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A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

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March 8, 2011 Tags: Human Origins
A Hard Lesson: Interpretation, Genomic Data, and the Scriptures

Today's entry was written by Arie Leegwater. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.


Today’s post is adapted from an editorial introducing the September 2010 volume of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (PSCF), the peer-reviewed journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA).1 The issue contains several articles of interest to the BioLogos Community, including one by BioLogos Senior Fellow Dennis R. Venema on the evidence from genomics for common ancestry between apes and humans.

Two other papers in the volume, by Calvin College Theologians Daniel C. Harlow and John R. Schneider, examine the historicity of Adam and Eve and original sin. Both authors suggest that the traditional Augustinian understanding of these doctrines must be reexamined in light of the many strands of scientific evidence pointing to the gradual creation of human beings through an evolutionary process.

While there is much food for thought in these two papers, we caution against pronouncing judgment too quickly, either for or against the ideas they contain. Certainly BioLogos supports accepting scientific conclusions where the science is clear. It is clear, for example, that the whole human race did not come from a single ancestral pair. What is not clear, however, is whether acceptance of an evolutionary view of creation requires rejection or substantial revision of these doctrines. (Denis Alexander’s recent BioLogos paper, while not the final word on the matter, demonstrates that historicity may, in fact, be embraced within an evolutionary framework.)

Harlow and Schneider’s papers have caused no little stir in some Reformed circles. Importantly, the question is not whether their ideas are heretical or even whether these doctrines should be open for discussion in the first place. Rather the question is how a given Christian tradition, the Reformed faith in this case, may determine the range of views consistent with its own creeds and confessional statements. As BioLogos is not affiliated with any single Christian tradition, we do not have identical concerns. Our interest is two-fold: we want to protect the integrity of both science and Scripture and create a place for Christians to engage in healthy dialogue on these difficult issues.

Dr. Leegwater’s editorial is important in the conversation for several reasons. First, he humbly admits that in reviewing new data in genomics and evolutionary science, some of his most cherished beliefs were challenged. It is a good reminder that encountering facts that conflict with our deepest beliefs is painful and disorienting, if not downright frightening. We should thus be charitable with those who disagree with us. At the same time, wrestling together is good for the church—iron sharpens iron—and it should not be avoided, for failing to seriously consider new data is not a satisfactory option for truth-seeking Christians. Second, Leegwater recognizes that we tend to oversimplify the issue of interpretation. Too often, he notes, a false dichotomy is presented: “Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science?” Neither simple approach gives full integrity to the entirety of God’s Two-Book revelation. Finally, Leegwater observes that we are embedded in a rationalistic Western culture that elevates the methods of science in ways that invite unhelpful responses to Scripture. In reaction to the positivist edicts of science, he says, we tend to reduce Scripture to a collection of infallible intellectual assertions. In doing this we forget the richness of faith, for “faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.”

Introduction written by Kathryn Applegate

Dr. Leegwater's Editorial

On a late April 2010 visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, I viewed a diversity of exhibits, particularly those in the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. To move from panel to panel describing and detailing the evolution of humans from primate forebears to modern humans, one is taken on a journey of over seven million years. This mind-boggling experience, coupled with a recent Science issue detailing the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and its genomic heritage in modern humans, and reading this issue of PSCF, devoted to the historicity of Adam and Eve, genomics, and evolutionary science, challenged some of my long-cherished positions. Such encounters call for a serious examination and reconsideration of certain crucial matters.

Speaking personally, it was a hard lesson to digest, as I suspect it may be for many readers of PSCF. What should we make of all the diverse anthropological evidence collected from several continents as well as the recently acquired detailed genomic data? Should we sweep it under the rug, considering it to be the result of a shameful misguided investigation, since it assumes a view that calls into question the “plain straightforward reading of Scripture”? Or should we dispute the science and suggest the data is open to multiple concordist interpretations? Neither of these positions would be fair to the nature of scientific practice. “Science in God’s world has its own proper task of giving joy, its own peculiar ministry of healing, its own God-given gift of serving up nuanced insight for one’s neighbor” (Calvin Seerveld). Nor would either position honor the role of hermeneutics in interpreting biblical literature.

Parenthetically, as an editor of PSCF, I have often hoped that I could keep these matters at a studied distance, because, in my opinion, there are many other pressing and important issues which the Christian community needs to address and which, due to the ferocity of the debates, frequently become emasculated. And secondly, and for perhaps far too long, a discussion of origins has functioned (for many) as the self-identity or touchstone of the ASA.

But, back to the matter at hand. If we accept the long-drawn-out saga of the evolution of living forms in creation, how must we then understand ourselves? Where and how do we humans “fit” in this development? That question is often the dominant theme in discussions about origins. As someone has perceptively remarked, “It is not the ‘fourth day,’ but rather the ‘sixth day’ that is in question.” To hold that the center and meaning of our life lies outside ourselves may be a posture that many persons and different religions share. But to honor this position as a Christian confession takes one on an eccentric and peculiar journey. In his Institutes, Calvin raised the classic question of human self-understanding, the question of how humans can know themselves. The answer that Calvin gives points us away from our desire to first examine ourselves: “Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself” (I.i.12). We, as humans, are essentially God-related creatures (Homo religionis).

