Saturday Sermon: Gloriously Functional

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February 18, 2012 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's sermon features Richard Dahlstrom. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today's sermon is from Richard Dahlstrom, senior pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Washington. The full sermon can be found here.

Is Genesis 1 describing material creation or functional creation? Pastor Richard Dahlstrom of Bethany Community Church beautifully articulates the insights he has received through John Walton’s book The Lost World of Genesis One and probes deep into the Biblical text with us . In his sermon “Gloriously Functional,” he highlights key Hebrew words that are often misunderstood by post-Enlightenment thinkers in order to generate a proper framework through which to grasp the original meaning of the text. He then examines each day of creation, explaining the function of the various created elements such as light, water, plants, animals, and people, according to the account. This enriching exercise brings the question of “Why has God made this very good, functional creation to begin with?” Dahlstrom affirms along with Walton that Genesis 1 is indeed about God making a temple to dwell in with His people, who he has ordained as priests, stewards over all creation. This is most clearly seen in the striking parallels between the creation narrative and the building of the earthly temple of God in the ancient Hebrew culture.

In addition to this clip from Dahlstrom’s sermon , there is a brief commentary by John Walton himself, which speaks about the functionality rather than materiality of Genesis 1. He states that the creation story is not one of material origins. If this is so, he explains there is no need to defend a Biblical account against an evolutionary account; the two are compatible with each other. What the creation story does offer, however, is a theology on the physical existence of what God has made; it reveals the divine purpose of God for his masterpiece, the universe.


Richard Dahlstrom is Senior Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, WA. His most recent book, “The Colors of Hope” was selected by Christianity today as one of the best books of 2011. You can follow his musings on the relationship of faith to everything at www.bodysoulspiritlife.com.


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Jon Garvey - #68084

February 19th 2012

Walton’s more exhaustive work on this has now come out, but unfortunately is priced for libraries rather than people - I guess academic paper costs more.

If, as Evangelicals, we accept the theological truths in Genesis 1 (and Walton’s work enables us to avoid needing to argue about its “science”), then the main challenge for TEs now is the very fact that it is a functional account. That is, God’s creation is a world in which everything has function, and is good.

Taking that seriously makes it a lot less legitimate to attribute to bits of creation words like “evil” or “poor design” or “useless”. The whole issue of Genesis 1 is that God took what is formless and void and made it fit for purpose in his cosmic temple.

I think the account would leave room for humanity in God’s image having a role in refining that function (aka “subduing” it), but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for “undirected”.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68097

February 19th 2012

This posting is on the right track.  Creation is about making functional, creating order, rather than making things.  Thus evolution can be seen as part of the order than God created. 

The question I ask is; Why are Western people “materialists?”  I think it is because of Western dualist worldview which is a legacy of the Enlightenment.  We cannot just wish this away, but need to find a viable replacement for Western dualism. 

Science and Scientism are under the influence of Western dualism.  Creationism is under the influence of Western dualism.  Theology has been too for the most part.  Only Jesus Christ the Logos is outside the influence of Western dualism so here is where we need to begin to bring real functionality and order to our world.     


PNG - #68106

February 20th 2012

I agree with both these presentations, but the it’s clear in the account that God makes a definite form out of the chaos, and that is a flat earth with water above and beneath. It’s quite true that the emphasis in on God making a setting and then filling that setting with “creatures,” sun, moon plants, animals and Man and that He gives a role and function to each, but the text does imply a definite physical layout, even if rather vaguely. I don’t understand the insistence that no definite layout of earth, waters, firmament and heavenly bodies is implied. It seems obvious that the ANE cosmos is simply assumed.


