The GeoChristian

The Earth. Christianity. They go together.

Best of the GeoChristian — updated

I have updated the “Best of the GeoChristian” link up at the top of the page.

There is a good variety: posts on Christianity, geology, creationism, the environment, atheism, apologetics, and more.

I would be interested to hear if there is a post that has been especially meaningful or helpful to you, or one that you think is the best of the best of The GeoChristian.

Thanks for reading,

Grace and Peace

January 2, 2013 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Christianity, Creation Care, Creation in the Bible, Environment, Evolution, Geology, Maps, Nature, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , | Leave a comment

PCA General Assembly includes a seminar on the age of the Earth

One of the seminars at the Presbyterian Church of America’s 2012 General Assembly (their annual national meeting, held June 19-22 this year) is a presentation of the geological evidence for an old Earth, given by two geologists from Solid Rock Lectures. Here is the description from the General Assembly seminar brochure:

The PCA Creation Study Committee a Dozen Years Later: What Does Science Say Now?
Seminar Speaker: Gregg Davidson, Professor of Geology, University of Mississippi; Ken Wolgemuth, Oil industry consultant

The Creation Study Committee reported their results in 2000 without establishing a firm position on the age of the earth. The report encouraged the PCA to consider what additional scientific understanding might develop in the future to assist in answering the question of age. This seminar will provide an update on the scientific evidence for an ancient earth using examples non-scientists can easily apprehend. Pastors and theologians are generally familiar with the biblical arguments surrounding questions of the age of the earth, but few have access to scientific data that they can understand. Most rely on information from young earth organizations that do not adequately or accurately reflect conventional scientific understanding. When information from these sources is passed on to students and congregations, Christ, as the author of truth, is poorly represented. More importantly, our members are inadequately prepared to wrestle with challenges to their faith when encountering the actual scientific evidence. Church leaders need to be aware of the evidence even if convinced it is wrong. The seminar will explicitly acknowledge the authority and preeminence of scripture over natural evidence, while also recognizing that God’s natural creation can sometimes aid in choosing between plausible biblical interpretations. Gregg Davidson is a member of Christ Presbyterian Church in Oxford, MS (PCA), a professor of geology at the University of Mississippi, and a member of a non-profit organization called Solid Rock Lectures that is devoted to proclaiming Christ and reconciling science and faith conflicts. Ken Wolgemuth is a member of Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Tulsa, OK (EPC), a PhD geologist working as a consultant in the oil industry, and also a member of Solid Rock Lectures.

The PCA is a theologically conservative denomination, firmly committed to the inerrancy of Scriptures. Within the PCA, there are both young-Earth creationists and adherents of an old Earth. The Old Testament faculty at the PCA’s Covenant Theological Seminary includes C. John Collins, who makes a very strong case that the Bible doesn’t set a date for creation in his excellent book Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary. Collins was the Old Testament Editor for the highly-regarded ESV Study Bible.

The PCA Creation Study Committee of 2000 could not come to a Biblical consensus regarding the age of the Earth, which is as it should be. There is enough ambiguity in the opening chapters of Genesis, that Biblically-speaking, one could go either way. The report did state, as indicated in the seminar description, that scientific evidence could be useful in determining which side is correct in this debate. One of the goals of this seminar seems to be to present the case that the scientific evidence weighs very heavily on the old-Earth side. Davidson was one of the co-authors of the article PCA Geologists on the Age of the Earth, which appeared in Modern Reformation magazine, and I suspect the speakers will make a similar geological case in their seminar.

Not surprisingly, there is opposition from the young-Earth side to the inclusion of an old-Earth perspective in the schedule. Some are concerned that only one side of the issue is being presented. In some settings this might be true, but there are a number of seminars listed in the brochure where there might be some disagreement over one issue or another, and the organizers have no obligation to include all viewpoints on all issues. I would be surprised if at next year’s General Assembly there were not a young-Earth counter-seminar to balance things out.

Others are concerned that old-Earthers are given any voice at all, especially old-Earthers who advocate evolution as well. It seems that some would prefer a young-Earth monopoly within the PCA.

The scientific evidence for an old Earth is overwhelming, contrary to the claims of the young-Earth creationists. Sea salt does not point to a young Earth. Volcanoes do not point to a young Earth. Dinosaur footprints do not point to a young Earth. Sedimentary rocks do not point to a young Earth. The Grand Canyon does not point to a young Earth. The RATE project does not provide convincing evidence for a young Earth. The young-Earth creationism movement has consistently presented poor arguments for their position, and it is important that the church has this opportunity to hear the old-Earth side.

I suspect, however, that the main thing most General Assembly attendees need to hear is not the geological evidence for an old Earth, but the case for the ambiguity of Scripture regarding the age of the Earth. The Bible does not teach a young Earth, and it doesn’t teach an old Earth; it is open-ended on the topic. This seminar on geological evidence will not convince anyone that the Earth is old if they have Biblical reasons for denying the evidence. Many YECs have only heard the Biblical case for a young Earth, have been taught that all old-Earth interpretations are merely compromises with the world, and that acceptance of them will only lead to theological liberalism or apostasy.

The young-Earth interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is based on three pillars, none of which is explicitly taught in Scripture:

  1. The Bible requires a young-Earth — No it doesn’t. The Bible teaches that the Earth was created in six days. Much of the debate is about whether the word “day” (Hebrew: yom) requires six consecutive 24-hour days (the young-Earth viewpoint), or if it can be interpreted in Genesis in some other way. Yom is used figuratively at least once in Genesis 1-2. Genesis 2:4 states “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” (ESV)  “Day” in this passage refers to the entire creation week, not to a literal 24-hour day. If it can be used figuratively once, it might be used figuratively elsewhere in the passage. Collins develops a much more extensive case for the analogical use of yom in his commentary on Genesis 1-4 I referenced earlier.
  2. The Bible requires that there be no animal death before the fall of Adam — No it doesn’t. I’ve addressed this issue in my post Death before the fall — an old Earth Biblical perspective.
  3. The Bible requires a global flood — No it doesn’t. I written on this topic in The YEC “Did God really say?” tactic.

One can make a thoroughly Biblical case for an old Earth (or again, Biblical ambiguity about this secondary issue), without reference to geology, astronomy, or other historical sciences. Once people see this, they will be more open to what God has revealed in his creation regarding Earth’s history.

Given the potential for tension at this seminar, I hope and pray that there would be a spirit of grace upon all who speak and attend.

Grace and Peace

HT: Tim and Natural Historian

———————————————————————–

Here are a couple YEC blog posts on the topic:

A Daughter of the Reformation — “there appears to be a move to kick Young Earth Creationists out of the PCA tent.”

Johannes Weslianus

The comments on the Johannes Weslianus (Wes White) blog give a good idea of the antagonism that can be stirred up by this issue:

“I wonder why the PCA would allow such a one-sided presentation.”

“Even in this brief announcement, the condescension is absolutely palpable.”

