Confronting Our Fears, Part 2: Losing Biblical Authority
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17, ESV)
Throughout my various conversations with fellow believers, the most-mentioned anxiety over accepting an evolutionary creationist paradigm is the fear of losing the Bible as one’s spiritual anchor and source of authority—the texts that give the global Christian community its doctrinal and philosophical distinctiveness. Growing up in the Baptist tradition and later becoming a member of the Southern Baptist Convention, the inerrancy of “God-breathed”1 Scripture and its identity as the fount of all truth was paramount in defining my life as a Christian believer. Of course, while some would debate the veracity of such a doctrine as it pertains to this discussion, I believe that neither inerrancy nor authority is at issue when it comes to Genesis’ opening chapter. The real issue is hermeneutics—how we read the authoritative texts.
John Wesley (1703-1791), the eighteenth-century Anglican cleric and theologian who founded the Methodist movement in partnership with his brother Charles, held to a “literal” method of interpretation:
The general rule of interpreting Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if it be not contrary to some other texts. But in that case, the obscure text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly.2
A modern adaptation of Wesley’s hermeneutic states, “If the literal sense makes good sense, seek no other sense lest you come up with nonsense.” But though this is a commonly-used interpretative method in evangelical Christian churches today, I have found that it unnecessarily lends itself to the fear of losing biblical authority. This tendency toward fear is especially acute when the individual doing the interpreting does not have at his or her fingertips the full scope of knowledge required to allow the biblical text to speak for itself—or rather, to allow God to speak through ancient genres with which the interpreter isn’t naturally familiar.
I readily admit that the “literal sense” of Genesis 1—as dictated by our own culture that focuses on material origins and unwittingly holds Genesis 1 hostage to the scientific method—does in fact rule out cosmological and biological evolution as God’s creative methods. But I would also ask the question of whether a “literary sense” of Genesis 1 allows for evolution. To read evolution into Scripture (eisegesis) or out of Scripture (exegesis) would be dishonest, especially considering that the author (or final redactor) of Genesis was not privy to modern scientific discoveries. I would also argue that a “literal” reading of Genesis 1, framed by our own modern paradigm, is unfaithful to the original intent of the author, and that we should take special care to read Genesis 1 “literarily” through the eyes of the ancient Hebrews, understanding what was (and wasn’t) important to them. Dr. Conrad Hyers writes:
This is the interpretive issue, and it cannot be settled by dogmatic assertions, threats about creeping secularism, or attempts to associate views with skepticism . . . . Nor can the issue be settled by marshaling scientific evidence for or against either evolution or six-day creation, since it would first need to be demonstrated that the Genesis accounts intended to offer scientific and historical statements. Otherwise the whole discussion is based on the wrong premises. As such it is scientific creationism itself which compromises the religious meaning of Genesis and is an accommodation to scientific language and method.3
Since Genesis was written in the Hebrew language and most of us can’t read Hebrew, we take for granted the necessity of translating from an ancient language into another in which we are fluent. Yet, we often forget that, because we are separated by at least 2,500 years from the culture that produced Genesis, we also need the culture “translated” for us as well.4
Returning to the text
Adopting Wesley’s hermeneutic strongly lends itself to ruling out both old-earth creationism and theistic evolution, but as a firm believer that “all truth is God’s truth,” I felt that I was missing something. Because I believed (and still do) that the six days of creation were six, successive, 24-hour periods (“there was evening and there was morning—the nth day”), I struggled mightily to understand Genesis 1 in light of what I had been learning about the vast age of the cosmos as determined by the best scientific minds, both secular and Christian.5 If the age of the cosmos truly was as old as the scientific establishment has led us to believe, I thought that digging deeper into the culture of the ancient Near East could help me reconcile the two opposing forces of scientific observation and biblical testimony.
It was at this time that I discovered the works of John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. His commentary on Genesis6 and his book on the conceptual world of the Hebrew Scriptures7 propelled me toward a realization that the focus of Genesis 1 was much less on the material origin of the cosmos and much more on the cosmos’ purpose as a functional and purposeful dwelling place for God—a cosmic temple, if you will. Furthermore, his reading actually accentuated mankind’s role as representative “image-bearers” of God, as wielders of his authority on Earth. I learned that the symbolism and literary structure of Genesis 1, including the 7-day structure of the creation week, had its roots in an ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cognitive environment that held the concepts of function and purpose to be more important than (but not entirely exclusive of) material origins, the latter of which currently guides our modern, scientific way of thinking. It even reconciled the seemingly contradictory accounts of a weeklong series of creative acts and a 13.8-billion-year-old universe.
With these interpretive tools in hand, I was able to successfully assuage my fear of losing biblical authority insofar as Genesis 1 was concerned, and my openness to evolutionary theory came quite naturally. If the preponderance of scientific evidence adequately explained the existence of all biological organisms, past and present, by evolutionary means, I could accept mainstream evolutionary theory8 while maintaining the theological authority of the Bible’s opening chapter. As long as I took pains to bridge the vast cultural gap when attempting to determine the theological message of the text—which God accommodated for the Hebrew culture and chose to express in a culturally bound literary form—I wouldn’t need to fear abandoning the Bible as a source of theological truth and spiritual authority. As long as I aimed to let the Bible to speak for itself, using the best biblical scholarship available to determine who wrote the various books of the Bible, to whom they were written, and when they were written, I could have confidence that the end result would be a more faithful pronouncement of what the Bible is actually telling us, millennia later, through ancient voices.
Of course, things are never that easy when it comes to biblical authority. The functional ontology and temple imagery of Genesis 1, as well as its parallels with other ANE creation myths and temple dedication texts, carry over into the next two chapters of Genesis, which feature the creation of Adam and Eve and the entrance of sin and death into the world of mankind. What was I to do with the historicity of Adam and Eve?
If the Hebrew Scriptures stood alone as a source of spiritual authority in my life as a Christian, it wouldn’t be much of an issue. I could accept a mythological Adam and Eve within the framework of an etiological account9 of human origins, but there is this second corpus of literature held sacred by Christians commonly known as the New Testament. As a Christian, I now had an issue with Paul and his clear treatment of Adam as a real person rooted in human history. If that wasn’t enough, I was also confronted by the salvific role of Jesus himself. How could an historical, literal Jesus solve the very real problem of sin that resulted from the rebellious act of a mythical, literary Adam? I’ll address those issues next time, when we look at the second fear many evangelical Christians have about considering evolutionary creation: the fear of losing our Savior.
1. The literal meaning of the Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos).
2. John Wesley, The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1931), vol. III, 129.
3. Conrad Hyers, The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 26; emphasis in the original.
4. John H. Walton, interview. From the Dust: Conversations in Creation. Blu-Ray Disc. Directed by Ryan Petty. Mountain View, CA: Highway Media and The BioLogos Foundation, 2012.
5. For a secular treatment, see G. Brent Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994); for evangelical Christian treatments, see Davis A. Young and Ralph F. Stearley, The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2008); Howard J. Van Till, The Fourth Day: What the Bible and the Heavens Are Telling Us about the Creation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986); Howard J. Van Till, ed., Portraits of Creation: Biblical and Scientific Perspectives on the World’s Formation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
6. John H. Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001).
7. John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). See also John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009); John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011); Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987); Gordon J. Glover, Beyond the Firmament: Understanding Science and the Theology of Creation (Chesapeake, VA: Watertree Press, LLC, 2007).
8. See Daniel J. Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007) and Keith B. Miller, ed., Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003).
9. “Etiology,” Wikipedia, accessed October 08, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etiology.