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Creation? Which Creation?

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November 15, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins
Creation? Which Creation?

Today's entry was written by Thomas Burnett. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

The “evolution versus creation” debates are a tired, worn-out, unproductive subject. Those who like to take sides and fight it out tend to portray the opposing view (and sometimes their own) in simplistic, monolithic terms, turning it into a straw man before demolishing it. However, those who study science in any depth know that it is richly textured, highly nuanced, and awe inspiring. Different scientific disciplines—such as paleontology and genetics—examine different kinds of evidence, apply their theories in a variety of ways, and arrive at a range of conclusions, all of which make for exciting banter at conferences and in academic literature. Evolutionary theory, in whatever discipline you encounter it, is a fun and lively topic.

On the other hand, the creation of the world described in scripture is commonly regarded as brief, superficial, and inflexible. Once they’ve read the first three pages of the Bible, most people think they’ve understood it. But if we were to give any scientific topic the same cursory treatment, it would be laughable to think we could draw any conclusions from it.

To make any sense of scripture beyond a crass caricature, one needs to examine it with the same patience and tenacity that one approaches science. It also helps to have a highly developed intellectual toolset: knowledge of ancient languages, ancient history, archaeology, and philosophy. Few people these days have mastered these academic domains, which is partly why we hear such wildly differing claims about creation. While it’s true that some messages of the Bible can be understood by a child, other parts remain opaque unless we are willing to conduct some intense inquiry.

Obviously, most of us don’t have time to learn Hebrew and Mesopotamian history. But neither do we have time to study partial differential equations and quantum mechanics, and that doesn’t stop us from learning and appreciating modern science. For complex topics, we turn to experts who share with us the results of decades of research.

Scientists are skeptical of biblical scholars who are woefully ignorant of contemporary science. If they have such an impoverished understanding of nature, what reason do we have to trust them in spiritual matters? The best response to this challenge is for scholars to become versed in both natural science and theology in order to speak the language of their audience and earn their respect. Professor William P Brown of Columbia Theological Seminary has taken this path in his new book The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. He puts the scientifically-informed reader at ease by revealing his understanding of modern science and his fascination with its discoveries. Then he proceeds to impart his knowledge of antiquity to make sense of highly contentious passages in scripture.

In addressing the subject of creation, Brown contends that there is not one story but seven contained in the sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The books of Genesis, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah each provide unique perspectives of the natural world. Together, they offer a dynamic, robust depiction of the natural world, one filled with awe and wonder. What follows is a brief taste of each.

Genesis 1:1-2:3

Since this narrative appears first in the Bible, it is the most common and well-recognized creation account. Very austere in its tone, it reveals a transcendent God who stands separate from his works. But even here, the cosmos is not a static, passive receptacle made from purely supernatural causes. Instead, waters “produce swarms of living beings” and the earth “brings forth living beings”. Here, God is not a magician performing tricks, but one who empowers a productive, dynamic world.

Image credit: USFWS Pacific

Genesis 2:4-3:24

In contrast to the transcendent God in the first account, this one is like a gardener and potter who shapes a “drama of dirt”. The narrative focuses on “an inhospitable field of clay”, in which God is a responsive participant in his creation. The Adam in this account is made from dirt, as are the other “wild animals and winged creatures”. Made from the same basic substance as his fellow animals, this Adam—in addition to bearing the Imago Dei—also reflects Imago Terrae, the image of the earth.

Job 38-41

More than Genesis or anywhere else in the Bible, the book of Job provides the longest account of the natural world. And nowhere does it mention man’s dominion. God gives Job a tour of creation—wild, diverse, and powerful—and Job discovers that the world does not revolve around him, or even around humanity as a whole. Instead, God tells Job, “Behold Behemoth, which I made with you,” and also says that Behemoth was the “first” or “best” of God’s works. Brown draws an intriguing parallel between Job’s journey and Darwin’s tour on the Beagle, in which both of them encountered creatures that filled them with awe.

Image Credit: Jen Bowman

Psalm 104

This psalm provides a vibrant, celebratory account of the interplay between God and nature. Like in Job, humans play a marginal role in the narrative. Absent is any sense of human dominion—God himself continuously cares for creation. The natural world depicted here is fully good, with one exception—ourselves. Of all the species described here, humans are the only species that the psalmist wishes would “cease from the earth” and “be no more”.

Proverbs 8:22-31

A central theme in Psalms and Proverbs is the acquisition of wisdom, a process that is open-ended, ongoing, and never finished. Wisdom is a fundamental tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition and is one reason why Christian intellectuals have been a part of modern science since its very beginnings. Proverbs 8 makes clear the priority and importance of wisdom in God’s world. In fact, wisdom existed prior to the creation of the cosmos: “Before YHWH made the earth abroad, and the first clods of soil, when he established the heavens, [Wisdom] was there” (v26-27). Could wisdom actually exist prior to the inception of the physical universe? Certainly not within a purely materialistic philosophy, but according to scripture, “[Wisdom] was YHWH’s delight day by day, playing before him every moment, playing with his inhabited world, delighting in the offspring of Adam.” In the order of creation, wisdom comes first.


Ecclesiastes resonates well with 20th century existentialism and the somber predictions of science. Rather than describe the origin of the cosmos, Ecclesiastes focuses on the futility of life and its inevitable end: “the sun darkens, even the light, as well as the moon and the stars” (Ecc 12:2). Humans toil like animals and die, returning to the dust from which they were born. Chance and random events appear to govern life: “The race does not belong to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the bread to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful, for time and accident befall them all” (9:11-12). According to the author, the highest goals that people can aspire to are “to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him” (5:18), something that you would never expect to hear from a religious text. On the other hand, it is a very accurate description of what we often experience on our planet.

Isaiah 40-55

Isaiah contrasts sharply with Ecclesiastes. Whereas the latter admonishes, “There is nothing new under the sun,” Isaiah tells Israel that God has not abandoned them, and that he continues the process of creation:

“I will open rivers on the bare heights, and foundations in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the pine
I will set in the desert the fir tree, the plane and the cypress together” (41:18-20).

This is not the work of a distant God who only “intervenes” in supernatural displays, but an active God who shapes the world through natural forces and enables it to blossom and thrive. This God values not only life itself, but its great diversity. The seven different trees in this passage—from the desert acacia to the mountain cedar—represent dramatically varied species and habitats. In Isaiah, creation is not just a six day event, but a continuous process of renewal.

Image Credit: Thomas Burnett

Now we have completed William B. Brown’s tour of the seven models of creation found in scripture. Alone, each is incomplete and subject to misinterpretation, which we frequently hear in popular discourse. But together as a whole, these biblical accounts of creation present a remarkably rich depiction of the physical world, and an even richer depiction of human history and identity. If there is going to be productive dialogue between scientific and religious communities, it requires us to sit down and learn about topics with which we are unfamiliar. Brown’s book offers the reader an opportunity to learn about the richness of scripture itself, as well as see how modern scientific research can enhance, rather than detract from, our understanding of creation accounts.

Top image credit: AgnosticPreachersKid/ Dandelion image credit: Metro Tiff

Thomas is a former BioLogos Associate Editor. He currently works in science communications at the National Academy of Sciences, and he has also worked with the American Scientific Affiliation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has degrees in philosophy and the history of science from Rice University and University of California, Berkeley.

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eddy - #66075

November 15th 2011

“Evolutionary theory, in whatever discipline you encounter it, is a fun and lively topic.

On the other hand, the creation of the world described in scripture is commonly regarded as brief, superficial, and inflexible.”

I am nitpicking both statements by the author as I believe the entire thesis of this post  is well summarized by these two lines. It nowadays seems as if Christian theologians at universities and seminaries are put under pressure to make Christian theology a robust academic and research discipline,  modeled after how the natural sciences are practiced in their respective research units, and consequently theologians wish to do a lot of theorizing with the bible and the results come out in the form many various theories about theology—and The Seven Pillars of Creation is one of these. 

It is not clear why theologians are put under pressure this way. Now, I understand they would love to make Theology “a fun and lively topic” as much as Evolutionary theory “is”, but is it? If you want to pity the straight creation story out of the bible as boring would you really want to do  it against the evolutionary theory? A standard story-line of evolutionary theory—that life today with all its physical and behavioral features, are a result  of competition with other variants and surviving the odds of eons, and every institution or person must support the idea to be considered credible and noteworthy is hardly an enchanting and fun topic. It is just as rigid and inflexible as the straight biblical concept that the life today is very intelligently created.  It is really distressing to see theologians disowning their own story as boring. And far  from worrying ourselves about whether the ideas are fun and entertaining, we should strive to care to know about whether certain ideas are true. And if it is really true that life is created just as Genesis says does it matter about whether we need to hold a conference to debate Genesis?   

beaglelady - #66076

November 15th 2011

I am nitpicking both statements by the author as I believe the entire thesis of this post  is well summarized by these two lines.