“I find it so disconcerting that the PCA GA would allow Biologos into its very presence. How is this not allowing the wolf into the sheepfold?”

“the assault on biblical creationism will most assuredly destroy your denomination.”

“After reading the description of the anti-YEC Seminar, I was so rattled spiritually and emotionally that I could barely concentrate for the rest of the day.”

“After calming down from last night, I decided to write to Michelle and I asked her to cancel this seminar (with reasons). Sad stuff.”

“I won’t be attending the actual Seminar. I don’t trust my ability to be gracious and to play well with others in that setting, not to mention to keep my head from exploding. “

“Can someone invite a YEC scientist, with credentials, to attend the seminar and raise objections to the so-called “evidence” that will be presented?”

June 13, 2012 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Christianity, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , , , | 11 Comments

John MacArthur on the age of the Earth and theistic evolution

Influential Reformed blogger Tim Challies recently interviewed the popular pastor and radio Bible teacher John MacArthur (5 More Questions with John MacArthur). One of the questions had to do with creation, evolution, and the age of the Earth:

One pressing issue in the church today is that of creation and evolution. Do you believe that a person can be genuinely saved and believe in some kind of theistic evolution? How serious a theological error is it to reject a literal 6-day creation?

In his response, MacArthur grudgingly admits that one could possibly be a real Christian and believe and in an old Earth, and perhaps even believe in evolution:

It’s a very serious error in my estimation, because it attacks the authority of Scripture at the Bible’s very starting point. It employs a special hermeneutic in order to make the Bible mean quite the opposite of what it plainly states. And once you open that door, absolutely nothing is safe from the assaults of rationalism, skepticism, and rank unbelief.

I watch the propaganda being published by organizations like Biologos, and it’s hard to resist the conclusion that many of the people who are involved in that project don’t seem to be believers at all, given the large portions of Scripture they regularly have to explain away in order to justify their convoluted worldview.

As a matter of fact, the history of modernist rationalism is littered with vivid examples of why it is unsafe and spiritually destructive to subject Scripture to naturalistic presuppositions. I wrote on this topic in detail at the very beginning of my book The Battle for the Beginning.

But in answer to your specific question: I do think it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth. (It is certainly possible for believers to be inconsistent in their beliefs—to hold all kinds of errors in varying degrees. That’s called cognitive dissonance.)

Well-meaning evangelicals have experimented with several ways to reconcile old-earth theories with Scripture. One of the more popular ideas (until Henry Morris exploded it) was that there’s a gap in the white space between Genesis 1:1 and verse 2, and (so the theory goes) that silent gap might accommodate countless ages of change and chaos in the universe. Spurgeon held to a version of the gap theory, and the original Scofield Bible embraced both the gap theory and old-earth cosmology with blithe enthusiasm. Of course we would not consign everyone who ever held such an opinion to the ranks of unbelief.

Nevertheless, as evolutionary theory has developed and devolved into untouchable dogma—a favorite weapon for the current generation of angry atheists—I don’t see how any sober-minded, well-grounded, fully-committed Christian who truly believes what the Bible teaches can long maintain faith in the various and ever-changing theories evolutionary scientists keep proposing. Biblical cosmology, the Genesis account of how the human race was created and subsequently fell, and the important parallels between Adam and Christ in the story of redemption—these are essential beliefs of Christianity; they have never changed; and they are diametrically opposed to every purely naturalistic theory about life’s origins.

Anyone who takes seriously the authority of Scripture must ultimately set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says. The earlier we do that, the better. Frankly, I have never understood why someone who believes in the literal bodily resurrection of Christ would balk at believing all of Scripture, starting with Genesis 1:1.

I have a lot of respect for John MacArthur (and use some of his New Testament commentaries to aid in my study of the Scriptures), but I have a number of issues, of course, with what he had to say in this interview.

  • Acceptance of an old Earth does not attack the authority of Scripture. Like many Evangelicals who accept an old Earth, I believe in the inerrancy of Scriptures, and in all of the core theological truths of the Christian faith.
  • Acceptance of an old Earth does not necessarily employ a special hermeneutic that twists the words of the Bible. It would be wrong force scripture to conform to science, but that is not necessarily what old-Earth theologians have done. Back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christians were confronted with scientific evidence that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Some dug in their heels, but others looked at the Scriptures more closely to see what they really said and didn’t say on the topic. There was no “special hermeneutic” required, only a more careful application of the hermeneutic tools they already possessed. Conservative Bible scholars of the past two hundred years have been forced to do the same, and many have come to the conclusion that the Bible does not put constraints on the age of the Earth. They have done this not by somehow forcing the Bible to say something it doesn’t say, but by looking closely at the Hebrew text, letting Scripture interpret Scripture, and gaining a better understanding of the world the ancient Hebrews lived in.
  • It may be equally wrong to force science to fit Scripture as it is to force Scripture to fit science. The young-Earth creationists have published an incredible amount of bad science over the years, and held this forth to the church and world as an unanswerable apologetic argument.
  • Acceptance of an old Earth is not the same as subjecting the Scriptures to naturalistic presuppositions. It involves acceptance of the idea that “all truth is God’s truth.” Let the rocks speak for themselves and let the Bible speak for itself (but make sure we read them both correctly).
  • I agree that “it is possible for a genuine believer to be confused or befuddled by scientific arguments regarding evolution and the age of the earth.” Most of the confusion, however, comes from the young-Earth creationist side of the debate. Whether it be the older YEC arguments about moon dust and vapor canopies, or more recent ones about accelerated nuclear decay or hyper-rapid speciation after the flood, the YEC movement has produced a steady stream of poor scientific arguments that non-scientists (such as Dr. MacArthur) readily accept.
  • Dr. MacArthur mentions Charles Spurgeon and C.I. Scofield as well-meaning Evangelicals who “experimented” with ways to reconcile the Bible with an old Earth. I guess MacArthur “interprets” while those who disagree with his interpretation only “experiment.” The other possiblity is that they (and many others) have looked closely at what the Bible actually says and have come to the conclusion that perhaps the YECs are over-reading the text.
  • The theory of evolution changes over time, but so does the “scientific” story coming out of young-Earth creationism.
  • Many forms of old-Earth creationism (e.g. the day-age theory as presented by Hugh Ross or the analogical days interpretation of C. John Collins) retain everything Dr. MacArthur is concerned about: creation from nothing, a real Adam, Adam’s fall into sin. One does not have to be a YEC to be thoroughly orthodox in their theology.
  • I’m not convinced that the Bible has much to say about biological evolution, except about the origin of humans. To reject a scientific theory because of a brief mention of kinds reproducing after their own kinds is reading a whole lot into the Bible. If there are limits on biological change, then the Bible doesn’t tell us what they are.
  • MacArthur asks those of us who take the Bible’s authority seriously to “set the opinions of men aside and simply trust what Scripture says.” I do believe the Bible and take its authority seriously. I just don’t trust everything that comes out of Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research.

