Friday, 23 May 2014

Andrew Perry shows how not to discuss evolution and creation - 4

Perry continues by asserting that the debate exists because conceptually, creation and evolution do not look alike. Furthermore, he argues that the creation narrative is the language of appearance, ruling out any attempt to harmonise evolution and the Bible. Perry also dismisses any attempt to read Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology, asserting that it does not fit well with ancient cosmologies, and concludes his dismissal of any attempt to reconcile evolution and Genesis by claiming that literalist regard such harmonisation as rejecting Genesis and ignoring the centrality of Adam and Eve to Christian teaching.

The reality of an evolutionary natural history is of course the blunt fact that destroys Perry's argument. Evolution occurred, and human-ape ancestry is a fact. Perry - and other special creationists - have no credible option other than to retool their theology in the light of this reality. It is significant that even without evolution, then Perry's concordist approach is untenable. If we grant Perry's assertion that the Genesis narrative is the language of appearance, then as OT scholars recognise, Genesis describes a cosmology completely at variance with reality.

This shows that any attempt to harmonise evolution with the creation narratives is a flawed exegetical strategy as one is attempting to read the narratives in a way alien to how the original audience would have read it. Perry's bizarre claim that any claim Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology makes the details of the account irrelevant for the believer today ignores the need to contextualise the message of Genesis 1 for a modern audience. This is basic hermeneutics, and it is puzzling that Perry fails to grasp this elementary point.

Perry's claim that harmonising evolution and Genesis is difficult is true, but not for the reasons he asserts:

"What is the problem? Why is there a debate? Can there be agreement? The problem is simple: 'creation' as a concept does not look like the concept of 'evolution.' [1]
It is true that one will not find evolution in the Genesis narratives, but one will also not find the modern concepts of OEC or YEC in the creation narratives for two reasons: (1) Genesis is ancient cosmology not modern science and (2) the creation narratives are more concerned with providing an explanation of functional origins rather than material origins. Any attempt to read the narratives as a description of how  and when God created the physical universe has failed to read Genesis in its context, irrespective of whether that is the literalism of YEC or the strong concordism of OEC. Creation as a concept does not look like evolution, or YEC or OEC. [2]

Evangelical geologist Davis Young, in his survey on Christian attempts to reconcile geology and Genesis has shown that both concordism as well as literalism have failed as meaningful exegetical strategies because of an inability to achieve consensus on how to harmonise the narratives with science:
A review of 300 years of literalistic and concordistic harmonizations between the biblical text and the results of empirical geological study shows that there has been absolutely no consensus among evangelical Christians about interpretation of the details of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood or about texts such as Psalm 104, Proverbs 8, or other wisdom literature that bear on the creation, the flood, or the physical character of the earth. There has not been a Christian consensus about the identity of the great deep, about the firmament, about the waters above and below the firmament, about what happened on the fourth day of creation, about the sequencing of events and their matching with the geological evidence, or about the nature of the fountains of the great deep. Given this history of extreme variation of understanding of these various elements of the biblical text, it is unwise to insist that the teaching of the biblical text on any of these matters is “clear and plain” or that one’s own interpretation is obviously what the biblical text has in mind. [3]
Having rejected both strong concordism and literalism, Young points out the need to look at alternative ways of reading Genesis which do not see them as employing modern standards of historiography, but instead read them in their ancient Near Eastern context:
I suggest that we will be on the right track if we stop treating Genesis 1 and the flood story as scientific and historical reports. We can forever avoid falling into the perpetual conflicts between Genesis and geology if we follow those evangelical scholars who stress that Genesis is divinely inspired ancient near eastern literature written within a specific historical context that entailed well-defined thought patterns, literary forms, symbols, and images. It makes sense that Genesis presents a theology of creation that is fully aware of and challenges the numerous polytheistic cosmogonic myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the other cultures surrounding Israel by exposing their idolatrous worship of the heavenly bodies, of the animals, and of the rivers by claiming that all of those things are creatures of the living God. The stars are not deities. God brought the stars into being. The rivers are not deities. God brought the waters into existence. The animals are not deities to be worshipped and feared, for God created the animals and controls them. Even the “chaos” is under the supreme hand of the living God. Thus Genesis 1 calmly asserts the bankruptcy of the pagan polytheism from which Israel was drawn and that constantly existed as a threat to Israel’s continuing faithfulness to the true God of heaven and earth [4]
Young's argument that Genesis should be read as a as a theology of creation which utilises common motifs in the ancient Near East to construct a fierce anti-pagan polemic is one that has been taken up by a number of OT scholars. The main hint that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology is of course the presence of a pre-scientific view of the Earth as seen in its depiction of a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below. Susan Pigott, a professor of OT and Hebrew at Logsdon School of Theology is hardly straying outside of the scholarly consensus when she points out that:
If we read Genesis 1 literally, we come out with a very different picture than most literalists imagine. Indeed, we find ourselves firmly planted in the Hebrew worldview—an ancient worldview. And, if we know our history, we know that the Hebrews had no concept of a round earth that coursed around the sun. They believed the earth was flat, the sky was a dome, and the sun revolved around the earth. [5]