While recognizing our human condition, we also need to tread carefully. The intense debates often assume the stage is set by positing “hard scientific data” to be in tension with our (systematic) theologies. In simple terms, the scene is portrayed as a battle between believing science and believing Scrip-ture. Should science be interpreted by Scripture or Scripture by science? We desire simple satisfying answers. To a large extent, however, we have simplified the issues. Putting the matter in this way, I think, will cause us to lose sight of the integrity of both the Bible and of science. If the reliability of the Bible as the Word of God is wedded to its scientific reliability, the “scientific” battles for an infallible Word of God have been lost from the start. We have then placed both on the same (scientific) level, and in the process, we will lose the reliability of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are not written as a historical research report, nor do they give a scientific account. Rather, they are a testimony of faith, albeit in the form of God-inspired literature. The Bible is part of creation which bears witness to the Word of God who was present at Creation. The Bible points us to Christ. The Bible is divinely inspired, but it is not divine. The Holy Scripture in its entirety is revelation, but it is not the whole of revelation. Reducing the Word of God to the Scriptures can be a form of bibliolatry. The revelatory Word of God for creation speaks to its reliability and trustworthiness.

Stating it differently, the Bible speaks in prescientific language and pictures. It employs the language of the day, reflecting the world-picture of the original audience. The language of the Bible is accommodated to the cosmological and historical awareness of the day. In our eyes, these cosmological world-pictures may seem hopelessly scientifically naive, but the Word and Spirit are able—the church confesses—to penetrate our hearts, regardless of our local customs and situations, or of the world-pictures we hold.

In addition, we often discount the philosophical and historical contexts that undergird many of our procedures of interpretation. We live in a westernized rationalist culture which probably reached its zenith in the Enlightenment, but is still clearly regnant in the practice of the natural sciences and the theological sciences. This historical context has shaped our view of the Bible and its interpretation: we like (or deem it necessary) to compare the scientific propositions of science with the propositional revelation (teachings) of Scripture. In an effort to counteract the rational infallibility of scientific propositions, Christians respond with the rational infallibility of revealed propositions. Consequently, employing the term “inerrancy” to describe the character of the Scriptures seems inherently tied to a rationalistic and positivistic position and plays into the hands of higher criticism. Our intellectual instincts tend to treat faith as basically an intellectual matter. But faith is much richer in its purview. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, RSV). Faith has to do with promises and expectations, with the certainty of our identity as God-related creatures.


1. ASA was established in 1941 as a fellowship of those in science and related disciplines who prize both faithfulness to the Word of God and integrity in science. ASA members benefit from a robust dialogue about wide-ranging and pressing issues in science and faith through multiple blogs, publications like PSCF and the new God and Nature e-zine, and both regional and national events such as the upcoming 66th Annual Meeting, “Science-Faith Synergy: Glorifying God and Serving Humanity.” Interested in connecting with fellow Christians in science? It’s easy to join online.

Arie Leegwater is a professor emeritus of chemistry at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, the journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. He received his doctorate in chemistry from The Ohio State University, where his thesis was on steric effects in organic chemistry.

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Martin Rizley - #54308

March 14th 2011

Let me add to what I said above that I don’t see why the confession of ‘unshakable, Spirit-wrought convictions’ should be a conversation stopper.  A believer does not say, “My rational conclusion at this point is that God exists—but of course, I might be wrong, since I don’t KNOW that with certainty; I am simply CONCLUDING that at the present time from the currently available evidence.”   Which of the apostles ever talked that way? Paul said, “I KNOW whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed to Him until that Day”  (2 Tim. 1:12).  To the rationalistic Athenians, he said, “The one whom YOU worship WITHOUT KNOWING, Him I PROCLAIM to you” (Acts 17:23).  What audacious authority there was in Paul’s declaration!  It was the same as if he said to them, “You may not know who God is, but I do, and now I will tell you the truth about Him.”  With equal assurance he proclaimed to them the indisputable facts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the coming judgment of the world by Jesus Christ and the need of all men to repent of sin and believe the gospel.  Why?  Because the ‘times of ignorance’ regarding the TRUTH concerning God and His Savior were now past.  The preaching of the gospel was dispelling that ignorance.  The church today must exhibit the same bold assurance regarding the things that God has revealed if we are going to make an impact on the world.   We must declare the ‘things of the Spirit of God,” which have been revealed by God as certainties, not as tentative conclusions of fallible human logic.   That should not be a conversation stopper, for we may then set forth the rationally compelling evidences and proofs that God has given to corroborate what He has revealed to be true. 

R Hampton - #54343

March 14th 2011

How, I had no idea so many comments would come in over the weekend. So much has been said, but I did want to mention this one point that has been bothering me.

