Saturday Night Theologian
18 May 2008

Genesis 1:1-2:4a (first published 22 May 2005)

The Kansas Board of Education met last week for hearings on how science should be taught in the state. Their particular focus was on the theory of evolution, with a majority of the board objecting to its presentation in the classroom as the sole theory of the origin of life on earth. Two of the board members stated that they believed that the age of the earth may be as low as 5,000 years, far short of the 4.5 billion years that most scientists hold. Although evolution opponents are careful these days not to state their objections in religious terms, since the U.S. Supreme Court several years ago declared scientific creationism to be a religious belief rather than a scientific viewpoint, it is clear that what motivates most people who oppose the theory of evolution is their belief that the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis teaches the recent origin of life on earth and of the earth itself. Christianity long ago accepted that the earth was a sphere that revolved around the sun, so why do so many Christians refuse to accept the scientific evidence concerning the age of the earth and the process of evolution by natural selection? I think the problem rests in part on a faulty hermeneutical approach to the creation story that is the focus of our reading today. There are several different ways in which the first chapter of Genesis can be understood apart from the theory of evolution. First, it can be read more or less literally, so that the earth really is only about 6,000 years old. Second, the verb "was" in verse 2 can be translated as "became," positing a gap of millions or billions of years between the creation of the world described in verse 1 and the special creation described in the verses that follow. Third, the "days" of creation can be interpreted as geological ages rather than literal days. Fourth, the general progress apparent in the six days of creation can be attributed to special divine acts of creation interspersed with eons of a steady-state earth. There are of course several variants on these approaches to the text, but these are representative of the lot. The problems inherent in these approaches include the following. First, a multitude of scientific data, from carbon dating to thermoluminescence to potassium-argon dating to astronomical observations prove--prove--that the earth is much older than a few thousand years. Second, the reading "became" is not justifiable in the context, and at any rate the Gap Theory only supplies an old earth; it doesn't make sense of the fossil record. Third, the Age-Day Theory falters on one important clause, repeated throughout the creation account: "there was evening and there was morning, one (24-hour) day." Fourth, the fossil record indicates hundreds or thousands of transitions from one species to another, similar species. Besides, although the order of created items in Genesis 1 generally progresses from less complex to more complex, there are several discrepancies with the fossil record, such as fruit trees appearing before fish (they didn't) and birds appearing before land animals (they didn't). Most importantly, the sun isn't created until day 4, yet photosynthesis has been going on for at least a day (and the earth wasn't a frozen wasteland). If the first chapter of Genesis contradicts the findings of science, should we discard it from our Bibles? No! If we read the chapter from a literary-theological point of view, rather than a literal point of view, the creation story comes alive with meaning. A literary-theological reading teaches us that God is the author of the universe, giving it life and meaning. It teaches us that there is order in the world. It teaches us that human beings are created in God's image. It teaches that the world in its pristine state was very good. The scientific theory of evolution does not contradict a literary-theological reading of this passage, unless the notion of the nonexistence of God, which is not part of the theory, is added to it. Christians can argue over the precise connection between the divine and the universe while at the same time accepting the theory of evolution. Doesn't it take a powerful God to devise such a complex yet beautiful mechanism for bringing the diversity of life to this planet?

Psalm 8 (first published 22 May 2005)

Two men were executed this week by the state of Texas. In all, 344 people have been executed in Texas since 1982, more than all the other states put together. Meanwhile, more than a hundred death row prisoners have been released in the past few years after new evidence exonerated them. Juan Melendez, who spent 18 years on Florida's death row before being proved innocent, now travels the country advocating an end to capital punishment. Every other industrialized country in the world has stopped executing people, but the U.S. government recently pushed Iraq to re-adopt the death penalty, presumably so that it could execute Saddam Hussein. There are numerous reasons to oppose the death penalty. For one, the former death row prisoners who were exonerated demonstrate that the justice system does not always convict the guilty or free the innocent. Even among those who are guilty, it is disproportionately minorities, and even more disproportionately the poor, who are executed. From a Christian perspective, judicial execution is state-sponsored annihilation of the image of God. Psalm 8 says that human beings were created with just a little lower dignity than God. It is true that those on death row have desecrated that image; it is equally true that you and I have desecrated that image in our own lives as well. All have sinned, Paul reminds us, but all retain basic human worth. To snuff out a human life that is no threat to anyone (they are in maximum security, after all) cannot be justified. Revenge is no justification: "'Vengeance is mine; I will repay,' says the Lord." Bringing closure to the victim's family is no justification. How does ripping apart another family bring closure to a family that has suffered a great loss? Many 9/11 victims will testify that killing tens of thousands of Iraqis did not bring their loved ones back to them. The death penalty, like slavery, sexism, and classism, is a remnant of our pagan past that modern Christians must fight to throw off. Human dignity demands it.