You have entirely missed the meaning of this essay.

aaronwagner7000 - #66078

November 15th 2011

I cannot WAIT to read Brown’s book. But this post was so great in itself that I may not need to! 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66085

November 16th 2011

I have two observations.

The first is a question.  Why are Christians focused exclusively on OT concepts of Creation and cosmology, when there is a great NT view in John 1?

Second, Ecclesiastes with its bad theology does closely mirror Darwinist atheism, even to saying that life is empty of meaning.  Why don’t theologians focus on the bad theology of Darwinism, rather than trying to make it into bad science? 

Merv - #66088

November 16th 2011

Roger, you make a good point that they shouldn’t overlook other important (N.T.) passages.  I think it also important to remember that the Word of God, who walked and spoke with us in the flesh 2000 years ago, also spoke with reverence about the law and the prophets—quoting passages written by such sinners as David (maybe Solomon too, though I don’t have any example in mind of the latter.)  But my point is, I wouldn’t write off any O.T. book as “bad theology” because I don’t think Christians have license to do that.  Taking any snippet out of a book and treating it as the “last word” (e.g.  eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth;  or  “life is meaningless”) may be an example of doing bad theology, but that is a function of a limited reader, not a defective book.  I think Ecclesiastes adds a very rich texture to our theological traditions and should not be ignored.  It validates our present day struggle with the very same questions—ones that plagued the wisest man on earth and still haunt great thinkers today.

I also share some reaction with Eddy above, that the title of the book referenced could sound like new defective theology.  “The Seven Pillars…” sounds like some new closed doctrine that would shut out other passages and ideas.  But judging from the content of this post, I’m pretty sure this would be an unfortunate misjudgment.  These are great insights shared here from other parts of Scripture that we neglect.  Brown’s work (title notwithstanding) looks to be very beneficial.  Thanks for sharing it in this excellent post.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66090

November 16th 2011


It is not I who points to the bad theology of the Treacher.  It is the coda of the book itself, Eccl 12:13. 

The Teacher ends the book with the words, “Vanity of vanities, All is vanity.”  Eccl. 12:8  This is also the way he begins the book, Eccl 1:2, so this is not cherry picking.  Are these words true?     

Merv - #66091

November 16th 2011

Certainly I’m not suggesting that such a sentence taken by itself is ultimately true (even in a concluding position at the end of a work).  To take it as such would be bad theology.  But that is part of my point above.  I’m thinking of “theology” in a broader context; as more than just a collection of facts.  So while the teacher may be expressing and point to despair in his writings, this is different than passing blanket judgment on the entire spiritual worth of his work.  I think I’m agreeing with you that Ecclesiastes by itself would be not only inadequate but a vacant theology.  But Ecclesiastes is not by itself.  Indeed some ancient editor even added a fitting conclusion to the book itself.  And even so, the whole book makes an important contribution to the canon.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66095

November 17th 2011


We are certainly in agreement that we must look at the whole of the Bible and not just certain verses or sections to understand its meaning.

I hope that you will agree that we can learn from the mistakes that people in the Bible have made, even people like Moses, David, and Peter.  We can learn from the bad theology of the “comforters” of Job, which was repudiated by God, even though its takes up much of the text.  

The mistake of the Teacher was to accept the cyclical view of time which was the basis of classical pagan Wisdom thinking, as opposed to the Jewish covenantal linear view of time.  The book points to the inadequate basis of philosophy for right thinking by its false teaching and bad example.  It is up to us to learn from this mistake, not to defend it as right as some seem to do.    

HornSpiel - #66089

November 16th 2011

Thanks for the encouragement to reread these passages in light of their being creation accounts. “Creation accounts” though must not be misunderstood as origin stories, which the Genesis accounts are. Rather they are reflections (for want of a better word) on the Creator and his creation.

Certainly the references to “the foundations of the earth” (Job 38:4, Ps 104:5, Prov 8:29, Is 48:13) really do make sense when we understand and accept Ancient Near East cosmology. Twisting these passages to conform somehow to our modern ideas simply distracts us from the point.

I found the long Isaiah passage particularly revealing reading it as a whole unit in this way. It really is held together by the theme of God as creator, not only of the earth but also of Israel, which is the main point. I loved the thought that God is continuing to create and recreate for the good of His people.

Ecclesiastes does stand in sharp relief to the other texts It really does conjure up the image of puny man shaking his fist at a big inscrutable god.

As you do not know the path of the wind,
or how the body is formed in a
mother’s womb,
so you cannot understand the work of God,
the Maker of
all things.

Ecclesiastes 11:5
Funny how we might actually think that we do understand these specific things. Certainly we know a lot more than the wisest of Solomon’s time did. However :

When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night—
[sound like a Scientist’s life?]
then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on
under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot
discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot
really comprehend it.

Ecclesiastes 8:16–17
Solomon’s counsel still applies. Though our understanding has multiplied, we cannot think we understand all. As soon as we think we have things figured out, something comes along that rocks the boat. It does not invalidate our knowledge, it just reminds us that creation always holds deeper mysteries.  Answering questions always opens up new questions to the inquiring mind. This is how it should be.

It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.

Proverbs 25:2
Jon Garvey - #66097

November 17th 2011

Dear me - here are people saying that one of the books that’s helped most to mature my faith, and been of great pastoral benefit to others, is “a mistake”. I agree with Merv that Ecclesiastes provides a vital part of the message of Scripture, and deny that it’s in any way out of sync with covenant theology.

But you do need to read it carefully. What does the preacher say is vanity (and what exactly does he mean by that)? And what does he studiously NOT include as vanity?

My conclusion is that Ecclesiastes is the best commentary on the nature of the fall that you’ll find in the Bible, which is why it in turn is the source for Paul’s own commentary in Romans 8.  Anybody interested in pursuing this could do worse than consulst thesmall  series of Bible studies by my good friend Tim McMahon (http://trade.ivpbooks.com/9781876326326).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66101

November 17th 2011


The Teacher clearly says that “All is vanity,” and I assume that all means all.  Now if you want to add “Everything under the sun” to exclude God, that is fine. 

Vanity means “empty” of meaning and purpose.  Now if Paul used the Teacher as a model of fallen humanity, that is good choice, but do most people think that Solomon was outside the people of God?  If he was outside the pale, then my understanding of his philosophy would seem to be on target.       

Jon Garvey - #66102

November 17th 2011


(1) “All” is a word that, even in English, is contextually defined. You ought not

to assume that “all means all” because it seldom does in the Bible, or in English. For example: “All the world world has gone after him”, “The gospel that has gone out to all the world,” “Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that all the world should be taxed.”

(2) Yes, God is excluded by the “under the sun” qualification. But by the same token that phrase restricts vanity to what is on earth, the domain of mankind. What wise man does not notice the absurdity of fallen humanity’s endeavours? And yet the seriousness with which God still deals with his self-important image-bearer?

(3) Paul does not cite the Teacher as a model in Romans 8 at all. If you look it up you’ll see that he does talk of God subjecting the creation to vanity (mataiotes, the same Greek word used to translate Hebrew “hebel” in LXX of Ecclesiastes. That verbal correlation would not be lost on Greek speaking Bible readers, since Ecclesiastes is far and away the most common source of that word in Scripture.

(4) Solomon is considered unlikely to be the author of Ecclesiastes for a bunch of reasons, which does not undermine its inspiration because its theological point is to represent the viewpoint of the man who has it all, does it all and yet is wise enough to examine it all. In other words, mainstream OT wisdom theology in the tradition of Job (also pseudoepigraphic).

(5) Since when has what “most people think” about the spiritual status of an author had any force as an argument? Scripture itself is pretty equivocal, making him on one hand the wisest king of his age by God’s gift, and the initial beneficiary of the Davidic covenant, as well as the ancestor of Messiah. It has three canonical books that bear his name, and at least one psalm. On the other, it is outspoken on his shortcomings. Does that put him outside the people of God? In Ecclesiastes, the appeal is to his wisdom, which is not disputed anywhere in the Bible, unlike his conduct.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66108

November 18th 2011


Maybe we are looking at the wrong place in Paul’s writings.