Source: Reading Genesis 1 'Literally'

This point has been discussed elsewhere, so further detailed elaboration is unnecessary. Suffice it to say that Peter Enns' comments on this subject represent a fairly solid consensus position, as well as highlight the motivation of strong concordists such as Perry for trying to deny the reality of a solid firmament and presence of an ancient view of the universe in Genesis 1:
Biblical scholars understand the raqia to be a solid dome-like structure. It separates the water into two parts, so that there is water above the raqia and water below it (v. 7). The waters above are kept at bay so the world can become inhabitable. On the third day (vv. 9-10), the water below the raqia is “gathered to one place” to form the sea and allow the dry land to appear. 
Ancient Israelites “saw” this barrier when they looked up. There were no telescopes, space exploration, or means of testing the atmosphere. They relied on what their senses told them. Even today, looking up at a clear sky in open country, the sky seems to “begin” at the horizons and reaches up far above. Ancient Israelites and others in that part of the world assumed the world was flat, and so it looked like the earth is covered by a dome, and the “blue sky” is the “water above” held back by the raqia. The translation “firmament” (i.e., firm) gets across this idea of a solid structure. 
Biblical scholars agree on this understanding of raqia. For some Christians, however, this is troubling. How can the Bible, which is the inspired, revealed word of God, contain such an inaccurate piece of ancient nonsense? Hence, some invest a lot of time and energy to show that the raqia is not solid but more like the atmosphere. Often, the word “expanse” is the preferred translation because it does not necessarily imply something solid. 
Arguing for a non-solid raqia in Genesis is extremely problematic, for two reasons. First, the biblical and extrabiblical data indicate that raqia means a solid structure of some sort. The second problem is a much larger theological issue, but is actually more foundational. Regardless of what one thinks of the raqia, why would anyone assume that the ancient cosmology in Genesis could be expected to be in harmony with modern science in the first place
This second issue creates a conflict where they need not be one. The raqia “debate” is not the result of new evidence that has come to light. Our understanding of ancient perceptions of the cosmos has not been overturned by more information. The debate exists because of the assumption made by some Christians that the ancient biblical description of the world must be compatible on a scientific level with what we know today. (Emphasis mine) [6]
In arguing against this position, Perry continues to push not only his polemical agenda against theistic evolution by trying to equate non-concordist readings with acceptance of evolution, but misrepresents the position of those who state that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology, rather than modern science:
"More recently, theistic evolutionists have argued that Genesis is the literal language of its day - a kind of ancient cosmology, not to be related to science in any way. The problem here is that Genesis is not a very good fit with such cosmologies (noted by Biblical scholars down the years) and it rather makes the details of the account irrelevant for the believer today." [7]
Perry's assertion betrays a naive view of the relation between Genesis and the competing cosmologies, one which suggests he is responding negatively to the naive panbabylonian thesis that Genesis is simply a demythologised copy of Sumerian creation myths. The relationship between Genesis and the ancient Near East is somewhat more nuanced, and is not one of simple copying, but shared cognitive environments, as John Walton notes:
Here we are no longer talking about trying to figure out whose religion is better, who was more ethical, who copied what literature from whom, or what should be considered Scripture and what should not. Methodology need not be tailored to detect literary borrowing or govern polemical agendas. When comparative studies are done at the cognitive environment level, trying to understand how people thought about themselves and their world, a broader methodology can be used.
When we see evidence in the biblical text of a three-tiered cosmos, we have only to ask, Does the concept of a three-tiered cosmos exist in the ancient Near East? Once it is ascertained that it does, our task becomes to try to identify how Israel’s perception of the cosmos might have been the same or different from what we find elsewhere. We need not figure out how Israel would have gotten such a concept or from whom they would have “borrowed” it. Borrowing is not the issue, so methodology does not have to address that. Likewise this need not concern whose ideas are derivative. There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world. [8]
Specific examples of where we may expect similarities (as well as differences) due to a shared cognitive environment would include cosmogeography as mentioned above, as well as literary genre, theology, and religious practice, not to mention an emphasis on functional origins rather than material origins. Sharing the same cognitive environment does not necessarily mean, as Enns observes, that they are "directly connected, but [that] they share common ways of thinking about beginnings. They “breathe the same air.” [9] 

