Friday, 2 January 2009

Denis Alexander in the ET, continued

We continue reviewing Dr. Alexander's letter in the "Evangelical Times" in favour of his recent book promoting Darwinism to evangelical Christians, in response to Professor McIntosh's recent review of the same, in the same.

Yesterday we saw DA listing a number of doctrines which he said that both AM and himself both held. These were intended to show that there was no real difference between them on the major points of creation doctrine. Having read the book, which I suppose only a minority of ET readers will have done, I was able to point out that the agreement on these doctrines extended not much further than the ambiguous labels DA has given to them. It's one thing to list labels that you could both accept as describing your doctrines - but those doctrines themselves in this case are very different things. It's in DA's strategic interest to paper over these differences and behave as if being able to keep the labels was enough, because it's DA who has departed far from the historic norms. He wants to carry those who still hold them with him into embracing Darwinism, and highlighting the other adjustments they'll need to make further down the road won't suit him. It's in AM's interests and mine to point the gaping chasm between him and them out. DA basically de-historicises the story of redemption with a sharp dualism. In the Bible, man is the climax of creation and its destiny is integrally tied up with his. In DA's reconstruction, the physical side of existence began, carried out after the fall and will to the end basically unaffected, until at last Jesus replaces it with something completely different, dying in a Gnostic-style redemption in order to release us from the prison of this painful world that the Father made into a better one that hadn't been tasted before or even anticipated until he came and told us about it. In the Scriptures, the Creation itself falls because of Adam's sin, bringing in pain, suffering and death, and Christ dies physically in part to redeem, recover and glorify this physical creation. It is not evangelical theology to paper over that yawning gap by applying the trite label "a historical fall" to them both. But we pass on.

Where we differ is that McIntosh believes in a worldwide flood, whereas I believe in a local flood (the Old Testament often refers to the 'whole earth' or to the 'whole world' as relating to the local extended area; e.g. 1 Kings 10:24; Jeremiah 51:41; Lamentations 2:15;  Ezekiel 34:6; Habakkuk 1:6).

Interestingly, DA nowhere in his book actually addresses the Biblical case for a world-wide flood; there are simply a few scientific ones scattered statements here and there. There is no systematic consideration of the question anywhere. This is part and parcel of his general refusal to engage actual creationist arguments (there being precisely zero references or footnotes to any contemporary creationist author or publication in his book), because he wishes to maintain a superior aloofness. This sentence, in this letter, is the first time I recall coming across DA making a Biblical argument against a global flood (the ones in the book I recall were based on reconstructions of history, e.g. based on what it is supposed we can deduce from chalk deposits).

It is a shame that we only have one sentence of argument from DA on this subject, but this rather trite dismissal misses the following points:
  • All the verses that he quotes above come from the Old Testament after the crucial chapters of Genesis 1-11 - the "universal" chapters. From Genesis 12 onwards, the focus switches to Abraham and God's covenant with him, and thus, as it is worked out, to the twelve tribes and ultimately even more narrowly to the line of Judah and David. God's universal dealings cease (not that he ceases to be at work elsewhere in the world in a total way, of course - neither in providence generally, or even in redemption specifically, e.g. the book of Jonah, or Ruth), and the focus switches to his special plan for Israel. The nations in general are left to darkness - darkness that is only dispelled when at long last, thousands of years later, the Christ comes and commands his gospel to be spread throughout the nations. DA quotes from these chapters, but not from Genesis 1-11, the "universal" chapters. In other words, he ignores the context. In Genesis 1-11, we learn about the origins of the whole world; the first man and woman, the first temptation and the first sin and judgment, the first murder, the development of the godly and ungodly lines, the universal judgment of the flood, the origin of the nations around the world at Babel, the beginning of languages, and so on. Here, the context is on the beginnings of the nations, and talk of "the whole earth" in such a context cannot be exegeted by arbitrary appeals to passages in another situ.