An ANE observer could plainly determine that clouds were below the Sun and Moon, and thus below the firmament. On overcast days/nights, the clouds obscure the heaven, and on partially overcast days/night (when there are breaks in the cover or the clouds are small and isololated) never do the clouds transit behind the Sun and Moon. Thus the clouds must be in front (meaning below) heaven. And because rain (other than a very light drizzle) does not fail from the sky unless there are clouds, the ANE observer would likely assume that rain originates from the clouds below the firmament. Furthermore, the Sun and Moon never seem to be wet or drip from water that has descended from above (the waters above the firmament). So I don’t accept that a phenomenological argument supports your interpretation of Genesis.

Rich - #54400

March 14th 2011

I agree with R Hampton’s presentation (54343) regarding how the clouds, sun, moon, and firmament would appear to the ancient observer, that is, to the ancient observer who was actually trying to determine the spatial layout of these objects.

How an ancient storyteller might describe the arrangement of these objects is another matter entirely. A storyteller might well choose to employ an ancient folk-cosmology well-known to his audience, e.g., one in which the world is surrounded above and below by water. This is the most likely explanation of the obviously erroneous cosmography in the Creation and Flood stories.

It is possible, of course, that the writers of these stories were simply in error, i.e., that they accepted the false folk-cosmography of their intended readers. But note that, if this is so, even the historical truth (never mind the spiritual truth) of the Flood story would not thereby be damaged, since the report of a global flood might be true though the cosmographical explanation of that flood might be false. For example, if the Biblical narrative had read, “And God made the clouds many and great under the heavens, until they were swollen with waters, and they burst forth and dropped their waters in a mighty torrent upon the earth,” the *event* conveyed—the fall of an unprecedented amount of water upon the earth—would be exactly the same as if the story had read “and all the windows of the heavens were opened, and exceeding great rains fell upon the earth”; but the first description would be factually correct, and the second one factually false.

The point is that the Bible can contain errors—in science and geography and history and many other things—without ever being materially misleading in anything that it is trying to teach. Therefore, defending the phrase about the waters above the firmament is a complete waste of the theologian’s or pastor’s or lay writer’s time. And this is a chronic defect of American inerrantism—the consumption of time and spiritual energy in debates that are of no religious importance.

penman - #54427

March 15th 2011

Martin Rizley - #54308

The context of my “conversation-stopper” remarks was entirely different from the one you’ve just presented. We were discussing how Christians could arrive at the meaning of particular texts - not a Christian telling a non-Christian “I know God”. If we stick with the original context, my comment stands. You destroy the possibility of any discussion about what a text means if you claim that you just KNOW it means XYZ because the Holy Spirit has illuminated you. That isn’t just a conversation-stopper, it’s the path to uncritical self-delusion. How could anyone correct me in my understanding of any text if I just kept claiming that I just KNEW what it meant because God had told me? Is that a biblical method of understanding biblical texts?

Martin Rizley - #54436

March 15th 2011

R Hampton and Rich,
The assumptions one brings to the text of Scripture certainly color one’s reading of it. If one begins with the assumption that the Scriptures are a human construction that contain a mixture of error and truth, and that this doesn’t matter, since it is the material substance of Scripture, not its very words, which are inspired by God (an assumption that is at odds with Jesus’ own view of the Scriptures); and if one assumes that current scholarly orthodoxy regarding the firmament as a solid dome is unquestionably true (an assumption that rests on what scholars call the “intentional fallacy,” trying to discover a writer’s ‘fuller intention’ from material external to the actual text itself ); then one will be inclined to see “problems” with alternative interpretations because one is bringing expectations to the text that others do not share (for example, the expectation of ‘technical exactitude’ in the language of the text, based on the assumption that the text is giving us a pseudo-scientific cosmology according to an assumed ANE cosmology). If one assumes that firmament means “solid dome,” then when the text says that God placed waters “above the firmament,” then one naturally assumes that the waters “above the firmament” must be COMPLETELY SEPARATE from the firmament. But what if the pseudo-scientific assumption is mistaken, and Moses simply did not intend to give us a cosmological ’map’ in technically exact language? What if his intention was simply to describe God’s work of creation in language that is descriptive, pictorial, and phenomenological? What if the word “raqia” in Hebrew is to be understood in its basic meaning as a “spread out expanse,” with the substance, durability, and width of that expanse left completely undefined? In that case, all the text is saying is that God made an expanse in the midst of the waters to separate the waters from the waters, with some waters being ‘below’ the expanse, and other waters being ‘above’ it RELATIVE TO the other waters. If that is Moses’ intention, then one cannot say that the placement some waters “above the expanse” necessarily means that were COMPLETELY SEPARATE from the expanse. The words “above” and “below” are simply used to contrast the relative position of the upper and lower waters with respect to the expanse that God created to separate them. In that case, the upper waters could be ’above the firmament’ RELATIVE to the other waters which are below it, yet not ABSOLUTELY above the firmament in the sense of being COMPLETELY SEPARATE from it. In that case, when God places the sun, moon, and stars ‘in the firmament,’ he is not placing them in a totally separate region from where He placed the ‘upper waters.’ The sun, moon, stars and the upper waters all belong to the same basic region, which we call the sky. It seems that the main objection to this view rests on the expectation of a technical exactitude to the language, which rests on the further assumption that it was the intention of Moses to give us a technically exact cosmological map of the universe—an assumption which I believe is unwarranted.

