Friday, August 21, 2009

John Calvin and the Natural World

Those of us who have the privilege of teaching science in a Christian college or university have to work hard at helping students see science from a Christian perspective. In this book review essay Dordt College physics professor Dr. John Zwart describes these experiences in working with students in his non-majors physical science class.

In addition to describing his work with scientifically uninitiated students, John also discusses Calvin’s knowledge of and thoughts about science. He reviews Davis Young’s recent book John Calvin and the Natural World (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), which examines what Calvin wrote about science.

Note added later: This essay appeared in the September 2009 issue (v. 38, n. 1, pp. 27-31) of the Dordt College publication Pro Rege. We had been given permission to post it ahead of time since it is relevant to our discussions and a helpful summary of Calvin's views.

Parting ways with Calvin?

At last! A substantive critique of my paper on Creation Science and Scripture! Dr. John Byl, in his cleverly named blog, Bylogos (not to be confused with the website Biologos, which was set up by Francis Collins and which argues for theistic evolution), claims that I have misinterpreted the concept of the organic inspiration of Scripture and that I have misinterpreted Calvin. I have responded a bit to the first part on his blog but want to address his (and my) comments on Calvin on our own blog.

I’d like to thank John for pointing out Calvin’s comments on the goodness of creation in his commentary on Genesis 2:2, which I hadn’t noticed earlier. Here Calvin says, referring to the fact that the world was very good before the Fall but not anymore,

“It is subsequently that we shall find God saying, Let the earth bring forth thorns and briers, by which he intimates that the appearance of the earth should be different from what it had been in the beginning. But the explanation is at hand; many things which are now seen in the world are rather corruptions of it than any part of its proper furniture. For ever since man declined from his high original, it became necessary that the world should gradually degenerate from its nature. We must come to this conclusion respecting the existence of fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects. In all these, I say, there is some deformity of the world, which ought by no means to be regarded as in the order of nature, since it proceeds rather from the sin of man than from the hand of God. Truly these things were created by God, but by God as an avenger. In this place, however, Moses is not considering God as armed for the punishment of the sins of men; but as the Artificer, the Architect, the bountiful Father of a family, who has omitted nothing essential to the perfection of his edifice. At the present time, when we look upon the world corrupted, and as if degenerated from its original creation, let that expression of Paul recur to our mind, that the creature is liable to vanity, not willingly, but through our fault (Romans 8:20), and thus let us mourn, being admonished of our just condemnation.”

Clearly Calvin thinks that the nonhuman creation has fundamentally changed (deformed) from its original created state and that this change is due to man’s sin. The evidence for this change is “the existence of fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects.” While I sympathize with his view of fleas, which must have been much more of a pest in his day, I wouldn’t say the same about caterpillars, whose adult forms perform vital ecological functions in pollination. This raises the question of Calvin’s knowledge about science and the natural world. Davis Young has written a book about just that question (John Calvin and the Natural World (Lantham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), which is reviewed by J.W. Haas (in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith v. 59, n. 4 (2007), pp. 307-9 available online here) and by Dordt College physics professor Dr. John Zwart here.

I haven’t read the book yet but I understand that Calvin’s knowledge of biology was considerably less than of astronomy (which itself was largely Aristotelian). I think it’s safe to say though, that his view of the effects of the Fall on creation differ from mine, including the existence of carnivory before the Fall, which I affirm but Calvin denies.

When I look at the depictions of carnivory and predation in Scripture, I see no indication that this is a result of the Fall. Psalm 104:21 is an obvious example but so are the depictions of the fierceness of many creatures in Job 39-41. Nowhere do we read that such behavior is sinful, in fact the message to Job is that these are God’s works and we should not question him on things we do not understand.

Thus I do part ways with Calvin on his understanding of the effects of the Fall on creation, but I suspect his views would have been different if he were able to take a course in ecology, to see the importance of the food chain (or web), including carnivory, for the stability of ecosystems.

