Friday, August 21, 2009

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).

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