iSoul In the beginning is reality

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Essentials of Christian Thought, part 2

This post continues from part 1, here.

One characteristic of the book is that the “essentials” or “metaphysics” that Roger E. Olson elucidates are somewhat buried among the text dealing with the competing alternatives. What follows are excerpts that focus on the essentials of Christian/biblical thought itself.

A basic presupposition of this book is that the Bible does contain an implicit metaphysical vision of ultimate reality—the reality that is most important, final, highest, and behind everyday appearances. p.12

Ultimate reality is relational. p.13

Ultimate reality is personal, not impersonal, and humans reflect that ultimate reality in their created constitution—what they are. Here we will call that “Christian humanism.” p.17

Here metaphysics is simply another word for investigation into the nature of ultimate reality. p.19

… both Tresmontant and Cherbonnier argued very cogently that the biblical philosophy is holistic, not requiring supplementation by extrabiblical philosophies … and that the biblical philosophy is fundamentally contrary to Greek philosophies. p.22

in this postmodern age every philosophy is rooted in some story and tradition based on it, and that for the Christian “the Bible absorbs the world”—the biblical story, narrative, is the lens through which the Christian sees reality as God’s good creation (for example). p.23

belief in the supernatural (something above and free from nature and nature’s laws) is no more a matter of faith, “seeing as,” than belief in naturalism (that nature and its laws are all that are real). p.33

The biblical-Christian vision of reality is a “view from somewhere,” … that … better answers life’s ultimate questions than any competing worldview or metaphysical vision of reality. p.39-40

… Christian theology’s main task is not correlation with other, non-Christian worldviews or plausibility structures, but self-description of the Christian view of reality from within the Christian tradition-community inspired by the biblical story. p.41

… being Christian means, in part, seeing the world as the reality described, or presupposed, by the Bible. p.43

… [Hans Frei] argued that faithful Christians ought to take the Bible seriously as “realistic narrative.” In other words, the Bible ought not to be viewed either as history in the modern, literal sense (viz., a textbook of facts about history) or as myth (symbolic representation of universal human experience). Rather, a Christian should find the meaning of Scripture out outside it—whether in outer history or universal human experience—but inside of it. p.43

Frei’s point is simply that the meaning of the Bible is not outside of it. p.44

The Bible depicts ultimate reality—the highest, best, final, eternal reality upon which all else is dependent—as supernatural and personal but not human. Here supernatural simply means “beyond nature,” not bound to nature and nature’s laws, free over nature, not controlled by nature. Some people would prefer the word transcendent for all that … p.53

The Bible depicts ultimate reality as personal, which here means having intelligence, thought, iintentions, actions, and some degree of self-determination. It also means “relational”—being in relation to others, drawing one’s identity partly, at least, from relations with others. p.53

… the long history of philosophical metaphysics, from Plato in ancient Greece to Hegel in nineteenth-century German, has tended to depersonalize ultimate reality, to represent ultimate reality as impersonal, a power, force, or principle behind appearances. p.56

… the ultimate reality of the Bible, Yahweh, God the Lord, is personal in the primary, supreme sense, the pattern of true personhood, which human beings are personal in the secondary sense, copies of the pattern of true personhood. p.57

In Athens Paul articulated concisely what later Christian thinkers came to refer to as God’s transcendence and immanence—that God is both present within creation and exalted above creation as its source and sustainer who needs nothing. p.62

Summing up, the biblical view of ultimate reality is that it is not an it but a he. According to the biblical narrative … ultimate, final, eternal, all-powerful, all-determining reality is a personal being both beyond the natural world and dynamically present within it. This metaphysical vision has variously been labeled “personalistic theism” and “biblical theistic personalism.” At the heart of ultimate reality, the one unifying source behind and withing everything, is an intelligence, free agency, and independent will marked by loving-kindness and justice. p.63

The next post in this series is here.

Creation of ubiquitous light

The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis 1, has attracted many commentators over the centuries. Recent scholarly work attempts to place it in the context of ancient Near East writings. (Near East is the European moniker for what Americans call the Middle East.) That however undervalues the unique, nuanced text of Genesis.

Creation ex nihilo is analogous in some ways to the creation of an axiomatic system such as Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Before the first postulate (“A straight line segment can be drawn joining any two points.”) one should not assume that any such straight lines exist. “Let there be a line such that …” is the act of creating a line.

Similarly, in reading Genesis 1 we should not assume that before something was created, it existed or it existed in the way that we know it. Things we take for granted today, such as light, had to be created. This requires a close reading of Genesis 1 as a step by step process in which as little as possible is assumed to exist before there is some indication that it does exist.