It seems to me that Solomon best represents the Wisdom of humanity as opposed to the Foolishness of God.  (1 Cor 1:18- through 2)

Merv - #66110

November 18th 2011

I’ve just begun reading John Piper’s book “Think” in which he insists that it has been a mistake for modern [mainly American] Christians to try to separate Hellenistic “Pagan” influences out from Hebrew (now Christian) understandings as if logic or human reason have no place in the Hebrew / Christian traditions.  Piper sites two passages (Luke 10:21 about God hiding things from the wise & revealing to the simple…) along with the Pauline passage you site as being two of the main shaky pillars erected in the cause of anti-intellectualism.  He argues that these have been misunderstood, and are calls to humility in our thoughts, not as calls to abandon rigorous thought.  Now I know, Roger, from your other posts that you too would agree we shouldn’t abandon the intellect—and I don’t think you would misappropriate these Scriptures in that way.  Nevertheless some things you bring up deserve more delving—If I can add to Jon’s challenges.

Do you agree that passages can be pulled out of nearly any book of the Bible that, taken by themselves, would make for inadequate theology?  Are the only valuable parts of the O.T. ones that are now revealed as explicitly messianic?  Is the book of Esther to be tossed?  What about many of the Psalms—some being blatantly evil?  Don’t you agree that Scripture is impoverished if we begin taking a scissors to any passages that we have trouble fitting into our personal theologies?  With Jon, I have to say Ecclesiastes contains a lot of gems, and even a web of thought that is fairly unique to most of Scripture, and all the more valuable for that.

You also raised one other point earlier about the teacher erroneously couching history in pagan cyclical time rather than Jewish linear time.  This is a timely argument for this setting since it reveals our how our “modern” controversy over the development and activities of the earth were already being observed as such even by the ancients.  By accepting deep time (if indeed you do), you have already accepted many cyclical or periodic/episodic views of history (billions of years is indistinguishable from eternity in any practical sense).  We can see a linearity in terms of the climactic appearance of Christ.  But of the workings of nature, it would seem the teacher in Ecclesiastes was prescient.  Nobody insists that he had it all together.  David certainly didn’t—but thank God for the Psalms; cursings, blessings, exhortations, and all.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66111

November 18th 2011


Thank you for your response.

Unfortunately we know that people use good ideas for wrong purposes.  The Bible is not anti-intellectual and neither was Paul.  However there are important differences between the Hebrew worldview and the Greek. 

People who advocate a simplistic world view do not understand the Biblical Hebrew worldview which is very subtle, logical,  and sophisticated.  Westerners which means all of us are subject to a basically Greek dualistic point of view.

I wrote a book, The GOD Who RELATES, trying to explain how Hebrew Biblical world view is relational or covenantal.  The Teacher has a different non-covenantal, cyclical point of view, as the coda so notes.  To me it is important to understand this fact.  How you interpret it is a matter of discussion.

I would not separate nature from history as you seem to do.  That is large part of the problem we have in the conflict between faith and evolution.        



beaglelady - #66112

November 18th 2011

Excellent post, Merv.

Don’t you agree that Scripture is impoverished if we begin taking a
scissors to any passages that we have trouble fitting into our personal

You know, that’s just what Thomas Jefferson did!  He literally took a pair of scissors to a Bible and cut out the parts that didn’t conform to his Deistic beliefs.  Many miracles ended up on the cutting room floor.

Also, at our Theology at St Thomas class we are studying heresies.  The proponents of each heresy seem to selectively pick and choose passages of Scripture that support their views and ignore all the rest. 

Merv - #66113

November 18th 2011

Thanks, beaglelady.  I was thinking of Jefferson too as I was typing the phrase.

Roger, you’ve almost got me sold on buying your book to take in your full thesis regarding Hebrew covenantal/relational view of the world.  Of course, being the cheapskate that I am—if I can keep baiting you to write more here, then I can read your thoughts for free on this blog site.  In any case I think I’m already sold (along with you) on the primacy of relational theology.  I just don’t yet see how all Hellenistic thought or logic need be seen as so antithetical to that [relational theology].  As to your last comment—I didn’t mean to imply that history and nature were separate categories, though I can see how what I wrote goes in that direction.  Thanks for calling me on it, and I’ll try to clarify.  Our theology needs to incorporate [or at least not nay-say] truths revealed in creation.  So to the extent that ancient peoples were mistaken about the mechanics of the cosmos, we and our theology now benefit from truer understandings of those things since, as you say, these are not separate.  The teacher seemed to have a leg up on his biblical peers, maybe *because* of his willingness to consider the pagan wisdoms of his times, or at least not dismiss them as he pondered creation itself.  Truth, after all, remains truth no matter the source [which will ultimately be God, anyway].  The fact that Jesus or early church fathers never dismiss such writings speaks volumes, I think.  It is like being given permission to think “outside” the Hebrew box with regard to Scriptural things.  Won’t you at least agree that the world doesn’t come with neatly packaged cultures and civilizations where one must be considered all “good” and another entirely without any merit or contribution?    I guess I’m just trying to see if I can knock you off your “Greek = Bad  &  Hebrew = right about everything”  horse.  But then again, you wrote a book about it and I didn’t.  Maybe I’d better attend to my own saddle grip!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66125

November 19th 2011


Thank you for your comments.

It seems that I need to make some clarifications.  First it is not a question of Hebrew thought being good and Greek being bad.  After all most Jews rejected Jesus as did many philosophers.

Greek philosophy has its place, as does Hebrew thinking.  The ancient and medieval fathers brought them both together, which among other things made modern science possible, even though non-believers will never acknowledge this.

Where we stand today is that this fusion of Hebrew and Greek thinking is no longer an adequate basis for understanding the world we live in.  Let us call it Western dualism.  It has broken down into two schools of thought, absolutist Modernism to which most fundamentalists subscribe and relativist Postmodernism to which most others subscribe.

Both of these have strong roots in Greek thought, but neither is a viable alternative for understanding today’s and tomorrow’s Reality.  I have found the only viable alternative to be relational thinking which is based clearly in Biblical understanding, which is the way it should be, don’t you agree.

What is the basis for your understanding of relational theology?  People use the phrase, but there does not seem to be much written about it.  If you can’t afford my book, I will be glad to send it to you, but you will have to contact me to tell me where to send it.            


Merv - #66126

November 19th 2011

and thanks for your continued replies as well!  Regarding your book, thanks for the offer; I’m not so hard up that I can’t get it off Amazon. 

I have assumed that the phrase ‘relational theology’ is a nice caption for placing a higher (highest) priority on knowing a personal God in a personal way as one knows a friend, spouse, or other family member.  The catch phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know” also seems catch some of this same spirit, which I also take to be a needed antidote for those who wish to dwell on doctrinal checklists.  As important as some “right facts” are (you couldn’t very well relate to your wife if you thought you couldn’t trust her or if you thought she didn’t exist)—nevertheless you don’t wake up each morning and go over a checklist of what everybody in your family knows or believes to see if they qualify to remain in your family that day.  That’s what I have packed into that phrase, not because I’ve researched it; but just because it captures so well a solid Biblical foundation of how we related with (abide in) Christ.  I already resonate pretty well with what you say on these things.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66127

November 19th 2011


I certainly agree with you concerning a personal God and personal relationships.  This seems to be a problem with scientists who insist that reality is impersonal.  It also seems to be a problem with philosophers and some philosophically minded theologians who say that God is beyond Personhood.

So that is an important part of it, but it goes beyond that by saying that since God is Personal, that is Relational, Reality also is or should be relational.  This also goes in hand with the concept of the Logos as Jesus Christ, Who is also a Person, as opposed to the philosophical logos which was impersonal.

If that is the thesis, that reality is all its aspects is to some degree relational, what backs up this view?  First of all E = mc2.  

Second, knowledge is relational.  If knowledge is real, or accurate, then it must reflect to some degree the nature of reality it describes. 

Thus relational thinking goes beyond a personal relationship with God to a dynamic relationship with God’s people and God’s universe.  The universe is not mechanistic, it is relational. 


James R - #66132

November 20th 2011


I agree with you about the positive historical role of the fusion of Greek and Hebrew thinking.  And it wasn’t positive only with regard to modern science; it was positive with regard to ethics, politics, and general culture. 

However, you lose me when you say that the synthesis of Greek and Hebrew thought is no longer adequate, and need to be replaced by a purely “Biblical” understanding.  If you take the “Greek” element out, and rely upon the Bible alone, you have—to give only a few examples—a domed sky where rain falls from windows in the roof; no natural science; a morality which tends to be equated with pure obedience to commands rather than with inward character; a history and politics that is parochial and Israel-centered.