Rich - #54452

March 15th 2011

Martin Rizley, R Hampton, penman:

Sigh.  In my 54400 above, I made the point that inerrantism consumes immense spiritual time and energy arguing over tiny details of the Bible that are of no religious significance.  Martin then goes on to prove my case, in his reply 54436, in which he discusses the passage about the waters above the firmament at greater length than Jesus ever discusses any Old Testament passage, as if the integrity of Christian interpretation itself stands or falls with Martin’s nit-picking understanding of “firmament” and “above.”

Inerrantists just don’t get it.  They think that Christianity is a Book.  They don’t see that Christianity is a way of being, centered not on a Book but on a Person, Jesus Christ.  Oddly enough, in an earlier answer, where Martin indicated that he had no time to read Jewish commentaries on Genesis, he mentioned that he also had no time to read commentaries by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Yet Martin’s exegetical arguments remind me of no one so much as the Witnesses; they too, think of Christianity as the defense of the literal perfection of a Book; and as the Lutheran George Murphy wisely said here once, while the Witnesses talk endlessly about the Bible, they don’t get within a country mile of Jesus Christ. 

It’s very sad that a mind of the quality of Martin’s should be shackled by the need for defensive apologetics.  But so it is in all forms of Protestant inerrantism known to me.  It warps natural, plain-sense exegesis, deforms the intellect, and puts the religious emphasis all in the wrong place.  If Jesus were alive today, I suspect he would treat inerrantists as the modern version of the Pharisees, worried more about correctness than about what is essential.  His own free, loose, and ad hoc appeal to the Jewish Scriptures, indicates that, while he certainly regarded them as without error in all essentials, he was no inerrantist in the modern sense of the word.  He read the Scriptures in a Jewish manner, a manner which Martin might come to understand if he would make time for those Jewish commentaries I mentioned.  And if I may be so bold as to tell a pastor his responsibility, I think that it is more important for Martin to come to think with the mind of Jesus than it is for Martin to come to his Sunday sermons well-stocked with the kind of inerrantist Protestant apologetics that his congregation thinks it is entitled to hear.

penman - #54471

March 15th 2011

Rich - #54452

As far as I can see, Martin hasn’t even exegeted the Genesis text aright. It says that there are waters ABOVE the firmament, but that the sun & stars are IN the firmament. So the waters are above the sun & stars. Yes, it’s the ANE solid dome, in which the stars are fixed like bright gems, & outside are those waters pressing to break through.

What does that imply? That Genesis is unreliable rubbish & we may as well bin it? Or might it mean that scripture was never intended to teach “science” - physical cosmology etc isn’t included within its “teaching intent”? And that (supposing the involvement of God in the writing of scripture) there’s an unembarrassed accommodation to the popular ideas of the time - the Spirit utilizing the “pop” picture of the world that was in people’s heads in order to communicate truths of a more objective, enduring, & salvific nature?

The latter, for me. And no, I wouldn’t include a historical Adam & a historical fall in the “accommodated pop notions” category. They’re part of the central teaching purpose: historically & theologically freighted with serious significance for our understanding of sin, salvation, & theodicy.

It was absurd expositions of early Genesis, debouching into an alternate pseudo-science, that helped me to leave behind any lingering sympathy for the young earth camp, & for unsustainable approaches to “inerrancy hermeneutics”.

Martin Rizley - #54495

March 15th 2011

You write, “We were discussing how Christians could arrive at the meaning of particular texts - not a Christian telling a non-Christian “I know God.”
Would you agree that a Christian can say “I know God,” only because he KNOWS the meaning of particular texts of the Bible which contain clear teaching through which he has come to KNOW God? If that is so, then knowing God and knowing the meaning of particular texts of the Bible are interrelated—they cannot be kept entirely separate, as you seem to suggest, for it is through knowing and understanding the Word of God that we come to know God Himself. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” When Paul told the Colossians to continue to walk in Christ Jesus the Lord “as you received Him,” and to be “strengthened in the faith as you were taught,” his exhortation implies two things: First, that believers come to know Christ in connection with knowing, understanding, and receiving a body of particular doctrines about Christ which are now contained in particular texts of the Bible.  Second, that our growth in Christ involves growing “in” (not beyond) our understanding of “the faith” (the apostolic doctrines) just as we were taught it by those who explained it to us faithfully and accurately. What all this implies is that believers can have assured knowledge of the meaning of Scripture, and not just an assured knowledge of their relationship to Christ, and that is because the Scriptural teaching by which we have come to know Christ is not ambiguous. If the apostolic teaching is essentially straightforward and plain in its meaning, then the texts which contain that teaching must likewise be straightforward and plain in their meaning (although Peter admits that Paul writes ‘some’ things that are hard to understand). Such plainness is implied by Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Likewise, when Jude tells the believers to contend earnestly for “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” he expects them to know with assured conviction the meaning of the doctrines they are contending for. How can you contend for truths whose meaning is unclear to you?  So the Holy Spirit does give us an assured knowledge of the meaning of particular doctrines and particular texts which contain those doctrines, and in this way, we come to know Christ Himself personally, as we believe the revealed truth concerning Him.