Genesis 1 begins with some of the most famous words ever written:

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In regards to light, the second verse says there was darkness but no light, at least in the earthly world (we’re not told about the heavens of verse 1). Light is created in verse 3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? And what time was the light shining? The text answers the second question first, in verses 4 and 5: “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

The light of verse 3 was separated from darkness to produce daylight, that is, a time of light. Before that separation, light and darkness were commingled in time. That is, at first light was ubiquitous in time. After the separation, light was concentrated in time, which is what constituted Day, that is, daylight.

Several verses later the text reads about the fourth day (Gen. 1:14-18):

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

For centuries people have found this passage perplexing. How could there be light on earth without the sun? Why was the sun needed if there was already light on earth? To start with, there was light on earth before the sun; that’s what the text says about day one. There was also evening and morning, nighttime and daytime without the sun.

Again, where was the light shining from that was created in verse 3? The answer is given in verse 18, which says why the sun, moon, and stars were created: to separate the light from the darkness. Prior to this light and darkness were commingled in space. That is, at first light was ubiquitous in space.

The image is that of the creation of ubiquitous light, which is then separated from darkness in time, and later separated from darkness in space. The separation of light and darkness on the fourth day produced stars, including the sun. The stars were not created from nothing at that time but were made by concentrating the light in space. Stars are a concentration of light that was already there.

This answers another perplexing question, which is asked since the speed of light is known to be finite, and some stars are many light-years away: How did the light get from the stars to the earth so quickly? The answer is that the light was already on the earth because light was ubiquitous in space before the stars were made. Concentrated darkness was lacking, too, before the light and darkness were separated.

In order to explain how starlight got to earth in a short time, it is sometimes asserted that God created light in transit. That is a different view than the one presented here, and one that lacks support in the text of Genesis 1. There are those who say Genesis 1 is just poetry and so can be interpreted any way you want. I have no patience for such a low view of poetry or anyone who plays fast and loose with the text. The close reading above shows that the text of Genesis 1 makes sense on its own terms.

3D time in ancient culture

I’m returning to a topic I wrote about here: time in ancient culture and thought.

Look at Genesis 1, verse 3:
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.

Now a modern person is thinking spatially and expecting God to separate the place of light from the place of darkness. So the next verse would be expected to say something like, “God called the light Sunnyland, and the darkness he called Shadyland.” But instead Genesis is written in a temporal way, and it says “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Later, space arises within time, contrary to the modern way of imagining that space came first and time was added.

Modern people describe how far away a place is by referring a length but it seems this way of speaking wasn’t common until the Roman road system. Before that (and even during the Roman era) distances were given in terms of how many day’s journey it was, that is, the travel time of a typical traveler. Also, maps were rare and crude so spatial representations were lacking. People’s mental maps must have been in units of time (duration), not space (distance).

Moderns look at the (night) sky as outer space, a vast spatial expanse. But for ancient people the sky was first of all a calendar and a clock: the positions of the heavenly bodies told them the time of the year, the time of the month, and the time of day. The sky was also an aid to navigation so maps were not necessary. The sky, the calendar, and navigation were united in the zodiac.

Ancients used a geostationary (geocentric) frame of reference, which is characterized by a zero speed, that is, all speeds were relative to the frame, as though it were absolute. This is the complement to Galilean relativity: space is a scalar but time is multidimensional. Space is a river, and time is the sky.

In that case the characteristic (modal) speed c is zero, or equivalently, the characteristic pace is infinite, and the gamma factor is one. To make this fully relativistic requires recognizing the finite pace (1/c) of light in 1D space and 3D time (see here). Tachyons galore!

What difference does this make? Moderns think of the universe primarily in spatial terms, and wonder how the vast expanse could be created in a short time. But ancients thought of the universe primarily in temporal terms, and were amazed by the order of the heavens and the God of that order.

Time in the Bible

Time in the Bible is duration, not what is called thermodynamic time or the arrow of time. There is no inevitability about time in the Bible, unlike the increasing entropy of thermodynamic time. In the Bible time has a beginning and an ending. Time is an era, an age, a period of time. It is what takes time, that is, duration.

In ancient times the motions of the sun, moon, and stars formed a cosmic clock, not outer space. Before the rise of the Roman Empire, people expressed “how far” in terms of “how much time”. The distance between places was given as how many days’ journey by a typical traveler. Genesis 30:36; Genesis 31:23; Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3; Exodus 8:27; Numbers 10:33; Numbers 33:8; Deuteronomy 1:2; and the Sabbath day’s journey, Acts 1:12. The distance covered by an average man in a day’s walk was 10 parsa’ot in Hebrew.