Understanding this background is essential to differentiate between similarities that are due to the cognitive background, and what may be the deliberate use of aspects of competing cosmologies in order to construct a polemic against them. Walton observes [10] how Israel's perception of existence shared with its neighbours an emphasis on order and function, with the main difference being that in ancient Near Eastern myth, this was performed by the gods from within the universe, while YHWH alone performed this from outside. Its theology differed significantly in its anionic worship of a deity who existed outside the cosmos and alone was creator, who had no material needs, but had elected to make a covenant relationship with Israel. Gordon Wenham puts the significance of the similarities and differences between Genesis and its competing cosmologies elegantly:
Gen 1–11 as we read it is a commentary, often highly critical, on ideas current in the ancient world about the natural and supernatural world. Both individual stories as well as the final completed work seem to be a polemic against many of the commonly received notions about the gods and man. But the clear polemical thrust of Gen 1–11 must not obscure the fact that at certain points biblical and extrabiblical thought are in clear agreement. Indeed Genesis and the ancient Near East probably have more in common with each other than either has with modern secular thought. [11]
Some of those differences include the relative absence of the conflict motif in Genesis 1. Whereas in the  Babylonian myth Enuma Elish the conflict between Marduk and Tiamat, culminating in her death and his construction of heaven and earth from her body, as Westermann observes:
If we examine the structure of the creation story in the epic Enuma Elish, we note something of which nothing but a suspicion remains in Gen 1: the element of tension dominates the struggle between Marduk and Tiamat; it unfolds and it is only because of the struggle that Marduk is able to create heaven and earth. There is a profound difference here between the Babylonian story and Gen 1. [12]
It is trivial to say that the absence of conflict in Genesis 1 is due to the absence of a rival deity; the main feature which differentiates Genesis from the competing cosmologies is its fierce monotheistic agenda. James McKeown notes:
The main difference is that Enuma Elish is unashamedly polytheistic while Genesis is not only monotheistic but is actually anti-polytheistic. Genesis takes every opportunity to deny divinity to heavenly bodies, referring to them as simply lights. In the same way, the account denies divinity to sea monsters, listing them as creatures God created in the same category as ordinary fish and fowl. Further evidence of the apologetic and polemic nature of the Genesis account is found when we compare it with the other Old Testament references to creation. Psalms, Job, and Isaiah include references to creation that use mythical language and refer to mythical forces that Yahweh subdued such as “Rahab” and “Leviathan,” whom he crushed and slew (Ps 89:9–12; Job 9:13–14; 26:12–13; Isa 27:1). In contrast to these references, Genesis leaves not a vestige of mythical language or thought; Genesis is a complete denial of the polytheistic and mythological worldview. No doubt the other biblical creation passages also attacked these views, but they employed a different strategy. Isaiah and Job asserted the superiority of Yahweh over the hypothetical mythological creatures and over every putative supernatural power, while in Genesis their very existence was denied. [13]
In the light of this, Perry's blithe assertion that "Genesis is not a very good fit with such cosmologies" is astonishingly naive. Genesis fits perfectly in its ANE cognitive environment. It reflects shared cosmogeography (solid firmament) and perception of existence (functional ontology), and shows an awareness of competing mythology by its pointed demythologisation of the universe. One cannot but suspect that the difficulties Perry faces in properly appreciating Genesis stems from imposing modern standards of historiography on the text, as Wenham warns:
An understanding of ancient oriental mythology is essential if we are to appreciate the points Gen 1–11 was making then, as too is a grasp of the relationship between its opening chapters and the patriarchal narratives. But we modern readers with a world-view molded by modern science find it hard to relate Genesis to the rest of our thinking. It is my conviction that many of our problems are caused by misunderstanding the original intentions of Genesis. [14]
Perry's final criticism of TE on the grounds that it "rather makes the details of the account irrelevant for the believer today" is difficult to interpret other than as a misrepresentation of what Christadelphian evolutionary creationists [15] believe. It is difficult to posit ignorance for this lapse as he is well aware that many Christadelphian ECs (myself included) regard Gen 2-11 as being essentially historical, and accept the literality of Adam and Eve (though not as the sole ancestors of the human race). We would regard the details of the account as being very much relevant, detailing how God revealed himself to the first people with whom he entered into a covenant relationship.

