Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 5

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April 8, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 5

Introduction

In my last post, I began to apply the tensions in Calvin’s hermeneutic to science/faith issues. Calvin expressed both a historical sensitivity for reading the Old Testament in its original context and a theological sensitivity for reading the entire Bible in light of God’s climactic revelatory act in Christ.

The tension for Calvin was that historical sensitivity to the Old Testament context and how the New Testament authors handled the Old Testament do not always align very well—and in fact sometimes the two bring readers to very different interpretive destinations. Biblical examples abound, and one example Calvin struggled with is Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. Calvin recognized the disparity between what Habakkuk meant and how Paul handled Habakkuk’s words. Calvin resolved this dilemma by saying that the New Testament here must inform us of what the Old Testament writer may have understood and intended. We see the difficulty of the hermeneutical tension by the fact that Calvin simply ceded hermeneutical control from the Old Testament context to the New Testament.

That tension is still very much a part of modern biblical interpretation for Christians who share Calvin’s two hermeneutical commitments—as is the case, generally speaking I would say, among Evangelicals. (And I would repeat here that some of modern Evangelicalism’s hermeneutical trajectories can be traced to the influence of Calvin and the Calvinists, which we will look at soon.)

An added tension for contemporary Christian readers, particularly those who are working out matters of science and faith, concerns the issue of historical context. Calvin’s Renaissance humanistic training drove him to interpret a text according to its original intention, and this is an approach we today quickly recognize as part and parcel of responsible biblical interpretation.

(Although, to round out the picture, privileging historical context as Calvin and other reformers did has not been shared universally by the Church throughout its history, namely in the early and medieval church. Readers today would do well to avoid simplistic dismissal of the various other methods that have characterized God’s people through history, but that is beyond our topic here.)

How Far to Take Grammatical-Historical Interpretation?

But, the acute problem today is that the trajectory of Calvin’s historical instincts has gone in directions that he never could have envisioned. We know much more today about past history than Calvin did, and much of what we know does not line up well with what Calvin or others thought about Scriptural interpretation.

As is widely known, the study of ancient history over the past two centuries, particularly through archaeology and modern scientific investigations beginning with Galileo, has called into question the historicity of the creation story in Genesis. These disciplines have painted a very different picture of the historical context of Scripture than Calvin knew.

For example, Calvin knew that there was never physically a firmament as Genesis 1:6 describes. Rather, Calvin attributed this to Moses’ accommodation to the common people, who looked up and saw what appeared to be a solid dome overhead holding back the waters.

Calvin’s historical instincts here are spot on, in my opinion. He interpreted the firmament in terms of what common people would deduce based on their limited (actually, non-existent) scientific knowledge.

Today, however, we know that the Israelites were not the first to make this deduction, but Babylonian and Egyptian stories were there long before. The point is that the Israelites were describing the sky overhead not simply “as they saw it,” but within the context of the religious environment they shared with their influential, super-power neighbors. This, of course, raises the perennially troubling issue for some: that Israel’s Scripture contains ways of thinking that it shares with pagan religion.

This raises very practical questions, certainly for some Calvinists but for others as well:

How far do we follow through with the principle that Scripture should be interpreted in its historical context? What do we do if our study of historical context runs up against traditionally held interpretations? And, what do we do when our understanding of Genesis in its historical context runs up against what the New Testament says about those very same passages.

Biblical Origins and Historical Context

Calvin’s trajectories and the tensions that result come to a head when we enter the conversation between evolution and Christianity. (To be clear, in what follows, my intention is not to work toward a solution but to lay out the clear and unavoidable hermeneutical issues.)

How one today interprets the story of Adam in Genesis is greatly affected by the two factors that are in tension with each other in Calvin: historical context and canonical (between the New and Old Testaments) context.

As to historical context, our understanding of Genesis is now invariably set against the backdrop of our growing understanding of Israel’s faith in its own religious context (via biblical archaeology), and our scientific knowledge of the age and evolutionary development of the cosmos, our planet, and life on it.

The perennial hermeneutical question asked by Christians who look to Scripture as God’s word and who accept these historical evidences is: How does what we have come to know impact how we now read the Bible?

For some, the answer is to dismiss the challenge entirely—extra-biblical evidence, whether archaeology or science, has no place in biblical interpretation. Scripture, as God’s word, only interprets itself and no help is needed from the outside. This amounts to a rejection (or at least selective application) of Calvin’s hermeneutical trajectory. Others work through the data and interpret them differently, in ways that create less of a tension between the biblical and archaeological/scientific portrait, and that is another issue altogether. Here, the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation is still valued. The question is how to interpret the historical data and their value.