Martin Rizley - #54509

March 15th 2011

You insist that if the ‘upper waters’ of Day 2 are described as being ‘above the firmament,’ then they must be seen as completely separated from the firmament, so that there is no possible way that the ‘astral lights’ which God placed IN the firmament on the fourth day could mingle with the ‘upper waters’ which God place ABOVE the firmament. You insist on this interpretation as proof against a ’phenomenological’ reading of the text and as proof of a ’psuedo-scientific’ reading of the text in which the word ’raqia’ is taken to mean a solid dome holding back the upper waters. But every day experience warns us against drawing such dogmatic conclusions from the prepositions used in Genesis 1. It is simply not the case that an object which is ’above’ an element must always be completely separated from it. We speak of a submarine which breaks the surface of the water after spending a month at the bottom of the sea as being ‘above’ the water. But is a surfaced submarine really ’above’ the water? Yes, in the sense that it is now riding on the surface of the water—but the hull of the sub is still submerged in the water. Thus, it is not completely separated from the element on which it rests. Likewise, we speak of a clipper ship that sails upon the sea, or crosses over the sea. But is it technically correct to speak of a ship sailing upon or over the sea? Yes, but such language does not preclude the fact that the hull of the ship is submerged in the sea. So the fact God placed the upper waters ‘above’ the firmament does not preclude the possibility of their resting ‘on’ the firmament, and even penetrating the firmament as the hull of a ship penetrates the water on which it rests. In that case, the sun, moon, and stars which God placed in the firmament could freely mingle with the upper waters, and an ancient seer beholding in a vision God’s creative work, and describing what he sees in phenomenological language, could well use the very language we read in Genesis 1. You may complain about my “inerrancy hermeneutics,” but I have my own pet peeve, which is “sloppy hermeneutics.” And to my mind, it is sloppy hermeneutics to take ideas from an outside source and impose them on the text without warrant. In seminary, we called that eisegsis. My contention is that to dogmatically assert that “raqia” means ’solid dome’ is a classic example of eisegesis. The term raqia simply means ’spread out expanse,’ and nothing in the text of Scripture specifies the substance, durability, or width of that expanse. You may consider me “nit-picky,” but I am always ready to pick nits when unwarranted dogmatism, supported by sloppy heremeneutics, is used to prove cosmological ’errors’ in the Bible which are simply not there!

penman - #54529

March 16th 2011

                                                      Martin Rizley - #54495

“Would you agree that a Christian can say ‘I know God,’ only because he KNOWS the meaning of particular texts of the Bible which contain clear teaching through which he has come to KNOW God?”

No. I didn’t come to know God through exegesis of particular texts. I came to know God through the Gospel of a crucified Christ, proclaimed in the power of the Spirit. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it can be done without exegesis of particular texts. I could do it right now. In the early church, someone could have experienced the Gospel through the apostolic preaching, without any knowledge of any text - eg before any New Testament text was written, & as a Gentile for whom the Old Testament would have had no meaning.  Simply hearing the story of Christ, maybe from eyewitnesses, would have sufficed.

But I’m not saying that texts or exegesis are irrelevant. I exegete texts all the time when I preach. I even agree with you that scripture is “God-breathed”. But our original discussion, Martin, was about whether one can, by the Spirit’s illumination, have an absolute certainty that a particular text carries the particular meaning “XYZ” (let’s call it, for argument’s sake). This I still dispute. It isn’t the historic sense of the Reformed doctrine of the Spirit’s internal testimony. Its natural tendency is to lead directly to egoistic arrogance - solipsistic claims that “I know it means XYZ, because the Spirit has told me, & nothing shall persuade me otherwise - not even superior exegesis!”

And it short-circuits rationality. Most people don’t know Greek or Hebrew; so is the Spirit giving them an infallible certainty that a text has been rightly translated? That’s involved in your argument. To KNOW that the text means XYZ, you have to know it’s a correct translation. Is this the way to decide on translations? By appealing to a private inner testimony of the Spirit? Surely not. There’s a better way, & that’s to accept that the Spirit’s testimony terminates on the unique “flavour” of scripture as bearing divine authority, & on the spiritual substance of the Gospel.

Rich - #54533

March 16th 2011

penman (54529):

I wrote a long reply to Martin along the lines of your post, but I didn’t do it as well as you did, so I won’t bother posting it now.  But thank you for your comments.  I once again agree with you against Martin.

