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

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March 8, 2011 Tags: Human Origins

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

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

Introduction

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.

Notes

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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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

penman,

“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

penman,
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

penman,
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

Rich,
“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

Rich,
“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?      


Rich - #54641

March 17th 2011

Martin (54630):

You’ve gone off the rails.  I said nothing about relativism, abandonment of absolute standards, Biblical laws being merely culture-bound, etc.  I said the Biblical laws were clear.  Don’t commit adultery.  Don’t steal.  Don’t commit sodomy.  If someone says that the laws are outdated cultural artifacts, and he won’t obey them, that’s his business.  What he can’t deny is that the laws say what they say.

He *can* deny, however, that Adam was meant to be understood as a historical person; he *can* say that “Adam” means “Everyman”; and he *can* deny that the dialogue of Eve with a serpent represented any external event; he *can* say that it was a monologue within Eve.  It is possible to argue such things.  The evidence is not clear-cut one way or the other.  And until it’s absolutely *certain* that the events in Genesis 1-2 must be interpreted literally, evolution remains a possibility.  

I don’t begrudge you theological absolutes, Martin:  the existence of God, the reality of sin, the Incarnation, the Apostle’s Creed, etc.  I begrudge you your confidence that your readings of particular Bible passages—the readings that convince you that virtually all the events in Genesis 1-11 happened almost literally as described— come from the Holy Spirit.  You refuse to entertain the possibility that you’ve unwisely over-committed yourself to an unnecessary degree of literalism.  And when I point you to sources which could help you break out of this literalist intellectual straitjacket you are in, you won’t read them.  So ultimately what I begrudge you is not your theology but your intellectual narrowness and partisan spirit.  It’s the same thing I begrudge R Hampton when he constantly judges all theological statements by the lights of Thomas Aquinas.  It’s the same thing I begrudge some of the TEs here when they make doctrinaire naturalism the touchstone of truth in origins questions, and that I begrudge some of the biologists here when they make Darwinian theory the touchstone of truth for good science.  What you don’t see is that your own position is just as rigid and dogmatic as that of all the others I mentioned.  There are only a handful of people who regularly comment here who have genuinely open minds on both evolutionary theory and the proper formulation of Christian faith, and you’re not one of them.


Martin Rizley - #54691

March 18th 2011

Rich,
I never said that I ‘won’t read’ anything.  It’s a question of managing my time to the best advantage.  As I said, I believe that Bible scholars who confess personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and who approach the Scriptures as believers, not religious humanists, are going to have better insight into the meaning of the Scriptures (as a general rule) than those who don’t believe in Him, so as a pastor, not an academician, I’m going to spend the bulk of my time reading commentaries on the Bible by writers who presuppose its entire truthfulness as the Word of God, and who do not approach it with an anti-supernaturalistic bias.  And I make no apologies for attributing to the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination any degree of spiritual insight that I may have of any particular passage of the Bible, because I understand that my mind is darkened by sin and that I would not understand a word of Scripture rightly were it not for the Spirit’s condescending grace in granting understanding.  I cannot understand anyone who claims to be a Christian who would deny such a basic Christian truth.   Let me ask you, Rich, when you read the Bible, do you pray to God, the divine Author of Scripture, to give you understanding of the words you are going to read, since they are His words?  If so, then are you not asking for an understanding of the Bible’s teaching that will come “from the Spirit”?  Why then would you begrudge anyone saying that they believe the Spirit has given them understanding of a passage? 


Rich - #54700

March 18th 2011

Martin (54691):

I have no criticism at all when you or anyone else says:  “Whatever is true or valuable in my exegesis of this passage, comes in one way or another from the Holy Spirit.”  I’m sure penman would humbly attribute his insights to God rather than to himself as well.  But that’s not what penman and you were debating about.  Penman wasn’t denying that, whenever Martin in fact gets the Bible right, Martin is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Penman was asking how Martin can tell when he’s inspired by the Holy Spirit, and when he’s got just a bright idea that may well be wrong.  It sounded as if you were saying that you can in principle know that literalism is the right approach to Genesis 1-11 because you feel the confirmation of the Holy Spirit when you use that approach.  But others may claim to have the same confirmation for non-literal approaches, and what does one do then?  Clearly, the subjective feeling that one is being helped by the Holy Spirit is not proof that one is in fact being helped by the Holy Spirit, if two people who are sure they are receiving the same help get contradictory answers.