Jon Garvey - #68107

February 20th 2012

PNG

I don’t doubt that the ANE cosmos is assumed, since the writer lived in an ANE cosmos. The issues are:
(a) what actually is the ANE cosmos, including the question of to what extent it is interested in material structures. Certainly, any version of ANE cosmos that doesn’t include the location/activity of gods or God simply isn’t an ANE cosmos.
(b) the difference between what is assumed, and what is actually asserted. The use of “sunrise” and “sunset” for example, may or may not presuppose a stationary earth, but in context is likely to be purely phenomenological - nobody would fault me for saying I wrote this when the sun was at its zenith.

“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun/doth his successive journeys run” was written well after Copernican astronomy was standard. In this case it describes a phenomenological geocentrism, assumes a Copernican system, and asserts the universal Lordship of Christ. If we thought it had been written a century earlier, we’d be mistaken about the second point, even though we knew it was early modern and English. We can be a lot less certain about what people had in mind 3000 years ago, except that our scociety is demonstrably and uncharacteristically biased towards the importance of material structures.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68109

February 20th 2012

PNG.

Thank you for your comment.

I think that there has been a mistaken concept that it was God’s responsibility to make sure that the Bible is scientifically correct.  It seems to me that this is clearly untrue. 

First of all I would like to make the rule that God does not do for humanity what humanity can do for itself.  God helps us in all that we do, but God does not do it for us.  Humanity cannot save itself, so it was necessary for God to send His Son, and gave us the Bible to explain this salvation historical process. 

Humanity as we have seen has been able to understand to a significant extent the universe.  Some of that understanding is based on the doctrine of Creation, God created the universe, but is separate from the universe and the universe is created to be a temporary home for humanity created in God’s image.  

Second, some people think that the primary goal of humanity is to solve scientific and thechnological problems.  The Bible takes the position that the primary problem is to solve interpersonal and personal social and spiritual problems.  Yes, people suffer from diseases and this is not good, but people also suffer from war, crime, injustice, hatred, etc. that touch the lives of all.  The way to solve the problems of disease and want is by working together.

Thus the Bible takes the position of first things first, not denying the importance of science as a tool for improving the lot of humankind, but not making it an end in itself.

Third, some have suggested that God could and should have corrected the problems the old ANE cosmology in way to indicate that God did not endorse the old cosmology.  The only way I would think that God could do this would be to take the ANE cosmos to the next step of lets say the Hellenistic cosmos. 

The problem here is that people would then expect that this is God’s ultimate understanding of the structure of the universe.  Thus we would have the same problem with Hellenistic cosmology, which was geocentric, that we have with the ANE cosmos, and indeed we did when the Church incorporated the cosmos of Aristotle and Ptolemy into the faith.      

The Bible is scientific in that it uses the best science available to its writers.  I would suggest we follow this example.  It is not scientific in that it offers God’s scientific point of view, which we could never understand, probably even at this level of our scientific understanding. 

Finally the problems we have today are not really scientific, but philosophical and theological.  They are about the Meaning of Life.  The only way to positively address this issue is for science, philosophy, and theology to work together, not to claim that each has the only right answer to the exclusion of the others.   


PNG - #68126

February 20th 2012

Roger, I have no bones to pick with anything you or Jon say here.


dont_blame_me_blame_evolution - #68122

February 20th 2012

I don’t get these videos. They seem to be getting more and more banal. These two, as well as the last couple I’ve seen, are so very unremarkable.

I think that just about every single thing said is… Let me put it this way: Everything they said could be said by a Theistic Evolutionist as well as by a Young Earth Creationist. Listen again for yourself!

About the only thing I would question, and it was from the first video, is that I’m not at all sure I would use the word “chaos” in describing the first stages of creation.

 


Jon Garvey - #68144

February 21st 2012

“Chaos” - that is an interesting subject for study, Don’t, relevant to the points I’ve been making here (so of course I’ll leap in whether invited or not!).

Hebrew “tohu and “bohu”, translated as “formless and void” etc, (a) parallel similar words in ANE texts describing mythic struggles against the forces of chaos - yet Genesis has no trace of any such struggle. (b) The words everywhere else in Scripture are used of things like deserts, ruins etc, so the idea isn’t so much “chaos” in the sense of churning fury etc, but “useless and functionless”.