The only significant point that I would add is that Paul, who is central to Martin’s version of Christianity (more central than the historical Jesus, it seems to me, but perhaps I’m being unfair), did not come to knowledge of Jesus Christ through knowing “the meaning of particular texts of the Bible.”  He came to knowledge of Jesus Christ via direct encounter.

Later on, to be sure, Paul *interpreted* that encounter in light of the Jewish scriptures, but he was sure of the authenticity of the experience from the beginning, prior to any exegetical/theological meditations.  And if his knowledge didn’t come from the Jewish scriptures, still less did it come from the New Testament, not a line of which had yet been written when he was heading along the road to Damascus.

It has been interesting being part of this debate between two Protestant ministers.  It confirms the gut instinct I have always had regarding fundamentalism, and it comforts me to know that there are Protestant clergymen of unimpeachable orthodoxy who feel as spiritually uncomfortable with fundamentalism as I do.

Martin Rizley - #54541

March 16th 2011


“I didn’t come to know God through exegesis of particular texts. I came to know God through the Gospel of a crucified Christ, proclaimed in the power of the Spirit. When the Gospel is proclaimed, it can be done without exegesis of particular texts. . .In the early church, someone could have experienced the Gospel through the apostolic preaching.”
I would argue that what you heard about the crucified Christ by way of oral communication of the gospel constituted, in essence, might call an “unwritten”  text, and your ability to receive Christ depended entirely on your ability to “exegete” or decipher what you heard.  It was only through KNOWING with assured conviction the meaning of the unwritten text that you heard that you came to KNOW Christ.   The apostolic writings are, in essence, written transcription of what would have been transmitted orally to the churches of Galatia, Ephesus, etc., had the apostles been with them.  So if exegeting an oral communication of the gospel is a simple, straightforward task—you had no trouble exegeting the verbal message that brought you to Christ—then exegeting a written transcription of such a message should be just as straightforward.  What I am saying, penman, is that the Scriptures are as uncomplicated and straightforward in their meaning (for the most part) as the message you heard that brought you to Christ.  Moreover, you would not have come to Christ apart from KNOWING with assured conviction the meaning of what you were hearing.  Those who make the effort to read the Scriptures and interpret them according to their rules of grammar and in their biblical and historical context do not need to go around asking—are any of the pieces of the puzzle missing to understand what I’m reading?   Are all the pieces here ‘in the box’?  Yes, they are in the box, because the Bible is not written in a some secret code; it is not a book of Kabbalistic confusion, so deeply complex and mysterious in its meaning as to be far removed from the non-specialist’s ability to understand.   The apostolic writings were written, for the most part, to congregations of people who were non-scholars—slaves, trademen, etc.—and they were written to be understood (that includes passages like Paul’s teaching on Adam in Romans 5).  Of course, I am not saying that everything in Scripture is equally clear; some things are hard to understand.  But I would say that most of it is not hard to understand for the person who dedicates himself to the study of it.  Look at someone like John Bunyan, who by no means had a scholar’s education—yet his insight into the meaning of Scripture was profound, and communicated to others with the bold conviction of understanding that Spirit-given conviction always brings.

Martin Rizley - #54542

March 16th 2011

correction:  the last phrase should read “the bold conviction of understanding that Spirit-given insight always brings.”

Martin Rizley - #54587

March 16th 2011

Bear with my asking you one more question, but based on various statements you have made about the Spirit’s ministry of bearing witness in a general way to the ‘spiritual substance’ of the gospel and to the divine ‘flavor’ of the Scripture, rather than to the whole range of specific truths taught by the apostles in the New Testament, I wanted to understand better your view of divine revelation.  In your view, does the whole body ofl teachings of the first century apostles constitute divine revelation from God, or do they serve as the “vehicle” or “instrument” of divine revelation from God (in a Barthian sense), while containing within themselves a mixture of truth and error?    

penman - #54605

March 17th 2011

Hi Martin

I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere, because you aren’t answering the question I keep raising about a supposed divine illumination giving an absolutely certain understanding of particular texts. There are so many problems with that, & my concerns remain unabated. Given that, I can’t keep answering endless new questions put to me.

But I can certainly (!!) answer your query about whether I hold a Barthian view of scripture. No - I hold a Warfieldian view of inspiration. All scripture is God-breathed. I think that’s the biblical doctrine of the bible, if you will. Not that I’m claiming any infallible illumination of the Spirit in my understanding of the various texts that lead to this view; I just think that authentic exegesis conduces to it. Why should I believe what scripture says about God, humanity, sin, Christ, & salvation, but disbelieve what it says about itself?

But - and I’ve made this point before - a high view of inspiration is not in itself awfully helpful when it comes to the task of exegesis. Scripture is inspired, but what does it actually say - what does it actually mean? There are those who share my view of inspiration, but are utterly & embarrassingly woeful at interpreting scripture. There are those who don’t share my view of inspiration, but offer thoughtful, penetrating, instructive, even edifying exegesis. I’d far rather read a good “liberal” commentary than a bad evangelical one!