It is common for YECs to assert that if the Earth is billions of years old then the Bible isn’t true; that certainly seems to be what Dr. MacArthur is saying here. This is a false dichotomy, and it sets up believers—especially our young people—for a fall. If what the YECs say doesn’t work scientifically (and it doesn’t), and if we insist that a 6000-year old Earth is the only way to read Genesis, then many of them will walk away from the church. And whose fault will it be, the “wicked evilutionists” or well-meaning Christians who fed them a bad apologetic?

I am not asking Dr. MacArthur to abandon his belief that the young-Earth creationist interpretation is correct. What I would hope for, instead, is less of a my-way-or-the-highway approach to this divisive issue.

Grace and Peace

February 24, 2011 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Christianity, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , , | 30 Comments

Poll: Understanding Genesis 1

Welcome readers from Skepchick. I invite you to look around; a good place to start would be my Best of The GeoChristian page, which is only partially complete.There are newer posts beneath this one.

Ever since eighteenth century geologists suggested that the Earth might be older than 6000 years, Biblical scholars have attempted to reconcile the Scriptural record with the geological record. Many have taken a closer look at what the text actually says and doesn’t say about the origin of the Earth and biosphere, and come to the conclusion that there are valid alternatives to the traditional “literal” interpretation that would require a young Earth. Many other Christians have concluded that all such efforts are futile, and that the Biblical record is incompatible with modern geological thinking. They believe that modern geology somehow has the story of Earth’s history wrong. Others have used this apparent conflict between geology and the Bible as a reason to reject the Bible altogether.

What is your preferred way to understand Genesis One? I have the poll set up so you can pick up to three answers.

I am aware that some of the positions I have listed as “Old Earth,” such as the analogical days interpretation and framework hypothesis, actually make no statement on the age of the Earth. It could be young, it could be old. But it is pretty rare for a young-Earth creationist to hold to these interpretations, so I have labeled them as Old Earth.

No poll is perfect, so feel free to add your comments.

I’ll have this poll up for the entire month of February.

Grace and Peace

————————————————————————————

P.S.

If one removes, the swarm of “Genesis is a myth” votes that came from the Skepchick blog, the poll results look more like this:

19 votes (13 percent) — Young Earth
30 votes (20 percent) — Old Earth — not committed to an interpretation
22 votes (15 percent) — Old Earth — day-age
5 votes (   3 percent) — Old Earth — gap theory
21 votes (14 percent) — Old Earth — analogical days
26 votes (18 percent) — Old Earth — framework
5 votes (   3 percent) — Old Earth — revelatory day
11 votes (  7 percent) — Old Earth — cosmic temple inauguration
9 votes (   6 percent) — Christian, but Bible contains errors

Unfortunately, I don’t know what percentage of my readers were voting for “myth” before the inundation, but from previous polls and comments, it seems that around 10% of my readers are in the “skeptic” category.

It looks like a pretty broad variety of viewpoints among the readers of The GeoChristian.

February 4, 2011 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Christianity, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Polls, Young-Earth creationism | , , , , , | 6 Comments

The ESV Study Bible on creation — Introduction and Introduction to Genesis

The following item was originally posted on The GeoChristian in October 2009, and I have added it to my blog recycling program. Because I have new readers of The GeoChristian, I will occasionally go back and re-use some of my favorite blog entries. 

I am re-using this post about the ESV Study Bible for a couple reasons. The first is because the ESV Study Bible is a theologically conservative Evangelical work, yet it presents a wide range of interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis. The authors of the study notes, though firmly committed to the inspiration of the Scriptures, believe that it is not necessary to hold to the “literal” young-Earth interpretation of Genesis.

My other reason for using this post over again is because I feel that I didn’t really follow through on my original intentions. I had planned a multiple-part series on the doctrine of creation as presented in the ESV Study Bible, but ended after only two posts. I plan on extending this series in the upcoming months.

ESVStudyBibleThe ESV Study Bible (ESV is the English Standard Version translation) is a masterpiece of conservative Evangelical scholarship. The scholars who put this volume together are highly-qualified Bible experts who have a high respect for the Bible as the Word of God.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of a study Bible, this contains more than just the text of the Bible. It contains many thousands of cross-references and explanatory notes, plus drawings, maps, articles, and an extensive concordance (index). The ESV Study Bible is a massive work, with over 2,000,000 words on 2750 pages.

INTRODUCTION

The Introduction to the ESV Study Bible makes it very clear that the authors of the various articles and study notes share a commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. The Introduction was written by Lane Dennis of Crossway Books and Bibles, and Wayne Grudem of Phoenix Seminary. Here are some quotes from the introduction:

The first kind [of words in the ESV Study Bible] is the actual words of the Bible, which are the very words of God to us. (p. 9)

The notes are written from the perspective of confidence in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. (pp. 10-11)

Because of this commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible, many would think that the ESV Study Bible would give a strong endorsement of the “literal” six-day interpretation of the young-Earth creationists, with a roughly 6000-year old Earth and a global flood that deposited most sedimentary rocks. The authors of the notes, however, take a cautious and broad approach to questions of the age of the Earth and the extent and work of the flood.

There are two groups of people who insist that Genesis teaches a young Earth. The first of these is the young-Earth creationists, led by organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. They are convinced that the Bible requires a young Earth, and distort science to make it fit their interpretation. The other group is the atheists and skeptics. It is in their interest to say that the Bible requires a young Earth, as it makes it easier for them to not believe. For the most part, neither group is willing to consider Biblical scholarship that would upset their preconceptions.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Overview of interpretations

The ESV Study Bible‘s Introduction to Genesis (which is different than the Introduction I have quoted from already) was written by T. Desmond Alexander of Union Theological Seminary in Belfast. It has a section called “Genesis and Science,” which begins with an overview of the various positions that are held by theologically-conservative Biblical scholars.

The relation of Genesis to science is primarily a question of how one reads the accounts of creation and fall (chs. 1–3) and of the flood (chs. 6–9). What kind of “days” does Genesis 1 describe? How long ago is this supposed to have happened? Were all species created as they are now? Were Adam and Eve real people? Are all people descended from them? How much of the earth did Noah’s flood cover? How much impact did it have on geological formations?

Faithful interpreters have offered arguments for taking the creation week of Genesis 1 as a regular week with ordinary days (the “calendar day” reading); or as a sequence of geological ages (the “day-age” reading); or as God’s “workdays,” analogous to a human workweek (the “analogical days” view); or as a literary device to portray the creation week as if it were a workweek, but without concern for temporal sequence (the “literary framework” view). Some have suggested that Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without form and void,” describes a condition that resulted from Satan’s primeval rebellion, which preceded the creation week (the “gap theory”). There have been other readings as well, but these five are the most common.

None of these views requires denying that Genesis 1 is historical, so long as the discussion in the section on Genesis and History is kept in mind. Each of these readings can be squared with other biblical passages that reflect on creation. (pp. 43-44)

Note that only one of the five primary alternatives—the “calendar day” reading— requires a young Earth. The others each have room—or require—an Earth that is older than 6000 years. I personally make no commitment to a specific view, except to say that I rule out the calendar day interpretation based on external evidence (keeping in mind that all truth is God’s truth).

