Saturday, September 12, 2009

The evolution of Scripture

A post or so below I mused a little on the creationism versus evolution debate.

One aspect of that debate is the pitting of an "instantism" versus "incrementalism"; the former being the approach to Genesis 1 which says an awful lot of development of life stuff happened in seven days; the latter being the approach of evolutionary biology which says that life as we know it now is the result of a very, very long process of incremental development of life (with some instantaneous jolts such as (a) the original 'big bang', and (b) the effects of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, meteorite collisions on life).

I sometimes wonder if a problem for creationists accepting incrementalism is a lack of understanding of God's patience!

But I also wonder if creationism arises in intellectual contexts which have little or no understanding of the evolution of Israel's Scripture. A God who dictates Scripture to Moses is compatible with a God who speaks life into instant being. But if God did not dictate Scripture to Moses, if God presided over a long, messy, complex, and somewhat incremental or (as theologians say) progressive revelation to Israel, then God might similarly have presided over a long, messy, complex and somewhat incremental development of life, i.e. evolution.

The Old Testament is widely agreed by scholars conservative and liberal and in between to be an extraordinarily complex set of writings, which include differing lines of theological commitments. Consider:

Genesis to Deuteronomy (the Pentateuch): its origins clearly lie in oral tradition, it has a strong association with Moses as a presiding genius over its writing, yet betrays various clues as to its multiple authorship and final editing during the years of the Babylonian Exile.

Isaiah: the most important book of the OT for the early Christians is written in at least two stages, most likely one before the Babylonian Exile and one after, and thus this book is likely the expression of a school of prophets rather than one lone prophet called Isaiah.

Deuteronomy to 2 Kings (at least) is guided and shaped by the theology of Deuteronomy, that obedience to the Sinai covenant will be blessed and disobedience will be cursed. The perspective of final compilation is that of the Exile: Israel is shattered by the hammer of the Babylonian Empire because of its disobedience. The sequence of post-Deuteronomy history books, Joshua - 2 Kings is often described as the Deuteronomic History.

1 & 2 Chronicles presents an alternative history of Israel, beginning with creation and ending with the restoration from Exile with the decree of Cyrus that the temple in Jerusalem may be rebuilt. Its perspective is shaped by the theology of the Jerusalem Temple: good marks are awarded to kings who honour and progress the worship of Israel in the Temple; the exile is a consequence of defiling the Temple, and its end is marked by the restoration of the Temple.

That the compilers of the Scripture of Israel did not understand this alternative history of Israel to contradict the Deuteronomic History follows from the inclusion of both in the Scripture. (A similar point can be made in respect of alternate creation stories in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2)!

But, in turn, this (brief) explanation of some aspects of the character and the development of the OT implies that God embraces messy, long development of Israel's theology, indeed of Israel's complementary theologies. In short God has presided over the evolution of Scripture.

Can we accept that the God of Scripture presided over the evolution of life?


  1. One problem with your thesis is that Scripture is not a biological entity. The shaping of it did not occur spontaneously and randomly but through the purposeful efforts of human beings who were inspired by God's Holy Spirit.

    No doubt there will be some creationists who think that God dictated the Pentateuch to Moses. I'm sure they are outnumbered by the ones who think Moses edited received texts to produce Genesis - as in Wiseman's "toledoth" hypothesis. Genesis, at least, did not necessarily originate in oral traditions. The people who brought us the Documentary Hypothesis (and form criticism, etc.) were, one and all, strongly influenced by developmental beliefs concerning humanity and human civilisation. If monotheism was a "high" religious idea then, obviously, it had to have been preceded by "low" religious ideas such as animism. I believe E.B. Tyler was the armchair theorist who argued that the development of monotheism was related to the development of human societies. But he was proved wrong by anthropologists who actually went into the field, e.g., Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt.

  2. Character limit problems ...

    Can we accept that the God of Scripture presided over the evolution of life?

    It depends on what you mean by "evolution of life". What most people don't understand is that the "evolution of life" involves three separate subjects:
    1) evolution of life from non-living matter (chemical evolution),
    2) evolution of life through all non-recorded, non-scientifically-investigated history (historical evolution), and
    3) evolution of life that is occurring in the present and can be investigated scientifically.

    Research into chemical evolution has proved so singularly unsuccessful at demonstrating reasonably plausible naturalistic scenarios that evolutionists, themselves, now say that the theory of evolution only refers to that which has occurred since life, somehow, emerged from non-living matter. It is presumed that it occurred naturalistically (because that is what would make the idea 'scientific') but nobody has any good idea how that happened.

    Research into evolution as it is happening now is also singularly unpromising for those who wish to believe that one kind of creature can, given enough time, turn into another, completely different, kind of creature. The Galapagos finches that so inspired Darwin have been shown to all be of one species, capable of producing offspring with all different beak sizes and styles. Which one predominates in which place depends on the available food resources. This is related to local weather.