Warfield’s also my patron saint on being “old earth” & open to evolution. For the umpteenth time, everyone should read David Livingstone’s consciousness-raising book, “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” (Regent College 1984, 1997). Once upon a time, the highest orthodoxy was compatible with the most cutting-edge science… I get nostalgic for those days.

Rich - #54610

March 17th 2011

penman (54605):

Once again, I agree with virtually all of your statements.

I particularly like your point: “There are those who don’t share my view of inspiration, but offer thoughtful, penetrating, instructive, even edifying exegesis.”

On more than one occasion I’ve suggest to Martin that he broaden his theological reading, to go beyond Calvinistic and American sectarian authors, and have a look at things as far afield as High Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish commentary, and even (gasp!) secular commentaries written by leading scholars in major universities.  He will not do this.  He is convinced, it seems, that he has nothing significant to learn from those who do not already share a view of the Bible and of hermeneutics very close to his own.

As a scholar I cannot imagine how anyone can willfully narrow himself in such a fashion, when the questions are of such magnitude, and when even a hint of new insight from an unexpected source might prove more precious than the rarest diamond.  But that is how Martin is, and, mutatis mutandis, that is the way “inerrantists” (as the term is commonly used in America) generally are.  This form of religion, and of “scholarship,” is entirely alien to both my soul and my intellect, and I will have no part of it.

Needless to say, discussions of evolution and creation greatly suffer when intransigent positions, based upon an unnecessarily narrow conception of faith and of the Bible, are taken.  There are indeed tensions between certain formulations of evolution and Christian doctrine; but it does not follow that all interpretations of evolution are incompatible with Christian doctrine.  The proper attitude of mind is not dogmatic, but exploratory; and here I find that Martin’s intransigent literalism is every bit as counter-productive as the intransigent naturalism of many TE/EC people.  If one has already decided in advance that one will accept no scientific or historical truths that run counter to a literal reading of the Creation and Flood stories, one is just as bad as someone who has already decided in advance that God would never have acted directly in the process of creation.  I say, a pox on both their houses.

Martin Rizley - #54618

March 17th 2011

You write, “I don’t think this discussion is going anywhere, because you aren’t answering the question I keep raising about a supposed divine illumination giving an absolutely certain understanding of particular texts.” By certain understanding, I do not mean an understanding that is incapable of improvement or clarification. When Jesus healed the blind eyes of the man at Bethsaida in Mark 8 and asked him, “Do you see anything?” he didn’t answer, “I see certain visions in my head, but whether those visions correspond to anything in the outside world, I can’t say for sure.” No; he said, “I see men as trees walking.” He spoke with a sense of conviction that he did see something ‘out there,’ and he could even identify what it was he was seeing—men walking. But by saying that he saw men “as trees,” he was admitting that his vision was still blurry; he didn’t see those men as clearly as he possibly could, but neither could he deny that he saw men. Now, my contention is that, just as it required a miracle of divine healing to enable that man to see the outside world, so it requires a miracle of divine illumination for human beings to ‘see’ what is in the Bible and to arrive at an unshakeable conviction that they see the essential meaning of texts—for example, John 3:16. I testify to you that I “see” with a sense of unshakeable conviction that the phrase “His only begotten Son” in John 3:16 refers to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God. I cannot conceive of anything ever changing that belief, because the context makes it so very clear that that the word “Son” refers to Jesus. So what I am saying is that human beings do not arrive at a sense of unshakeable conviction about the meaning and divine truthfulness of Scripture’s teaching and the teaching of particular texts through human reason alone, because our minds are naturally darkened by sin, which hinders us from arriving at strong convictions concerning spiritual truth. The natural man cannot understand or receive the “things of the Spirit of God” through the power of his natural reasoning faculties alone. Left to himself, he may gain information about a text, but he will lack strong conviction about the meaning of that text and its divine authorship. So our attitude in reading the Scripture should be like that of the healed blind man. He knew that he saw something—men walking—but he had the humility to realize that there was room for improvement in his sight. If we believe that God has enabled us to see something clearly taught in the Scriptures, we should confess that. It would be dishonest of us not to do so. But we should have the humility to grant our need for our sight being ‘improved.’ Therefore, we do not just reject unreasoningly any alternative interpretation of a particular text that conflicts with our present understanding, if it claims to fit better the historical, grammatical, biblical and linguistic context in which it is found. We test taht claim by examining the alternative interpretation prayerfully with our reason, our conscience, and our common sense in light of the whole teaching of the Bible. But if our testing only strengthens the conviction that we really are seeing “men walking,” not whales swimming in the sea, then we must bear witness to what we are seeing, and our witness must exhibit the degree of conviction that God has given us by the illumination of His Spirit—never claiming to see perfectly, but never lying to others by saying, “I don’t see a thing” or “I can’t be sure at all about what I’m seeing.”