Note also that the Introduction to Genesis indicates that even Exodus 20:11 does not require a literal, seven consecutive day interpretation:

The most important of these [passages] is Exodus 20:11, “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day”: since this passage echoes Genesis 1:1–2:3, the word “day” here need mean only what it means in Genesis 1. Therefore, it does not require an ordinary-day interpretation, nor does it preclude an ordinary-day interpretation. (p. 44)

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Is Genesis 1 a scientific account?

Genesis gives a true account of the origin of the universe, but one should be extremely cautious when attempting to correlate the words of Genesis to specific scientific concepts. Genesis 1 wasn’t written to tell us about the degree to which populations can vary (reproduction “according to their kinds” doesn’t place any kind of limit on variation), Genesis 2 wasn’t written to tell us that it never ever rained before the flood, and Genesis 3 wasn’t written to tell us how snakes lost their limbs.

Should Genesis 1 be called a “scientific account”? Again, it is crucial to have a careful definition. Does Genesis 1 record a true account of the origin of the material universe? To that question, the answer must be yes. On the other hand, does Genesis 1 provide information in a way that corresponds to the purposes of modern science? To this question the answer is no. Consider some of the challenges. For example, the term “kind” does not correspond to the notion of “species”; it simply means “category,” and could refer to a species, or a family, or an even more general taxonomic group. Indeed, the plants are put into two general categories, small seed-bearing plants and larger woody plants. The land animals are classified as domesticable stock animals (“livestock”); small things such as mice, lizards, and spiders (“creeping things”); and larger game and predatory animals (“beasts of the earth”). Indeed, no species, other than man, gets its proper Hebrew name. Not even the sun and moon get their ordinary Hebrew names (1:16). The text says nothing about the process by which “the earth brought forth vegetation” (1:12), or by which the various kinds of animals appeared—although the fact that it was in response to God’s command indicates that it was not due to any natural powers inherent in the material universe itself. (p. 44)

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — The purpose of Genesis

The primary purpose of Genesis 1 seems to be to identify God as the Creator of everything who is completely separate from the creation, and to contrast him to the gods who appear in the creation accounts of the nations the Hebrews had contact with.

This account is well cast for its main purpose, which was to enable a community of nomadic shepherds in the Sinai desert to celebrate the boundless creative goodness of the Creator; it does not say why, e.g., a spider is different from a snake, nor does it comment on what genetic relationship there might be between various creatures. At the same time, when the passage is received according to its purpose, it shapes a worldview in which science is at home (probably the only worldview that really makes science possible). This is a concept of a world that a good and wise God made, perfectly suited for humans to enjoy and to rule. The things in the world have natures that people can know, at least in part. Human senses and intelligence are the right tools for discerning and saying true things about the world. (The effects of sin, of course, can interfere with this process.) (p. 44)

The doctrine of creation is much richer than merely addressing questions of how and when God created the universe, life, and human beings.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Adam and Eve

I often state my position as “I believe in a real creation of the universe by the Triune God of the Bible, in a real Adam in a real garden, committing a real sin with real consequences, and in Jesus Christ as God’s only solution to those consequences.”

It is clear that Adam and Eve are presented as real people. Their role in the story, as the channel by which sin came into the world, implies that they are seen as the headwaters of the human race. The image of God distinguishes them from all the animals, and is a special bestowal of God (i.e., not a purely “natural” development). It is no wonder that all human beings share capacities for language, moral judgment, rationality, and appreciation for beauty, unlike and beyond the powers observed in the animals; any science that ignores this fact does not faithfully describe reality. The biblical worldview leads one to expect as well that all humans now share a need for God and a bent toward sin, as well as a possibility for faith in the true God. (p. 44)

Young Earthers often say that to accept an old Earth undermines the foundations of the gospel, but it is clear that one can accept an old Earth, a real Adam, a real Fall, and therefore a real need for a Savior.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — The flood

Young Earth creationists insist that the Bible requires a global, catastrophic flood. Many conservative scholars, including the editors and contributors to the ESV Study Bible, have looked closely at the text and determined that this is not necessary.

One must take similar care in reading the flood story. The notes will discuss the extent to which Moses intended to describe the flood’s coverage of the globe. Certainly the description of the flood implies that it was widespread and catastrophic, but there are difficulties in making confident claims that the account is geared to answering the question of just how widespread. Thus, it would be incautious to attribute to the flood all the geological formations observed today—the strata, the fossils, the deformations, and so on. Geologists agree that catastrophic events, such as volcanic eruptions and large-scale floods, have had great impact on the landscape; it is questionable, though, whether these events can in fact achieve all that might be claimed for them. Again, such matters do not come within the author’s own scope, which is to stress the interest that God has in all mankind. (p. 44)

Conclusion

Could the introductions and notes in the ESV Study Bible be wrong on these things? Yes. Could the young-Earth creationists be wrong in their interpretation of these things? Also yes. But it is clear that there are a number of conservative, Bible-believing scholars who either advocate or are willing to accept an old Earth and local flood. Based on external evidence, as well as Biblical exegesis, I choose to side with the old-Earth Biblical scholars.

Grace and Peace

November 6, 2010 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Blog Recycling, Christianity, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , , , | 3 Comments

The ESV Study Bible on creation — Genesis 1

ESVStudyBibleA few weeks ago, I looked at what the ESV Study Bible had to say about the doctrine of creation in its introduction to the book of Genesis (click here). The ESV Study Bible Introduction to Genesis gives an overview of the various interpretations (calendar-day, day-age, etc.), a discussion about the relationship between Genesis and science, a statement on the historicity of Adam and Eve, and cautionary notes about interpreting the account of Noah’s flood.

The ESV Study Bible is the product of theologically conservative Biblical scholars who are committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, but it clearly does not advocate young-Earth creationism.

Here are some highlights from the notes on Genesis 1:

1:1-11:26 Primeval History — In contrast to the patriarchal stories, however, other ancient nonbiblical stories do exist recounting stories about both creation and the flood. The existence of such stories, however, does not in any way challenge the authority or the inspiration of Genesis. In fact, the nonbiblical stories stand in sharp contrast to the biblical account, and thus help readers appreciate the unique nature and character of the biblical accounts of creation and the flood. In other ancient literary traditions, creation is a great struggle often involving conflict between the gods. […] Reading Genesis, readers can see that it is designed to refute these delusions. There is only one God, whose word is almighty. He has only to speak and the world comes into being. The sun and moon are not gods in their own right, but are created by the one God. This God does not need feeding by man, as the Babylonians believed they did by offering sacrifices, but he supplies man with food. It is human sin, not divine annoyance, that prompts the flood. Far from Babylon’s tower (Babel) reaching heaven, it became a reminder that human pride could neither reach nor manipulate God. These principles, which emerge so clearly in Genesis 1–11, are truths that run through the rest of Scripture. The unity of God is fundamental to biblical theology, as is his almighty power, his care for mankind, and his judgment on sin. It may not always be obvious how these chapters relate to geology and archaeology, but their theological message is very clear. Read in their intended sense, they provide the fundamental presuppositions of the rest of Scripture. These chapters should act as eyeglasses, so that readers focus on the points their author is making and go on to read the rest of the Bible in light of them.