But how does Calvin respond when there is an apparent contradiction between science and Scripture? Since his knowledge of astronomy was better than that of biology, he saw the contradiction between the depiction of the firmament in Genesis 1 and what was known about the sky in his day and his response was that Genesis does not teach astronomy. I suspect his comments about the effects of the fall would be different and a little less simplistic if he had a better knowledge of biology.

But what does Paul mean in Romans 8:22 when he says that the whole creation groans awaiting redemption? A look around at our society and what we’ve done to our environment should make that clear. Genesis 3 shows how all of Adam’s relationships - with God, with Eve and with the ground - have been marred by the Fall. Adam had a sort of “reverse Midas touch” - everything he did (and everything we do) was marred with sin. So while the creation is not inherently defective as a result of the Fall, it certainly suffers from our sin.

Thus while I disagree with Calvin on the effects of the Fall, I don’t blame him for his lack of knowledge and consequent simplistic statements. In the same way God doesn’t blame us for our lack of knowledge when he reveals himself to us, but “lisps to us as little children” (Calvin’s words).

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Global Warming Primer

Among members of the general public, and also in many corners of Christianity (including both evangelicalism broadly as well as the Canadian Reformed churches) there is much skepticism about global warming. This might be due to the democratization of knowledge, in which everyone has (or thinks they have) access to all the same information, and in which one can find apparently eminent proponents of every possible point of view. Scientists, specifically, are viewed by the public in a curiously bipolar way: awe and amazement on the one hand and disdain and dismissal on the other. Medical science, with its knowledge and techniques, is held in high esteem especially by those in need of diagnosis or treatment for themselves or their loved ones. Simultaneously, public immunization programmes (or sunscreen) are vilified by many as being conspiratorial, socialistic, and dangerous, especially if one can find a website authored by a “PhD” or “MD” highlighting the risks.

On global warming, everyone is an expert. One says, “Al Gore sure is smart; we’re doomed!” The other counters, “It was cold this summer; global warming is a hoax.” Instead of joining either bandwagon, the reformed academic ought to weigh evidence carefully. Even within our community there are scientists whose expertise we can tap, brothers and sisters whom we can trust, who are familiar with the scientific literature and who do not rely on the popular press. We are not all experts on every topic, but just as we expect ministers to know the most about Scripture, and farmers about agriculture, electricians about household wiring, practicing scientists can give leadership in interpreting scientific discoveries.

Since global warming is a culturally important topic, touching on issues from personal lifestyle to global politics, we present an article written for Reformed Academic by Rick Baartman, a physicist working at TRIUMF in Vancouver and a member of Maranatha Canadian Reformed Church in Surrey, BC. Rick served on the Brazil Mission Board (1992-1998), is a board member of the prison ministry M2W2, and also board member of the Geneva Society for Reformational Worldview Studies. He and his wife Sara have five adult children and three grandchildren. Rick has reviewed the primary scientific literature on global warming, and has put together a valuable popular piece which we invite our readers to engage fruitfully. It is available in our “collected articles” in the sidebar, entitled “A Global Warming Primer”. A direct link is here.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cicada killers and the Fall

The flower bed between our driveway and our home appears to be an attractive place for cicada-killers to make their burrows and this summer is no exception. For those people unfamiliar with cicada-killers, these are really large wasps which find a cicada in a tree, paralyze it by stinging, then carry it back to their underground burrows, where they lay an egg on it, which feeds upon the cicada as it grows and develops. If you’re interested in learning more about these wasps, check out this page.

These wasps have attracted my attention for several reasons. Firstly, they’re quite big and scary, even though they’re relatively harmless to humans. I’m told that we’re more likely to die from any chemicals we would use to try to control them than from the wasps themselves. These insects are interested in cicadas, not people. Still, any guests coming up our driveway will find it somewhat disconcerting to get out of the car amongst a dozen or so of these creatures flying around (and mating). I’m somewhat torn in deciding what to do with them. Ecologically, they do a good thing, which is to control the numbers of those noisy cicadas, but I just wish they would do their thing somewhere else besides along my driveway.