What brings the matter to an even more interesting level, however, is the second of Calvin’s principles: the role of the New Testament in how we understand the Old. The view of creation expressed in the New Testament is, not surprisingly, silent on the evolution of the cosmos. It speaks of a beginning in John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2, but is silent on what happens after the beginning. Paul, in Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:21-49) does address the question of human origins. Paul clearly believed in a historical Adam as the first man with no hint of an evolutionary origin of humankind. We now know, however, that there was never a time when there was a single primordial couple who were the sole genetic progenitors for the entire human race.

Would Calvin have allowed this fact to influence his understanding of the New Testament writings? Would Calvin have placed Paul in a particular cultural context such that the question of whether Adam was the sole male genetic progenitor of humankind was beside the point? If so, what would Calvin have done with Paul’s understanding of “…by one man sin entered the world?” Calvin never had to address that question. However, those who follow in his hermeneutical footsteps do.

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In his day, Calvin worked hard to resolve hermeneutical tensions. How do we resolve Calvin’s tension here today, particularly in view of the fact that the tensions are much greater than Calvin envisioned?

In my opinion, these are the central and inevitable hermeneutical questions before us in the science/faith conversation. These trajectories were already in place with Calvin and continue today. In my next post, we will look at how later Calvinists worked out this tension, and the broad influence they have had on subsequent interpreters.


Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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David - #57382

April 8th 2011

Greetings, 
You said:
We know much more today about past history than Calvin did, and much of what we know does not line up well with what Calvin or others thought about Scriptural interpretation.” 

Since what “we know” today doesn’t line up well, that could also mean that a lot of what “we know” is wrong. 

Peace,

John VanZwieten - #57386

April 8th 2011

So David, do you find yourself described in this paragraph?

For some, the answer is to dismiss the challenge entirely—extra-biblical evidence, whether archaeology or science, has no place in biblical interpretation. Scripture, as God’s word, only interprets itself and no help is needed from the outside. This amounts to a rejection (or at least selective application) of Calvin’s hermeneutical trajectory. Others work through the data and interpret them differently, in ways that create less of a tension between the biblical and archaeological/scientific portrait, and that is another issue altogether. Here, the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation is still valued. The question is how to interpret the historical data and their value.


David - #57393

April 8th 2011

Which part were you referring to?


John VanZwieten - #57394

April 8th 2011

Your pick: the “some” or “Others”.


David - #57401

April 8th 2011

My concerns are best described by the last sentence, and how what “we know” is being defined. What is being included (or excluded?) in the author’s definition of what “we know?”


Pete Enns - #57423

April 8th 2011

David,


We certainly know more of origins and ANE than Calvin did. That is hardly disputable.

Cal - #57424

April 8th 2011

Pete:

It’s true that Paul believed that Man started with Adam and through him sin got its hold on us. But that doesn’t leave out the possibility of an evolutionary lineage of hominids, ending in Man (A Spiritual creature) of which Adam was the first.

Perhaps this is more “reading” (rather, factoring what we know into the historical context) in than Calvin would allow and thus this possibility is not discussed?


Pete Enns - #57471

April 9th 2011

Cal

I am not convinced that scenario does justice to the problem. Many scenarios can hypothesized such as a hominid Adam but this does not satisfy Paul’s Adam who is clearly the first man.  Actually, in attempting to account for Paul it creates a scenario that Paul never envisioned.


Cal - #57516

April 9th 2011

Pete:

I meant that Adam was the first “Man”, drawn from the hominid, given a Spirit and bearing the Image, not that God made the first hominid “Adam” which eventually became Homo sapiens.


David - #57426

April 8th 2011

Hi Pete,
I would not dispute that we have collected more data on origins than people of Calvin’s time. But what do you mean by “we know more of origins?” Are you talking about things like Earth age and ape-men transitions?  I am trying to find some specific examples for us to discuss.

Thanks,

Pete Enns - #57469

April 9th 2011

David

I am referring to the two points I make in the essay, scientific and archaeological contributions to our understanding of origins.