1:3-5 — By a simple reading of Genesis, these days must be described as days in the life of God, but how his days relate to human days is more difficult to determine.

1:6-8 — Water plays a crucial role in ancient Near Eastern creation literature. In Egypt, for example, the creator-god Ptah uses the preexistent waters (personified as the god Nun) to create the universe. The same is true in Mesopotamian belief: it is out of the gods of watery chaos—Apsu, Tiamat, and Mummu—that creation comes. The biblical creation account sits in stark contrast to such dark mythological polytheism. In the biblical account, water at creation is no deity; it is simply something God created, and it serves as material in the hands of the sole sovereign Creator.

Gen. 1:14–19 — This section corresponds closely with the ordering of Day and Night on the first day, involving the separation of light and darkness (vv. 3–5). Here the emphasis is on the creation of lights that will govern time, as well as providing light upon the earth (v. 15). By referring to them as the greater light and lesser light (v. 16), the text avoids using terms that were also proper names for pagan deities linked to the sun and the moon. Chapter 1 deliberately undermines pagan ideas regarding nature’s being controlled by different deities. (To the ancient pagans of the Near East, the gods were personified in various elements of nature. Thus, in Egyptian texts, the gods Ra and Thoth are personified in the sun and the moon, respectively.) The term made (Hb. ‘asah, v. 16), as the esv footnote shows, need only mean that God “fashioned” or “worked on” them; it does not of itself imply that they did not exist in any form before this. Rather, the focus here is on the way in which God has ordained the sun and moon to order and define the passing of time according to his purposes.

1:27 — There has been debate about the expression image of God. Many scholars point out the idea, commonly used in the ancient Near East, of the king who was the visible representative of the deity; thus the king ruled on behalf of the god. Since v. 26 links the image of God with the exercise of dominion over all the other creatures of the seas, heavens, and earth, one can see that humanity is endowed here with authority to rule the earth as God’s representatives or vice-regents (see note on v. 28). Other scholars, seeing the pattern of male and female, have concluded that humanity expresses God’s image in relationship, particularly in well-functioning human community, both in marriage and in wider society. Traditionally, the image has been seen as the capacities that set man apart from the other animals—ways in which humans resemble God, such as in the characteristics of reason, morality, language, a capacity for relationships governed by love and commitment, and creativity in all forms of art. All these insights can be put together by observing that the resemblances (man is like God in a series of ways) allow mankind to represent God in ruling, and to establish worthy relationships with God, with one another, and with the rest of the creation. This “image” and this dignity apply to both “male and female” human beings. (This view is unique in the context of the ancient Near East. In Mesopotamia, e.g., the gods created humans merely to carry out work for them.)

1:28 — God’s creation plan is that the whole earth should be populated by those who know him and who serve wisely as his vice-regents or representatives. subdue it and have dominion. The term “subdue” (Hb. kabash) elsewhere means to bring a people or a land into subjection so that it will yield service to the one subduing it (Num. 32:22, 29). Here the idea is that the man and woman are to make the earth’s resources beneficial for themselves, which implies that they would investigate and develop the earth’s resources to make them useful for human beings generally. This command provides a foundation for wise scientific and technological development; the evil uses to which people have put their dominion come as a result of Genesis 3. over every living thing. As God’s representatives, human beings are to rule over every living thing on the earth. These commands are not, however, a mandate to exploit the earth and its creatures to satisfy human greed, for the fact that Adam and Eve were “in the image of God” (1:27) implies God’s expectation that human beings will use the earth wisely and govern it with the same sense of responsibility and care that God has toward the whole of his creation.

My purpose here  is primarily to look at the ESV Study Bible as it relates to topics such as Earth history. It is certainly an excellent study resource, no matter where one stands on the age of the Earth issue, and will help anyone to grow in their knowledge of God and his Word.

Grace and Peace

 

November 6, 2009 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , , , | 6 Comments

The ESV Study Bible on creation — Introduction and Introduction to Genesis

ESVStudyBibleThe ESV Study Bible (ESV is the English Standard Version translation) is a masterpiece of conservative Evangelical scholarship. The scholars who put this volume together are highly-qualified Bible experts who have a high respect for the Bible as the Word of God.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of a study Bible, this contains more than just the text of the Bible. It contains many thousands of cross-references and explanatory notes, plus drawings, maps, articles, and an extensive concordance (index). The ESV Study Bible is a massive work, with over 2,000,000 words on 2750 pages.

INTRODUCTION

The Introduction to the ESV Study Bible makes it very clear that the authors of the various articles and study notes share a commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. The Introduction was written by Lane Dennis of Crossway Books and Bibles, and Wayne Grudem of Phoenix Seminary. Here are some quotes from the introduction:

The first kind [of words in the ESV Study Bible] is the actual words of the Bible, which are the very words of God to us. (p. 9)

The notes are written from the perspective of confidence in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. (pp. 10-11)

Because of this commitment to the truthfulness of the Bible, many would think that the ESV Study Bible would give a strong endorsement of the “literal” six-day interpretation of the young-Earth creationists, with a roughly 6000-year old Earth and a global flood that deposited most sedimentary rocks. The authors of the notes, however, take a cautious and broad approach to questions of the age of the Earth and the extent and work of the flood.

There are two groups of people who insist that Genesis teaches a young Earth. The first of these is the young-Earth creationists, led by organizations such as Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research. They are convinced that the Bible requires a young Earth, and distort science to make it fit their interpretation. The other group is the atheists and skeptics. It is in their interest to say that the Bible requires a young Earth, as it makes it easier for them to not believe. For the most part, neither group is willing to consider Biblical scholarship that would upset their preconceptions.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Overview of interpretations

The ESV Study Bible‘s Introduction to Genesis (which is different than the Introduction I have quoted from already) was written by T. Desmond Alexander of Union Theological Seminary in Belfast. It has a section called “Genesis and Science,” which begins with an overview of the various positions that are held by theologically-conservative Biblical scholars.

The relation of Genesis to science is primarily a question of how one reads the accounts of creation and fall (chs. 1–3) and of the flood (chs. 6–9). What kind of “days” does Genesis 1 describe? How long ago is this supposed to have happened? Were all species created as they are now? Were Adam and Eve real people? Are all people descended from them? How much of the earth did Noah’s flood cover? How much impact did it have on geological formations?