  • The account of the flood in Genesis 6-8 does not simply use an expression such as "the whole earth" once, but piles them up. There is repetition, there is emphasis, there is variation. In short, there are a range of techniques employed to make clear what the author's intention is to teach us. DA ignores all these literary clues - they don't suit his purpose.

  • The last of the citations that DA gives, from Habakkuk 1:6, is not an example of what he is looking for - "the Chaldeans... shall march through the breadth (merchab) of the land (erets)". Here in context, "erets" is clearly writely translated as "land" and is a straight reference to the promised land of Canaan and its invasion by the Babylonians, not to an indefinite extended (but localised) area. I don't know what translation DA was relying on for this one.

  • There is no reason to insist that Jeremiah 51:41 or Lamentations 2:15 are localised. It was quite literally true that Jerusalem was the joy of the whole earth. It was an essential truth of the Israelite faith that their God was the universal creator, and had chosen only Israel and only Jerusalem above all the nations and cities of the entire created world. This was not a localised or relative truth. Indeed, that's one of the points of Genesis 1-11 - to remind Israel that its God was not a localised deity, but the universal Lord. I wonder what DA actually means by alleging that these statements were intended to be understood only in a localised sense as if Jerusalem was only special in a restricted eastern context... is he actually saying that somewhere else, on another contintent perhaps, there was another people and nation that God had chosen too? Perhaps Joseph Smith really was on to something? :-)

  • Ezekiel 34:6 is clearly a poetic and indefinite reference, not directly to any particular local territory at all: "My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth." The prophet does not intend to identify particular mountains and specific hills any more than he believes that God's people were literally sheep. In the historical sense, possibly this is a reference to the exiles of the northern kingdom some time before and more lately the south in Babylon. That is the ultimate referent of Ezekiel's words, but the poetic metaphor is meant to be understood through this lens, not literally read as if it were not poetic at all. This is not a proper parallel to a historical narrative such as Genesis 6-8.

  • DA doesn't anywhere consider the point that the Hebrew erets covers a wide semantic range, and can be translated world, earth or land, depending on the context. Hence it can refer to the whole globe as in Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning, God created the heaven and the erets" - we presume DA doesn't merely hold that to be teaching that God only made the Middle East...), or at another extreme simply to a specific country (e.g. Genesis 41:55, "... all the erets of Egypt was famished..." - here in fact a metonym is used to put the territory for the people). Context must decide, otherwise you fall into a semantic fallacy, using cases of one illegitimately to determine the meaning of others that appear in quite different settings. I noted in my extended review that DA relies heavily on quiet a number of semantic fallacies throughout his book. It's one thing to note that the word in the dictionary can mean one thing, but then to use that as evidence that it does mean that in a specific context is simply bogus exegesis, unworthy of a first term seminary student, let alone someone setting themselves up to write books to teach the evangelical world.

  • 1 Kings 10:24 is also a metonym. Obviously the "earth" did not seek out King Solomon; there were no clods of soil or piles of rock forming an orderly queue to come and find him. The meaning is that the inhabitants of the earth did - where they heard of him. In that sense, it is both a local and universal reference; wherever his fame went, people were sent to search him out. In what way, though, this is supposed to be parallel to the usage of the term in Genesis 6-8, is lost on me. Such things need longer to explain than in just a letter in the ET... which is why it's a shame that DA simply ducks such issues in his actual book, whilst finding multiple pages still to discuss  in depth such irrelevancies as Gosse's Omphalos.

  • Thus, it is clear that DA here has indulged in "proof-texting" - he has grabbed some similar words out of context, without regard to whether or not they are legitimate parallels, and used them to support a pre-existing doctrine. He has not derived his doctrine from these texts, but simply roped them in to support the existing construct. Proof-texting is right and necessary when done properly... this isn't it.

