Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: 'Seven Days That Divide the World' by John C. Lennox

I learnt about John Lennox through his debate with Richard Dawkins, organized by Fixed Point Foundation at University of Alabama in 2007. What draws me to Lennox's works is not so much his impressive academic achievement, but his gift in communicating the Christian faith to audience in secular setting that often pegs science against Christianity. This is largely not only due to his background as a Professor of Mathematics, Laing Trust Fellow in Mathematics and Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College of Oxford University, but also his experiences of working in the atheistic-communist environment of eastern Europe and a guest lecturer at Russia's Academy of Sciences. His three doctorates are from Cambridge, Wales, and Oxford.

Lennox's book Seven Days That Divide the World: The Beginning According to Genesis and Science (USA: Zondervan, 2011) explores how should we understand the creation account in Genesis in view of what we know from the ancient text, the present scientific knowledge, as well as the integrity of Christian discipleship. To Lennox, our understanding of Genesis is not merely informative but should affect the way our Christian life is lived. As he remarked,
It is one thing to wrestle with the meaning of the days of Genesis; it is another to understand, apply, and live the whole message of Genesis. And if we are not doing the latter, I am not sure that the former will profit us much. (p. 116)
This book comes in 5 chapters with 5 appendixes. The first chapter But Does It Move? A Lesson From History draws the Galileo affair to set the stage for the whole book. Lennox clarified that the 17th century controversy was not so much a competition between science and Christianity. Lennox demonstrated that Galileo himself did not see conflict between his scientific conjecture with his Christian faith. The conflict was between two "world-pictures", that is between the then pervasive Aristotelian-fixed-earth picture and Copernicus-Galileo-earth-moving picture.

The second chapter But Does It Move? A Lesson About Scripture highlights the nature of interpretation on the Bible based on the Galileo affair. What I find helpful is Lennox's clarification of the dubious category of "literal" and "metaphorical". He pointed out that what we mean by "literal" are sometimes more complicated. For instance, "the (literal) ascension of Christ is a metaphor of his (literal) assumption of universal authority." (p. 24)

To Lennox, the language of the Bible is "phenomenological" which describes what appeared to everyone. Therefore the Bible talks about the sun rising, which appeared to both scientists and non-scientists alike. This language does not commit the text to any position, be it fixed-earth or earth-moving view. It just describes what appeared to everyone. The guiding principle to interpreting the Bible is to figure out the "natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically." (p.22)

Lennox cautioned us to avoid two extremes. On one hand, we should recognize the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture to prevalent scientific understanding. Those who disagreed with Galileo have tied their interpretation to the widespread Aristotelianism at that time. On the other hand, we should not ignore science as God has given us minds to relate the created world with the Bible.

The third chapter But Is It Old? The Days of Creation is the main gist of the book. In it, Lennox masterfully demonstrated how we can see the phenomenological language "day" used in Genesis chapter 1 to mean 24-hour day, and to believe that the universe is a few billions year-old. Such allowance is enabled by Lennox's note of the linguistic construction of verses 1 to 3. Those who are familiar with this discussion would recognize that Lennox's position is a variant of what is commonly known as the gap theory.

This theory contends that a long period (probably few million years) has transpired between what God did in Genesis 1:1-2 and God's creative activity from verse 3 onwards. Lennox's modification of this theory lies in his insertion of gap between each of the six days of creation. This means that the six days did not occur in one continuous week ending with God's rest in the seventh day. Instead, each day is separated by millions of years. The lack of definite article on day 1 to day 5 and the usage of perfect tense of "created" in the original Hebrew text are among the reasons Lennox marshaled as his justification. Hence, Lennox qualified his position as one that is reached "quite apart from any scientific considerations". (p.53)

The main objection against Lennox's view is that the ancient Israelites understood the six days as occurred in one continuous week, which ends with Sabbath as the seventh day. (Exodus 20:9-11) Lennox's answer is that we cannot parallel our regular week with the seven days of creation because they are not identical. The creation sequence happened only once, with God resting from the work of creating the world. This is different from our one-week sequence which is continuous through the years with us resting from our work for one day per week and then resume our work the next day after Sabbath.

However I find Lennox's answer not as strong as it seems. Exodus 20:9-11 clearly draws a parallel between the regular week with the six days when God created the world. This means that the ancient Israelites understood the six days as one continuous week. Historically and culturally, I think the ancient Israelites are nearer to the authors of the text of Genesis than both Lennox and I, and hence their understanding of what the six days mean is nearer to the intended meaning of the text. If this is so, then we should give priority to their understanding of the six days. 

This would go along Lennox's own principle that we should interpret the Bible according to the "natural understanding of a passage, sentence, word, or phrase in its context, historically, culturally, and linguistically." (p.22) So, I am not saying that ancient Israelites' interpretation of Genesis 1 represents how the text is meant to be understood. All I am suggesting is that if we employ Lennox's hermeneutical method, then that is probably the logical conclusion we should reach. Ironically, it is a conclusion which Lennox does not seem to prefer.