I wasn’t asking you to drop everything you are reading now and run out and read a bunch of new commentaries.  But you have been a pastor for how many years now?  And you say you can’t remember ever reading a Jewish commentary?  And you attended seminary?  If not Jewish commentaries, weren’t at least some Jewish ideas (e.g., the thought of Martin Buber) covered in your courses?  And since you are now preoccupied with Genesis and determined to debate it with trained Biblical scholars like Pete Enns, wouldn’t it make sense for you to start reading Jewish, Patristic, Medieval, etc. commentaries, plus a few representative works of modern Princeton and Chicago and Tubingen scholarship, so that you know what learned Biblical theologians are saying these days?  Not even whole books, just the sections on Genesis 1-11?  Even if you decided, say, that every fourth commentary on the Bible you read from now on would be non-evangelical, that would broaden your perspective immensely. 

By the way, how did ‘religious humanists’ get into the picture?  Yes, I recommended that you read some leading secular scholarship, but most of the people I’ve been talking about have been religious believers—Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, etc.  Are they all ‘religious humanists’ in your book?  And again, most of the people I have in mind would agree about the “truthfulness” of the Bible, but my point is that you have a very narrow, and very modern, Enlightenment-influenced conception of  truth.  You won’t be able to see that if you don’t start reading Christians who don’t share your presuppositions.  The acquisition of theological and spiritual wisdom requires the taking of risks.  So take some risks.


penman - #54704

March 18th 2011

Rich - #54700

I don’t want to jump in again so as to precipitate a long debate, but I do just want to second Rich’s comment about reading widely, both in theology & in bible commentaries. I wouldn’t recommend it to a new convert (he/she needs to have a solid foundation laid). But for preachers & teachers it’s pretty indispensable. If all I ever read is the stuff I already know I’m going to agree with, I’ll soon become brain-dead, & even my correct beliefs will acquire a stale mustiness. (Not saying that’s actually happened to Martin or anyone else here.)

The choice is not theology & commentaries (a) by fellow Reformed evangelicals, or (b) by “religious humanists”. There’s lots of other options! What about the early church fathers? The Ancient Christian Commentary series is wonderful. What about present-day Eastern Orthodox scholars? Or good Roman Catholic scholars? Or Lutherans? Or non-evangelical but believing Episcopalians? And yes, non-Christian Jewish commentaries on the OT can be helpful.

Even if you disagree with what you’re reading, it at least forces you to ask WHY you disagree, what the actual content & reason for your own belief is. And that helps keep the mind alive, fresh, constantly thinking. And THAT, I think, is virtually a necessity in a minister/pastor/preacher/tutor. Augustine once said that one of the preacher’s prime duties is to keep his congregation awake! We could say the same of the preacher’s own mind…

All this agreeing between me & Rich is ridiculous. Let’s get back to good old-fashioned war! (joke)


Martin Rizley - #54711

March 18th 2011

Rich and penman,
The very fact that I read articles on the Biologos website with which I strongly disagree demonstrates, I believe, that I am not averse to reading interpretations of biblical texts by scholars who do not share my theological assumptions about the inerrancy of Scripture.   Moreover, I have already answered Penman’s question about how one distinguishes the illumination of the Spirit from one’s own ‘bright ideas.’   If one is truly being illumined by the Spirit in one’s understanding of a particular text, that understanding will be increasingly confirmed by repeated testing as one compares it to other interpretations, and comes to see even more clearly its superior strength to other interpretations.  The question one should alway ask about any interpretation is simply this—does it make the best sense of the grammtical, historical, literary and biblical context?   I have given the reasons why I believe the view that Adam and Eve are historical figures makes the best sense.  First of all, because the New Testament writers—whose teachings I receive as ‘wholly’ inspired by God— treat Adam and Eve as historical figures and presuppose the historicity of the Genesis narratives as the foundation of many of their teachings—including the fall of man as an historical event involving one man and one act of disobedience, and the distinctive roles of men and women in the church.  Second, because the information given concerning Adam and Eve (their ages at death, the names of their sons) is identical in FORM to similar information given concerning later figures whose historicity no one questions.   Third, because the genealogies link them in a direct way with Abraham, David, Jesus, and other historical figures in the Bible.  Other interpretations of Adam and Eve which view them as symbolic ‘everyman’ figures make no sense of this data, and are rooted, I believe, in a capitulation to modern theories of polygenism which say that there could not have been one couple that gave birth to all modern humans.  If a person wanted to confuse his readers, he could do no better than sticking a non-historical figure in the middle of a list of historical figures, expecting the reader to figure out who is historical, and who is fictitious.  If we deny the historicity of Adam, then what about his son Seth and his grandson Enosh?  Are they also literary symbols? So it is not a matter of simply ‘feeling’ a ‘warm fuzzy’ and saying, “The Holy Spirit has spoken to me!”   The Spirit does impart strong conviction, but He does that by enabling one to ‘see’ the rational superiority of one interpretation over another—how it makes ‘better sense’ of the data. 