  • But, having said all of that, I can still concede that the Bible can, in some contexts, use the language in this kind of way, speaking of the "whole earth" when it means less than the entire totality of the globe. I would argue, as I have hinted above, that in such cases there are actual contextual clues, whether in the immediate or the wider context. For example, the wider context of the writings dealing with Paul's ministry means that we know he didn't actually preach the gospel to every living being under heaven - for one thing, Romans 15 shows that he still had plans to visit Spain. Here, the reference seems to me to be another "universal-local"; Paul preached the gospel fully and widely throughout the regions of Asia Minor, such that it was a known and public thing in every place he went. But wha is the context of Genesis 1-11, where the flood account appears? It needs a strong argument for DA's view, because the default presumption simply from that context, even before you come to details of the account, is strongly in favour of a global flood. Hence DA's neglect of this question is a major weakness in his case; I noted elsewhere in my reivew that he has quite a penchant for side-stepping hard and necessary questions in favour of his own chosen issues.

  • When we actually look at the details, we find that the Noahic flood had such features as:

    • requiring a gigantic boat to evade it that took 120 years in construction (don't you think Noah could have moved out of the east with a journey of slightly less than that amount of time if he merely needed to evade a regional downpour?)

    • it killed even the birds and other creatures which could likewise have easily migrated to avoid a local flood, and required them to be on the boat to be saved. When the flood ended, a bird was released, but could not find anywhere to land and returned - perhaps in DA's scenario the problem was the poor thing was just feeling a little weary that day?

    • The flood waters rose and prevailed for 150 days, the whole time that Noah had to remain upon the ark being a whole year, and covering even the tops of the highest mountains. We presume that DA knows that water flows downhill. How can all the mountains be covered in any particular area of the east for such a vast period of time without the flood extending globally, or at least across the entire contintent, as opposed to DA's mere regional flood? DA's theory would require some kind of enormous basin to countain the flood in a localised part of the east only - but we know that he rejects all such ideas that require any modification to orthodox mainstream scientic thinking.

    • Moreover, God promised never to send such a flood ever again. There have been many immense and catastrophic local and regional floods since. On DA's account, God broke his promise. But when we presuppose the truth of the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth, and use it to reconstruct history instead of using a foreign history reconstructed from something else to intepret the Bible, a different picture emerges. This promise means that the Noahic flood must have been immensely greater than any subsequent flood, and so DA's belief must be wrong. Again, he never addresses this argument in his book. The implication of God's post-flood promise is that the flood at least dramatically interfered with the seasons (if they are assumed to have been operating before, which I am not commenting on either way here). That is not possible though for a local flood; or if the meaning is simply that the localised flood disrupted the seasons locally, then this again leads to the unthinkable conclusion that God's promise was broken.

    • Again, DA never addresses the "table of nations" in Genesis 10 or the Babel account in Genesis 11. According to his theory, multiple languages existed long before Adam let alone Noah, and so did the nations. What significance do these chapters actually play in his scheme? It's all very well to promote a general theory that "Genesis is theological, not scientific", but if you want to sustain that argument, then in a 350-page book that concludes that creationism is dangerous and embarassing you ought to actually find some space to address these historical narratives. Genesis 1-11 records that the nations, such as Egypt (Mizraim), descended from people who came out of the ark. DA's Darwinian dating requires him to believe that Egypt was flourishing independently long before the flood, and does not permit him to believe that the nations all descend from people who were in a localised flood in the east. The bottom line is that ultimately you can't hold both Darwinian and Scriptural orthodoxy, and DA jettisons the latter in favour of the former by treating the Bible in Enlightenment style as purely "private values", "theological truths" for believers, rather than a true and historical revelation from God about the origins of our race.
DA, then, lists the "local / worldwide" difference as a minor point of disagreement, and his position as Scripturally justified. This is a point he never addresses in his book, though, and one as we've seen above of far more wide-ranging significance, if dealt with consistently, than he allows.

To be continued...

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