There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’

shadowofcrossOn the night Jesus was betrayed, he had dinner with his friends. But they would all abandon him later that night.

That same night, Jesus was trapped by his enemies, who wanted him dead. Having nowhere on earth to turn, he turned to God the Father. God didn’t come to his rescue.

Within hours, Jesus was violently hustled out of Jerusalem. He was nailed by the limbs to a cross—transfixed to a gibbet by hate and rejection.

And yet, as the shadow of death suffocated his life, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who harmed him.

And he was heard.

In the depths of human despair, when God seemed to be nowhere, yet God was acting to save. When screams of hate and betrayal seemed to drown out cries for love and reconciliation, God was listening. When God seemed callously absent, he was there in the One he had sent. At the moment Jesus seemed to have failed, he triumphed over all.

Things are not always as they seem.

There is a reason to celebrate the death of this man. There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’.

‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’

Advertisements

The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

Blood Moon and the Day of the Lord

Tonight (15 April 2014) was a ‘blood moon’. That is, there was a total eclipse of the moon (I dare you not to think of Bonnie Tyler!) that turned the moon a reddish colour for a short time. Unfortunately, here in Sydney it was overcast and raining, so I didn’t get to see it. However, I’ve seen images that others were able to take, and it’s quite a phenomenon to behold.

The lunar eclipse creates a red moon above Melbourne. Photo: Jason South. Published: The Age.

In Joel 2.31, we read these words:

The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and awe-inspiring Day of Yahweh comes.

There has been a lot of talk about how the particular blood moon of today might be a fulfilment of this prophecy, especially since there seem to be more such celestial phenomena to come in the near future. Some see in this blood moon a sign of the imminent return of Jesus.

I beg to differ.

But not because I want to be a heretic, party-pooper, or a lover of novelty. I’m just taking my lead from the Apostle Peter.

In Acts 2, we read that the Apostle Peter preached to crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God had just rushed upon Peter and the other Apostles, enabling them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus in all the languages of the various pilgrims in Jerusalem at the time. This was such a groundbreaking event that Peter interpreted it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. And he quoted directly the very passage that contains the ‘moon to blood’ quote. There was no astronomical phenomenon happening at the time. It was, rather, a bunch of people speaking in languages they didn’t natively know, proclaiming ‘the magnificent acts of God’ (Acts 2.11). Yet Peter saw the entire passage from Joel as appropriate for describing this linguistic phenomenon. He didn’t just quote the part from Joel that referred to various people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions—he chose to quote the whole passage, which included reference to signs of blood, fire, and smoke, the sun growing dark, and the moon turning to blood.

In other words, Peter did not see Joel’s image of celestial catastrophe as a sign in need of literal fulfilment. Rather, he interpreted Joel’s prophecy as fulfilled in a figurative manner by the apostles speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost. The motif of cataclysmic events is frequently seen in proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic texts. It is not meant to be taken in a literal fashion. It is, rather, a vivid way of portraying something that is going to ‘rock the world’, so to speak.

We do this kind of thing today without batting an eyelid. When we talk about something being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘earth-shattering’, we don’t actually mean that the earth under our feet has split open. We simply use it to refer to something new, exciting, and highly significant. The image of a blood moon in biblical literature is very similar to this.

What this means is that Peter viewed the events of his day, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most groundbreaking event of history. It was the Day of the Lord—the time in which God would act in such a significant way that nothing would ever be the same again.

Now, while I believe that Jesus will one day return, I don’t think we need to be looking for eclipses, blood moons, and celestial catastrophes before he can return. Many will point to other supposed signs that are meant to happen before Jesus returns (e.g. the re-emergence of modern Israel, or the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple), but I don’t think a rigorous and prophetically responsible reading of either the Old or New Testament supports any of these. There is only one substantive sign that the Bible gives as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, and that is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. And that occurred in AD 70.

In biblical thought, the Last Day is characterised by the resurrection from the dead. This day began when Jesus was raised from the dead. He was the first one to experience Judgement Day, when God declared the verdict of ‘righteous’ on his life. The rest of us will experience judgement at a later stage. But there is nothing more than need happen before this occurs, for it the day has already begun. And the return of Jesus as the judge of all humanity, which will wrap up Judgement Day, will occur at any time.

