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

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

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

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

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

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

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.