Archive for the ‘history’ Category

In his chapter ‘Refashioning the Clay’ Samuel Wells acknowledges the huge contribution the Big Bang and evolutionary theory have made to science, but cautions against turning them into theology, for “you get a single word answer: survival. The whole dynamic of history mutates into survival; and adaptation that enables survival is called progress. Conflict is at the heart of every encounter, and survival is the reward for those who win the battle.

“But Christianity has a very different answer.

“Christians believe the logic – the logos, or word – at the heart of the universe is not about survival. It’s about death and resurrection. The ultimate future doesn’t belong to those who have fought and prevailed, it belongs to those who have laid down their lives for others.

Samuel Wells, in Learning to Dream Again


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A few weeks ago we read a fascinating article in my Hermeneutics MA module by Kevin Giles: ‘The Biblical Argument for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics‘ EQ 66:1 (1994). In this very provocative article, Giles draws a parallel between the way the Bible has (previously) been interpreted with regard to slavery, and the way it is interpreted by those teaching the subordination of women in the home and in the church. I didn’t agree with everything in this article, but I thought it might provoke some good discussions!

In summing up he gives the following three options in evaluating ‘the Biblical case for slavery’:

1. “Those evangelicals who supported slavery with such fervour last century were mistaken in their interpretation of the Scriptures. … If this is the case…it is admitted that the most learned and devout of conservative evangelicals can seriously err in interpreting Scripture.”

2. “Those evangelicals who supported slavery, quoting the Bible in support, were right. … The word of God should be our standard, not modern ideas of equality, social justice, or personal rights.”

3. “Those evangelicals who supported slavery by appealing to the Bible were basically correct in their exegesis of the passages to which they referred but wrong in their doctrine of the Bible, in viewing it as a timeless set of oracles without historical conditioning; in concentrating only on those texts which seemed to support their beliefs, and in believing that every word of Scripture has to be obeyed whatever the situation.”

– Keep in mind that this was published in Evangelical Quarterly!

You can see where he’s going with this, can’t you?  And if that isn’t provocative enough, he goes further:

“These men appeared to the Bible as if it were a set of timeless oracles or propositions not recognising that in fact it reflected the culture of its authors and their presuppositions at least to some degree…failed to note that on most issues addressed by the Bible various answers are given to complex questions… In regard to slavery and the subordination of women the truth of the matter is that while the Bible supports both at one level, at another level there is a critique of both these oppressive structures. There is within Scripture great principles laid down clearly…which point beyond the advice given to particular people at particular times on these matters.”

And further:

“The biblical case for slavery is the counterpart of the case for the subordination of women, the only difference being that the case for slavery has far more weighty biblical support. …the internal biblical critique of slavery is less profound than that against the subordination of women.” [he goes on to explain…]

And he concludes:

“One final tantalising question: in a hundred years time will the spiritual heirs of those who now insist on the permanent subordination of women in the home and the church argue that such an idea simply cannot be supported from the Bible?”

If anyone wants to read the full article, I’m happy to lend it to anyone within reaching distance…

[I recall that I’ve previously reflected on some questions from feminist hermeneutics.]

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Further to my comments on ‘Harry Potter‘ and ‘The Widow and the King‘, I’ve just come across Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy’s essay on Jesus as True Myth and True History:

While the Jesus story is unquestionably grounded in history (See P. Eddy & G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend) it nevertheless bears a certain resemblance to certain myths and legends. The resemblance is due to the fact that this story incarnates in actual history the sense of reality, the longing, the obstacles and the hopes that all great myths and legends express. In Jesus, God shows his love for the world by becoming a human, serving sinners, dying on a cross, rising from the dead, defeating the devil, rescuing humanity and giving them eternal life in fellowship with himself. This is the heart of the Jesus story, and it expresses and addresses a dream that is buried in the depths of the human heart.

They also quote CS Lewis:

Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men… We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of the great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth.

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The author of the article I referred to in the previous post, Alan Rhoda, seems like an interesting guy and argues for Open Theism from a philosophical angle. I followed a link on his blog to an discussion on another post about Intelligent Design or Theistic Design and Open Theism.

Alan makes some points about OT that struck me (comment #13):

You’re right that open theism is committed to an epistemically changing God, a God who “experiences succession”, we might say. But that’s not so clearly a liability as Denyse seems to think. The argument from divine perfection that she alludes to depends on the questionable assumption that all that change must be either for the better or for the worse.

This was in response to a statement by StephenB (comment #5):

The point is that open theism is incompatible with the Bible just as TE is incompatible with the Bible except for different reasons. The Christian God is a perfect being and consequently immutable. To be in need change or to be changing is to be imperfect by definition and, therefore to be something other than God.

It’s really interesting the way this definition of perfection pops up all the time in this discussion. As I understand it the Western view of God’s ‘perfection’ as immutability comes from Aristotle’s view of God as the ‘unmoved Mover’, which is based on Platonic ideas of perfection.  Anselm consequently stated that a perfect God could not feel emotions since this would require change, (which implies imperfection). But as Alan states above, this relies on the assumption that change must be either for the better or worse.

However, I don’t see how the ‘unmoved Mover’ can be based on a Biblical understanding of God. Of course, Anselm argued that God only appears to show emotions, i.e. to be ‘moved’ – but the starting place for this understanding of God again lies outside the Bible, in Greek philosophy.

