Nov 10, 2013

ORIGIN OF THE WORLD: A Biblical Perspective

The Biblical Perspective: Significance

The issue of the origin of the World, and by extension the origin of the Cosmos, is one of the most hotly debated questions of all time, as well as one of the most important.  The biblical account of the origin of the World sets apart the biblical Creator from all other conceptions of God in the Ancient Near East (hereafter ANE) as well as in virtually all thought up to the present.  It accounts for the major philosophical questions in a way that no other religious or philosophical outlook is able to do.  However, the issue is controversial primarily because it immediately and necessarily relates to the Creator-creature distinction and relationship.  For example, if someone has created, i.e. authored me that suggests that someone has authority over me.  Conversely, if no one authored me, then no one has authority over me and I can live any way I please.  Closely connected questions include those such as, “Why am I here?” “Where did I come from?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?” etc.    

The Biblical Perspective: Uniqueness

The primary biblical text for considering the origin of the world is Genesis 1.  It is important to note, as seen here, that the biblical depiction of creation demonstrates a concern not to describe the mechanics of creation, but to provide the basis for the Creator-creature distinction. This is a theme that surfaces throughout the Bible and which sets biblical religion dramatically apart from competitors, except where later borrowed from the biblical narrative (cf. Gen 14:19, 20; Deut. 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; Isa 44:6, 8; Jer 33:25,26; Jonah 1:9; Neh 9:6; Rom. 1:18-32; Acts 17:22-31; Rev. 4:11).  

Many Christian thinkers, such as Herman Bavinck, the presuppositionalist school of apologists, et al. have compared biblical cosmology to the preponderance of competing cosmologies including those of the ANE, ancient Greek philosophy, various forms of mysticism, modern western philosophy, modern cults and world religions, various physicalist proposals, etc. and have convincingly demonstrated that other alternatives are inadequate on philosophical grounds (Bavinck, In the Beginning, p. 23-39; cf. Sire, The Universe Next Door). 

The biblical explanation of the origin of the World is crucial, for, as noted by Bavinck, “The doctrine of creation, affirming the distinction between the Creator and his creature, is the starting point of true religion.  There is no existence apart from God, and the Creator can only be known truly through revelation” (Bavinck, In The Beginning, 23).  This last thought also affirms the importance of the Creator’s self revelation via special revelation and as found in the Bible.

The Biblical Perspective: Explained
In the opening chapter of the Bible, the Creator is depicted as One who by virtue of His nature and creative work is the metaphysical precondition of creation, that is, creation is dependent upon Him—He represents Ultimate reality and is the source of derivative, i.e. created reality.  He is also presented as one who is not only transcendent (beyond creation), but is imminent (involved with His creation), and personal, especially as He is seen thinking, speaking, loving, interacting with Himself (cf. Gen. 1:26) as well as with His creation.[1]  As the source of the Cosmos, He is infinitely wise necessarily possessing comprehensive knowledge of that which He has created, and so is the ultimate source and determiner of truth and knowledge.  He is also the source and determiner of good as one who delighted to create that which was good and did so according to His own standard of goodness.  That which is good is so because of its design, pronouncement, and reflection of the goodness of the Creator (the English term “good” is derived from the term “God,” i.e. to be good is to be like God).   In this way, the biblical account of the origin of the World relates to the three main components of all worldviews: reality (metaphysics), knowledge (epistemology) and ethics.
So, among other things, the Bible describes God as the ontological basis of the World’s origin, the prerogative/purpose behind the World’s origin, the determiner of the order of the World’s creation, the pronouncer of the ethical verdict on the creation, and mankind’s place in the World. 
Here are some additional observations:
 In considering the biblical description of the origin of the World, it is important to note that it does not argue for God’s existence, rather it assumes it as the necessary precondition for the existence of all else.  God’s will “is the source of all substance and power in the created universe.  It is comprehensive.  Everything is derived from it” (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, p. 247). Hence, Rev. 4:11, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory, and honor, and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created’” (translation mine).  

 Verse 1 of the Bible begins by presenting the above distinction—it describes two realties—absolute reality, i.e. God, and derivative reality, i.e. creation. Initially creation was innovative—God created out of nothing, i.e. ex nihilo and integrative, that is God formed from what He created.  This is in contrast to processes currently seen—His work of conservation and disintegration (Henry Morris, The Genesis Record, 80-81.)

 It has been well noted that Verse 1:1 of Genesis provides what are the traditional 5 Categories of Science: In the beginning (time); God (force) created (action/motion); heavens (space); earth (matter), all based on God as creation’s necessary precondition (categories originally articulated by Spencer in First Principles: A System of Synthetic Philosophy, p. 169; for an example of popular exposition of this idea, see MacArthur, The Battle for the Beginning, p. 41). 

Note that God’s creative actions as presented in Genesis 1:1 mark the ultimate reference point for spatio-temporal reality, i.e. the spacetime Universe.  This shows both the subordination of all things to God, as well as His ultimacy, priority, originality and self-existence (aseity).

