Expanding Horizons

Jul 26, 2023
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    Expanding Horizons

    Interpreting Genesis in this Era

    By Tasmanian Baptists Mission Director Stephen Baxter

    Just over a year ago, images from the James Webb Space Telescope were released with great fanfare. Orbiting around the sun, the telescope began to peer deeply into outer space, capturing infrared glimpses of distant stars, clouds and galaxies formed billions of years ago.

    With the Webb telescope we can probe the mysterious structures and origins of the universe in new and exciting ways. As its website declares, “We wonder. It’s our nature. How did we get here? Are we alone in the universe? How does the universe work?”

    Imagfe from the Webb telescope.
NGC 1433’s spiral arms are littered with evidence of extremely young stars.
NASA, ESA, CSA, Janice Lee (NSF's NOIRLab)
Image Processing, Alyssa Pagan (STScI)
Expanding horizons
    A barred spiral galaxy with a double ring structure, NGC 1433’s spiral arms are littered with evidence of extremely young stars

    Since the beginning of human life, generation after generation ask these questions. And we continue to ask them in our day even as, and because of, the amazing images the Webb continues to provide.

    Astronomers estimate there are some 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, the galaxy where earth is located. They also guess there is some 2-trillion galaxies across the known universe. That’s a lot of stars. Something like one septillion, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. With a number like that, no wonder we continue to ask who on earth are we are.

    Genesis remains adequate

    For millennia, the early chapters of Genesis have inspired millions. Its proposition that our existence came about through the action of a generous, wise, and benevolent Creator is literally awesome. Those introductory chapters of the Bible are a small and unique glimpse into the intentions and desires behind life as we know it.

    Generation after generation have returned to those words for inspiration. Each has brought their own interpretation, borne out of their desires and the limits of their knowledge. Today, in the light of our increasing knowledge through instruments like the Webb telescope, it is time to do our own work of interpretation.

    It’s not that Genesis is inadequate, for it remains God’s revelation to us. However, previous interpretations can seem somewhat inadequate in the light of recent discoveries.

    Is it possible to revisit these first few chapters of Genesis and retell the story of our beginnings in a way that captures and recaptures our imaginations, imaginations shaped by the images of the Webb telescope?

    Expanding horizons

    The first hearers of the Genesis story of creation had little sense of the size, nature, and scope of our world. Let alone the Universe. Over the following centuries as human knowledge grew, each generation reimagined the story of life in the light of their expanded knowledge.

    For example, when people did not travel far from their place of birth, knowledge was limited to, and dependent upon, the place where one lived and upon the information gleaned from visitors. When explorers returned with fascinating tales of distant lands, peoples and creatures, one’s appreciation of the world grew.

    When people did not travel far … knowledge was limited to, and dependent upon, the place where one lived and … from visitors.

    For those who wrote and compiled the Old Testament, their horizon was limited to the Middle East. By the time of the New Testament writers, it had expanded to the Roman Empire.

    Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the horizon included Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Then, there was the significant expansion through the nautical exploration of people like Columbus. And as well, through the proposal by Copernicus that the earth revolved around the Sun – not the other way around. The reformation/renaissance period became one of rapid discovery and change. This had a profound and transformative effect on every aspect of Western culture, including Christianity.

    Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the horizon included Europe and parts of Asia and Africa.

    Our world today is amid a similar period of rapid change. Propelled by technology and space travel, today’s horizon has literally moved out of this world. We are the first generations in human history to look back at earth from outer space. This change of perspective is having a profound and transformative effect on the life of every person living on our planet.

    No wonder we are expanding horizons!

    We are all interrelated

    The 1972 photograph of the ‘Blue Marble’ taken by Apollo 17 astronauts perhaps best encapsulates this expanded horizon.