Chapter four Human Beings: A Special Creation? deals with the condition of humanity. Lennox wrote that the Scripture does not give us the exact dating of the age of humanity. He is particularly critical of Denis Alexander's interpretation that Adam and Eve were Neolithic farmers who were chosen out of millions others by God to receive spiritual revelation. This topic necessitates the discussion on the origin of sin, which Lennox does not shy away.

The final chapter The Message of Genesis 1 is Lennox' theological exposition on the relevance of the text to Christian life. It reaffirms the important implication of the doctrine of the creator God and the creatureliness of the creation.

The 5 appendixes supplement the main body of the book by engaging various pertinent topics such as the ancient near eastern background of Genesis, the recently proposed "Cosmic Temple" reading by John Walton, the convergence of Genesis and contemporary science, the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2, theistic evolution and the appropriation of the notion of God of the gaps. Overall, this is a small yet very resourceful book on this important subject. And Lennox has shown himself not only as an astute participant in this debate, but also a passionate disciple of Christ who desires to testify to the truthfulness of the inspired text through his own life.

7 comments:

eppursimuov3 said...

have you watched the 'debate' between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams? It was more of a friendly chat than a debate, but I found it interesting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfQk4NfW7g0

I haven't read John Lennox, but I find the gap-theory to be untenable, mainly because the order of creation in Genesis 1 is inconsistent with the scientific evidence (so far at least). I think John Walton's Cosmic Temple interpretation is very interesting, but I'm not an expert theologian - what's your opinion on it? I'm leaning towards interpreting Genesis 1 as pre-scientific cosmology, and which draws upon the cosmology of the surrounding Mesopotamian cultures with an overt 'monotheistic counter-cultural twist' hence there is no need to attempt to reconcile it with modern science.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi eppursimuov3,

Yes, I watched it and agree with you that it is more of a chat. I like the moderator Anthony Kenny too.

You mentioned that the reason why you think gap theory is untenable is because order of creation in Genesis 1 is inconsistent with science. Have you come across 'Genesis Enigma' written by agnostic scientist Andrew Parker?

"Andrew Parker is a leading scientist in his field: a research fellow at Oxford University, research leader at the Natural History Museum, and as if that weren't enough, a professor at Shanghai's Jiao Tong university.

As a scientist he never paid much heed to the Book of Genesis, assuming, like most of his colleagues, that such primitive mythology - which is believed to have been compiled from several sources between 950 and 500 BC - has long since been 'disproved' by hard scientific fact.

But after his Sistine Chapel moment, he went back to look at Genesis in more detail. And what he read astonished him. It was even, he says, 'slightly scary'.

Somehow - God alone knew how - the writer or writers of that ancient text had described how the evolution of life on earth took place in precise detail and perfect order."

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1200486/The-Genesis-enigma-How-DID-Bible-evolution-life-3-000-years-Darwin.html

(Watch Parker's short intro video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoK5IHDW1ds)

I haven't read Parker's book. And I don't know if Parker's interpretation of Genesis 1 is correct. Nonetheless, Parker is one among others who shows how is it possible that Genesis 1 reflects contemporary scientific findings.

If you are interested to pursue this further, you may contact him http://www.gtc.ox.ac.uk/andrew-parker

Sze Zeng said...

Regarding John Walton's cosmic temple view, you can check out Lennox's chapter on it in his book Seven Days that Divide the World. (Appendix B)

Or you can check out his interaction with Vern Poythress to evaluate his view:

Poythress' review: http://www.worldmag.com/2009/08/appearances_matter

Walton's response: http://biologos.org/blog/john-walton-responds-to-vern-poythress

Poythress' response: http://biologos.org/blog/vern-poythress-responds-to-john-walton

Walton's response: http://biologos.org/blog/rejoinder-to-vern-poythress

eppursimuov3 said...

Nope, I haven't read Andrew Parker, but I've seen the book around in bookstores :P

Looking at the links, I think one needs to do some creative tinkering to try to make Genesis 1 fit the scientific data - e.g. God creating the lights (Sun and Moon) on the fourth day as the creation of vision in animals. And 'grass herbs and trees' on the third day as creation of photosynthesising life.

I see a danger in this. On one hand, some clever interpreter can always find some imaginative use of biblical passages to show that the Bible is scientifically accurate, and predicted something thousands of years earlier, then use it as proof of the Bible as God's revelation. But the truth is that the Bible has never been able to make accurate predictions - like saying something that leads to a scientific discovery (perhaps only one case, something to do with ocean currents). It's usually the other way round, where a scientific discovery is made, then someone looks around in the Bible and claims that the Bible says this 3000 years earlier. The problem is that the science may change later in the future as more discoveries are made, which is why John Lennox says "we should recognize the danger of tying interpretation of Scripture to prevalent scientific understanding." I agree with Lennox here. And I am also with you, in the view that the ancient Israelites did understand Genesis 1 as a continuous week, and that was what they believed, even though science now shows this is not what really happened.

thanks for the links by the way! :)

Sze Zeng said...