Faithful interpreters have offered arguments for taking the creation week of Genesis 1 as a regular week with ordinary days (the “calendar day” reading); or as a sequence of geological ages (the “day-age” reading); or as God’s “workdays,” analogous to a human workweek (the “analogical days” view); or as a literary device to portray the creation week as if it were a workweek, but without concern for temporal sequence (the “literary framework” view). Some have suggested that Genesis 1:2, “the earth was without form and void,” describes a condition that resulted from Satan’s primeval rebellion, which preceded the creation week (the “gap theory”). There have been other readings as well, but these five are the most common.

None of these views requires denying that Genesis 1 is historical, so long as the discussion in the section on Genesis and History is kept in mind. Each of these readings can be squared with other biblical passages that reflect on creation. (pp. 43-44)

Note that only one of the five primary alternatives—the “calendar day” reading— requires a young Earth. The others each have room—or require—an Earth that is older than 6000 years. I personally make no commitment to a specific view, except to say that I rule out the calendar day interpretation based on external evidence (keeping in mind that all truth is God’s truth).

Note also that the Introduction to Genesis indicates that even Exodus 20:11 does not require a literal, seven consecutive day interpretation:

The most important of these [passages] is Exodus 20:11, “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day”: since this passage echoes Genesis 1:1–2:3, the word “day” here need mean only what it means in Genesis 1. Therefore, it does not require an ordinary-day interpretation, nor does it preclude an ordinary-day interpretation. (p. 44)

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Is Genesis 1 a scientific account?

Genesis gives a true account of the origin of the universe, but one should be extremely cautious when attempting to correlate the words of Genesis to specific scientific concepts. Genesis 1 wasn’t written to tell us about the degree to which populations can vary (reproduction “according to their kinds” doesn’t place any kind of limit on variation), Genesis 2 wasn’t written to tell us that it never ever rained before the flood, and Genesis 3 wasn’t written to tell us how snakes lost their limbs.

Should Genesis 1 be called a “scientific account”? Again, it is crucial to have a careful definition. Does Genesis 1 record a true account of the origin of the material universe? To that question, the answer must be yes. On the other hand, does Genesis 1 provide information in a way that corresponds to the purposes of modern science? To this question the answer is no. Consider some of the challenges. For example, the term “kind” does not correspond to the notion of “species”; it simply means “category,” and could refer to a species, or a family, or an even more general taxonomic group. Indeed, the plants are put into two general categories, small seed-bearing plants and larger woody plants. The land animals are classified as domesticable stock animals (“livestock”); small things such as mice, lizards, and spiders (“creeping things”); and larger game and predatory animals (“beasts of the earth”). Indeed, no species, other than man, gets its proper Hebrew name. Not even the sun and moon get their ordinary Hebrew names (1:16). The text says nothing about the process by which “the earth brought forth vegetation” (1:12), or by which the various kinds of animals appeared—although the fact that it was in response to God’s command indicates that it was not due to any natural powers inherent in the material universe itself. (p. 44)

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — The purpose of Genesis

The primary purpose of Genesis 1 seems to be to identify God as the Creator of everything who is completely separate from the creation, and to contrast him to the gods who appear in the creation accounts of the nations the Hebrews had contact with.

This account is well cast for its main purpose, which was to enable a community of nomadic shepherds in the Sinai desert to celebrate the boundless creative goodness of the Creator; it does not say why, e.g., a spider is different from a snake, nor does it comment on what genetic relationship there might be between various creatures. At the same time, when the passage is received according to its purpose, it shapes a worldview in which science is at home (probably the only worldview that really makes science possible). This is a concept of a world that a good and wise God made, perfectly suited for humans to enjoy and to rule. The things in the world have natures that people can know, at least in part. Human senses and intelligence are the right tools for discerning and saying true things about the world. (The effects of sin, of course, can interfere with this process.) (p. 44)

The doctrine of creation is much richer than merely addressing questions of how and when God created the universe, life, and human beings.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — Adam and Eve

I often state my position as “I believe in a real creation of the universe by the Triune God of the Bible, in a real Adam in a real garden, committing a real sin with real consequences, and in Jesus Christ as God’s only solution to those consequences.

It is clear that Adam and Eve are presented as real people. Their role in the story, as the channel by which sin came into the world, implies that they are seen as the headwaters of the human race. The image of God distinguishes them from all the animals, and is a special bestowal of God (i.e., not a purely “natural” development). It is no wonder that all human beings share capacities for language, moral judgment, rationality, and appreciation for beauty, unlike and beyond the powers observed in the animals; any science that ignores this fact does not faithfully describe reality. The biblical worldview leads one to expect as well that all humans now share a need for God and a bent toward sin, as well as a possibility for faith in the true God. (p. 44)

Young Earthers often say that to accept an old Earth undermines the foundations of the gospel, but it is clear that one can accept an old Earth, a real Adam, a real Fall, and therefore a real need for a Savior.

INTRODUCTION TO GENESIS — Genesis and Science — The flood

Young Earth creationists insist that the Bible requires a global, catastrophic flood. Many conservative scholars, including the editors and contributors to the ESV Study Bible, have looked closely at the text and determined that this is not necessary.

One must take similar care in reading the flood story. The notes will discuss the extent to which Moses intended to describe the flood’s coverage of the globe. Certainly the description of the flood implies that it was widespread and catastrophic, but there are difficulties in making confident claims that the account is geared to answering the question of just how widespread. Thus, it would be incautious to attribute to the flood all the geological formations observed today—the strata, the fossils, the deformations, and so on. Geologists agree that catastrophic events, such as volcanic eruptions and large-scale floods, have had great impact on the landscape; it is questionable, though, whether these events can in fact achieve all that might be claimed for them. Again, such matters do not come within the author’s own scope, which is to stress the interest that God has in all mankind. (p. 44)

Conclusion

Could the introductions and notes in the ESV Study Bible be wrong on these things? Yes. Could the young-Earth creationists be wrong in their interpretation of these things? Also yes. But it is clear that there are a number of conservative, Bible-believing scholars who either advocate or are willing to accept an old Earth and local flood. Based on external evidence, I choose to side with the old-Earth Biblical scholars.

Grace and Peace

October 11, 2009 Posted by | Age of the Earth, Apologetics, Creation in the Bible, Geology, Old-Earth creationism, Origin of Life, Origins, Theistic evolution, Young-Earth creationism | , , , | 5 Comments

More Martian gas

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the ongoing release of methane from the crust of Mars. This is the topic of today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day:

NASA

Credit: NASA

Here’s the description from APOD:

Why is there methane on Mars? No one is sure. An important confirmation that methane exists in the atmosphere of Mars occurred last week, bolstering previous controversial claims made as early as 2003. The confirmation was made spectroscopically using large ground-based telescopes by finding precise colors absorbed on Mars that match those absorbed by methane on Earth. Given that methane is destroyed in the open martian air in a matter of years, the present existence of the fragile gas indicates that it is currently being released, somehow, from the surface of Mars. One prospect is that microbes living underground are creating it, or created in the past. If true, this opens the exciting possibility that life might be present under the surface of Mars even today. Given the present data, however, it is also possible that a purely geologic process, potentially involving volcanism or rust and not involving any life forms, is the methane creator. Pictured above is an image of Mars superposed with a map of the recent methane detection.