It’s unfortunate that so many theologians of the last 100 years have spent their time bashing the Greeks as if the Greek element in Christian thought and culture was a problem, rather than an asset.  The Greek element helped to translate the Biblical teachings so that the local and often intellectually crude Semitic idiom could be universalized for the educated, thoughtful people of every culture.  I know of no comparable translational capacities of modern philosophy.  In fact, modern philosophy’s presuppositions are mostly an acid to any form of religious faith.

I am not defending any particular “Greek” details of any theological system (e.g., Thomism) here.  What I am saying is that the universalism of Greek thought is something we should be getting back to, not walking even further away from.  I think that German and Anglo-American theological thought, with its incessant cry that we need to be more “Biblical,” has been walking in exactly the wrong direction for 100 years now.  It represents an intellectual parochialism, as opposed to an intellectual cosmpolitanism.  We need what we have always needed:  an intelligent way of articulating Biblical thought so that its truth and relevance can be understood by all people, including people for whom the history of the Moabites has no conceivable interest.  And the Greek philosophical tradition remains unsurpassed in its ability to move people from the parochial to the universal.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66134

November 20th 2011

James R

Thank you for your comments.

If you generalize and say that Hebrew thought starts from the speciifc and moves to the general, while Greek thought starts from the universal and moves to the specific, you could make a good case for the benefits of Greek thought.

It seems to me that at the time of Jesus Greek and Hebrew thought were at a stalemate.  Both had advantages and disadvantages and saw the other in a very negative light as you indicated from the Greek side. 

Greek philosophy did not accept the Creation.  It maintained that the universe was eternal.  Science accepted the assumption that the universe was eternal, or at least it did not have a theory on how the universe began until the Big Bang theory.  Since then some scientists have worked to overthrow the Big Bang theory or displace it as story of the beginning of the universe with the multiverse concept or Roger Penrose’s new theory.  Penrose is a Platonist.

I think that many liberal theologians are confusing modern relativism with Biblical relational thought.  Since “relative” and “relational” are cognates, I can see some basis for this confusion, but they are two very different points of view.  Liberals, who do this, are doing what conservatives are doing, allowing their modern world views dictate their understanding of the Bible. 

If you are really interested in avoiding this intellectual trap, I suggest that you also get and read my book, The GOD Who RELATES.      

James R - #66138

November 20th 2011


Thanks for your reply.

I have no stake in either the Big Bang theory or in modern criticisms of it.  As for whether or not Penrose is a Platonist, I couldn’t say, because I haven’t read his work, but many people are called Platonists who in fact have only a very imperfect understanding of Plato’s thought. 

Aristotle thought the universe was eternal.  Plato did not pronounce on the question, but he did give a hypothetical account of a created universe, one which was taken by many ancient Platonists and by most if not all Christian commenters as his real view.  Whether it was his real view is a matter for Plato scholars to debate.  In any case, it reinforced the Genesis account in Western minds. 

I have no comment, positive or negative, on “relational” theology as such.  My only point was that it is very odd to say that the Greek-Christian synthesis has outlived its usefulness, and that we need a new theology for the 21st century, when most of our modern problems have come from abandoning that synthesis, not from any inherent flaws in it.  German theologians, Anglo-American Biblical scholars, fundamentalists, and evangelicals have all joined hands in denouncing Greek thought in general and Plato in particular over the past 100 years—and have you noticed that theology has become more orthodox, or that society has become either more ethical or more Christian during that period?  If so, such developments have escaped my notice.

I’m not a theological liberal, so I’m not caught in any “trap” such as that to which you refer, but if you like, I will recommend your book to any liberals that I meet.  However, your usage of “conservative” is a modern usage.  I agree with you that modern conservatives are often merely the flip side of modern liberals.  But modern conservatives are not true conservatives, and the reason that they are not true conservatives is that have jettisoned the Greek component of Christian thought.  By conservative you mean the likes of Ken Ham.  But a true Christian conservative would be someone like Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Richard Hooker, or Jonathan Swift.  And such people are the very antithesis of contemporary thought.  There is no need to formulate some dazzling new Christian theology, when an adequate one is sitting in all the major libraries of the world.  All that is necessary is for modern Christians to give up their fetish for the latest thing in theology, and turn back to the traditional store of wisdom. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66152

November 21st 2011

James R,

You are not listening to what I am saying.  I am saying that the Western synthesis of Greek and Biblical views was an important step forward from the past, but now it has served its purpose and we need to go beyond it.

For a Biblical analogy that you might understand, let us look at Judaism at the time of Jesus.  I hope that none of us would say that the old Mosaic covenant was false, but it had served its purpose to prepare the way for the Messiah.  Now was the time for a New Covenant to fulfill and take the place of the old.

Of course there were some people who did not see it that way.  The liberal Pharisees sought to update the Law by adjusting it to current problems.  The conservative Sadducees sought to keep the worship of Israel pure by focusing on the Torah and not updating the Law. 

Jesus said that it was necessary to completely rethink the covenant with God based on the coming of the Messiah.  All I am saying is that we must have a Reformation of our thinking because Greek thought, not our Biblical understanding, has failed to adequately provide an intellectual basis for today’s science.  That is a criticism of all, not just some, philosophy and theology. 

Nothing in life is forever, especially history and thinking.  If God is in charge, if God the Messiah is behind history and God the the Logos is behind nature, we must be willing to move and follow where God is leading us, or we will be left behind in the prison house of our own making.          


James R - #66153

November 21st 2011


It is not that I have not been listening; it is that I have found your explanation unclear.  You have made broad historical statements about big concepts such as monism and dualism and modernism and postmodernism, and you have made them in a shorthand form which makes your meaning hard to follow.

But now you seem to be changing your meaning.  Whereas originally your complaint about Greek ideas in Christianity was that they led to monism, dualism, modernism and postmodernism, now your complaint is that Greek philosophy cannot provide an intellectual basis for modern science.  Well, that may be true, but your original criticism of Greek thinking in Christianity was not about science; it was about monism and dualism and modernism and postmodernism, all terms of philosophy, not of natural science.  I’m finding your criticism too broad and shifting to get an intellectual handle on.

As for your points about Jesus and Judaism, etc., I have no objection to any of them.  Nor do I deny that there is need for change in the ideas of civilizations when new insights arise.  Nor do I make any comment against “relational theology.”  Nor am I against a deeper investigation into Biblical theology.  But we are not in a zero-sum game here.  The Greek contribution to Christian thought can remain sound, while new insights can be added from other quarters. 

Roger, as I’ve said before, I think that many of your ideas are helpful.  But as I’ve also said before, you have a tendency to use terms like monism and dualism in an academically non-standard way, and as a trained academic I naturally react against this; it undermines all the hard work professors do, when they teach students to get the meaning of terms straight, if amateurs on the internet then use the terms in a different way.  And as someone who has studied Plato and Aristotle in Greek, I tend to react against broad statements about Greek thought that in my view are materially misleading, and I want to alert readers of blog sites when I think that some of these statements are either incorrect or undocumented.

This is not an ego issue for me, Roger.  I am not trying to butt heads with you or prove that I am smarter than you or anything of the sort.  But I find myself in the position of an M.D. who sees dangerous folk-remedies being recommended by medically untrained people and thinks it is his duty to object on the basis of established medical science.  Some of the things you are saying (e.g., that Christianity was originally the worship of the Word, not of a book) are quite historically sound, but other things that you are saying are not.  I hope that you will not take any of my remarks as personal attacks, but only as an attempt to contribute to the common conversation out of my expertise.  Without in any way trying to be smart-alecky, I will express my wish that you would spend considerably more time reading the works of Plato and Aristotle, and the leading academic commentaries on those works, before you make any further comments about Greek thought.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66154

November 21st 2011

James R,

I have always said that the internet is not a good medium for discussion of these difficult issues.  That is why I try to ask people to read my book, which of course you have declined to do. 

Quite possibly that would not solve the problem because we seem to be going at this problem from very different points of view.  You seem very offended by my criticism of Greek thought.  I would mostly likely agree that it is simplistic based on the medium we are working with.

You seem to be saying that Greek thought is the only possible philosophical basis for understanding the world and God.  I do not agree, but until you are willing to consider another point of view there seems no point in discussing that possibility. 


James R - #66158

November 21st 2011


I’m not saying that Greek philosophy exhausts the possibilities of interpreting the world or God.  I’m making a historical point, and saying that of all the philosophers from Thales through to Hegel and Russell, only Plato and Aristotle and those somewhat aligned with them (e.g., Cicero) can be adequately integrated with Christian truth.  And I’m saying that this integration was the basis of Western civilization.  You seem to think that Western civilization needs a new basis, and you seem to think that it must come from the Bible alone.  This is where we disagree.  I think the Classical-Christian basis of Western civilization was sound and capable of producing a wholesome society.  There was no fundamental flaw in it.  The problem is that modern man has been seduced by ideas other than the Classical and the Christian, and it is this seduction (not Greek “dualism”) that has transformed society and created the current malaise.   