The objects of God’s creative work are summarized as “heavens and earth.”  Together, the Hebrew words (שָׁמַ֫יִם and אֶ֫רֶץ) form a classic Hebrew word pair representing the totality of all creation with parallels in the ANE (some describe this as a merismatic word pair, i.e. one that covers everything from A-Z, cf. Watson, pp. 132; 321-23).  In the ANE, cosmology was typically formulated as either "heavens and earth," or "heavens, earth, sea." The point of Gen. 1:1 is that the origin of the world, in fact the origin of all created things, have their beginning with God. 

[The “Origin of the World” is also the name of a work dealing with creation and eschatology in the Nag Hammadi library, and which provides a fanciful Gnostic reinterpretation of the biblical narrative.]
  1. Bavinck, Herman. In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology. Ed. by John Bolt. John Vriend. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999.
  2. Frame, John M.  Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought.  Phillipsburg, N.J.: P& R Publishing, 1995.
  3. MacArthur, John. The Battle for the Beginning.  Nashville, Tenn: WPublishing, 2001.
  4. Henry Morris, The Genesis Record.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976.
  5. Spencer, Herbert.  First Principles: A System of Synthetic Philosophy.  New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1882, fourth edition.
  6. Van Til, Cornelius.  An Introduction to Systematic Theology.  New Jersey, Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974.
  7. Watson, Wilfred G.E. Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques.  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 26.  Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1986.

[1] This issue of the Absolute personality of God is a distinctively Christian idea that sets Christianity apart as unique.  “Some non-Christian systems (as the polytheistic religions and modern philosophical ‘personalisms’) posit personal gods of one kind or another, but those gods are not absolute in the sense of being self-contained.  Other non-Christian systems accept absolute realities of various kinds, but those absolutes are not personal.  Only in biblical teaching are absoluteness and personality combined in the Supreme Being” (John Frame, CVT, p. 58).    

Nov 6, 2013

Hebrew Reading, Outline, and Commentary on Ecc. 1:1-11

Solomon’s Argument that all is Vanity 
By R. Brian Rickett
I.               Superscription (v.1)
II.             The Argument that all is Vanity (2-11)
A.    The Problem Stated (2, 3)
1.     The Problem Exclaimed—all is vanity (v. 2)
2.     The Problem Explained—man’s accomplishments are temporal (v. 3)
B.    The Problem Illustrated by Nature (4-7)
1.     The cycles of generations—transitory yet immutable (v. 4)
2.     The cycles of the sun—transitory yet immutable (v.5)
3.     The cycles the wind—transitory yet immutable (v. 6)
4.     The cycles of the rivers—transitory yet immutable (v. 7)
C.    The Problem Illustrated by Experience (8-11)
1.     The frustration of human inquiry (v. 8)
2.     The insignificance of accomplishment (v. 9)
3.     The finitude of knowledge (v. 10)
4.     The impermanence of legacy (v. 11)

            In verses 2-11, Solomon introduces the book of Ecclesiastes with a 10 verse poem arguing that life from an “under the sun perspective” (v. 3) is absolute futility.  The poem may be divided into three sections.  The introductory section  is comprised of vv. 2, 3, and then two equal stanzas of four verses each comprise the body of the poem for a total of 10 verses.
            In the first introductory verse (v. 2), Solomon exclaims the problem that all is vanity.  In verse 3, he then identifies the reason for his exclamation—due to the virtual immutability of creation, including the unceasing passing of generations, all of life’s accomplishments are utterly futile, from an “under the sun perspective.”  In verses 4-7 (Stanza 1), he illustrates the problem of vanity from nature and in verses 8-11 (Stanza 2) he illustrates the problem of vanity from human experience. 
            In the first stanza, Qoheleth demonstrates by analogy that the transitory yet virtually immutable nature of the solar cycles, cyclical climatic patterns, and movement of streams represents the passing of time, which erases all individual significance.[1]  In Stanza 2, Qoheleth builds on in his argument that because of passing of generations and inherent transient, finite nature of man, the physical individual along with his temporal, i.e. under the sun accomplishments are annihilated by the passing of time.  Citing common experience, Qoheleth shows that the individual has an utter lack of significance, from an under the sun perspective.  He shows the frustration of human inquiry (v. 8), the immutability of existence (v. 9), the finitude of knowledge (v. 10), and the impermanence of legacy (v. 11).  

[The above is an excerpt from my in progress commentary.  For the answer to the above problem, see Ecclesiates 12:13]

Note: Ecc. 1:1-11 contains an unusual amount of assonance that corresponds to the message of the poem.  Listen to the reading here and compare the sound with the message of the poem as identified in the above outline. 

              [1] It’s helpful to recall that weather patterns producing the constant flow of rivers are also cyclical.  Streams flow into the seas, water evaporates from the oceans producing clouds which produce rain which feed rivers and streams.