This discovery was actually made using Earth-based instruments, not instruments on orbiters. Scientists are already looking into means of determining the isotopic composition of the methane (the ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13) to gain additional clues as to whether this methane is produced by biological or geological means. Biological processes fractionate carbon isotopes in a slightly different ratio than non-biological processes, at least on Earth. Isotope fractionation occurs because molecules having slightly different mass have slightly different physical properties. For example, heavy water (H2O made with hydrogen-2) has a slightly different boiling point than ordinary water (made with hydrogen-1). Likewise, methane made with carbon-13  has slightly different properties than methane made with the more abundant carbon-12.

Mass spectrometers, the instruments used to measure isotope ratios, are too heavy at present to place on landers. There are, however, spectrographic methods that can be used to determine isotopic ratios, and it is possible that these instruments could be placed on future probes to Mars.

Grace and Peace

January 19, 2009 Posted by | Astrobiology, Geology, Origin of Life | | Leave a comment

Martian methane

From LiveScience.com: Mars Methane: Geology or Biology?

Plumes of methane gas detected over certain locations on Mars in 2003 could point to active geological processes on the red planet, or perhaps even to methane-burping microbes deep below the Martian surface, a new study reports.

There is no firm evidence for life on the red planet, however, despite news reports early today suggesting as much. Rather, scientists are puzzled by the new findings.

The methane gas is concentrated in small areas of the northern hemisphere of Mars, suggesting it is released from deep fractures or from only limited areas of soil; and that it breaks down over time in the atmosphere. Additionally, these releases of gas occur only in the summer.

It is best to have multiple working hypotheses in a situation like this. Here are some possibilites:

  • Shallow geochemical processes in the soil.
  • Deeper geochemical processes or reservoirs of methane, with release occurring when ice in the subsurface melts.
  • Magma in the subsurface (though this is unlikely as other volcanic gases have not been observed in these plumes).
  • Biological activity. On Earth, bacteria in the subsurface rely on chemosynthesis, which is like photosynthesis, except that the energy source is oxidation of inorganic molecules rather than sunlight.

Discovery of bacteria on Mars, of course, would be a major discovery. The next question would be, how did it get there?

A perspective from Reasons to Believe can be found here: Bacteria or Boulders? Methane and Life on Mars. I have two disagreements with Fazale Rana’s RTB article:

  • He seems to jump to the conclusion that the geological answer is the correct one. It may be, but this seems a bit premature.
  • He states: “Rather than life-confirming methanogens, it seems that boring rocks may be responsible for Martian methane.” I object. Rocks aren’t boring!!!

Grace and Peace

January 18, 2009 Posted by | Astrobiology, Astronomy, Geology, Origin of Life, Origins | | 1 Comment

Rare Earth?

Many Christians, including myself, find the arguments expressed in the 2003 book Rare Earth to be a powerful statement of the uniqueness of the Earth in the universe. The thesis of the book, written by two respected University of Washington scientists (Ward, a geologist, and Brownlee, an astronomer) is that the conditions present on the surface of the Earth that make it habitable for advanced life are likely to be very rare, or even unique, in the universe. For a planet to have advanced life–organisms more complex than bacteria–it must orbit at the right distance from the right kind of star, have the right sized moon for stability of orbit, have the right core, and so on. Perhaps, say the authors, we are all alone in the universe after all.

Christians have latched on to many of these same ideas. The writings of Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, and of Guillermo Gonzalez (The Privileged Planet, book and DVD) contain many of the same arguments for the uniqueness of planet Earth. The argument goes that apart from the intervention of God, the universe is a dangerous place. Perhaps there is only one place in the universe that is suitable for humans, and that is because God (not chance) has orchestrated it to be so.

I find these arguments to be strong, and Rare Earth is one of my favorite geology books, one I highly recommend. I also acknowledge, both scientifically and theologically, the concept could possibly be flawed. From a theological perspective, we cannot argue persuasively that there is only one Earth-like planet in the universe. Earth might be unique, it might be rare, or the universe might abound with advanced life. Note that I am not talking about intelligent life right now, only advanced, multicellular life. Could it be that our Milky Way Galaxy contains millions of planets that are suitable for everything from bacteria and algae to forests and flocks of birds? Perhaps in the initial creation, and in the future new Heavens and new Earth, the universe was made for humans to explore and thrive in. We just simply do not know.

Not all scientists agree with the rare Earth hypothesis. Many astrobiologists believe that the universe is filled with life. Though I presently find the arguments for a rare, or even unique, Earth to be strong, I do acknowledge that this hypothesis could be wrong.

Part of the problem right now is that we don’t have that much data to work with. We now know of hundreds of stars that have their own solar systems. Since the 1990s, we have been able to detect large planets orbiting around stars by the wobble of the stars produced by the strong gravitational field of the giant planets. Most of these discoveries have been Jupiter-sized planets orbiting their stars at searingly close ranges, and in most of these solar systems there would be no chance for the existence of terrestrial planets. With our current instruments, we cannot planets the size of Earth.

That should change just a little bit in 2009. NASA will be launching the Kepler Mission, which is a space telescope designed to simultaneously observe about 100,000 stars, watching for transits of planets across the faces of these stars. As even an Earth-sized planet passes directly between the star and the Earth, there will be a slight diminishing of the intensity of light observed. The Kepler Mission will not allow us to see the planet directly, but will enable us to determine the presence of the planet, and to infer its size and orbit. Knowing the nature of the star itself, and the parameters of the planet’s orbit, we would be able to determine if the planet were in the star’s “habitable zone,” that not-too-close, not-to-far region that allows liquid water to exist on a planet’s surface.

This won’t tell us whether the planet has life; spectrometers sensitive enough to detect things like an oxygen-rich atmosphere at distances of many light years lie in the future. What it will enable is a tightening of some of the variables that go into the debate between a rare Earth and a green universe.

As Christians, we can rejoice in God’s creation whether we see God’s providence in an Earth that is a unique,  protected oasis in a hostile universe, or if we discover a multitude of worlds touched by God’s creative Spirit (but still oases in a hostile universe). The rare Earth hypothesis may still turn out to be sound, but I’m not going to have any kind of theological struggle if it turns out to be wrong.

NASA Kepler Mission

Live Science: How Rare is the Earth?

Wikipedia: Kepler Mission

Image: The Kepler Spacecraft, NASA image from Wikipedia

Image: The Kepler target region, from kepler.nasa.gov

Grace and Peace

September 18, 2008 Posted by | Astrobiology, Astronomy, Origin of Life | Leave a comment

Life in the Laboratory

From an AP news story on efforts by scientists to create life “from scratch” in the laboratory:

Around the world, a handful of scientists are trying to create life from scratch and they’re getting closer.

Experts expect an announcement within three to 10 years from someone in the now little-known field of “wet artificial life.”

