Thursday, October 29, 2015

[BTT001] Genesis 1:1

Previous: [BTT000] Prologue

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." On first glance, this verse seems of the utmost simplicity. There is a being called "God," and this being creates the heavens and the earth, in the beginning. Got it.

Then we start to ask questions. Who is this "God" who has the ability to create the heavens and the earth? When was the beginning? Was this beginning the beginning of time, or simply the beginning of the heavens and the earth? By "the heavens," do we mean the sky above the planet Earth, or a separate plane of existence? By "earth" do we mean "Earth, the planet" or the entire physical universe?

Many of these questions are answered as we dive further into the Bible. Some of these things we learn with certainty - for example, we learn about the attributes and character of God through His interactions with human beings. He is the great "I AM," the uncreated creator of all that is. He is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And above all, He is a God who cares for His creation, to the point of sending His Son to die on the cross to redeem it.

There are other things that we are not told explicitly, but can infer with a high certainty. For example, we learn that God had not yet made the stars or other planets, so it is likely that "earth" refers to the raw matter of the entire physical universe. This matter is later organized into specific planets, stars, and creatures. The Trinity is also an example of a thing inferred with high certainty - we read about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the Bible never uses the term "Trinity."

There are other things which are inferred with less certainty. Does "heavens" refer to the earth's atmosphere or to the eternal heavens? Given that the earth was still "without form and void" and that there is apparently no atmosphere at this point (Gen. 1:6-8), it seems likely that here "heavens" refers to the eternal heavens.

This, however, is somewhat uncertain - when God creates the atmosphere a few verses later, it is also referred to as "Heaven" (the Hebrew word used in both verses is שָׁמַיִם /shamayim despite the capitalization/pluralization differences in English). So perhaps Genesis 1:1 is only giving us a preview of what is about to happen. It is difficult to say with certainty.

There are other things which seem straightforward at first, but later become more complicated. "In the beginning" mostly likely refers to the beginning of Time itself, not just the beginning of "the heavens and the earth." Using that as our starting point of Time and the subsequent genealogies as our subsequent chronology, it seems logical that our universe has only existed for roughly six thousand years.

But when we look at the world around us, from the timescales necessary for the mountains to rise and the layers of the Earth's crust to form, from the speed of light from distant stars to the background radiation of the Big Bang, a very different picture emerges. At the very least, we must say that God created the universe with the appearance of age. Even if we do not doubt the Word of God, the picture becomes more complicated.

[For more on this, check out I Could Never Get the Hang of Last Thursdays: Thoughts on Omphalos]

Or take the example of Joshua 10:

"Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon;
            And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”
            So the sun stood still,
            And the moon stopped,
            Till the people had revenge
            Upon their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day." - Joshua 10:12-13

Once again, the most literal reading of the text is that the sun literally stopped. This implies that the motion of the sun across the sky is a literal motion, i.e., that it is the sun that revolves around the Earth. Of course, we now know that this passage must be describing an appearance - the sun's motion in the sky stopped, but the sun did not literally stop moving because it is the Earth that revolves around the sun.

This is not to say that we can learn nothing from Scripture, but rather that certain passages can be interpreted in multiple ways. We can say that the sun stopped in the sky without error, because that is without doubt what Joshua saw, just as every day we see the sun move across the sky. If we take "the sun stood still" as a literal description of how the scene appeared to Joshua, everything is fine. If we then infer that the sun rotates around the Earth, we are in error.

In other words, there is a difference between saying that the Scripture is the Word of God, completely without error or contradiction, and saying that our interpretation of the Scripture is the Word of God, completely without error or contradiction.
Does "the heavens" in Genesis 1:1 refer to the sky and space, or the eternal Heavens? It is difficult to say. We can say in faith that Moses was moved by the omniscient Spirit of God to write those words. We can say with certainty that the Spirit of God knows best what happened, since it was there, doing the creating. All of these interpretations are feasible, none of them are contrary to the plain reading or spirit of the passage, and all can be held without doing violence to the text.

However, for the very reason that none of these readings are contrary to the honest reading of the text, it is wrong to claim that you know with absolute certainty exactly what Moses meant. We can gather evidence from Scripture, we can gather evidence from Nature, we can gather evidence from Logic, but in lieu of overwhelming evidence (of the 'oh, the Earth revolves around the Sun' variety) all reasonable interpretations remain valid.

The heresies of Gnosticism or Manicheism are easily enough refuted by the words of Scripture. One can only claim that Jesus did not have a physical body or that salvation comes by knowledge rather than faith by doing violence to the text - something which the heretics know all too well. Every new heresy invariably ends up writing new "holy books" to replace the Bible. Some claim to only supplement it with new inspirations or to restore the "true interpretation," but the new inevitably crowds out the old.

But for the faithful, the danger is not in adding to the Word of God or twisting it beyond recognition, but in insisting that one of the many possible interpretations is the only possible truth. It is in replacing the Scriptures, with all of their nuances of Divine meaning, with a single human reading.

Next: [BTT002] Biblical Theologies and the Bible

Thursday, October 22, 2015

[BTT000] Prologue: Free Will, Predistination, and the Limits of Understanding

A Brief Theology of Time Series Hub

As I will say many (many, many) times throughout the course of this series, I am not a theologian.

I have not attended a Bible College, let alone a seminary. My Bachelor's and Master's degrees are both in Japanese, not in Hebrew or Greek. In terms of academic credentials, I am as qualified to tell you about the Bible as your plumber (possibly less, depending on your plumber's curriculum vitae). I am also not a pastor, deacon, elder, priest, archbishop, lay minister, youth leader, or even a quiet yet deeply spiritual church janitor.
So why did I write this series? Good question.
I began wrestling with the issues raised in this series many years ago, after a discussion with a campus minister at my university. My younger brother and I were talking with this minister about sin. He told us that every time we were tempted to sin, we should think about Jesus on the Cross, and how our sins would make His burden all the heavier.