If we believe in a God who has revealed himself through the Scriptures, and most fully in his Son, then it must be this revelation which is our starting place, rather than any human ideas about perfection. The revelation of the Bible, and of Jesus, is of a God who has compassion, who is angry and sad, and who responds to people and events. Above all, he is a God of love, a God in relationship; a God who ultimately responds (and changes!) by becoming a human being (John 3.16, Phil 2.6-8). We must not impose an outside definition of perfection on God, rather we must take our definition of perfection from God himself. And by this I mean the God revealed in Jesus Christ, not a construction of Plato.

fbeckwith also makes a good point (comment #12):

“A god who does not know the future and therefore learns the future (for the first time!) as it unfolds does seem to be an evolving god (we might say “an epistemically evolving god”). ”

This would also be true of any finite time-bound being who does not know the future, including me. But I am not an epistemically evolving human being. I am a human being who remains identical to himself over time while changing. It does not seem accurate to refer to my acquisition of knowledge that happens as I move through time as “evolution.”

Related ideas in other posts:
NT Wright on redefining the ‘all-powerful’ God in the light of Jesus
Openness, the future and God’s foreknowledge

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[Still in my addiction to audiobooks phase!]

After finishing the unabridged ‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert (read by Scott Brick), which was a completely absorbing 22 hours on another world (and even more marvellous to listen to than read), I’m now listening to Melvyn Bragg’s Adventure of English. It’s a truly fascinating story for anyone interested in history and language and Robert Powell’s narration makes the words and language come alive. From Beowulf to Chaucer to Elizabeth I… (that’s about as far as I’ve got!)

I’m currently deep in the Middle Ages; being inspired and moved by the stories of Wycliffe and Tyndale and their respective Bible translations. Tyndale sounds like a fantastic character particularly. The story of him agreeing to sell a whole print run of 6000 copies to the Bishop of London – which were then burnt – and then using the proceeds to finance a new version – pure brilliance! And Melvyn Bragg rightly raves about the lyricism and brilliance of his translation. He introduced a huge number of new words and phrases into English (see the Wikipedia article for examples). The King James Version stuck to his phrasing and vocabulary in most cases and lots is still familiar today in modern translations.

Tyndale was a preacher and his version was a preacher’s Bible, lyrical and memorable. Bragg comments that English Bibles today still share this legacy from Tyndale of being designed to be read aloud and understood by all.

“I defy the pope, and all his laws… If God spared him life, ere many years he would cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than he did.”

Bragg has some great quotes from Tyndale and others, which sadly I cannot share because I don’t have the text in front of me, but I highly recommend reading the book – or even getting the audiobook (I have a subscription at Audible – by far the cheapest way!)

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A conversation with my dad pointed me in the direction of these very cool prehistoric footprints at Formby Point, near Liverpool.

These footprints are thought to have been created about 4000 years ago, by humans and animals walking in the mud and sand along the shore. No one’s sure how, but huge numbers of footprints in this intertidal region were not washed away but left exposed, perhaps due to a lowering of sea level. They were later covered with a layer of sand, which over time turned into sedimentary rock.

In more recent years the sea has eroded these concealing layers to reveal the footprints beneath. They were first discovered almost 20 years ago and archeologists have raced to capture the prints in photographs and plaster casts because once exposed the prints are quickly destroyed by the sea. Amazing to think that such an interesting archaelogical find is being lost so quickly, and by the very process that was interrupted so long ago.

They have even discovered prints belonging to the auroch – a giant prehistoric ox that became extinct in Britain during the Bronze Age. The auroch stood 6 feet high and was 11 feet long!

I especially liked this foot detail of a young adult male, showing the pointed toe outlines of long uncut toenails! (from the Intertidal archeology page).

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National Geographic have launched the Genographic Project in an effort to trace the journey of human beings across the globe.

Tracing DNA history is an area of science in which I have been interested for a while, although biology is certainly not my specialism. Here’s a short explanation, which will hopefully give a sense of why cellular biology plays such an interesting and important part in tracing human history.

Inside every cell of your body are tiny structures called organelles (the nucleus is the most well known). One of these organelles is the mitochondrion. Mitochondria are often called ‘cellular power plants’ for their role in providing energy to the cell.

However, these little structures are important for another reason. Mitochondria are unusual because they have their own DNA, their own genetic code, and it is generally accepted that their history began as a separate organism. If this is the case, then these creatures have a symbiotic relationship with humans. But this is just part of the story, although an intriguing part!

Mitochondria reproduce like bacteria, by division (‘binary fission’), essentially making them clones. They reproduce according to the energy needs of the cell and therefore their life cycle is not related to the life cycle of the cell. During human reproduction an egg nucleus and a sperm nucleus are joined and their genetic material combined to form a new genetic code. However, the mitochondria in the sperm cell are generally destroyed at fertilisation and so the embryo begins its life with mitochondria from the mother only.

So that’s the background, here’s where it gets interesting… As mitochondria are basically clones, very little genetic difference is seen between successive human generations, although mutation over time will introduce markers that enable a particular ‘gene tree’ to be identified. This makes them particularly useful in population genetic studies, such as the National Geographic project mentioned above, because they allow scientists to use these markers to trace the movements of populations across many generations and recognise links between widely dispersed peoples (e.g. between Koreans and Native Americans – see the Atlas of the Human Journey).

Comparing differences between mtDNA and working backwards to find the point at which it diverged also uncovers “the woman who is the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all living humans”, famously named Mitochondrial Eve. The age of ‘Eve’ can be approximated using the ‘gene clock’ technique, a way of tracing the point when two population groups have diverged by counting the number of genetic differences between their DNA sequences. She is thought to have lived in Africa about 150,000 years ago. While there will have been other women living at the same time, many of whom will have descendants today, only Mitochondrial Eve produced an unbroken line of daughters that persists to this day.

Controversial for some, perhaps, but certainly interesting – don’t you agree?

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