Your sudden stress on Biblical thought sits oddly with other things you have said.  You have rightly stressed that Christianity is not the worship of a written word (the Bible), but of the Word, the Logos.  I agree.  But the Logos-theology was historically formulated in Greek-Christian terms, not purely Biblical ones.  So you seem to be saying, on the one hand that we need to focus on the Logos, and on the other, that we need to focus on the Bible.  You seem to be backtracking on your basic insight.

I agree that we cannot thrash out these issues on the internet.  I will try to read your book if it has endorsements from religion scholars and philosophers whose academic accomplishments I respect.  In the meantime, I recommend that you read some good, hard, academic (not evangelical) history of ideas.  Burtt, Collingwood and Lovejoy would be good places to start.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66159

November 21st 2011

Okay, James R.

Is God absolute?

It seems to me that Greek philosophy says yes, but the Bible says that God is not Absolute, because YHWH relates to humanity and God’s Creation.  God is Love.

What do you think?

James R - #66160

November 21st 2011


It is impossible to have a philosophical discussion without defining one’s terms.

What do you mean by “absolute”?

Do you mean “unchanging”? Do you mean “detached from the rest of reality”? Or both? Or something else?

Aristotle’s God is in a sense unchanging, and in a sense detached; he does not interact with beings in the world in the way that a personal God does, and the world has no effect upon him. If your point is that Aristotle’s God is unlike the anthropopathic God that we find in the Bible, then I have no disagreement. This is why Thomas Aquinas had to do a very complicated dance to wed Aristotelianism with Christian faith. And in my view, the parts of Aristotelian thought that fit best with Christian thought are the ethical and political parts; the metaphysical and theological parts don’t harmonize so well. Of course, the Thomists would vigorously deny this, but what can I say? I greatly admire Thomas, but I’m not a Thomist.

Plato is a different matter. His notion of God is more elusive and harder to catch hold of. At least at some points, however, he speaks of God in a way that is not incompatible with personality. Thus, except for a brief period in the Middle Ages, and in Roman Catholicism ever since, Plato has always been preferred over Aristotle as the Christian philosopher. Origen, Clement, Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, many early medieval thinkers, the great Renaissance thinkers of Italy and England and elsewhere, and many Christians since, including C. S. Lewis and his friends, were heavily influenced by Plato.

This is why speaking of “Greek” thought is dangerous. It presumes that Plato and Aristotle can just be lumped together, without qualification. But Plato and Aristotle have important differences, and the sort of Christianity you get with Plato is different from the one you get with Aristotle.

I want to be clear about my position. I am not saying that the average fisherman or banker or nurse or mechanic who is Christian has to read Plato or any other philosopher in order to understand the Bible or in order to lead a Christian life. I think that frequent reading of, and meditation upon, the Gospels, combined with the aid and encouragement of the Christian community, ought to be enough for that. But theologians are in a different position from the everyday Christian. It is their job not merely to live a Christian life, but to think Christianity out in a systematic way. And if one wants to think out the meaning of, e.g., the Logos, one is going to do a lot better by employing Platonism than Marxism or Kantianism. And if one wants to think out the meaning of Love in a philosophical way, one would be foolish not to study carefully Plato’s Symposium.

Again, I have absolutely nothing against any attempt to dig out the deeper meaning of Biblical stories. I am not criticizing any attempt to mine the depths of the Hebraic understanding of God. I’m just saying that there is no need to attack the Platonic contribution to Western theology in order to do that. Indeed, the greatest Platonists of the 17th century were often enthusiastic Hebraists as well. We don’t have to scrap one set of insights about God in order to develop another, any more than an enjoyer of classical music has to repudiate the Romantic Period because he has suddenly developed an attraction to Baroque music. There is no reason why one cannot love both Bach and Rachmaninoff, and there is no reason why one cannot be held by aspects of both Platonism and Hebraism.

I’ve shot my bolt on this, so I’ll exit now.

James R - #66131

November 20th 2011


I’m glad to hear that you are studying the theology of St. Thomas.  Like John Calvin, he is a major Christian theologian whose thoughts on creation are frequently overlooked by theistic evolutionists.  His view on the creation of man and of the higher animals is quite pertinent to current discussions.  Let us know what you think of Thomas when you get to that part of the course.

Regarding picking and choosing passages of Scripture that support one’s views, and ignoring all the rest, I have found that this is the standard procedure by almost all parties in the creation/evolution/design discussions.  For theistic evolutionists, everything suggesting direct creation of anything is downplayed or ignored; for creationists, anything that seems to allow for a more extended process of creation is ignored.  The Bible thus becomes a tool used to sustain doctrinaire positions.

Regarding Thomas Jefferson and miracles, it doesn’t seem to me that his procedure is different in principle (though it may have been more extreme in practice) than what is done by many theistic evolutionists.  If you asked the world’s 10 leading theistic evolutionists whether Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea, or whether Jesus walked on the water, you would get maybe two or three clear, unambiguous positive answers, one or two clear negative answers, and between five and seven carefully crafted fuzzy answers.  Discussions of miracles make many theistic evolutionists very uncomfortable.  This has always puzzled me.  Surely all TEs accept the belief that Jesus rose from the dead; and once that belief is accepted, accepting any other miracle should be a piece of cake.   I don’t quite understand the reticence.  Where Augustine, Calvin, Aquinas, and Luther were forthright in accepting all Biblical miracles as reported, TEs are guarded and seem to hedge their bets.  What do you suppose is the reason for this lack of forthrightness?

beaglelady - #66135

November 20th 2011


Please note what I wrote (boldface added):

”...at our Theology at St Thomas class we are studying heresies.”
St. Thomas here refers to my church, St. Thomas on 5th Avenue. We are blessed to have a theologian on staff who teaches classes every Sunday. (I live in Connecticut and take the train in every Sunday.)

There are several saints by the name of Thomas.   Our church is named after St. Thomas the apostle. You are thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas.  (But I said “at” and not “of” anyway.)

Regarding Thomas Jefferson and miracles, it doesn’t seem to me that
his procedure is different in principle (though it may have been more
extreme in practice) than what is done by many theistic evolutionists.

That’s because a fundie sees everything in black and white. 

btw,  I am tired of this fundagelical crap about TEs not accepting miracles.

beaglelady - #66136

November 20th 2011

btw, I wrote c r a p (not the bad word)

James R - #66137

November 20th 2011


My apologies.  I misread “at” for “of.”  It’s an easy enough error to make. 

I don’t see any fundamentalists in the room, so I can’t imagine who you are talking about.  But I twice qualified theistic evolutionist or TE, using the words “many” and “leading,” so I did not intend to target you or any individual.  I just wondered how you as a churchgoing Christian felt when, let’s say, a clergyman TE, when asked about Jesus walking on the water, sidetracks the discussion by a learned discourse on sea symbolism in the Old Testament, and never indicates whether or not he accepts that the event happened as described.  Do you support this sort of evasion?

The bigger question, however, is not about selective acceptance of miracles, but about selective reading of the Bible generally—which is the point that you raised, and on which I was agreeing with you.  A number of columnists and commenters here seem to practice selective reading on a number of questions, including the question of natural theology.  Anything in the Bible that suggests the possibility of natural theology is ignored.  The passages which seem to imply it are never discussed.  This is exactly the phenomenon that you were pointing out. 

And it’s not just the Bible on which the selective reading is practiced.  It’s the whole tradition.  The view of Barth on natural theology is praised, while the view of Calvin is ignored.  And it is frequently implied that large numbers of traditional Christian theologians did not take Genesis literally, when in fact most traditional Christian theologians—by that I mean theologians prior to the Enlightenment—did in fact take most (not all, but most) of the details of Genesis literally.

I’m not of course arguing that Genesis should be taken literally, and in fact I don’t take parts of it literally.  But the fact that I don’t take it literally doesn’t justify my uttering falsehoods about the historical Christian tradition.  Rather than mislead readers about the facts, I prefer to say that I don’t interpret passage X literally even though the majority of classical Christian interpreters did.  I take responsibility for my views, rather than try to garner support for them by implying that they enjoy majority support in the tradition.  I wish that everyone who wrote about theology and science would do the same.

beaglelady - #66156

November 21st 2011

I don’t know what TEs you are talking about. Which TEs don’t believe in miracles?  And I don’t know who is uttering falsehoods about the historical Christian tradition. Should I assume you are accusing me of doing that? 

What don’t you take literally in Genesis? 