Secondly, I find their biology gruesome but fascinating. They know just where to sting the cicadas, so as not to kill them, but merely paralyze them. Dead cicadas would decay and grow mold, which is not good for the larvae. In addition, these insects are just barely strong enough to carry the cicadas back to their burrow, and it’s actually a funny sight to see them struggling with their enormous load, twice as big as they are. Female larvae grow bigger than males, so the mother needs to bury two cicadas for every female larva but just one for a male (The mother controls the sex of the offspring by deciding whether or not to fertilize the egg. Unfertilized eggs are male, just as in bees).

Thirdly, I’ve wondered about the theology of these wasps and their life cycle. If animal death is a result of the Fall, how did these creatures live beforehand? The developing larvae need a source of food, where would it have come from, if not from cicadas? Did the present system immediately evolve once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit? These are rhetorical questions of course because I believe these creatures behaved this way long before Adam and Eve ever roamed the earth.

What is the Creation Science response to the death of insects? It is generally claimed that insects are not nephesh i.e. having the breath of life, because insects lack lungs, so they could have died before the Fall (for example see the note at the bottom of this page). The fact that insects still use air, but through spiracles along the sides of their bodies, apparently doesn’t count as breathing. I find this distinction between creatures that have the breath of life and those that don’t somewhat arbitrary and have a hard time believing that someone as educated as Moses wouldn’t think that insects are alive.

Here again we see an example of Creation Science distorting the meaning of the Biblical text to suit their misconception that the Bible teaches science. On the contrary, I see cicada-killers as yet another animal that seeks its food from God (Psalm 104:21), in this case through cicadas.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Waters Above the Firmament

Below follows a guest post by Ben Vandergugten (B.A., Trinity Western; B.Ed., Simon Fraser) in which he introduces his eight-page article which we have published in our “Collected Papers” (see sidebar). Ben teaches elementary students at William of Orange Christian School in Surrey, B.C. He and his wife, Esther, with their two children, are members of the Canadian Reformed Church in Cloverdale. We thank Ben for his contribution, and welcome the engagement of our readers.

“So God made the expanse (or firmament, dome, vault) and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so.” (Genesis 1:7) The interpretation of this text is straightforward, right? God separated the oceans, seas and lakes from the clouds above with an expanse of atmosphere. For a long time I didn’t give this reading a second thought. After all, it was plain and obvious. But this interpretation was not the obvious one until a few hundred years ago. It requires a scientific understanding of the atmosphere, as well as the sun, moon and stars (c.f. Genesis 1:16-18). It is likely that before the 16th century the “firmament” was considered to be a solid structure by nearly all educated (and probably also uneducated) people in the West. It was certainly assumed to be solid by the Ancient Near Eastern peoples, including Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Canaanites. Since it was amongst these nations that the people of Israel grew into a nation, it would seem most probable that they would also share with them this concept of the firmament.

In an article entitled “The Waters Above the Firmament,” I argue that the “firmament” in Genesis 1 should be understood as a solid structure and that the waters above the firmament are a heavenly ocean, rather than clouds. I discuss some perceptions of the cosmos found in both Hebrew and early Christian texts that compare well with this interpretation. I also consider a small sample of Bible texts that seem to fit better with these concepts of a solid dome and a heavenly ocean. I believe this interpretation takes seriously the ancient cosmology of the day and is most consistent with the Biblical text. This article is not exhaustive, but I hope it will generate some discussion and further research. The implications for this interpretation are significant, but I leave that for you to consider and hopefully discuss on this blog. I have provided some links within the paper to aid in further research. For a more complete argument in favour of this interpretation, see the articles by Paul Seely that I have referenced in the footnotes.

I hope this paper will entice some fruitful discussion, or at least fruitful thinking.