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..
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.