So the concern of Genesis is less to show that God makes stuff out of nothing (though he does), and more that God makes useless stuff useful, meaning useful as part of his reign and his dwelling place, and also useful for his image-bearer, humanity.

The comparison with the ANE stuff makes you realise the common theme is creation seen as the ordering of a useful system, rather than our modern idea of creation as, maybe, a big bang that self-orders by chance and law into Lots of Things, many or all of which don’t have any purpose. The big difference between the Bible and the other ANE texts is that instead of chaotic matter being an independent force which the gods have to fight, matter is simply the building material God uses to do the job. He turns tohu bricks and cement into a worshipping Church community.

But the key is purpose. The first three days produce environments and food, not just substances and plant life. The fourth creates lights and bodies to organise the calendar - not just astronomical objects. The fifth “peoples” the air and water with life, and the sixth not only peoples the land with animals, but with livestock and, finally, with government in the form of adam.

The implication of the seventh day is not that God now needs a day off, but that having brought creation to order, God can now sit on his throne and rule it wisely and justly. Which is what he does still.

To me, that shifts the ground of the problem with swallowing naturalism’s agenda - I don’t see how a consistent Christian believing in God’s creation can maintain that parts of it are “useless”, “junk”, “errors” etc (apart from what is a result of sin). It’s simply an assertion that God is lying when he says he dealt with “tohu and bohu” decisively. Teleology is the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater when the Genesis worldview is rejected as outdated.


Jon Garvey - #68145

February 21st 2012

By the way, if Walton can be acceptable to both TEs and YECs, it suggests that the divisions are being drawn in the wrong places, according to a scientistic rather than a theological agenda.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68147

February 21st 2012

Jon wrote:

Teleology is the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater when the Genesis worldview is rejected as outdated.

I certainly agree with you that teleology is the issue.  I guess the question is “What do we mean by the Genesis worldview?”  I hope that we do not mean the ANE cosmology, but for some this seems to be the issue.

My view is many people confuse the doctrine of Creation, which is theology, with the act of creation, which is basically science.  The Genesis account gives us the meaning of God’s Creation of the universe, which is teleological.  Science for its own reasons rejects teleology. 

I think again we need to examine the philosophy of science and the overall philosophical world view of our Western culture, because it fails to give us the intellectual foundation humans need to live meaningful lives in today’s world.      


Jon Garvey - #68148

February 21st 2012

Roger

I agree with that, basically. But the ANE studies suggest that what is called “ANE cosmology” is actually more to do with “doctrine of creation” more than “act of creation.”

This doesn’t mean that Genesis doctrine is the same as Babylonian or Egyptian - that’s very far from the truth. But it does mean that both are interested in stuff that modernists - both from the science side or, to a sad extent, the Creationist side - simply don’t clock.

Now to me, that turns the tables along the same lines as your last sentence: it’s not that Genesis gives an account of science that is laughably primitive. It’s that modern scientific explanations give an account of creation that robs it of its meaning - sometimes wilfully so, by trumpeting that there is no meaning, and sometimes simply by failing to see the ignorance of our modern mindset..


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68151

February 21st 2012

Jon,

Again if Monod at al ,and of course it is much more than Monod, have taken teleology out of science, then we must take a long hard look at this and see if this is justified.  It seems very likely that teleology as advocated by Aristotle did provide explanations that did not encourage science, but they threw the baby out with the bathwater.  

I can’t say for sure that this reexamination has not been done, but I see no evidence that it has been done.  It is not per se the explanations that rob creation of its meaning, but the fact that they claim it has no meaning, because it is assumed that it has no meaning.  The Antropic Principle is the prime case in point.  