    "The blue marble" Apollo 17 Crew, Dec 1972
Expanding horizons
    “The blue marble” Apollo 17 Crew, Dec 1972

    This picture of a fragile, vulnerable, and isolated Earth suspended amid the vast emptiness of space, changed the world. As historian Robert Poole suggests,

    “The sight of the whole Earth, small, alive, and alone, caused scientific and philosophical thought to shift away from the assumption that the Earth was a fixed environment, unalterably given to humankind, and towards a model of the Earth as an evolving environment, conditioned by life and alterable by human activity, it was the defining moment of the twentieth century.”

    The ‘Pale Blue Dot‘ is a similar photo, and just as profound. The 1990 Voyager 1 spacecraft took it when 6.4 billion kilometres away from earth. This photo, together with the ‘Blue Marble’, signifies a defining moment in our expanding horizon.

    The pale blue dot, Voyager 1,
Expanding horizons
    The pale blue dot, Voyager 1

    In the light of this expansion, many old stories we told ourselves, about who we are, no longer seem adequate. The exploration of space, the insights of modern science, rapidly changing technology and the communication revolution, contribute to destabilising old metanarratives.

    Today, for the first time in human history, and despite the remaining differences in language, customs, worldviews and religion, there is a collective “knowing” that we all share the one planet, with the one history and the one destiny. Everything is interrelated, everything is dependent. We need each other. The future is ours together. We can no longer operate in isolation.

    A stark question for Christians

    Contemporary answers to the perennial questions of “Who am I?”, “How did we get here?” and “What does the future hold?” must take the insights of this expanded horizon into account. Any spirituality or religion appearing indifferent or ignorant to our ‘fragile’ world, or displays a reluctance to work ‘together’ for the future, is quickly dismissed. It is seen as out-of-date, inadequate, irrelevant and even dangerous.

    Any spirituality or religion that appears indifferent or ignorant to our ‘fragile’ world . . . is quickly dismissed as out-of-date.

    Christians today face a stark question. Is the story of creation in Genesis capable of giving an answer that will satisfy the yearnings of those who ask them in the light of the Webb telescope? I believe the answer is yes. But we will need to do some deep reframing.

    This is not a new enterprise. The Reformers had to do something similar when they encountered new discoveries and technological advances. They reimagined and reinterpreted the Genesis creation story of their day. Like them, we need to arrive at a narrative big enough and meaningful enough to recapture our imaginations. It will provide a new vision for what God is doing in our world.

    This is the task before God’s people who live in this moment.

    I pray God will enable and equip us to develop a spirituality/theology aware of these expanded horizons which is attuned to the spiritual longings of contemporary Tasmanians. Wouldn’t it be great if this new awareness enlivened searching hearts with the hope, love and joy found in Jesus Christ?

    Stephen Baxter

    Stephen Baxter is the Senior Pastor at Hobart Baptist, and is Tasmanian Baptists Mission Director.

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    RESPONSE from Craig Hawkins

    8 September 2023

    Mission Director Stephen Baxter’s “Deep Thought” article challenges readers to “retell the story of our beginnings in a way that captures our imaginations, imaginations shaped by the images of the Webb telescope”. He concludes that “…we need to arrive at a narrative big enough and meaningful enough to recapture our imaginations”.

    It is an incredible claim to suggest that the truth of God’s word is merely the product of how well we can imagine what it is saying. The idea that the Scriptures are confined by human imagination is a denial of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.   God’s word is bigger and more meaningful than any human mind could have put together. When we treat it in this way, we open the door for compromise on a whole suite of fundamental doctrines. It also confuses passages that are clear in their meaning and suggests that clear statements can not be made in Scripture that are not open to reimagination sometime in the future.

    Stephen appeals to the Reformers who had to reimagine and reinterpret the Genesis creation story but fails to mention that they did so by “Sola Scriptura” – returning to scripture alone and NOT the faulty word of man. They were intent on using Scripture first to interpret the world we live in not the other way around.

    It should be no surprise then that Martin Luther concluded: “Now we know from Moses that about six thousand years ago the world was not yet in existence”.