James R - #66157

November 21st 2011


You should assume nothing.  On the question of miracles, I was not speaking of you, but of the more vocal and prominent TEs, some of whom write columns here, some of whom stump the country for Darwin, some of whom have written bestselling popular books on evolution, some of whom publish popular columns and blog posts, some of whom are prominent members of the ASA and have contributed to its journal and its e-mail list discussions, etc. 

In any case, I do not have to name names in order for you to deal with the hypothetical case I gave you (which may be based on an actual case).  If a TE Protestant pastor, when asked directly if Jesus walked on the water, repeatedly discussed Old Testament symbolism of “the sea” and refused to directly answer, even when the question was repeated, would you find that an acceptable response?  Or if, when the parting of the Red Sea was discussed, a number of TEs either cited articles about theories that an earthquake might have caused the event, or tried to deflect the clear supernatural element in the story in various other ways, would you find that compatible with a firm belief in Old Testament miracles? 

I take it from your anger at the accusation that TEs don’t believe in miracles that you accept that Jesus walked on the water, and fed 5,000 people with seven items of food, and raised Lazarus from the dead, and that Moses parted the Red Sea and that there was a plague on the first-born and manna from heaven and so on.  In other words, I take it that you believe that God has frequently in the past broken the causal nexus.  And I take it that you find no problem with such interventions for science, i.e., I take it that you believe that Jesus’s miracles, Moses’s miracles, etc. do not undermine the general stability of nature and therefore do not undermine the possibility of natural science.  Are my inferences about your beliefs correct?

On the historical Christian tradition, if you look over a number of columns here over the past year or so, you will find that a number of columnists have stated or implied that non-literal readings of Genesis were the norm, or at least very common, in Christian tradition.  This is simply false.  The documents show that literal readings were much more common than non-literal readings, even among the ultra-educated.  Similarly, in a number of columns here, you will find direct or veiled attacks on the tradition of natural theology, with innuendo that somehow natural theology undermines Christian faith or the truly Christian notion of God; but of course natural theology has a long and honorable place in Christian history and is anchored in a number of Biblical passages as well.  You will also find an attempt to show that Aquinas believed in creation as the development of potential—a subtle attempt to link him up with evolutionary ideas; but the term “potency” in Aquinas has a technical meaning which has nothing to do with evolution, and in any case Aquinas states that man and the higher animals were created directly, i.e., on that point he was a creationist.

I’m not going to spend hours going over all the old columns here and locating all these false or exaggerated claims for you.  You seem to read the columns here carefully, commenting on many of them, so you can find them as quickly as I. 

Let me be clear.  I have nothing against a modern writer who says that the mainstream Christian tradition is wrong on literalism or wrong on natural theology.  What I am opposing is those who try to represent the Christian tradition as saying what it does not say.  What I am against is bad historical research and deliberate cherry-picking from the historical record.

In answer to your last question, I don’t regard the stories of Genesis 1-11 as news reports and would not use them to restrict any scientific theorizing, including evolutionary theorizing.  The details of time, the exact order of appearance of various creatures, etc., I would leave open subjects for scientists to speculate about.  We need not defend waters above the firmament, six literal days, etc. in order to defend the theology of Genesis 1, which is plainly a theology of providential design.  The problem with TE, as I see it, is not that it is non-literalist about Genesis 1, but that it is equivocal when it comes to providential design.

beaglelady - #66177

November 22nd 2011

James R.

Did you used to post under the name of Rich?

James R - #66149

November 20th 2011


I cannot find the “report inappropriate comment” tool any more; apparently it is no longer a feature of the site.  But you can see that the comment from oakle78 immediately above (66145) is an attempt to link to advertising (or viruses) and should be deleted, with the real email address of oakle78 blocked from further postings.  And of course, once that is done, this comment will be unnecessary and can be deleted, too. 

Jon Garvey - #66166

November 22nd 2011

James, you’re refreshingly perceptive!

James R - #66173

November 22nd 2011

Jon Garvey:

Thank you.  I in turn regard you as one of the theologically best-informed contributors to Biologos.  I recommend your website, Hump of the Camel, to all who are interested in serious religion/science discussion.

Merv - #66178

November 22nd 2011

James, regarding your lengthy post (#66157 above)

Perhaps some TEish pastors evade answering the direct question of “did this happen” because to answer it might be to agree to unspoken, embedded assumptions that the questioner brings with his litmus test.  I.e.  “Either all these things literally happened just as described (according to *my* understanding) in the O.T., or else none of it is true in any way or form at all—no other alternatives can be considered.”


James R - #66179

November 22nd 2011


I cannot read minds and therefore cannot speak with any assurance about the motives of others.  It may be that some TEs who are evasive about particular miracles have a reason such as you suggest.  Still, when someone is asked a historical question and gives a literary answer, it is hard not to suspect that the answer to the historical question is “No.”  Especially when the same person gives similar oblique answers regarding other historical questions of the same type (i.e., miracle questions), and always gives straight answers regarding every other type of question he is asked.  If we were to ask Martin Luther or St. Augustine whether Jesus walked on the water, what do you suppose they would say?  And is the modern pastor in a position different from such people, that he should give a different answer?  I would guess that if the modern pastor gives a different answer, it is because he has different beliefs.  And then the question arises why he should have different beliefs.

James R - #66180

November 22nd 2011


I tried hard to give you a careful reply to what I took to be sincere questions on your part.  I expanded on my original points, to clarify what I meant, and asked you follow-up questions.  It takes time to write a reply like that.  The response I’ve earned for my pains is to have my work ignored and to be asked if I’m someone else.  I would guess that this bizarre change of topic indicates that you have no intention of responding to my questions.  This is not dialogue in good faith.  If you are not going to respond to my questions with straightforward answers about what you believe (as I have given you straightforward answers about what I believe), I won’t pursue the conversation further, and will have to draw my own conclusions about your beliefs, based on your choice not to answer my questions.  Best wishes.

Merv - #66181

November 22nd 2011

I’ll go on to add that I do believe that Jesus walked on the water and that Israelites passed through the Red sea and so forth.  But to insist that there must always have been a broken “causal nexus” before we can attribute it to the Divine hand -that is the error I see many TEs trying to correct.  If some go beyond that and insist that there can *never* be any broken causal nexus, then I agree with you that they don’t have Biblical grounds to stake that claim.


James R - #66185

November 22nd 2011


I think I understand the distinction you are making.  Employing that distinction, I would say that the question whether the event happened can be separated from the question how the event happened.  So the question whether any “laws of nature” were broken by Jesus’s walk across the water is different from the question whether he in fact walked across the water.

The question is why a clergyman should be hesitant to affirm that he walked across the water.  It is always possible to add a qualification, with an answer such as:  “Yes, I think he walked across the water, but I don’t think this involved breaking any laws of nature, because ...”   That would convey quite a different impression from an answer such as:  “Did Jesus walk across the water?  Interesting question.  Notice that the text uses the word “sea”.  In the Old Testament, the word “sea” is often a symbol of the unruly forces that YHWH controls ... [5 more paragraphs, with the original question left unanswered]”.  The listener to the latter sort of answer will say to himself:  “He believes that the whole story was purely symbolic, but is evading committing himself.”

I give most everyday believers credit for honesty and intelligence.  I think they can accept a nuanced answer, but don’t trust an evasive one. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66280

November 27th 2011

James R,

I suspect that the person giving the response that you describe is a Christian relativist.  I know that you disagree with postmodern relativism, but can you disprove it philosophically?

James R - #66288

November 28th 2011


I don’t see what either postmodernism or relativism has to do with it.  The most likely explanation is that the hypothetical pastor in question simply accepts the Enlightenment premise of naturalism—miracles don’t happen.

Of course, in practice, there are very few TEs who believe that no miracle has ever happened.  But it is not uncommon among the leading TEs to “pick and choose” which Biblical miracles they accept, while offering nothing or very little in the way of theoretical justification for accepting certain ones and rejecting others.

I don’t want to be misunderstood; mere intellectual belief in the historicity of particular miracles is not the most important thing in Christian faith.  Indeed, I think that doubt about some miracles is compatible with deep Christian faith, and I have known some people with a mechanical belief in every single miracle in the Bible who present an uninspiring faith that is detached from love or even basic humanity and who do not seem to me to have any understanding of the teaching of Jesus.  What I object to is not doubt, but evasiveness, on the question of miracles. 