Jon Garvey - #68153

February 21st 2012

Roger

To affirm that creation has a purpose is not to presume to say what that purpose is is. I agree with the naturalists that scientific methods may have little they can say authoritatively about purpose ... though it’s amazing how much is still said about purpose at the immediate level - try this:

The available three dimensional structures of the bacterial ribosome and
their subunits show that in each of the two subunits the ribosomal
proteins are entangled within the complex rRNA conformation, thus
maintaining a striking dynamic architecture that is ingeniously designed
for their functions: precise decoding; substrate mediated peptide-bond
formation and efficient polymerase activity. (Ada Yonath, Nobel prizewinner)

I’ve challenged people on another site to rephrase this non-teleologically! Be that as it may, it does science no harm at all to acknowledge, rather than deny, purpose, whatever Modod et al say. Indeed, whatever may be said about Aristotle, it was actually his teleological foundation on which modern science was built - many of his conclusions took too long to debunk, but that was because of his stature. It’s no easier to displace Darwin or Einstein. And nearly every great scientist before Darwin worked on the assumption of purpose. Fact.

As Yonath (and every biological paper ever published) shows, teleological reasoning is actually science’s method all the time. Biologists wouldn’t write teleologically if they weren’t also thinking teleologically. As Alvin Plantinga suggests, I think it’s because intuition of design is actually a basic epistemological reality, like recognition of others’ personhood.

Plantinga, amusingly but maybe accurately, imagines scientists having to keep repeating to themselves, “It’s not designed, it’s not designed.” Doesn’t stop the “D” word slipping through into the papers though.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68155

February 21st 2012

Jon,

We are agreed on the problem, but not on the way to solve it.

You and Plantigua seem to see it as a temporary glich in the system that will fix itself.  I see it as a serious foundational problem that has already paralyzed philosophy and could bring western science and theology to its knees if not corrected by serious intervention. 

One can see the utter seriousness of the problem by reading the BioLogos blogs.


Jon Garvey - #68156

February 21st 2012

Hmm - I think it will fix itself in the sense that wars eventually fix themselves by exhausting and disillusioning those fighting them.

Better, it’s true, to achieve a peace by some means sooner than that. But maybe I think you’re too pessimistic about what has been achieved already, at least in philosophy. Half a century ago naturalistic/materialistic philosophy reigned unchallenged. Now, not least through the work of Plantinga, maybe up to 30% of the academy is theistic (and so teleological) in outlook.

Social science has also begun to reject naturalistic evolutionary ideas in its field, as Gregory would have told you when he posted here.

Natural science will drag its feet for longer - interesting to ask why. Unfortunately theology (as an academic pursuit) normally trails by a century or so - it’s only just got fully into the swing of  Modernism just as the party was winding up anyway.

Last of all to respond to the change will be Vox Pop - public opinion is just beginning to get secularised to the point science was a century ago. God forbid we have to wait that long for their disillusionment, because that’s an awful lot of souls.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68157

February 21st 2012

Jon,

Then why aren’t talking about Plantiga here.

If teleology is the main issue, how will Creationists be won over?

Do you think that postmodernism is doomed in favor of modernism?


Jon Garvey - #68159

February 21st 2012

Why aren’t we talking about Plantiga here.

One of the world’s foremost philosophers of religion and science - an Evangelical - a recent popular book on the subject… he’d be a bit off-topic wouldn’t he? Seriously, though, I too am surprised that he’s not mentioned much. A book review or an abridgement of Where the Conflict Really Lies would indeed be useful.

If teleology is the main issue, how will Creationists be won over?

I think there’s a mistaken view that the biggest stumblingblock for Creationists accepting origins science is Genesis literalism and fear. It’s not, for most - it’s evolution’s vaunted ateleology and a faithfulness to historic theology. So they won’t be won over by a largely ateleological rewriting of Christianity.

