Monday, 10 June 2013

Examples of poor Christadelphian anti-evolution arguments - 5

John Pople's interpretation of Genesis: literalism and the ANE context of Genesis

Pople's assertion that the universe was created with the appearance of age is not new. It was popularised by the 19th century marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse, but received poorly by his peers. Charles Kingsley's response to Gosse is representative: 
Shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt, and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this — that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes Deus quidam deceptor [‘God who is sometimes a deceiver’]. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in the one single case of your newly created scars on the pandanus trunk, your newly created Adam's navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here... I cannot... believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind."  (Emphasis mine) [1] 
Kingsley was correct. To create a planet with the radiometric and stratigraphic signatures of old age that do not in fact correlate with its actual age when there is no valid reason to do this (rocks unlike trees never reach adulthood) is to make God a deceiver. Pople's argument turns God into a trickster, and for that reason alone should be abandoned.

The motivation for Pople's approach is to reconcile the evidence for an ancient earth with the belief that the creation narratives are meant to be interpreted literally, as factually accurate accounts of natural history and it is that assumption which lies at the heart of Pople's failure to properly interpret the creation narrative. Pople unfortunatley, like many fundamentalists, is working within a paradigm which only permits literalism (YEC - six days of creation) or strong concordism (day-age, gap theory). All of these approaches are flawed:
YEC: invalidated by the overwhelming evidence for an ancient earth and an evolutionary origin of life 
Day-age: invalidated by the fact that animals and plants live in an ecosystem, which means that plants requiring pollination would die waiting for thousands of years until the fifth day-age. Also invalidated by the natural meaning of yom (day in Hebrew) which does refer to a 24 hour period

Gap theory: ruled out by the lack of any widespread geological devastation needed for the 'recreation' in six days.

As David Young pointed out in his landmark papers "Scripture in the Hands of Geologists" (Parts 1 and 2) [2-3] literalism fails when measured against the observed universe, while the lack of any agreed way to harmonise natural history with the creation narrative sinks concordism. Young correctly observes that the way forward is to read Genesis in the llight of its Ancient Near Eastern environment, and stop trying to force it into a literal / concordist framework: 
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 I 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] 
Examining the creation narratives against their Ancient Near Eastern background has been an extremely fruitful approach, and has the advantage of taking Genesus on its own terms, rather than trying to force it into a modern context in which it simply does not fit. It is beyond the scope of this article to cover this in detail, but the following should give an idea as to what can be acheived when literalism and concordism are abandoned:

Gerard Hasel asserts that the Genesis cosmology: 
…as presented in Gn 1:1-2:4a appears thus basically different from the mythological cosmologies of the ancient Near East. It represents not only a "complete break" with the ancient Near Eastern mythological cosmologies but represents a parting of the spiritual ways which meant an undermining of the prevailing mythological cosmologies. This was brought about by the conscious and deliberate antimythical polemic that runs as a red thread through the entire Gn cosmology. The antimythical polemic has its roots in the Hebrew understanding of reality which is fundamentally opposed to the mythological one. [5]
Donald Gowan also sees a polemical agenda here by showing that in Genesis, the sun, moon and stars, which were worshipped in the ANE are shown not to be gods, but merely created entities:
The darkening of sun and moon, or darkness in general, appears frequently in prophetic judgement texts, reminding us again of the close association between Yahweh and light, from the creation story onward. Since the sun and moon were worshiped in virtually every culture of the ancient Near East, it was probably for polemical reasons that Genesis 1 separates the creation of light, on the first day, from that of the heavenly bodies, on the fourth day, and that independent relationship between Yahweh and light is also asserted in several of the eschatological passages of the OT. [6] 
James McKeown looks at the issue of similarity between the Mesopotamian creation myths and Genesis, and states: 
The main difference is that Enuma Elish [a Babylonian creation myth] 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's references to creation Psalms, In contrast to these references, Genesis leaves mot a vestige of mythical language or thought; Genesis is a complete denial of the polytheistic and mythological Genesis, their very existence was denied. [7]
Genesis as polemic is an idea well accepted in scholarly circles, as the representative quotes indicate. Likewise, the idea that motifs and themes in the ANE were adapted and utilised in the OT is unsurprising. For example, the OT covenant framework is similar to those used in the ANE, particularly the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty framework.[8] Other motifs that may have been redeployed include the concept of creation as the palace-temple of the deity. Ricky Watts [9] speculates that this motif, which is present in Enuma Elish (Ea building a temple on Apsu's body), and the Ugarit Baal cycle (Baal defeats Yam and a house-temple is formed for him) may utilised in the OT. He writes: 
As the Great King, Elohim naturally creates realms for the lesser rulers (cf. Gen 1:16) as he forms his palace-temple out of the deep and gives order to and fills it. And as the Great King, having ordered his realm, he now rules over all in "Sabbath" rest (see Exod 20), sitting in the great pavilion of his cosmos-palace-temple (cf. Ps 93). [10] 
Watts goes further, and argues that this creation as palace-temple of the victorious king metaphor spills into Revelation. He comments on the New Jerusalem of Rev 21 and writes: 
The significance of these dimensions might lie in the observation that the size of the city corresponds to that of the then-known Greek world, while the height emphasizes the co-mingling of heaven and earth. In other words, the climax of the new creation is not the abandonment of the earth, but instead the coming of Yahweh himself to the earth to dwell among us. Here, then, is the climax of Genesis 1’s six-fold affirmation of the goodness of creation with its progression in both sets of days from heaven to earth. The final goal is not the destruction of creation, but rather the unification of heaven and earth such that the renewed earth itself now becomes Yahweh’s very throne room [11] 
Clearly, the idea of Genesis as Divine polemic have much to commend them, especially given how readily an eschatological view can be incorporated in them. Furthermore, they have the advantage of being sensitive to the historical-grammatical context of the book, something which a misguided literalism completely fails to do.