Same here, saw Parker's book in bookstore, but haven't read it.

You are right that this is a sort of 'creative tinkering', but the question that I want to ask is not 'creative tinkering' on certain things is celebrated in science too (from the tiny bit that I know, I'm thinking of string theory that aspires to be the ToE)? If yes, then does creative tinkering by itself warrants one's suspicious of the possibility that it can be true?

I share your sense of danger in those kinds of 'creative tinkering'. I don't know if you would, but I extend this sense of danger even to science. Hence statements like "science now shows..." need always be reminded that science later would overthrow the science now.

Hence to attempt to relate Genesis 1 to what "science now says" is like trying to maneuver two racing horse-carts together despite the fact that they are moving on two different roads though in the same direction. At certain point of both paths, one cart may go onto road that is bumpy, while the other on a steady one. Then at certain point of both paths, one road is raised while the other is lowered. And sometimes the driver has to switch cart to maneuver, depending on the condition of the two roads.

So with each's respective road before them, folks like Andrew Parker, John Lennox, you and I are trying to maneuver the two carts. Although all of us may maneuver differently given different roads and condition of carts we have, all of us need to use our creativity to tinker with our skills and resources to best bring the two carts connect and arrive at destination in one piece. And I think this is the one thing that we all share. :)

eppursimuov3 said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Oh yes, 'creative tinkering' is very prevalent in the sciences too. Theories often need to be tinkered with to explain the data/facts. One example is when Alan Guth posited a period of 'cosmic inflation', when the Universe apparently expanded very much faster that the current rate, to explain why the observable Universe is so flat and looks the same everywhere. This was a kind of tinkering to make the standard big bang model fit the observations. One big difference between scientific tinkering and theological tinkering, is that scientists will then try to conduct further observations, or think of experiments that can further confirm/disprove this 'tinkering'. On the other hand, it is difficult to say for sure that Andrew Parker is wrong. Who knows, he could be right (we can only ask God when we meet Him if that was what He meant Genesis to say), but I don't accept it mainly because I choose not to, and because I already come from a perspective that Genesis 1 is a pre-scientific document (so it is subjective).

Yes, there is always the possibility that science in the future will overthrow science now. But there are also various degrees of uncertainty associated with scientific knowledge. For example, it is highly unlikely that science in the future will discovery that the Earth is sitting on top of an infinite number of turtles.

On string theory, yes, it is one of the theories put forward as a possible theory of everything, but the big problem now is that there is no experiment to test it - so many physicists also try to stay away from it!

Interesting analogy there, :) my only note would be that they are quite unequal carts, which makes it even more difficult - while both are concerned with seeking for truth, both are based on entirely different epistemologies (I'm so proud of being able to use this philosophical term, the few that I know!) As John Polkinghorne said "The two disciplines are concerned with the exploration of different aspects of human experience: in the one case, our impersonal encounter with a physical world that we transcend; in the other, our personal encounter with the One who transcends us"

Cheers and have a blessed Christmas!

Sze Zeng said...

Well said. Creative tinkering is prevalent in the sciences.

Thank you for sharing your scientific point of view of how scientists constantly seek for further observation through experiment to confirm/disprove tinkering.

Speaking from theological enterprise point of view, theologians also constantly seek for further observation through experiment to confirm/disprove tinkering. While scientists look into the natural world for further data, theologians look into texts and archaeological findings for their data. For eg. English Bible versions such as NIV are being updated according to the updated understanding of certain words used in the original meaning of the text. Such updates are based on the latest most plausible understanding of which meaning certain words carry in a certain particular time. And this enterprise, like the sciences, are on-going.

Just as it is highly unlikely that science in the future will discover that the Earth is sitting on top of an infinite number of turtles, it is unlikely that theology in the future will discover that the Garden of Eden was actually in Malaysia with Tigris and Euphrates refer to Sungai Dua and Sungai Klang respectively, and the tribe of ancient Judah were actually based in Nanjing, during the Han dynasty. If Andrew Parker or anyone else say this, then it is easy to say for sure that they are wrong.

After my comparison above, do you see the parallel between sciences and theology in terms of how both share the following??

1) Both enterprises are constantly seeking for confirmation/refutation through observations onto the external world.

2) Both enterprises claim to have true knowledge of their respective subject at each era despite there is possibility that future research will refute them.

3) Both enterprises have certain true knowledge that are highly unlikely to be refuted by future research.