A couple of new reviews have appeared on my book Good’s Good Earth, in Studies in Christian Ethics and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the latter of which rolls it together with a review of Generations of Heaven and Earth. You can find them by linking to the respective book tabs on the menu above, and clicking on the “Endorsements and Reviews” links.
I won’t engage with either of them closely, partly in an attempt to follow N. T. Wright’s dictum that published books, like grown-up children, should be left alone to make their own way in the world, and partly because both of the books’ topics are rather “old news” in my thinking. I’ve had my say.
In any case, there’s a danger of picking up on points in a review where one thinks one has been misunderstood, or that one’s nuanced arguments have been over-simplified, when in fact judicious readers of the book will either pick up on the reviewer’s error, or come to the same conclusion themselves. I doubt anyone is tempted to buy a book because of an author’s rebuttal of a review. Meanwhile, the two reviews are probably positive enough to whet the appetite of some potential buyers.
However, reading the reviews does prompt me to revisit the “good creation” argument from a slightly different angle, since composing a book necessarily constrains the direction of one’s reasoning. My overall thesis in God’s Good Earth, for those who’ve not read it, is that the natural creation did not fall, contrary to popular belief, when Adam sinned. It doesn’t seem that radical to me, but Richard Middleton described it as an “astounding thesis,” so I suppose it must be. My argument, like the position it challenges, necessarily assumes that there was an Adam who sinned: to argue for or against natural evil on purely rational grounds is a different question with different assumptions. I was always writing for those who accept the authority of the Bible.
So let’s work through a few propositions.
- The Genesis creation account calls the completed world “very good” in order to show how Adam spoiled it.
This, I think, is uncontroversial. The repeated phrase in Genesis 1, “God saw that it was good,” immediately precedes the first actual narrative, which is about the call of Adam and his sin. This human Fall, as I show in Generations, also uncontroversially, is the “problem” addressed by the whole of the rest of Scripture, culminating eschatologically in a new world without a trace of evil, which is often clearly reminiscent of Eden in the texts.
In my book I argue against the theistic evolutionist argument that “evil” is built into evolution itself. If that were so, then the contrast between “very good” and “corrupt” would not exist in the real world, and the whole Genesis narrative would be falsified.
Note that this proposition does not depend on a cosmic fall, nor on any particular historical view of Adam. Whenever he lived (or even if “Adam” were intended to represent a collective humanity in some way) human rebellion against God’s rule would introduce “not good” into the cosmos for the first time. All options on this therefore remain open.
- We can gain knowledge from the world about its state before Adam.
With the exception of the Creation Science position, this too seems uncontroversial. However far back one places the Fall of mankind, the historical sciences tell us much about the state of the universe before Adam, and therefore before sin, and therefore before any possible cosmic Fall. Only the rare and esoteric theories in which the fall has retroactive effects (I flag a couple in the book) can account for actual evil before Adam, and require somewhat imaginative treatment of Genesis 1 to allow it to describe an ideal that never actually existed.
It therefore follows that anything we discover about the prelapsarian world contributes to knowledge of the “very good” of Genesis 1:31. It also follows, as night follows day, that where the state of the present world matches what is shown about the distant past by the historical sciences, it represents the original creation, not the a fallen one.
This too is obvious. If we find evidence for the existence of death, disease, carnivores, parasites, thorns, thistles, deserts, floods, earthquakes, asteroid strikes and so on in the fossil artifacts of the earth before mankind existed, then they were clearly not the result of sin, and rather they are part of the “very good” of Genesis 1’s description. But we do find all these things now, and so in principle they cannot be the result of sin now. One does not have to be a doctrinaire proponent of the Uniformity Principle to agree with that.
One might well argue (as Thomas Aquinas, for example, did) that mankind’s vulnerability to such forces of nature may have been introduced by the Fall. In that case I would not contest it: but that indicates a change in mankind, or in the distribution of special providence towards him, rather than any corruption of nature itself.
- The “curse on the ground” must be consistent with the last proposition.
One specific criticism in the PSCF review is that I am wrong to claim that Lamech’s prophecy in Gen 5:28 abrogates the curse of Gen 3:17, through Noah. As I explain in my book, this distinction depends on a fine point of Hebrew grammar, on which I am bold enough to disagree with Gordon Wenham. My grounds, incidentally, are that the state of the universe is too big an issue to hang on a single grammatical nicety, rather than the fact that I knew Wenham’s younger brother at college!
But suppose I were to concede that the curse on the ground did originate with Adam, and does still operate in the world. It would then still be necessary to define what that curse means, and that meaning could surely not include things which science shows to have been part of the good creation that existed for aeons before Adam. Even ancient writers like Augustine reckoned that if the passage is taken literally, thorns and thistles nevertheless probably pre-existed Adam, and that it was only their imposition on the success of agriculture that was new.
Fossils show that thorns and thistles definitely did exist long before mankind, so are we to infer that they failed to prosper in the kind of soil in which agriculture would eventually begin? We would have to be thinking about very special thorns and thistles in the original creation were that the case. Have any natural systems ever been monocultures?
But the curse on the ground is often taken, without much justification, as a proxy for the whole cosmic Fall. If we take it thus, what novel phenomena that were not present in the world before mankind are meant? I don’t know of any, and those who take the curse thus, without exception, pin on it those “natural evils” which have indisputably existed throughout the history of the earth, which I have already enumerated.
I suggest that these three propositions alone, granted acceptance of the standard scientific chronology and the general validity of the historical sciences, establish the proposition of God’s Good Earth beyond reasonable doubt. Whether evolution occurred or not doesn’t alter it, and neither do passages like Romans 8, which I am said in one review to have “explained away” (though I contend I just “explained” it, at length and in detail). If I’ve missed anything, please tell me in a comment!
On reflection, I could have saved myself several years of work by putting these three points in a one-page leaflet. But then I wouldn’t have been able to buy the Rolls Royce with my royalties.