Rich - #54730

March 18th 2011

Martin (54711):

Biologos columns are not what I am talking about.  Except for Pete Enns, the regular Biologos columnists are not Biblical scholars, but mostly scientists with an interest in the Bible.  I’m talking about full-fledged Biblical scholars who write commentaries and monographs on Genesis, Old Testament theology, etc.  For example, the conservative Jewish scholar Cassuto wrote a two-volume commentary on Genesis.  The German scholar Claus Westermann wrote a multi-volume commentary as well.  Such works are not written as a “capitulation to modern theories of polygenism.”  They have nothing to do with trying to harmonize the Bible with evolution.  They are detailed commentaries by scholars who spend their lives trying to understand the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.  If you are seriously interested in Genesis you would be trying to read some of these works.  I know hard-line YEC and OEC people who as a matter of course read such works, and who aren’t even pastors.  If they find such study beneficial, presumably you would, too.

None of your arguments for the historicity of Genesis 1-11 is convincing.  I’ve many times here refuted one or more of them, and every one of them can be accounted for on a non-historical reading.  You would see why if you would consult a variety of commentaries and specialist works.

Your idea that your explanations exhibit “rational superiority” over alternate ones does not hold up under scholarly examination.  If your evidence that the Holy Spirit is speaking to you comes from your sense that your explanations are rationally superior, then logically you have to change your judgment about the Holy Spirit if you encounter explanations which are rationally superior to your own.  But you will never encounter such explanations if you refuse to open the books and journals containing them.  The place to look is not Biologos; it is a large university library.

You rely too much upon your own independent interpretive judgment and do not give enough weight to the massive body of scholarship—coming not just from unbelievers but from believers of all stripes—which has been produced over the past 150 years.  

I am not saying that you are wrong because you believe that the events in Genesis 1-11 are historical.  I am saying that you have reached that decision on the strength of an insufficiently large knowledge base.  If I had the confidence that you had carefully read Cassuto, Skinner, Westermann, etc.; if I had the confidence that you were well-versed in modern narratological approaches to Genesis and to the Hebrew Bible generally; if I had the confidence that you were a well-trained Old Testament scholar—I could treat your position as one out of many viable interpretive positions.  It is not your position, but the way in which you argue for it, that is the problem.  Your argument is driven by your theological position, rather than by the text itself.

I take it from your silence that your answer to my question about Martin Buber is a “no”.  That strikes me as odd. You never discussed “I-Thou” relationships in your theology classes in seminary?


R Hampton - #54756

March 18th 2011

You rely too much upon your own independent interpretive judgment and do not give enough weight to the massive body of scholarship—coming not just from unbelievers but from believers of all stripes—which has been produced over the past 150 years.


Sadly, its an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther never meant for Sola Scriptura to erase the vast wealth of Christian knowledge and tradition that had accumulated. Yet far too many modern American Christians have come to believe (a culturally inherited assumption) that the Bible can be well understood without supporting context. Even Karl Barth, who I view as a primary enabler for this current attitude, had this to say about Biblical literalism (in a letter to his neice from 1965):

Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner—that there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction?

The creation story is a witness to the beginning or becoming of all reality distinct from God in the light of God’s later acts and words relating to his people Israel—naturally in the form of a saga or poem. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the same reality in its inner nexus—naturally in the form of a scientific hypothesis.

The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.

So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.

Martin Rizley - #54773

March 18th 2011

Rich,
Yes, I did study about Martin Buber—whether it was in college or seminary, I don’t remember.  I do remember that he was something of a religious existentialist whose ideas were similar to those of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. The larger question that you raise, however, is whether a conservative evangelical whose knowledge of the Bible stems mostly from reading the Bible itself and books by learned scholars who share his basic view of Scripture (both ancient and modern) will necessarily have a greatly limited understanding of what the Bible is saying.  You assume that he will, but you give no proof why this must be the case.   If in fact the Bible is what conservative evangelicals  believe it to be—an inerrant book, verbally inspired  by the Holy Spirit and essentially clear in its teachings, accessible not only to scholars, but to the average reader in every age who seeks to understand its teachings through prayerful, diligent study and use of the ordinary means (“the ploughboy at his plough,” as William Tyndale put it), then I see no reason why a relative lack of acquaintance with contemporary, non-evangelical scholarship should greatly hinder one’s understanding of the Bible.  Why should that be the case?


Rich - #54788

March 18th 2011

Martin (54773):

I don’t deal in *a priori* speculation about which approach to the Bible (the fundamentalist or the more broad-based) is *likely* to be more productive.  I measure approaches by their results.  Having studied a wide range of approaches to the Bible, including fundamentalist, evangelical, existentialist, secular, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, etc., I find that the Bible comes out as a deeper, richer, more profound, more multi-layered spiritual text when one absorbs the best from each of these approaches, than when one sticks doggedly to one approach and will not allow the others any influence.