Greeks such as Herodotus also referred to a day’s journey, for example: “These Husbandmen extend eastward a distance of three days’ journey to a river bearing the name of Panticapes, while northward the country is theirs for eleven days’ sail up the course of the Borysthenes.” He also mentions: “a journey of five days across for an active walker”, indicating the kind of travel he has in mind.

The Greeks and especially the Romans with their road system brought longer lengths into common usage. There is the stadion or stadium, 600 Greek ft. or just under a furlong, and of course the Roman mile: Matthew 5:41; Luke 24:13; John 6:19; John 11:18; Revelation 14:20; Revelation 21:16.

Over the centuries space has supplanted time as the dominant way of viewing the universe. Since the discovery of artistic perspective and Newton’s notions of space and time as a container, the modern world has been oriented toward space. Even geometry changed from a realist view of the relation of objects to an anti-realist view of objects in an abstract space with Descartes’ analytic geometry.

That began to change with relativity and quantum mechanics, though the full implications are yet to be worked out, as Carlo Rovelli has noted (e.g., Are space, time, and all other physical quantities only relational? or his article in The Ontology of Spacetime). Scientifically, I think Poincaré’s point is correct: space and time are conventions, not arbitrary but convenient for understanding the universe (see his Science and Hypothesis).

For understanding the Bible and especially Genesis one should start with an ancient mindset that is realist and temporal. For example, when Genesis 1:3-5 says God created light and separated it into day and night, do not ask where the light was located because the separation concerns time, not space, and describes how the day was born.

Temporal and spatial references

I have written several times about differences between ancient and modern ways of thinking, for example, this post on Biblical geocentrism. Another way to look at this is whether time or space are primary. What does this mean?

We are most familiar with the primacy of space. Things exist within space as mere objects, and time is something added-on to take account of the motion of objects. But what if time came first? For example, what if a cycle of light and dark did not have any spatial reference? That sounds like Genesis 1:5, after God created light but no sun:

 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.

In that case, space would be added-on to time. One difference is that what is primary is three-dimensional, but what is secondary is only one-dimensional. That is the difference between measuring movement relative to space or time, or abstractly as derivatives relative to space or time.

The difference is whether zero represents rest (no movement) or instantaneous movement, and so which is the reference point for all movement. If instantaneous movement is the reference, then movement is understood as slowing down, and rest is associated with an extreme of either lethargy or peace. If rest is the reference, then movement is understood as speeding up, and instantaneous movement as an extreme of either frenzy or joy.

If time is primary, then what is local is more significant than what is global because a local frame of reference covers more time, is diachronic over a long span of time. If space is primary, then what is global is more significant than what is local because a global frame of reference covers more space, is synchronic over a wider region of space.

As we move toward a balance of space and time, we will find both of these perspectives limited but with some utility. It is best to consider movement as a ratio rather than a division so that space and time are on equal terms.

Joshua’s long day and miracles

Joshua’s long day has a long history of debate but is often forgotten today. The book of Joshua 10:13 says:

So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies.

It is often said that this contradicts heliocentric astronomy. Actually, it contradicts geocentric astronomy, too: the sun and moon are supposed to keep moving.

Joshua 10:13 is a piece of data, an observation; it is not a model or theory. Those who construct models or theories would certainly consider it an extreme outlier and no doubt delete it from consideration. But is this justified?

Science values larger extensions and Joshua’s long day would limit the scope of a theory if it were accepted. So scientists have an incentive to remove it and claim a theory with large extension. Furthermore, Hume and others argue that the more unusual the claim, the greater the evidence needed to justify it.

But this betrays an extensional bias. What if the extreme outlier is highly meaningful, highly intensive? To delete it would be a great loss of intension. A more balanced science would be reluctant to delete it without due consideration. The fact that this is preserved in the book with the greatest intension, the Bible, should lead us to be reluctant to delete it.

Meaningful miracles do happen. We have sufficient testimony to them and sufficient incentive to preserve them for their intensionality, even if it means losing some extensionality in our theories.

Distinctions of Genesis 1

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless, and indistinct; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

Then God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. The evening and the morning were the first day. So the first distinction was between Day and Night.

Then God said, Let there be a space in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. Thus God made the space, and divided the waters which were under the space from the waters which were above the space; and it was so. And God called the space Heaven. The evening and the morning were the second day. So the second distinction was between waters below and above Heaven.

Then God said, Let the waters under Heaven be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the Earth; and it was so. And the Earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. The evening and the morning were the third day. So the third distinction was between the Earth and the Seas.

Then God said, Let there be lights in the space of Heaven to distinguish the Day from the Night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the space of Heaven to give light on the Earth; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the Day, and the lesser light to rule the Night–and also the stars. God set them in the space of Heaven to give light on the Earth, and to rule over the Day and over the Night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. The evening and the morning were the fourth day. So the Day was marked with the greater light and Night was marked with the lesser light.

