, so the story goes. While historically it’s probably not true, it cannot be denied that the substance of the Apostles’ Creed goes way back. It was the first of the three ecumenical creeds accepted by all Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). It summarizes in very brief form the message of the Gospel as found in the New Testament.

So, given its importance, I’m going to so a series on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This first post will be on, naturally, the first article, of God the Father Almighty.

The Creed states as follows:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

It sounds simple enough. What do we learn from this?

First, we begin with “I believe.” The content of the Creed, the Gospel of the Triune God who has acted in and as Jesus Christ, is taken by faith. We do not now see Jesus. We do not have any way to verify with our own reasoning or arguments that Jesus truly was and did everything we believe about Him. There are reasons to believe, but not proof, and our mental hands are not forced by any logical necessity. We accept the content of the Creed by faith, the act of submitting our minds to God’s revealing His Son to us by His Spirit through His Word. We confess first that our attempts at proof and verification are, if not worthless, certainly inadequate, and so we have no other grounds that trust in the self-revealing God and His Word communicated in Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel.

Next, we see that God is first defined as “Father.” Unlike many confessions and works of theology or dogmatics, which initially identify God through creation, the Creed begins with His identity as Father. We know God as Father first because we know Him truly through the Son. As Athanasius once remarked, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” God is the Father of the Son before and apart from creation, and because He creates and recreates us by and in His Son, He makes Himself to be our Father as well. Because God’s being Father is ultimately first, and His position as Creator second, we know that God’s first and foremost intentions and regard for us are of fatherly love. Before God is anything else to us, He is the loving Father.

We also see that this Father is “almighty.” Note that this almightiness is connected, not to His role as Creator, but to His being the Father. This is essential for us to know: that God is not first merely all-powerful creator deity but that He is all-powerful precisely as our loving Father. In this we know that God’s almighty powers, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, are not against us or even simply neutral toward us, but rather act for us. God is the Almighty, the one who alone holds all power and knowledge and wisdom and immortality, and this almighty God is our Father. In this we can be assured of God’s gracious intention in His rule over all things. Whatever happens to us happens under the care of our almighty Father.

At this point the Creed adds that God is Creator, that He made the heavens and the earth. Only after we know that God is first and foremost Father, and that as Father He has almighty power, is it safe to consider that He is the Creator. Creation is an act of the loving Father out of His almightiness. We exist by His will alone. This puts a claim on us all. If He is Creator, than we depend on Him for every breath, and again this is a dependence in our Father. But we must therefore obey Him. Even our ability to disobey Him is something that exists by His creative power, and thus we are necessarily at His mercy in all we do. In this case it behooves us to live rightly before Him. And we can be assured, since the Creator is Father, that all He demands of us is truly good and that the world is so ordered under His creative will that obeying Him truly does bring us benefit.

Finally, we note that God is the Creator of both heaven and earth. It should strike us that both the earthly and the heavenly realms are creations. Heaven and earth are twin realities created by God, and both had a beginning. Heaven has not always existed, and is not God’s eternal home. Heaven is rather the invisible and spiritual side of the created order where God makes His throne from which to rule the earth. In heaven God’s fatherly will truly does reign and all things are ordered as they should be, and so heaven is the model and destiny of earth. We pray through Christ for the Father who created heaven and earth to make earth more like heaven until the day when the two will be united into one, just as the God of heaven and man of the earth have united in Christ Jesus.

As one final note, we see that all things whatsoever are included in heaven and earth, so that there is nothing outside of God which was not created by God. And since this Creator is Father, we know that everything which exists can only exist in relation to His fatherly care. Nothing could exist apart from the creative will of the God we know as Father. Therefore nothing exists except for our benefit as children. We also know that, as children, we are set to inherit all created things. For if the Son is the heir of the Father, and the Father has created all things, and we have been made sons in the Son, then we are the rightful heirs of creation. In the meantime we may use and enjoy all that is our Father’s in gratitude, and in the end all things belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

Apostles’ Creed: I Believe in God

N. T. Wright on the New Creation

The world is created good but incomplete. One day when all the forces of rebellion have been defeated and the creation responds freely and gladly to the love of its creator, God will fill it with himself so that it will both remain an independent being and also be flooded with God’s own life. This is part of the paradox of love, in which love freely given creates a context for love to be returned, and so on in a cycle in which complete freedom and complete love do not cancel each other out but rather celebrate each other and make one another whole.

N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope

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Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature

Science vs Scripture. Reason vs faith. Why is it that these things are so frequently pitted against each other? Well, it’s not really a mystery. Doctrines of old oppose new scientific theories. Faith holds to things which are often difficult to understand. So of course these conflicts will arise. Yet I want to hopefully add some clarity to issues like this. I will use a simple case study to explain my thoughts.