Martin Rizley - #54624

March 17th 2011

“The proper attitude of mind is not dogmatic, but exploratory.”  Surely you would agree, Rich, that there are some matters about which a church, for the sake of its order and discipline, must be (in practice, at least) “dogmatic, not exploratory.”  Let’s say a homosexual couple applies for membership in a local church, and when questioned about their relationship, they say, “Our personal belief is that the Bible forbids neither homosexual conduct nor couples living together in any sexual relationship without the benefit of marriage.”  We believe that such narrow standards of morality are based on a misunderstanding of the biblical text, which reflects at certain points the cultural prejudices of ancient Jewish culture, not the mind of God.  Society has evolved to a higher ethic which permits committed sexual relationships between any two (or possibly more) consenting adults.  So if you tell us we cannot join your church because of our lifestyle, you are being narrow, fundmentalist, and dogmatic!”  So how should a church respond?  Should it say, “It is our shared conviction that the Bible clearly teaches certain moral standards, and here are the texts on which we base this belief, for your examination.  We have come to a conclusion regarding the teaching of these texts, so for us as a church, this is a closed issue.”   Or should it yield, in the interests of maintaining an ‘exploratory’ and non-dogmatic frame of mind, to the demands of the homosexual couple?  Should it say, “Well, we certainly don’t want to be dogmatic in requiring that all our members understand the Bible and its moral teachings, in the same way.  So in the interest of practicing love over narrow American fundamentalist dogmatism about ‘the Bible’s clarity,’ we will welcome with open arms this homosexual couple into the membership of our church.”  How could a church ever practice church discipline if  all interpretations of the Bible and Christian morality were considered a matter of private opinion only that had no effect on one’s qualifications for membership in the church? 

Rich - #54627

March 17th 2011

Martin (54624):

Your example is irrelevant to the point I was making.  If a religion has rules regarding homosexuality, then of course it should enforce them as it enforces its rules against murder and adultery.  When the Bible says:  “Thou shalt not ...” it is not asking for a subtle exegetical or theoretical judgment on our part.

My comment about an exploratory attitude of mind had nothing to do with moral matters.  I was speaking of theoretical matters, i.e., principles of Biblical interpretation and possible harmonizations of evolutionary theory with Christian theology.  The proper way of interpreting Genesis is not self-evident, and is open for theoretical debate.  The Church is therefore wise to refrain from pronouncing on any particulars unless it absolutely must.

Obviously the Church must insist that God created the universe; but *how* God created, it need not firmly decide.  It can patiently listen to various ways of reading Genesis and other creation texts, making rulings only when strictly necessary.  That the world came into being by blind chance it can rule out of court.  On the question whether living things came into being through a process of evolution, it can rule “maybe.”  But you’re unwilling to maintain that degree of opennness.

This is directly connected with your high degree of certainty regarding Biblical interpretation.  More cautious Christians don’t award themselves such high levels of certainty as you do.  And the irony is, Christians with the highest level of scholarly achievement, even by your evangelical standards—the case of Bruce Waltke proves my point—are open to evolution in a way that you are not.  Do you think you understand Genesis better than Waltke does?  If not, then pulling back a bit on the didactic tone when you give your views on Genesis would be appropriate.  You’re debating with penman, but you’re not listening to him.

Martin Rizley - #54630

March 17th 2011

“Thou shalt not ...” it is not asking for a subtle exegetical or theoretical judgment on our part.”  By what criteria are you making that judgment?  After all, there are many scholars who would say that all texts in the Bible requires subtle exegetical and theoretical judgment—even the “thou shalt nots”—because divine revelation has always been given within a cultural context that is always evolving.  So some prohibitions which may have been fitting for the ancient Israelites or for the early church are no longer fitting for the modern world, since we have evolved socially beyond the old taboos.   Any claim that certain moral standards are absolute because “the Bible says so” or “Christian tradition says so” is regarded by many scholars as revealing a dogmatic, fundamentalist mindset which swims against the stream of man’s evolutionary progress, since progress always leads to a loosening of moral restraints and a liberalizing of societal norms—never the reverse.   The fact that you personally do not apply your comment about an  ‘exploratory mindset’ to moral matters would be seen by many of your scholarly colleagues as an arbitrary limitation with which you are ‘shackling’ your mind.   Why not call into question ALL absolutes, they might ask you?  Of course, the church has traditionally answered such capitulation to total relativism by affirming that, while certain cultural norms do change, God has written certain immutable moral principles upon man’s conscience and has revealed certain patterns for human life from the beginning (Matthew 19:4ff).  My point is that it is very hard to resist the drift of our culture toward the erosion of all moral absolutes when the existence of a divinely revealed standard of truth is denied—whether it be the Bible or Christian tradition.  Many Christians believe that the very standard of truth by which morality is defined (the Bible) also reveals certain things about the early history of the world that are set forth with the same clarity with which it sets forth moral matters.  Even Dr. Waltke, whom you mentioned above, believes in a literal Adam and a literal fall, based on the Bible’s teaching.   So if you yourself hold to the existence of moral absolutes, why would you begrudge Christians for holding to certain theological absolutes—even if those differ, to some degree, from your own?      

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