    Augustine said as early as the 4th century AD:

    Let us then omit the conjectures of men who know not what they say, when they speak of the origin and nature of the human race. They are deceived too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give a history of many thousand years, though, reckoning, by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed

    What has the James Webb telescope actually achieved? It has simply enhanced the Psalmists claim that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1). Did mankind really discover through observation of the 1972 ‘Blue Marble’ photo that earth hangs “suspended amid the vast emptiness of space” when the oldest book in the Bible says: “He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.” (Job 26:7). Doesn’t that suggest the ancients were not limited by their own knowledge in expressing God’s truth, but rather through His divine revelation to us?

    Stephen’s opening statement that the universe “formed billions of years ago”, means that Genesis 1-11 cannot be taken seriously despite his claims that it can. The second that you invoke vast ages is the moment that you must accept that the rocks are billions of years old and that the fossil evidence of death they contain is a result of the actions of the Creator Jesus, not the result of Adam’s sin. Stephen has acknowledged that he sees no problems with billions of years of animal death prior to sin.

    Theologians must realise that the Big Bang is an attempt to explain the universe without reference to God. Science finally caught up with scripture just over a century ago and realised that the universe had a beginning so they concocted the idea of the Big Bang. It has many failings as a scientific theory but for Christians we accept that Jesus Christ is creator and that “He alone spreads out the heavens” (Job 9:8). Given that we do not even understand the physics of Jesus walking on the water, why do we think we can come up with the physics of his most amazing miracle – the creation of the universe? It is a special arrogance of mankind into which Christians should not be drawn.

    So Christians take heed of Paul’s warning:

    “20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called:21 Which some professing have erred concerning the faith.” (1 Tim 6:20-21 KJV)

    The Big Bang is false scientific babbling which Christians should avoid, relying rather on God’s power as expressed in Psalm 33:6

    By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Ps 33:6 NIV)

    The claim that Old Testament writers were limited in their knowledge to the Middle East is also false on a number of levels. Firstly, mention of Tarshish (Europe), Cush (Africa) and the travels of Solomons fleet, abroad for 3 years, suggest much wider knowledge of the world.

    However, more importantly, the Scriptures come to us as a result of revelation.

    In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2 NIV)

    In Exodus 33:11 we learn: “So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”  

    Do we know more than Moses? Jesus himself gives us a stark warning about this: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:46 NIV)

    The Hebrews 1:2 verse also highlights that God has spoken to us through His Son. When Jesus comments on marriage, that in the beginning God made them male and female, it actually means “in the beginning” not 13.6 billion years after it as Big Bang timeframes would currently require.

    Baptists have always been a movement who have highly prized the truth of Scripture. Spurgeon was one of few voices that opposed Darwin in his day. “If God’s Word be true, evolution is a lie. I will not mince the matter: this is not the time for soft speaking.” (Spurgeon 1886). It disappoints me to read an article in our Baptist news on such an important topic that includes no scripture references at all.

    Perhaps the thoughts of long-age astronomer John Eddy can shed light on why Christians get drawn into the idea of vast ages. He said:

    I suspect that the sun is 4.5 billion years old. However, given some new and unexpected results to the contrary, and some time for frantic recalculation and theoretical readjustment, I suspect we could live with Archbishop Ussher’s value of the earth and sun [6 thousand years]. I don’t think we have much in the way of observational evidence in astronomy to conflict with that”. (John Eddy PhD (astrogeophysics), Solar Astronomer, High altitude Observatory, Boulder Colorado. In Geotimes, vol.23 1978)

    It is important to note that Eddy states his belief in billions of years but admits that it is not because of the observational evidence. Rather, it is due to his underlying belief system upon which he then builds his picture of history. Christians are in the fortunate position where we can rely on the words of the one who was there at the creation of the universe and who told us what He did in His word.

    The James Webb telescope is an amazing example of human ingenuity and engineering that helps us explore the wonders of creation, but it most certainly does nothing to cause us to compromise our clear understanding of Biblical Creation.

    I want to sincerely thank Stephen Baxter for a frank and friendly discussion on this topic.

    Craig Hawkins
    The Point Baptist Church | Creation Research – Tasmania | Creation Discovery Centre Tasmania

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