    Research into historical evolution is, as Dawkins has noted, rather like what goes on in a court room where circumstantial evidence is brought out and arguments are made. Note that there is no eye-witness evidence and there cannot be any such evidence since there were no scientists around at the time to do any observations. So historical evolution is not so much a science as it is a philosophical position in which the evidence is viewed through the lens of belief in naturalism.

    There are two major problems with this philosophical position. The first is that it commits the fallacy of affirming the consequent. This is only ever tenable when one already knows all possible causes of a particular event. But we do not know how life could have originated naturalistically and nor do we know how life could have differentiated naturalistically and progessively. To say that the latter happened by random mutations acted on by natural selection is merely to assert what has to be proved and to fly in the face of what we know of the laws of information and of entropy.

    The second problem is that we now know much more about the workings of cells. Darwin and his contemporaries (and successors) thought that cells were basically 'vital' goop that could change, this way and that, as required. Now we know that cells are incredibly complex and finely organised nano-machines. If you don't think throwing a spanner into the works of any humanly constructed car engine would improve its performance in any way you can have no reason to imagine that a random disorganisation of one part of one of these cellular machines would have any greater chance of making the cell work better.

  3. Hi Janice
    You make a good point! The 'evolution' of Scripture is not precisely analogous to the evolution of life (as in random chance, natural selection).
    I still think that behind received texts = Genesis lie oral traditions informing those texts!

  4. Hi Janice
    (Referring to your second comment)
    Whatever has happened in the evolution of life God has presided over it, and that presidency may include contributions to the course of evolution so that his purposes would be fulfilled.
    I quite agree that there are important philosophical questions raised by evolutionary biology which may not admit of answers as straightforward as most evolutionary biologists would appear to wish them to be.

  5. The point I was trying to make is somewhat related to what you wrote about culture at Admiration and distance from the great men of theology

    My suggestion is that "culture" - in this case the culture of vote-giving, education-providing, career-affirming 20th and 21st century Westernism - has changed the way we all read Scripture, at least reading Scripture so that we do not draw the conclusions these great theologians drew.

    Rev. Prof. Goodwin, obviously a highly educated man, was convinced that women are, by nature, not fit for public and political life. He didn't come out of the womb believing those were, "the plainest facts". He learned them from the (sub)culture in which he was raised and educated. That is where he also learned to regard as lesser beings, or somehow wicked, those who disagreed with this view of women.

    The idea that we are moving ever onward and upward, not merely technologically but also biologically, has held sway in mainstream Western culture for the last 100 odd years. That things go from simple to complex, crude to sophisticated, oral to written, goo to you, is taken for granted as plainest fact. Those who disagree are usually regarded as ... well, pick your pejorative.

    Earlier this year I read the preface to the English translation of Hermann Gunkel's "Genesis". On p vii-viii he wrote,

    Uncivilized peoples do not write history. Incapable of objectively interpreting their experiences, they have no interest in reliably transmitting the events of their time to posterity.Uncivilized peoples do not write history. Incapable of objectively interpreting their experiences, they have no interest in reliably transmitting the events of their time to posterity. ...

    [T]he question of whether the accounts of Genesis are history or legend does not involve belief or unbelief, but simply better understanding. It has been objected that Jesus and the apostles apparently regarded these accounts as reality and not poetry. Certainly. But NT figures had no particular stance regarding such questions. Instead, they shared the opinions of their time.

    Here we see some of the developmentalist beliefs current in educated circles in Gunkel's time. The idea that, "[w]hatever has happened in the evolution of life God has presided over it," is a developmentalist belief that is common in Christian circles in our time. Purist evolutionists regard it as oxymoronic because the whole point of the General Theory of Evolution (GTE) is to explain the diversity of life without appealing to God.

    I stopped believing in the GTE 30 years ago when I had to learn about insulin production and cellular uptake. In the face of the complexity of that one biological system the GTE was exposed to me as completely implausible. Since then, what has been learned about the complexity of even the simplest cell has only thrown the implausibility of the GTE into sharper and sharper relief. But you'll never find that out if you never question the mainstream culture.

    Worse, you'll miss out on getting an inkling of the true magnificence of God's wisdom in creation. I mean, DNA's pretty impressive just as a four letter, triplet based code. But when you consider that the code is read forwards and backwards, and folded and unfolded, it makes you realise that the intelligence involved in creating this code is so far beyond superlatives that the only proper response is adoration. It also makes you realise that the only thing random mutations can do to such a code is damage it. (See John Sandford's "Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome".

  6. Hi Janice
    Thank you for this comment.
    At risk of being confusing, I believe generally in evolution, without subscribing to any one theory, while recognising the incredible complexity of creation and thus, always, wondering about the precise role of the finger of God on its design and implementation!