Do you think that postmodernism is doomed in favor of modernism

Postmodernism’s a funny beast - it was probably named too early to be sure exactly what it was. My own feeling is that it will not endure as long as modernism did. But as per my previous post, these things weave their way through society: over here Tony Blair was spouting modernism in politics when it was considered passé in academic circles. Once dead, I don’t think modernism will return - but no doubt it will become popular on the street just when postmodernism is receiving its burial by intellectuals and the next Overarching Truth sweeps aside all that has gone before.

The flip side, though, is that although ordinary people are inevitably affected by these movements, there are millions who never wed the Spirit of the Age (because they weren’t “well-educated”!) and so won’t become so quickly widowed.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68168

February 21st 2012

Jon,

The question is What will be the next overarching truth?  Will it be better or worse than what we have now?  Dawkins and Dennett are betting that they are riding the wave.  I think that people of faith have to challenge their position, which I repeat we have not done.

I really do not share your faith in the way the world works.  I think that we as Christians are called to follow the example of Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Wesley the renewed vision of God’s Kingdom , even if it is at odds with the current Churchianity. 


Jon Garvey - #68190

February 22nd 2012

Roger, I didn’t want to give the impression we should ride the wave and hope for the best - merely to suggest some of the waves that are actually swirling around.

True Christianity is the worldview that always cuts across whatever worldview is prevalent, imperfectly though its disciples adhere to it and avoid buying into the latest alternative. That involves a number of things (all obvious):
(a) Soaking up the worldview God presents in the Bible. Whatever attitude one takes to details of the Bible, it is a Christ-centred landscape in which to dwell. Simple Christians have avoided many of the worst fads simply by reading the Bible instead of Darwin, Freud, Marx etc, and for better or worse some of the changes have just passed them by. BUT…
(b) Lack of understanding makes them (and us) vulnerable - hence Creationism, unbeknown to its follers, is an unconscious product of Enlightenment thinking. As is liberalism, though consciously, as it was desperate to fit in with modernity. So thinking people have to engage with such worldviews - a great but dangerous place to be in view of their plausibility and the hostility with which they treat dissidents. Nobody likes sitting alone at the party.
(c) The important “etceteras” - such as prayer, Christian fellowship and so on. All to do with living as consistently as possibility in the reality of a worldview at odds with the prevalent one (which is inevitable until Christ reigns).

In the early days of Christianity, its critics talked of it as a third race - distinguished from Jews and Greeks (pagans). That’s because it stuck out like a sore thumb wherever it was. Whenever it doesn’t stick out, you know it’s in danger of caving in.


penman - #68191

February 22nd 2012

I think it’s all four of the mentioned factors that keep most YECs away from “origins science” - literalism, fear, the perceived ateleology of evolution, & the abandonment of the historic faith by too many proponents of TE/ECism. In different people the different elements mix in varying proportions.

In my own experience, I would have to say that literalism plays a very big role. The Reformation21 blog recently offered a fairly scathing review of C. John Collins’ book “Did Adam & Eve Really Exist?” purely on the basis that Collins is not willing to commit himself dogmatically to a literal creation of Adam from the soil in Gen.2, even though he robustly endorses a historical Adam. The argument against Collins was that once you abandon literal exegesis on Adam’s creation, you can no longer know what the Bible says about anything - maybe the Lord’s Resurrection was also a myth. I’ve found this to be quite widespread thinking in the circles I move (or hide) in.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68195

February 22nd 2012

Penman,

The question is why do YECs think that literalism is necessary? 

This is a philosophical question with strong theological aspects.  I would agree with the literalist view if the Bible were the absolute Words of God.  However It is clear from John 1 that it is not.  Jesus is the divine Word of God, rather than the Bible. 

In fact since the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning” it is clear that John is retelling and reframing Genesis 1 as well as giving his version of the birth story of Jesus.

Genesis is not a myth but a cosmology based on historical events.  It is not the “words,” but the ideas that are important here.  John 1 revises this cosmology by putting Jesus square in the center of Reality in all its forms.  This does not weaken the gospel message but strengthens it.