Your approach is reminiscent of the one taken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who use the language of “just interpreting what the Bible says” but who in fact subtly steer their interpretation so that it ends up at a desired end.  And of course, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have traditionally been forbidden from reading any non-approved commentaries or theological works.  Your approach differs from this only in that you exercise a voluntary rather than a compelled abstinence from “dangerous” readings.  But the effect is the same.  You miss a great deal of what the Bible has to offer, and your interpretation of the Bible is narrow, mechanical, theologically programmatic and humanly unmoving.

Just remember, Martin, atheists like Bart Ehrman grew up under an interpretation of the Bible much like yours.  Sooner or later, some bright teenager in your congregation is going to come to believe that certain events in Genesis did not happen as described and, encouraged by your logic, will infer that, since the truthfulness of Christianity depends entirely upon the Bible’s 100% reliability as history, the whole of Christian religion must be thrown out.  Your approach is an all-or-nothing gamble which puts the faith of growing Christians at great peril.  This alone should be enough of a concern to a pastor to make him wonder whether a broader approach to the Bible is possible.

I seem to have more faith in the Bible than you do, Martin, because I think that it can survive the “danger” of radically alternative interpretations, and still come out as the bearer of divinely inspired truth.  You, on the other hand, fear that if even an inch of your literalism is abandoned, the whole Bible will come crashing down like a house of cards.  But true spirituality is not animated by fear, or by the love of the safe, secure, straight and narrow path.  True spirituality risks the novel and the dangerous.  Think of how radical, how unsafe, the teaching of Jesus must have appeared to the cautious, orthodox, Pharisaical Jews of his day.  To say, I’ll only look at *this* sort of interpretation of the Bible, and not *that* sort of interpretation, is to betray the Holy Spirit itself, whose purpose is, among other things, to reanimate stale, conservative, cautious, morality-and-correct-doctrine type of religion with a living, moving, energetic faith that seeks understanding.  For your own sake, Martin, and for the sake of the Holy Spirit, broaden your reading, and broaden your approach.  And best wishes in your future explorations.


Martin Rizley - #54793

March 18th 2011

Rich,
I gather from your ‘best wishes’ that you are ready to wind up this conversation, and so am I.  I will make one comment about the young person you mention who says that htey no longer believe that certain events in the Bible happened as described.  First, I would asked that person why they have reached this conclusion.   By what criteria have they arrived at that judgment?  Then I would encourage that individual to examine their way of reasoning and whether or not they are reasoning in a Christian manner.  I would point out that many people fall into doctrinal error because they fail to put ‘first things first’ and to think in an orderly manner by establishing firmly the first principles of rational thought and reasoning always from these.   I would then seek to persuade them that the first principle of rational thought for the thinking Christian must always be the absolute authority of Jesus Christ as incarnate deity.  I would remind them that Jesus is not a “God filled man” who was born in the normal way as you or I are.   By apostolic testimony, we know that he was born of a virgin, and this testified to the fact that he was ontologically different from us.  He was not a man who through seeking God came to exhibit  a God-like character; rather, He was and is literally God in human flesh.    He is one in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.   Thus, His teaching about every area of reality that He addresses—whether it be the nature and authority of Scripture, the reality of eternal life, of future resurrection, heaven and hell—must take precedence over all our own thoughts and  the autonmous judgments of our human reason.  I would point out to them that Jesus proved his identity as incarnate God by rising bodily from the dead, and that Christianity is only worthy to be followed if Jesus rose; if he did not literally rise from the dead, then the Christian faith ought to be abandoned completely.   If He did rise, however—which is an event totally contrary to natural law—then they need to grasp the implications of that event, which is a full-blown supernaturalistic worldview which is directly at odds with the reignign worldview that prevails in most institutions of higher learning in our day, including science academies.   Even science academies have not escaped the corrupting influence of the naturalistic worldview that has swallowed up our culture.  I would encourage them to put more faith in Christ’s judgment about things than their own judgment about things, then show them the many ways in which Christ affirmed the inerrancy of the Old Testament Scriptures  and provided for the writing of the New, by granting authority to His apostles to teach in HIs name.   So basically, I would encourage them to think, but to think in a well-ordered manner, by making sure that they are reasoning from the foundational principle of trust in and submission to Christ as incarnate deity and as the risen Lord and Savior.   Most errors regarding the authority of the Bible are rooted in erroneous views of the incarnation of Christ, and a failure to His absolute authority as a teacher.   So that’s all I have to say for now.   I’m sure we’ll chat again in the future.


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