So what should we make of this blood moon today? Let it remind you of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Let it remind you that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the most groundbreaking (or should that be ‘tomb-breaking’) event in all of history. But also marvel at the natural phenomena the Creator has put in place. Let the words of Psalm 8 resound:

Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth,
how you put your majesty over the heavens!
From the mouths of infants
you have established strength,
so that your rivals stop,
the enemy be avenged.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humanity that you remember them,
the son of man that you look after him?
You made him less than gods,
yet crowned him with glory and splendour.
You have him rule the works of your hands,
everything have you put under his feet;
sheep and oxen all
even the animals in the wild;
the birds of heaven,
and the fish of the sea,
that which swims the paths of the seas.
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!

 

Did the Camel Break the Bible’s Back?

I’ve written a short response to the recent excitement about claims that ancient camels have disproved the Bible. It’s specifically in response to Sam de Brito’s article in the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. You can read my response at ABC’s Religion and Ethics site.

camel1

It’s OK to use the Bible on your iPad when you preach

My attention was drawn today to an article by Matthew Barrett (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, and executive editor of Credo magazine) on the Gospel Coalition’s website. It’s titled ‘Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church’. Barrett argues that it’s unwise, perhaps even wrong, for pastors and preachers to use an iPad in the pulpit instead of a classic hardcopy Bible. You can read his article HERE.

I found myself disagreeing with Barrett’s arguments almost at every point. The digital revolution is huge. The change it is bringing about in the world of books is similar to the great shifts that occurred in the past. Just as we moved from the stone or clay tablet to the scroll, and then from the scroll to the codex, so we are now moving from the codex to the e-book on digital tablet or phone. Like the previous shifts, this is just a change of medium. The word of God is not the medium on which it is printed. The word of God is the words that convey the Word, whether they are inscribed by a chisel, written with a quill, printed by a laser printer, beamed by a projector light, or present in an app. That’s why the title of Barrett’s article is perhaps unfair and misleading. If a pastor brings an iPad into the pulpit, he is still bringing the Bible to church. The Bible on iPad is no less the Bible than a printed hardcopy. Barrett’s article should probably have been titled ‘Dear Pastor, I want you to bring a Bible codex to church’.

In any case, with the Bible on your tablet, you’ve still got something physical in your hands (something Barrett demands), and you usually glimpse the various books of the Bible in making your text selection (something Barrett says promotes biblical literacy). If we want a seriously authentic experience when preaching, why don’t we just go back to having a repository of biblical scrolls in our church buildings, and the pastor can go pick the relevant scroll and unfurl it at the pulpit. This is what happens when the Torah is read in the synagogue. In fact, you could even argue that the iPad offers a more ‘original’ experience than a codex because you can actually ‘scroll through’ the Bible. I suspect Barrett just needs to get used to the new medium, as do the rest of us. It is quite a revolution after all, but we are also reading more than ever. Why, we could even think about using the Bible on our iPads as a means of ‘redeeming’ the new medium!

If the person in the pew has an issue with a pastor using the Bible on iPad in the pulpit, then perhaps the pastor should think twice. After all, a pastor needs to care for the flock. But in and of itself I see no problem whatsoever in the use of the Bible on iPad. I’m happy to hear other people’s views on this and open to being convinced otherwise, but I really can’t see what the fuss is about.

Reviewing Reza Aslan’s Jesus

My friend and fellow Sydneysider, historian John Dickson (Centre for Public Christianity), has written a review of Reza Aslan’s controversial recent book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013). In short, John isn’t a fan of Aslan’s method, content, or conclusions. Here’s a sprinkling of comments from John’s review:

John Dickson

The mismatch between Aslan’s grandiose claims and his limited credentials in history is glaring on almost every page.

In order to move from the bleeding obvious (that some Jews were freedom-fighters) to the utterly implausible (that Jesus was one of them), Aslan takes several false steps, all of which involve as much creativity as history.

…there is the exaggerated depiction of Jesus’s homeland as a place brimming with insurrection and crazed prophets of doom. Scholarship over the last four decades, ever since Martin Hengel’s seminal work, has concluded that “zealotry” in Palestine was a limited, if contiguous, set of movements through the first half of the first century.

…countless scholars from within the relevant disciplines are amply satisfied that there are straightforward explanations of the fact that Jesus of Nazareth ended up on a Roman cross. And none of them involves trampling on the range of evidence in our possession that Jesus eschewed violence on behalf of the kingdom of God.

Finally, the list of exaggerations and plain errors in Zealot bear testimony to Aslan’s carelessness with concrete history.

The review was published by the ABC, and can be accessed HERE.