The perfect example of the science-vs-religion mentality is the debate between evolution and creationism. Science, they say, teaches evolution, and the Bible teaches special creation. One must be wrong. The Christians who agree with this embrace creation and say that science is wrong,  while the skeptics who agree with this embrace evolution and say that the Bible is wrong. The problem with this is that “science says” and “the Bible says” are both completely wrong ways of framing the issue.

I want to put before you the thought that scientific theories are to the natural world what doctrine is to Scripture. The natural world is a great part of reality, and Scripture is a collection of writings which claim to accurately represent reality. So the natural world is real and cannot be wrong in any meaningful way. Scripture could be wrong in theory, since it is not the reality itself but describes it. Scientific theories and doctrines are interpretations of nature and Scripture respectively, and they can easily be wrong. Let me elaborate on this a bit.

What is “science?” Science is defined as “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” The term is also used to refer to the entire body of knowledge which results from this enterprise. Now, evolution is a scientific theory. So let me be clear on something:

In science, “theory” does not mean “idea,” “guess,” or even “educated guess.”

To explain what a scientific theory actually is, I cite About.com:

A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. A theory is valid as long as there is no evidence to dispute it. Therefore, theories can be disproven. Basically, if evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, then the hypothesis can become accepted as a good explanation of a phenomenon. One definition of a theory is to say it’s an accepted hypothesis.

Evolution summarizes several hypotheses about genetics, speciation, and related topics. It has been supported with repeated testing that has accumulated supporting evidence. So it is a scientific theory. Now, the question still stands whether enough evidence has also accumulated to disprove it, so it might be an invalid theory (as I tend to think), but that’s not certain.

Now to move on to what “the Bible says.” See, what “the Bible says” must be interpreted. There are different interpretations of various issues in Scripture, and collected interpretations and the reasoning behind them are called “doctrine.” Of course, there are correct interpretations and wrong ones. So correct doctrine is what the Bible actually says, while if a doctrine is incorrect it is not what the Bible actually says. And since there is always the possibility that we have made a mistake, saying “the Bible says” on controversial issues isn’t always helpful. Instead, we can better judge issues by saying, “This doctrine says” and clarifying that there are good reason to believe this doctrine is an accurate understanding of Scripture.

Did all that make sense? I hope so, because I felt like I rambled a bit. Now, moving on. To nuance the controversy of evolution and creation, we have to speak in this way: “The scientific theory of evolution and the Biblical doctrine of creation are in disagreement.” (Also, when I say refer to the doctrine of creation here, I am including all Biblical doctrines which reject evolution, regardless of the earth’s age or other details.) From here, there are four major possibilities.

Possibility #1: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

In this case, since nature is simply part of reality and Scripture describes reality, Scripture must be wrong. This is the view of most atheists and other skeptics, along with some liberal Christians, but those of us who believe in the inerrancy (or even infallibility) of Scripture reject this option.

Possibility #2: The theory of evolution is a correct interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

With this position, evolution is true, and it is compatible with Scripture. It is simply interpretations of Scripture which forbid evolution which are wrong. This view is popular among liberal Protestants, most Catholics, and a handful of Evangelicals.

Possibility #3: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Most Evangelicals and all fundamentalists (but basically no one else) agree with this view, in which case evolution is entirely false and the Bible teaches creationism, which is true.

Possibility #4: The theory of evolution is an incorrect interpretation of nature, and the doctrine of creation is an incorrect interpretation of Scripture.

This is a novel possibility in which the prevailing understanding of evolution is wrong, but so is the traditional doctrine of creation. Instead, some other theory/doctrine is true. I don’t know of anyone in particular who believes this.

I should point out now that out of these four possibilities, only #1 actually denies the truthfulness of Scripture. All three of the other options allow for the authority of Scripture to speak. A lot of people are uncomfortable with #2, but it is still a legitimate possibility. I myself find #3 the most likely, though I admit #4 is a very interesting (if pretty unsubstantial) possibility.

Now, the point of all this isn’t mainly about creation and evolution. Like I said before, this is a case study for how we should look at these issues. Any time some element of science, history, or philosophy seems to oppose Christianity, we need to think this way. Identify the interpretations, lay out the possibilities, and figure out which one is most likely. Don’t be afraid to examine your doctrine, and don’t be afraid to challenge theories. Either could be right or wrong in any given debate. So be rational. That’s why God gave us brains, after all.

Theory and Doctrine: Interpretations in Scripture and Nature