In answer to your closing question, I am not trying to prove or disprove anything philosophically, and certainly not trying to prove or disprove the possibility of miracles.  My point is that we cannot have an adult science/faith discussion when the various participants (ID, TE, YEC, OEC, atheist, whatever) don’t trust each other.  The slippery statements of some leading TEs on miracles are just one of many things which cause non-TEs to suspect that many TEs rank Biblical testimony below Enlightenment principles.  Unless and until the leading TEs dispel this perception, all of their arguments about fossils, genetics, and Biblical hermeneutics will fall on deaf ears.  Nobody will listen to any argument, no matter how rational, from a person whose motivations they deeply distrust.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66309

November 29th 2011

Yes, but

let’s say that you believe in miracles, so to speak, and I don’t.  That is no problem to the relativist who believes in something beyond the miracles.  Is that a problem or not?

You are right that the different sides are coming at the question from different perspectives.  That is why I am trying to examine the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.  The problem is that no one  is willing to admit that their point of view has weaknesses or problems, so we have the discussion of the deaf.

The problem then is not trust, but different points of view.  We do disagree, no question about that. We all trry to base our ideas on good Biblical theology and we should all be able to base our arguments on it.  But since Creationists think that they own the Bible, this does not work very well either.    

James R - #66310

November 29th 2011


A continual problem in our communication is vocabulary.  You continue to use terms which have a generally accepted meaning (like “dualism”) in your own private way, and this makes it difficult to follow what you are saying.  Here, you do it with “relativist.”  You are using the term in a way that I cannot grasp.

In normal parlance, a “relativist” is opposed to an “absolutist.”  The “relativist” tends to think that right and wrong, true and false, are judgments that can be made only situationally, or perspectivally; the “absolutist” tends to think in terms of truths which transcend all situations and perspectives and are binding for all, at all times and places.

Thus, I cannot follow you when you say:

“That is no problem to the relativist who believes in something beyond the miracles.” 

What do you mean by “something beyond the miracles”?  Some fixed truth of some kind?  If so, I’m lost, because such truths are what the relativist doesn’t believe in.

OK, now that I’ve registered my complaint about unclear vocabulary, let me respond to the rest of your message.  

Whether or not someone’s unbelief in a particular miracle is a “problem” depends on why the person does not accept the miracle.  If the person doesn’t think a miracle occurred because he thinks the genre of the Biblical book in question is myth or legend, that is one thing; but if he doesn’t think the miracle occurred because he is a prisoner of Enlightenement naturalism and rationalism and finds the idea of God’s “interfering” to be repugnant, that is a serious problem for historical Christian orthodoxy.

This is where the lack of trust comes in.  The YECs and OECs and many ID people do not trust the leading TEs to uphold historical orthodoxy.  They all watched as Van Till went down the slippery slope, through TE and beyond, to leave behind orthodox faith altogether, and they suspect that many other TEs harbor similar tendencies.  They suspect that often TEs’ ultimate loyalties are divided between Christianity and the Enlightenment.  And can you blame them for suspecting this, when an ordained TE pastor won’t talk straight about whether Jesus walked on the water, and when none of the TEs present upbraids the pastor for his equivocations?

As for your comments on the inflexibility and doctrinaire character of “both sides” (I would say “all the sides” since there are more than two camps in the creation/evolution/design debates), I agree entirely.  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66327

November 30th 2011

James R wrote:

What do you mean by “something beyond the miracles”?  Some fixed truth of some kind?  If so, I’m lost, because such truths are what the relativist doesn’t believe in.

James R,

I think I qualified the word “relativist” as a Christian relativist, meaning a person who does believe in the Christ or Logos. 

For me it is axiomatic that Truth is relative.  The only question is to what or Whom?  For me the answer is Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, and I would hope that it is the same for all Christians, including Christian relativists.

The problem I have with people who claim to be evangelicals is that they claim that the Truth is Absolute and is found in God’s Word, which they define as the Bible.  This stance is not Biblical, because the NT meakes clear that Jesus Christ is God’s Word (Logos) and Truth is relative to Him.  If I am not mistaken the book that brought Christian relativism to the fore took this stance and a lot of flak of course.

What is historical orthodoxy?  I look at Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic faith and I see much with which I would strenuously disagree.  It seems I have some serious problem with evangelical theology also, but I would not put any of these faith groups outside the Christianity.

Paul and Martin Luther teach us that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works or theology.  It appears to me, a member of a denomination which conservative theologically, but not evangelical in the narrow sense, that evangelicals are insular in their outlook and ignore the context of the wider ecumenical Church.  

That is why we need as true dialogue and we all need to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s points of view, including myself and you.           

James R - #66334

November 30th 2011

OK, now I know what you mean by “relativist,” but your usage is obscure and I never would have figured it out without your help.  In normal parlance, someone who believes that Christ is the Logos is a “Christian,” not a “Christian relativist.”  I have no idea why you feel the need to coin new terms or use familiar terms in unfamiliar ways, but it makes communication very difficult.

As far as I understand your point now, in retrospect, you are saying that belief in miracles is not really important as long as one believes that Christ is the Logos.  If that is not what you are saying, then I have to give up trying to understand you altogether.

Certainly the traditional understanding of Christianity has been that Jesus physically rose from the dead.  Are you saying that he did not?  And if you say he did, then you should not find any of the Old or New Testament miracles hard to accept.  But I’m not really concerned with whether or not you personally accept miracles.  I was discussing the views of miracles held by some of the TE leaders.

Some of the TE leaders clearly find many Biblical miracles hard to accept, because they either explain them away or refuse to answer questions about them.  But if they find walking on the water hard to accept, why don’t they find the Resurrection hard to accept?  The picking and choosing is entirely irrational.  Either God can override the laws of nature or he can’t.  If he can manage the Resurrection, he can manage the Red Sea or anything else.

Some TE leaders seem to be caught between wanting to affirm orthodox belief, and wanting to seem up-to-date with Enlightenment-inspired science and Biblical criticism (both of which rejected miracles).  This is why they are not trusted by other evangelical Christians who do not think that the conclusions of the Enlightenment are binding upon the faithful.

I suspect, however, that the TE/conservative evangelical conflict is not your issue, and you don’t really want to talk about it that much, so I will let this point drop.

I would add that you seem to be confusing two things.  To believe that Truth is absolute, and not relative, does not commit one to literalism and fundamentalism.  Nor does it commit one to a particular reading of the Bible.  One can believe that the Bible teaches the absolute truth, but still disagree with other Christians about the appropriate way of interpreting the text so as to distill that truth.  One can also believe that the Bible’s teaching is absolutely true, while holding that Christianity involves much more than the Bible, i.e., that it requires the embrace of subsequent tradition, and the worship of a living Word.

You are getting hung up on the word “absolute,” and you are clinging to “relativism” in order to avoid what you think are the negative implications of “absolute.”  But there is nothing wrong with “absolutes.”  For example:  (1) Murdering and raping people is absolutely wrong.  (2) Jesus is the Word.  These truths, for you as a Christian, should be absolute, not relative, i.e., not negotiable according to circumstances.  A Christian who holds no absolutes at all is a vacillating modern liberal.  And we have far too many of them in the modern world as it is.  The last thing we need to do is encourage more theological chaos by telling Christians that it is OK to call themselves “relativists.”  Thus, I entirely reject your terminology as confusing and spiritually misleading.  I wish you would stick with the language that has served the tradition well for 1900+ years, without introducing novelties of your own.  For a good introduction to that traditional language, I would recommend the writings of C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66346

December 1st 2011

James R,

I hate to put it this way, but your approach is exactly what is wrong with this dialogue.  Instead of trying to understand, you are quick to attack that which you do not understand.  While criticizing those who attack based on ideology, you do the same thing.  As Jesus said, Judge not, least you be judged by the very same standeards by which you judge and condemn others.

I am very sorry, but my use of the Absolute and absolutes is not obscure, and is very much in line with historical use.  I really do not know where you came up with ther idea that absolute means non-negotiable. 

The Bible does not say, Do not murder.  It says, Do not kill.  One person’s concept of murder is another’s concept of self defense.  It does not say, Do not rape. It says, Do not commit adultery.  The sexual act is good when performed within the context of marriage, but wrong when committed outside it, so it is relative or relational.  The words murder and rape contain the relational context which makes these acts wrong, so the words are relational and contextual, rather than absolute.

Absolute means “independent.”  Time and space were thought to be independent of each other and of matter and energy until Einstein’s famous equation shows that Energy, mass, time, and space are all interrelated.  Thus time and space are not independent, but are interdependent.

The other question is whether God is Absolute, totally independent of God’s universe and humanity as philosophy and science tands to think,, or God is Relational, Love, interdependent with the universe and humanity as the Bible says.    

The Deist God is Absolute, governing the universe by God’s absolute Law.  The God of Love is Relational, governing humanity by relational Covenant.  Jesus Christ, the WORD, LOGOS, is absolute is that He is independent of humanity, but He is also interdependent. 