Then God said, Let the Seas abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the space of the Heavens. So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the Seas, and let birds multiply on the Earth. The evening and the morning were the fifth day. So the Seas were marked with fish and Heaven was marked with birds.

Then God said, Let the Earth bring forth the living creature according to its kind: cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth, each according to its kind; and it was so. And God made the beast of the Earth according to its kind, cattle according to its kind, and everything that creeps on the Earth according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the Seas, over the birds of the Heaven, and over all the Earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the Earth. So God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the Seas, over the birds of Heaven, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.

And God said, See, I have given you every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the Earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food. Also, to every beast of the Earth, to every bird of Heaven, and to everything that creeps on the Earth, in which there is life, I have given every green herb for food; and it was so. Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. The evening and the morning were the sixth day. So the Earth was marked with man.

Thus the Heaven and the Earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all His work which he had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all his work which God had created and made. So the seventh day was marked with the Sabbath.

The real literalists

There is a kind of scholarship that starts with a very literalistic reading of a source text, finds contradictions in it, and concludes either that it is a combination of contradictory texts or that a very non-literal reading is justified. This is a method that seeks to justify one extreme by criticizing another extreme. No serious thought is given to the many options between these extremes, that the text is meant neither as a literal extreme nor a figurative extreme.

For example, Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 contrasted with Genesis 2:3 to 2:22 has differences that are asserted to be in conflict and hence represent contradictory traditions. The Documentary (Wellhausen) Hypothesis explains perceived inconsistencies in the Pentateuch by asserting it was written independently by four different authors and subsequently woven together by redactors. While the presence of various sources in the Bible is not a concern, the assertion that these contradict one another is.

This line of scholarship leads in two directions: (1) discerning every contradictory thread and inferring various factions, and (2) interpreting the whole text by inferring poetic license. So a whole panoply of figurative devices is promoted for hermeneutics and a playwright’s brew of characters is encouraged for historical studies.

There is an alternative to this game: reading the text not too literally and not too metaphorically. That is how people normally speak and it works rather well. People who are called biblical literalists usually do this and are able to reconcile supposed contradictions through a natural but close reading of the text. Those who are most opposed to literalism are the ones who follow the kind of scholarship I have outlined and end up with a one-two punch of a very literal reading (rejected) followed by an excessively metaphorical reading that knocks out the intended meaning.

Apparent age

If someone from an isolated, technologically undeveloped culture sees an electronic gadget, they may think this took a long time to make.  Does the gadget have apparent age?  No, someone is merely ignorant of how it was made.

Similarly, Adam and the original creation did not have apparent age.  Some people may be ignorant of how Adam was created but that does not make him older than he is.  It is a question of knowledge vs. ignorance, not actual vs. apparent age.

Faith that works

Is this a dispute about words? It could be but these are key terms and so much is bound up with them that it is important to get their meanings right.

What is this faith that works? In the first place, this faith always leads to some action, and such action is always more than saying that one has such a faith. However, the Apostle Paul affirms that verbal confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ accompanied by belief in the heart is sufficient to ensure one’s salvation. Rom. 10.9.

We can begin to see a difference between the confession of faith in Romans and the mere claim that such faith exists in James’ letter. Here is a financial analogy: One person has money on deposit at a bank and they trust that the bank will return the deposit with interest on request. Someone else owns a financial derivative that is based on this deposit and they believe this will benefit them financially. In the latter case a deposit exists somewhere but the person does not own it; they own something related to it. In the former case the person owns the deposit although they can’t see it except in documents they trust. In the analogy, these documents are like the Bible which provides assurance that salvation is ours to possess. The derivatives are like an assertion that such faith exists but are not personal possessions.

So we see the danger of a derivative faith, which is mere assent without conviction.

There is another aspect of saving faith: follow through. Jesus gave a parable about a farmer planting a seed and not knowing how it grows but trusting that it does. This is implicitly contrasted with someone who plants a sees and doubts that it is growing so they dig it up frequently to check it out. Such a seed doesn’t mature. The former is saving faith that follows through and the latter is faith that is undermined by doubt and doesn’t follow through. As Jesus said in another context, “He who endures to the end will be saved.”

While the formula “sola fides” is rejected by the scriptures as a formula, it expresses scriptural truth when accompanied by further explanation. What is the scriptural formula? Why do we need formulas? The scriptural truth is clear enough: salvation is by faith and saving faith confesses the lordship of Christ and follow through with corresponding actions. The particular actions are not specified; the content of the faith is specified: Jesus is Lord. Believe it and act accordingly.

2008