2 Corinthians 13:11-13 (first published 22 May 2005)

The history of Christianity is littered with the corpses of those who believed the wrong thing. Donatists, Waldensians, Jan Hus, Michael Servetus, victims of the Spanish Inquisition, Salem's "witches"--all these and many more were the Christian victims of other Christians (this doesn't even count the innumerable Jews, Muslims, and pagans killed along the way). What is it about the narrow minded that they can't stand to have someone disagree with them? At the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul exhorts the congregation at Corinth to do four things. First, they should put things in order, perhaps an appeal to prepare or organize themselves for the work of Christ. Second, they should encourage one another. The alternate translation, "listen to my appeal," seems somewhat less likely in this context. Third, Paul urges them to agree with one another; literally, "be of the same mind." Does this mean that Christians should always agree with one another on matters of doctrine, aesthetics, or opinion? Hardly. It's been said that if you have two Baptists in a room you have three opinions (undoubtedly this is true of others as well, but since I'm Baptist, that's the way I've always heard it). Though there are many intolerant Christians who would disagree, I don't think differences of opinion are bad. No one has a corner on the market on truth, and no one knows all there is to know about the will of God. If a monolithic system of belief is not a proper application of Paul's exhortation, what is? A clue can be found in his next instruction: "Live in peace." Living in peace is incompatible with a rigid orthodoxy, but it is not at odds with a commitment to share the same basic set of practices. We can all care for the poor, live our lives with integrity, love our neighbors, and show compassion to others. When you think of the great figures in Christian history, are the first ones who come to mind those who developed ingenious ways of explaining doctrine, or do people like St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Schweitzer first spring to mind? If there is one thing church history teaches us, it is that Christians will never agree on doctrinal matters. In his book Why Christians Fight over the Bible, John Newport points to the numerous differences of perspective that Christians bring to the Bible that guarantee differences of interpretation on the other end. However, if we will put less stress on orthodoxy and more emphasis on orthopraxy, maybe Christians will be able to be of one mind after all.

Matthew 28:16-20

Over the years I have taken part in many different discipleship programs and courses. I remember in particular two popular discipleship courses that I took while I was in seminary. Both were hot off the presses, the latest and greatest courses designed to teach people how to become disciples. In one case my group was taught by the author of the course himself, who said he had spent many years on the mission field developing it. In the other case I studied the new discipleship program alongside the son of the author. Both courses continue to be taught and to be popular, but I found neither one particularly satisfactory. The problem I had with both programs was that they focused on prayer, scripture memory, and "evangelism," but they didn't say anything about imitating Jesus in meeting the real needs of people. I put the word "evangelism" in quotation marks because I don't believe that the way evangelism is practiced in many conservative churches can properly be called evangelism at all, because it fails to be good news to the whole person or communities in need. When Jesus tells his disciples, "Go and make disciples of all the nations, ... teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you," the gospel context certainly implies that real disciples ought to love their enemies, meet the needs of the sick, and care for the poor. Nowhere in the Gospel of Matthew does Jesus tell his followers to teach people to believe the right things or even to pray for personal salvation. Salvation is too big to be limited to individuals (though individuals are definitely involved), and evangelism is too broad to be limited to teaching proper doctrine (though doctrines can be important for directing proper living). Because of these truths, the Great Commission is much greater than many Christians give it credit for, because it envisions the creation of disciples who do much more than try to convince other people to join their club. The Great Commission is a strategic plan for the church, and it will only be effective if it is implemented properly. Jesus calls us to be disciples who understand that God's love is not limited to those who look like me, think like me, or believe like me. We are to be disciples who strive to meet the needs of all who are struggling, even if they come from other countries or speak other languages. We are to be disciples empowered by God not for our own sakes but for the sake of all those who need to hear and see and experience the good news of Jesus Christ in a tangible, immediate way. That's what it means to be a disciple.