God the Father so LOVED the World that the Father sent the only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  Ther Father did not have to send the Son, and the Son did not have to accept the role and this is important.  But they did and this is most important, because it makes all the difference.  God is Love, God cares, God is the GOD Who RELATES.      


James R - #66353

December 1st 2011


Thanks for your further reply.

We are not going to get any further on this thread.  Many of the things you say here, I agree with, but they have nothing to do with the point I was making about “relative” and “absolute.” 

Yes, “absolute” can mean “independent.”  That is connected with the point I was making.  To hold someone up in an alley, and then, when he resists, to shoot him dead and take his money, is murder, and is an act that is absolutely wrong.  That is, it is wrong independent of other things such as whether the man shot is black or white or yellow or Democratic or Republican or young or old or orthodox or heretical or honest or dishonest or has a high or low IQ or has good or bad taste in music or last week insulted my mother or my ancestors.  The act of killing, in those circumstances and for those motives, is wrong no matter what else is true.  It is not “relatively” wrong. 

Of course, if I kill the same man in self-defense, it is justifiable.  But then the killing is not murder.  It is murder that is absolutely wrong, not killing as such.  I don’t have time to do a Hebrew word-study with you regarding which terms are translated as “kill”, “murder”, and so on.  That is not the point.  The point is, whatever we call it in English or Hebrew, sticking someone up in alley because you want his money, then killing him, is wrong in the eyes of God.  Human excuses—which is what “relativists” always plead—will not avail anyone when he comes before the Judgment Seat and has to explain why he murdered the man in the alley. 

Obviously rape and the conjugal act are not at all the same act, as the one involves consent and the other does not.  I did not say that sexual act was absolutely wrong.  I said that rape was absolutely wrong.

I understand the relational character of God.  I have studied Trinitarian theology and Augustine and a boatload of other important theological writers on both intra-divine dynamics and divine-human relationships.  But that has nothing to do with what I was talking about.  One cannot use the “relational” character of God to justify a shabby relativist ethics, which is what many modern Christians appear to do.  The majesty, the holiness of the Ten Commandments is entirely lost on most modern Christians.  Calvin and Luther understood this majesty, and unstood the notion of sin, with unsurpassed clarity.  Modern Christians are fuzzy about these things, and one of the concepts they use to blur the difference between sin and righteousness, good and evil, is “relativity.”  I weary of these equivocations.   Modern Christians need to reread the Ten Commandments, and they need to read some Calvinist theology (which, despite its many drawbacks, at least understood sin and tolerated no excuses for it), and they need to read Rudolf Otto on the divine nature.

Roger, I am going to give up trying to get you to change your language.  It is plain that you long ago settled on a set of idiosyncratic meanings for theological and philosophical terms.  As an experienced teacher in these subjects, I am naturally tempted to put red circles around these terms when they are misused.  I am sorry if this habit of mine strikes you as dogmatic or intolerant.  Is it not that I reject all of your ideas.  Indeed, I agree with many of them.  But your expression of your ideas is crippled by your usage.  All I can do is suggest to you is that many of your ideas would have more impact on readers if you would adopt a more conventional mode of expression.  If you speak in French and your audience knows only English, you will not get very far in persuading them of anything.

I wish for no friction or male head-butting in these discussions.  I’ve said my piece and I leave you to chew on what I’ve said, and to adopt whatever is useful to you, and reject the rest.  I continue to regard you as a sincere Christian with wholly constructive intentions.  All the best wishes.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66356

December 1st 2011

John R,

Please show me where Jesus told us to live by the Ten Commandments.  You said before that Jesus the Word is your Absolute, but now you are letting OT legalism in the back door.  Paul would be turning in his grave, if he were in his grave.

Creationists cannot go beyond the OT and apparently neither can you.  You need to listen carefully to what I am saying or read my book, rather than jump to some sort of rash judgement. 

Teachers can learn too.


James R - #66357

December 1st 2011


The Ten Commandments are not part of “Old Testament legalism.”  They are at the core of any reverence for God that has the right be called either Jewish or Christian.

As for Jesus, he was a faithful Jew who obeyed not only the Ten Commandments but the whole Law all his life, and taught his disciples to do the same, except in cases where compassion required temporarily suspending the strict letter of the Law.  Thus, he would heal a man on the Sabbath, but he did not, for example, eat pork, or give his disciples permission to do the same, not even in the celebrated passage about defilment coming from within rather than from food without.

You are underestimating the Jewishness of Jesus.  This has been a characteristic error of Christians ever since the Church became predominantly Gentile.  It is Jesus’s Jewishness that gave his spirituality a depth dimension.  Paul, on the other hand, rejected his own Jewishness; and like so many converts, he was often unfair, even vindictive, toward the religious position that he formerly held.  I’ve known deeply religious Jews, and they are nothing like the caricature of Judaism that one sees in some of the statements of Paul.  So I’m afraid your attempt to chastise me with the name of Paul falls on deaf ears.

I find it amusing that you want to make Christianity more Hebraic and less Greek, and then lambaste me for not heeding Paul, who was soaked in Hellenistic religious ideas.  If you want a more Hebraic Christianity, don’t read Paul; read the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, and treat the Old Testament with the seriousness that Jesus treats it.

In any case, I am not here to debate Christian theology.  The purpose of this site is to relate science, especially evolutionary biology, to Christian belief.  Your posts have a tendency to wander away from this subject and into your own private religious speculations.  I see now that by replying to you so thoroughly, and so often, I have unwittingly encouraged you in this habit.  I won’t do so any longer.  In the future, I will reply to you only if your posts directly concern evolutionary biology and its relationship to the Christian doctrine of Creation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66382

December 2nd 2011

John R,

I see that I have taken you out of your comfort zone.  That is not my intent, but the fact is that this is the primary way that people learn and God has a way of disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed.

It is my opinion which I thought I shared with you that the main problem in this question of evolution is not bas science, although that is a part of the problem, but bad philosophy and bad theology.  Sadly we disagree on what make good theology and good philosophy.

You are a philosopher.  I am a theologian.  In my opinion you do not understand Paul’s position on salvation through grace by faith.  

Paul was not against the Law per se, but Paul made it clear that the Law does not save, only Jesus saves. 

Paul had Timothy circumcised because he was born of a Jewish mother and thus was ethnicly Jewish.  Paul did not want Gentiles to be circumcised, because they were not Jewish and there was no need to become Jewish to be saved, only to believe in Jesus Christ.  

I am not here to condemn Jews, I am here to preach the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.  The same for Paul, although he was condemned by Jews of his day and even by some Jews today. 

James R - #66384

December 2nd 2011


You haven’t taken me out of my comfort zone—I’m quite conversant with theology, and have taught both Greek and Hebrew in a seminary—but you have taken the discussion off-topic.  We are supposed to be discussing evolution and creation here, not the virtues of Pauline theology.

Just as a point of historical fact: the portrait of the Law drawn by Paul is one that no contemporary Jew would have recognized.  We have no documents indicating that any Jew of Jesus’s time saw the Law as an immense and oppressive spiritual weight, generating unbearable guilt and angst in the way that Paul depicts.  What you choose to do with these facts  theologically is entirely your own business.  I have my own ideas about their implications, but I don’t intend to discuss them here.  And now I will keep my earlier resolve not to reply to off-topic posts again.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66400

December 3rd 2011

James R,

Paul was born, raised, and educated to be a Rabbi.  He spoke out of his own experience to find spiritual perfection under the Law.  It was this search that caused him to persecute Christians.

His experience on the road to Damascus led him to acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior not only of Israel, but of the Gentiles also.  This meant the end of the old Mosaic Covenant and the beginning of the new universal Covenant open to all through the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  This is the Jewish basis of Christianity, YHWH’s promise to Abraham that his (spiritual) descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and will be a blessing to the whole world.

Now your “unbearable guilt and angst” is a modern psychological interpretation of Paul, which is interesting but does not hold water. Paul’s analysis was strictly theological based on the Bible, his experience meeting Jesus, and the methodology of rabbinic thinking.

The topic is how does God reveal Godself and the Bible reveals that God reveals the divine message not all at once, but gradually over periods of time.  We are still learning Who Jesus is.  We are still learning how God created the universe.    


Merv - #66182

November 22nd 2011

Sorry—my last post was posted before I read your reply above.  I do agree with you that Augustine and other early church fathers would surely have thought of the things you mention in a literal sense.  Of course—they thought the earth was the center of the universe too, and we don’t insist on following them in that.  But that is less of a Biblical question than the points you raise. 


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