Now, my brothers and I were raised as strict Calvinists (and just as importantly, Science Fiction geeks), so this argument immediately rang false to both of us. This is not to say that we were unconcerned with the sufferings of Christ. We simply could not accept the idea that our sins would somehow travel backwards in time.

After all, God knows our futures before they happen – it is part of how He can promise that “all things work together for good.” The thought that the Father was up in Heaven with a pair of binoculars, watching us sin and saying “Darn it, that person just bore false witness. Tell Michael to go back in time to the Crucifixion and ratchet up the pain” felt silly, almost to the point of cheapening the sufferings of Christ.

At any rate, my family has never been one to back down from a good debate, so we raised our objections - much to the minister's surprise. He told us that he had counseled many students with that image, and that none of them had ever had an objection.

Now, this happened a good long time ago, and I may be remembering some of the details wrong, but I distinctly remember him saying something to the effect that my brother and I “don't see time like normal people.”

I'm still not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult, but I've never been able to forget that conversation. What exactly is the relationship between sin, redemption, and time? How does God relate to time? The angels? The fallen angels? Most importantly, what is the relationship between time and the New Heavens and New Earth described in Revelation?

I couldn't get these questions out of my head, and I couldn't find any books that answered them adequately. The only books on the subject of time in the Bible I could find dealt only with issues like Six-Day Creationism vs. Long-Day Creationism, chronos vs. kairos, or arguments over when the Millennial Reign of Christ would begin. Every now and then I would stumble across something enlightening, but these bits and pieces were long and far between - and I ended up with more questions than answers.

So, I wrote this series.

Now, I'm not going to claim that this series has the answers. Like I said, I'm not a theologian. But what it does have is some important questions and some theories on what the answers might be. My goal is to bring these questions together in one place so that we can start asking them together.

You may not agree with some of the conclusions that I come to in this book, but that's okay. I'm not 100% certain of my own conclusions. But I do think we need to start having this conversation.

In a sense, we are dealing with  concepts beyond the ability of any human to fully comprehend. What is eternity? What happens after the End of Time? That is why we are going to be examining theoretical models instead of asserting theological certainties. I am not asking you to agree with anything in this series - there are parts that I have serious reservations about - but I am asking that you read with an open Bible and an open mind.

I'm not trying to advance a perfect theory, but to set up multiple theories that can be disassembled and played around with. Don't like something I said? Don't agree with how I've interpreted a verse? I encourage you to take the argument apart and put together a new one.
Nothing discussed in here is essential to salvation. These are things that it is okay to disagree about. My hope is not that we will find definite answers to these questions, but rather that we might find a deeper understanding of the Scriptures by digging into what it says.

To that end, let's start by talking about what it means to argue.

Next: [BTT001] Genesis 1:1

[A Brief Theology of Time] Series Hub

“Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortals knows.” - CS Lewis, The Great Divorce

A Brief Theology of Time

[BTT000] Prologue: Free Will, Predestination, and the Limits of Understanding

Part I: Arguing With Augustine

[BTT001]  Genesis 1:1
[BTT002] Biblical Theologies and the Bible
[BTT003] The Wages of Dogmatism
[BTT004] Faith of Our Fathers
[BTT005] Creatures of Time, Creatures of Eternity

Part II: What Does the Bible Say About Time?

[BTT006] What Does the Bible Say About Time?
[BTT007] The Time Before Time
[BTT008] The Beginning of Time
[BTT009] The Fall of Space and the Fall of Time
[BTT010] The Fall of Time and the Three Curses
[BTT011] The End of Time
[BTT012] Time Destroyed

Part III: Objections and Responses

[BTT013] "Isn't the problem of Time..."
[BTT014] "If the Bible is the Eternal Word of God..."
[BTT015] "If the Death and Resurrection of Jesus occurred in history..."
[BTT016] "How can a just God..."
[BTT017] Further Objections

Part IV: The Proposition of Pain

[BTT018] Does God Care About Suffering?
[BTT019] Temporal Suffering and Eternal Suffering
[BTT020] All Things Made New

Part V: Prophecy and the Divine Perspective

[BTT021] How Does the Bible Approach Prophecy?
[BTT022] Specific Old Testament Prophecy, Ambiguous Fulfillment
[BTT023] Explicit Fulfillment, Ambiguous Prophecy
[BTT024] Matt 1:18-23 / Isaiah 7:3-17
[BTT025] Matt 2:14-15 / Hosea 11:1-4
[BTT026] Matt 2:6-18 / Jer 31:15-17
[BTT027] Matt 4:12-16 / Isaiah 9:1-7
[BTT028] Matt 8:16-17 / Isaiah 53:1-6
[BTT029] Matt 12:14-21 / Isaiah 42:1-4
[BTT030] Matt 21:1-5 / Zech 9:1-10
[BTT031] Matt 27:3-9 / Jer 32:1-15
[BTT032] Matt 27:35 / Psalm 22:16-18
[BTT033] Mark 15:27-28 / Isaiah 53:10-12
[BTT034] Luke 4:21 / Isaiah 61:1-4
[BTT035] John 12:35-41 / Isaiah 53:1 / Isaiah 6:10
[BTT036] John 13:18-19 / Psalm 41:9
[BTT037] John 15:25 / Psalm 69:4
[BTT038] John 19:13-14 / Psalm 22:18
[BTT039] John 19:32-37 /Psalm 34:20? / Zechariah 12:10
[BTT040] Acts 1:15-22 / Psalm 69:25 / Psalm 109:8
[BTT041] Data Breakdown
[BTT042] Analysis