The previous discussion immediately suggests another reason why Perry's final criticism is nugatory. Given that Genesis is embedded in an ancient Near Eastern matrix, a literal interpretation of the details without due allowance for genre as well as cultural background is likely to result in eisegesis. Put another way, Genesis accommodates an ancient Near Eastern worldview in order to impart a theological message, requiring the reader to enter that worldview, factor in that accommodation, and then contextualise the message. The details of the account are important insofar as they allow the exegete to begin the process of contextualisation, but - as Perry does - to deny the relevance of the ANE background to a proper understanding of the Genesis narrative - means that any such interpretation of the narratives will be little better than the wooden literalism of the fundamentalist. 

Speech act theory allows one to see the depth of confusion inherent in Perry's criticism. For those unfamiliar with speech act theory, Walton and Sandy provide a brief overview. 
"The communicator uses locutions (words, sentences, rhetorical structures, genres) to embody an illocution (the intention to do something with those locutions—bless, promise, instruct, assert) with a perlocution that anticipates a certain sort of response from the audience (obedience, trust, belief)." [16]
Recognising the cultural background of the audience is critical in order to frame a locution in such a way as to allow the illocution to effect the desired perlocution. Obsessing over the details of the text as Perry does runs the risk of confusing the locution with the perlocution, and generating not insight into the text, but wooden eisegesis. 


1Perry A "The creation versus evolution debate" The Testimony (2014) 84:69-72 
2. Former YEC Glenn Morton is one of the few Christians who attempts to read the creation narratives in a strong concordist light while maintaining a belief in evolution. His solution is ingenious, but has won few supporters.
3. Young DA "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists (Part Two)" Westminster Theological Journal (1987) 49: 244-304
4. ibid, p 303
5. Pigott S Reading Genesis 1 "Literally" Scribalishess Jan 3 2014
6. Enns P "The Firmament is Solid but That's Not the Point" Science and the Sacred Jan 14 2010
7. Perry, op cit p 70-71
8. Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006) p 21
9. Enns P "Genesis 1 and a Babylonian Creation Story" Science and the Sacred May 18 2010
10. Walton op cit, p 332-333
11. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (vol. 1; Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), xlvii.
12. Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 80.
13. James McKeown, Genesis (The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 14
14. Wenham, op cit, p xlv–xlvi.
15. Perry obsessively argues against the term evolutionary creationism on frankly spurious grounds, ignoring the fact that it has been chosen simply to emphasise that its adherents believe God employed evolution as the modality of divine providence. Given the opprobrium with which TE is held in large parts of our community, one cannot help but suspect Perry's continued use of it, despite being aware that ECs do not like the terms, is done purely for polemical purposes.
16. Walton, J.H and Sandy, D.B,. The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority. (InterVarsity Press, 2013)