However it does also indicate that science and theology (and philosophy) must work together to understand who we are and what we need to do to acheive our best destiny.       


penman - #68212

February 23rd 2012

Hi Roger
I’m not sure where the reign of undue literalism originated. I suppose there’s always been some debate within the Church about approaches to exegesis - e.g. the Antiochene/Alexandrian debate in the patristic era.

One interesting biblical perspective, I think, is Ezekiel 16, where we have the history of Israel presented in anything but “plain fact” prose. If one adopted literal exegesis, many absurdities would result! Yet if one adopted a “myth” exegesis, one would vaporize away the actual history of Israel. It seems to me that Ezek.16 shows the rich potential for describing historical events in a non-literal mode of discourse, which is more or less how I approach Genesis 1-3.


Jon Garvey - #68216

February 23rd 2012

Penman

Is one factor that, since liberal scholarship, many or most attempts to de-literalise Scripture have been intended to undermine its inspiration? And that goes along with the general tendency to think purely in concrete material terms.

Whereas someone like Augustine, if he judged a Scripture not to be historically true in some matter, worked on how God inspired it as allegory, typology, accommodation to simple folk and so on; since the enlightenment “non-literal has” come to mean “erroneous” in the place it “matters”: scientific fact.

Inspiration remains only in some vague and impotent way: Genesis doesn’t actually give a truthful account in any sense, but its author merely tells Israel to worship Yahweh rather than pagan gods. Which is fine till you ask what motive there is to worship a God who doesn’t do stuff and whose Scripture inspires, at most, misplaced loyalty.


penman - #68227

February 24th 2012

Hi Jon
Yes, a good point about the “battle with liberalism”. Maybe the prevalence of literal (over-literal, IMHO) exegesis is at least partially a reaction on the part of evangelicals intended to safeguard the veracity & authority of scripture. Personally, however, I don’t see why one cannot have a healthy doctrine of scriptural veracity & authority without committing oneself to this kind of literalism.

Is anyone out there going to review Robert Asher’s new book “Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist”?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #68230

February 24th 2012

Jon and Penman,

I have been trrying to understand what you two have been discussing because I think that it does reflect the mind/body dualism of the Western culture, that is are facts most important or are ideas most important.

It seems to me that today science and facts have won out with most people, but facts without ideas to go with them are empty.  Scientism is trying to build an idealogy out of scientific “facts” without ideas reducing science to a superficial descrition devoid of understanding.  We need both facts ansd an understanding of the facts.

Another way to look at this is the Mythos/Logos dichotomy.  Mythos is an idea which it true based on tradition and authority.  Logos is an idea which is true based on experience and testing.  Jesus claimed to be the Messiah not because He said He was the Messiah, but because He did the work of salvation that only the Messiah could do.   

Luke 7:20  When the men came to Jesus, they said, “John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’”
21  At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.
22  So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

People today say that the Bible is Mythos because like mythos it conveys Meaning.  However unlike the old myths it is rational meaning based on logic and experience. 

Mt 17:20  He (Jesus) replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus may have said the above sentence, but I know of no one who takes it literally.  It is reported that Muhammad told a mountain to come to him, and when it did not, he chose to go the the mountain.  Did he lack faith?

Still we know that faith is important, so it seems that Jesus was speaking figurtively, but it does not mean that He was not telling the truth.

To say that Jesus is the Logos of the universe means that the universe has Meaning and that Meaning is Jesus.  Scientism is based on the belief that the universe is irrational and without meaing because it cannot think.  If the universe is only physical that is no Source of rational Meaning or order.   

The Mythos provides order based on ideas, but not facts or events.  The Logos provides order based of facts, events, and ideas, which is why it is called rational.  Science is supposed to be based on the Logos, understanding the meaning of natural reality. 

However, since many scientists have limited Reality to the physical, it has lost its factual base, since Nature includes the rational and meaningful as well as the physcial aspects Reality.           
    

 


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