I was contemplating writing about this news article, but Glenn (PhD, biochemistry) at Be Bold, Be Gentle beat me to it, and did a better job than I could have done. Glenn includes a joke which brings home a good point.

Grace and Peace

August 21, 2007 Posted by | Astrobiology, Origin of Life | Leave a comment

Life on Gliese 581c?

The headlines:

Science Daily: New Planet Could Have Life

Yahoo News: Potentially Habitable Planet Found

Scientists have discovered more than 200 extrasolar planets (planets orbiting stars other than our sun) since the mid-1990s, and the numbers will certainly continue to increase as instruments improve. In regards to suitability for life, a vast majority of these planets are too large, too hot, or too cold; this is called the Goldilocks problem. Today, astronomers at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) announced that they have discovered a planet that might be “just right.”

The planet orbits a red dwarf star named Gliese 581, and it has been given the name Gliese 581c. Red dwarfs are smaller and cooler than our sun, and 581c orbits within what is called the “habitable zone,” which is the region around the star where it is possible to have liquid water on the surface—neither too hot nor too cold. The astronomers believe it is one of three planets that orbit Gliese 581; the others are designated 581a and 581b. The telescopes we have are not powerful enough to directly view extrasolar planets, but the astronomers infer their existence by watching the stars “wobble” under the influence of the gravity of the planets.

How does this relate to life in the galaxy? It is widely believed among exobiologists—those scientists who speculate about life elsewhere in the galaxy (certainly not to be confused with UFO-ologists)—that in order to have life, one needs liquid water. If a planet is too close to its star—or too far away—then conditions are not right to have living organisms, at least not on the surface of the object.

It also needs to be made clear that these astronomers are not talking about intelligent civilizations on worlds like Gliese 581c. The universe might have an abundance of places that are suitable for bacterial slime, and Gliese 581c might be one of them. The conditions required for advanced life—anything more complicated than a Paramecium or Amoeba—are likely to be exceedingly rare in the universe.

My thoughts:

  1. The results are very preliminary. We don’t have any direct measurements of the planet’s temperature. If it has a CO2-rich atmosphere, it could still be too hot, even being within the habitable zone.
  2. In the future, as instruments become more powerful, it might be possible to analyze light from planet such as this. If spectrographic analyses indicate presence of both water and atmospheric oxygen, this would greatly increase the probability that there is life of some sort on the planet.
  3. I would not see the discovery of primitive life on a world such as Gliese 581c as having any negative theological implications. Everything from Genesis 1:2 on is very Earth-centered, and so the Bible doesn’t say anything one way or the other about whether life exists on other worlds.


Artist’s conception of a planet orbiting a red dwarf, from hubblesite.org

Grace and Peace

April 25, 2007 Posted by | Astrobiology, Astronomy, Origin of Life | Leave a comment

Simple Cells?

This item was originally posted in March, 2006. It is now part of my blog recycling program. Because I have more people reading The GeoChristian now than I did a year ago, I will occasionally go back and re-use some of my best blog entries.

Having read a number of technical books and papers on the topic of the origin of life, I believe that there is more here than a “god of the gap” kind of argument. Experiments have shown that conditions may have been present on the early Earth for the formation of a few basic building blocks for life in the primeval oceans, such as amino acids. But the complexity required for a metabolizing, reproducing cell to develop is an enormous leap beyond this. We can argue against the naturalistic origin of life not because of our ignorance–this is the idea of invoking the “god of the gaps”–but because of our knowledge of just how improbable this occurrence would be.

Prominently displayed in the back of my science classroom at Bucharest Christian Academy is an oversized poster showing biochemical pathwaysthe enzyme-mediated processes that occur in all cells, in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans. The poster presents an incredible amount of information, outlining processes such as electron transport in the mitochondria (in eukaryotes), and the synthesis and degradation of amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleotides. The poster is a little overwhelming to my middle school and high school students, but that is part of my purpose for having it. Even the most simple living cells are incredible machines, and I want them to have a glimpse of what that means.

For the web site of the week, I have chosen a similar metabolic pathways poster from the ExPASy Proteomics Server. By clicking on individual tiles on the poster, you can zoom in to see details of various processes, with the names of the enzymes that control molecular transformations in blue.

biochem_chart

From discussions with biochemists, my understanding is that the simplest cell that could perform the basic functions of life (such as respiration, digestion, reproductionprocesses that define life) could do without some of the processes diagrammed on this poster. However, this primitive cell would still have to include about 60% of the processes depicted on these types of posters. This defines the magnitude of what needs to be explained in any naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

Grace and Peace

I did find one article (I’m sure there are many) on the internet that puts a lower limit on the number of proteins in the most primitive cell at 300. Note that on the metabolic processes poster I have here, only the blue names, the enzymes, are proteins. The other substances are all substances that are produced or modified by those enzymes.

My biochemist friend Glenn added this comment when I posted this last year:

There’s an additional complexity issue that’s not reflected in the 2D network map of biochemical pathways: the 3D structure of the cell is critical for enzyme function and the transport of substrates/products. Many of these enzymes are membrane-associated, for example, and their orientation in the membrane defines their overall function. Experimental data suggests that very few enzymes are “floating” around in a cellular soup; it’s a viscous, structured arrangement. So you could put all the enzymes on the chart into a tiny test tube, and add all the substrates in solution, but it wouldn’t operate as a cell does. Yes, enzymatic reactions would occur. But it’s not a sustaining cellular system.

April 3, 2007 Posted by | Biology, Blog Recycling, Chemistry, Origin of Life | Leave a comment

Simple Cells?

Prominently displayed in the back of my science classroom at Bucharest Christian Academy is an oversized poster showing biochemical pathwaysthe enzyme-mediated processes that occur in all cells, in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans. The poster presents an incredible amount of information, outlining processes such as electron transport in the mitochondria (in eukaryotes), and the synthesis and degradation of amino acids, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleotides. The poster is a little overwhelming to my middle school and high school students, but that is part of my purpose for having it. Even the most simple living cells are incredible machines, and I want them to have a glimpse of what that means.
For the web site of the week, I have chosen a similar metabolic pathways poster from the ExPASy Proteomics Server. By clicking on individual tiles on the poster, you can zoom in to see details of various processes, with the names of the enzymes that control molecular transformations in blue.

From discussions with biochemists, my understanding is that the simplest cell that could perform the basic functions of life (such as respiration, digestion, reproductionprocesses that define life) could do without some of the processes diagrammed on this poster. However, this primitive cell would still have to include about 60% of the processes depicted on these types of posters. This defines the magnitude of what needs to be explained in any naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

Grace and Peace

I did find one article (I’m sure there are many) on the internet that puts a lower limit on the number of proteins in the most primitive cell at 300. Note that on the metabolic processes poster I have here, only the blue names, the enzymes, are proteins. The other substances are all substances that are produced or modified by those enzymes.

March 29, 2006 Posted by | Biology, Chemistry, Origin of Life, Web Site of the Week | Leave a comment