David - #57636

April 10th 2011

Hi Pete,

I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear, but I was hoping you would share some specific examples. Could you share a couple of examples of scientific contributions about our past history that don’t “line up well with what Calvin or others thought about Scriptural interpretation?” Also, do you have a couple of examples of scientific contributions about our past history that do “line up well with what Calvin or others thought about Scriptural interpretation?”
Thanks,

Brad - #57443

April 8th 2011

Isn’t that Bruce Waltke’s position? Certainly, sounds familiar. I’d like to hear what Dr. Enns thinks about it. Thank you.


Brad - #57444

April 8th 2011

Oops. I was trying to reply to Cal. I’m a first-timer here.


Jimpithecus - #57450

April 8th 2011

Dear Pete, thank you for this excellent essay.  The notion of the original Adam and issues surrounding him will, I am afraid, figure prominently in my essay on the origins of modern humans.  Just how, I am not quite sure.     


Gregory - #57472

April 9th 2011

I am pleased to see 12 ‘tensions’ & only 1 ‘struggle’ in this message by Pete. He is perhaps less a ‘universal evolutionist’ than I had previously thought (thank goodness!).

This thread has *nothing* to do with trusting genomicists as experts in one’s worldview.

“I am afraid…I am not quite sure.”

Jim, do not be afraid. Remember the Church, the Bride, & Conception when you write about A&E. 

For the dualists: Is there one Testament or two?

I agree with David, if I understood a glimpse of the motivation (character, not nature) behind his question: it seems to me that ‘we’ know much less about origins now than ‘we’ did millenia ago, when ‘we’ were closer in M-dimensions to ‘our’ origins.

As you guessed, ‘we’ of course doesn’t mean ‘our little (fill it in with a name) tribe’...it means ‘Adamic Humanity.’

“Old pirates, yes, they rob I…”


Andrew - #57498

April 9th 2011

I have had a look at the question of a firmament in Rabbinical sources, and it would seem not all saw it as a solid dome. The rakiya was understood by many to lie in the meaning of the word ha-esh-mayim, implying wind, fire and water. or as sa-mayim meaning to carry water. Calvin believed the waters above the firmament were clouds, as did St Basil.

One question concerning Calvin was whether he was really a Cohenite from his French name Cauvin. In other words, his knowledge of the Hebrew language might have been more subtle than we acknowledge.  


Pete Enns - #57527

April 9th 2011

Correct, Andrew, although the main issue here is how Calvin understood the ancient Israelite view. As for Calvin’s Hebrew, if I recall correctly, he was taught by rabbis (as were others of his humanistic ilk).


normbv - #57778

April 12th 2011

I believe Pete may possibly be reading more into Paul’s ideas about Adam than is called for. We have learned a great deal since Calvin, and today we are still uncovering ideas that appear to have remained stagnant or lost from second <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />TempleJudaism’s concepts. The idea that Paul understood Adam as the first physical man remains in question, because in the ANE the concept of the Covenantal man was typically not all inclusive of other peoples outside their scope. Thus the distinguishing between Hebrew and Gentiles is of significant importance. Adam seems more likely to have been identified by Paul as the origin of the first faithful man to walk relationally with God. All the evidence is there to suggest this but it takes setting aside the biological literal concept to recognize such. Thus when Paul declares that “all” died through Adam he is speaking corporately of the way to God relationally. This is why Adam and Christ go hand in hand together in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 as in Christ “all” being made righteous is obviously a covenant understanding; not biological. So too it appears Adam was as well.

 

A slight adjustment in discarding the biological view of Adam for the ANE covenant view seems to work much better in viewing Paul’s writings.  This approach seems to make sense of Paul’s statements in Eph 2 where the two groups of men [Jew and Gentile] are joined together into the one New Man. Surely we recognize that this is not a biological application by Paul but an inclusive covenant merging through Christ.  

 

The resources available to even the bookish layman today render Calvin at a distinct disadvantage historically in uncovering these issues. Collectively it should not surprise us to see many of Calvin’s ideas weaken as the collective examination processes his works against fresh assessments of the early church and second TempleJudaism ideas. 

 

However I believe Calvin’s instincts were basically correct in that the NT interpretation of the OT should instruct us in understanding the OT.  Otherwise we are going to say that the NT authors including Christ were constantly reinterpreting the OT metaphorically against a literal original intent. The problem is to have the proper resources available and to rid ourselves of as much outside presuppositions as is humanly possible. Also it may help to realize that the OT was not written with  the literalness that many modern scholars like to ascribe to it.  


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