Tha apostle James warned in 3v1 that "not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." In a subject as charged and controversial as this one, it is critical that anyone who sets out to teach the flock knows exactly what they are talking about, as the consequences of getting things wrong are quite high. John Pople's recent comments on a Facebook thread are not a little disturbing in this regard: 
My specific conclusions with regard to the most recent evolution debate (as a Bible student and qualified professional physicist) on which we may agree or differ, are that one can *not* make a marriage between the Bible and evolution. I think a lot of the difficulty lies not in the flexibility of science to allow many things – the scientific realm is accommodating to many ideas – but in the handling of scripture. What is often deemed to be “taking a metaphorical interpretation” of the scriptures, has been reduced to a practice which occasionally is indistinguishable (to me) from rejecting them. [12]
Being a professional physicist is of no relevance to the fields of ancient near eastern history, second temple Judaism, Pauline studies and other areas of relevance to a correct understanding of this subject. Nor does it give competence in evolutionary biology, for outside of his narrow area of physics, his opinion carries no greater weight than any other educated layperson. Stressing his background appears little more than an attempt at argument from personal authority, and that automatically rings huge alarm bells.  In the words of John Pople himself: 
as one who publishes in the world of academia, let me tell you that arm-waving vagaries like “Soviet historians insist…” [or your earlier: “Historians Identify…”] are absolute red flags that this is not credible academic work. Sources are required to be cited for authors publishing in reputable periodicals and publishing houses. [13]

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Cited by Brian Switek in "New packaging on an old idea" Laelaps 26th September 2007   Accessed 17th March 2013

2. Young, Davis A. “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists. Part 1.” Westminster Theological Journal (1987) 49: 1–34.

3. Young, David A. “Scripture in the Hands of Geologists.” Westminster Theological Journal (1987) 49: 257–304.

4. ibid, p 303

5. Hasel GF “The Significance of the Cosmology in Genesis 1 in Relation to Ancient Near Eastern Parallels” Andrews University Seminary Studies (1972) 10:1-20

6. Gowan DE “Eschatology in the Old Testament” (Continuum International 2000)  p 122

7. McKeown, James. Genesis. The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008.

8. For an overview, see Lopez RA “Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near East Covenants – Part 1” CTS Journal 9 (Fall 2003) p 92-111 and Lopez R “Israelite Covenants in the Light of Ancient Near East Covenants – Part 2” CTS Journal (Spring 2004) p72-106

9. Watts R “Making Sense of Genesis 1” Accessed 17th March 2013

10. ibid

11. ibid