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Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 8

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April 19, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 8

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


In my last post, we looked at how nineteenth century Princeton Theological Seminary (a.k.a. “Old Princeton”) handled one pressing challenge of the day: European Higher Criticism, especially that of Julius Wellhausen and the Documentary Hypothesis. The Old Princeton response to Wellhausen was not over the existence of sources behind the Pentateuch, but where Wellhausen placed the Law of Moses—after the return from Babylonian Exile.

Placing the Law of Moses last in Israel’s history rather than at the beginning essentially claimed that the entire Old Testament is not a revelation of God’s acts in history but a product of late political propaganda. This theory was widely accepted in academic circles at the time and was also being taught to future pastors and missionaries (as we saw in my last post). Old Princeton’s Old Testament scholars, namely W. H. Green, dedicated much of their scholarly energy in countering Wellhausen’s theory.

Old Princeton was very keen to defend the essential historical value of the Old Testament, but that does not mean that its scholars were oblivious to the need to treat new and challenging data fairly and to adjust views when needed. They were quite aware of the need to interpret the Old Testament in its historical context, and that advances in our understanding of that context should affect the interpretation of Scripture.

Wellhausen’s theory was rooted entirely in what we might call “internal data”—the biblical text itself. His theory was met with counterarguments by Old Princeton, likewise dealing with the internal data of Scripture. But the two other challenges of the nineteenth century—Biblical Archaeology and science—introduced “external data” that had to be accounted for.

We see in the writings of Old Princeton’s scholars a clear awareness of the need to account for external data. But, unlike their response to Wellhausen, their interactions with the external data were not as pronounced. Given the pressing need of the day—to respond to Wellhausen—plus the fact that archaeology and evolutionary theory were only very recent developments, we can understand why Old Princeton did not deal as fully with the external data.

There are in their writings, however, progressive trajectories that are promising for the current state of Evangelicalism regarding how Scripture and science can be in conversation.

Bible in Context

The distinctive mark of a Calvinist approach to the Bible, as we saw in earlier posts about John Calvin, is that the Bible reflects its historical contexts. God did not “write the Bible” as an abstract treatise, hurtled down to earth from an Olympian height, nor as a Platonic ideal kept at a safe distance from the human drama. (The Dutch Reformed theologians were particularly adamant about that, and we will look at them at a later post.)

Rather, Scripture is God’s gracious revelation of himself and his actions in the concrete, everyday world of ancient Semitic and Hellenistic peoples. And for this reason, the study of Scripture as an historical phenomenon is neither optional nor peripheral for the church. Rather, although at times very challenging, it is a wonderful, vital, and indispensable responsibility for students of Scripture. Through such study, by God’s spirit, we, as students of Scripture, come to learn more deeply and more broadly who God is and what he has done.

This attitude is a distinctive mark of the history of Reformed biblical scholarship, back to Calvin, but I do not want to imply that such historical sensitivity is the sole property of Calvinism. Not at all. Also, I am not implying that the work of Old Princeton in this regard is above criticism. I simply mean that “Bible in context” has been handled quite intentionally, seriously, and with great profit in the history of Reformed biblical scholarship. Bearing this point of view in mind is indispensable for current Evangelical conversations about the nature of Scripture and the science/faith dialogue.

Some Soundings of a Trajectory

Given the tense climate of the nineteenth century, it is instructive to see how relatively daring Old Princeton was in reading the Bible with historical sensitivity. A good example is none other than W. H. Green, the fierce opponent of Wellhausen’s influence. Green was clear that one cannot divorce the Bible from serious historical investigation. The following excerpt from Green reflects a sound principle of biblical interpretation:

No objection can be made to the demand that the sacred writings should be subject to the same critical tests as other literary products of antiquity. When were they written, and by whom? For whom were they intended, and with what end in view? These are questions that may fairly be asked respecting the several books of the Bible, as respecting other books, and the same criteria that are applicable likewise in the other. Every production of any age bears the stamp of that age. It takes its shape from influences then at work. It is part of the life of the period, and can only be properly estimated and understood from being viewed in its original connections. Its language will be the language of the time when it was produced. The subject, the style of thought, the local and personal allusions, will have relation to the circumstances of the period, to which in fact the whole and every part of it must have its adaptation, and which must have their rightful place in determining its true explanation. Inspiration has no tendency to obliterate those distinctive qualities and characteristics which link men to their own age.

This is a wonderful articulation of Reformed biblical scholarship. The Bible “bears the stamp” of the age in which it was written. The language, style of thought, and local flavor of Scripture reflect the fact that it is produced in concrete times and places, which influence what Scripture looks like. The authors of Scripture are linked “to their own age.”

These are not just nice, theoretical sentiments about Scripture. They reflect what it means to show Scripture its due respect as historically situated revelation. Clearly, Green’s words indicate an expectation to be influenced by developments in Old Testament studies concerning “Bible in Context.”

This is just one example of a general “attitude” of Old Princeton concerning the Bible as text that reflects historical circumstances. The question, though, is how and where to apply the principle. In my next post, I will give one concrete example where this principle is put into practice: the book of Ecclesiastes.

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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gingoro - #58236

April 20th 2011

Interesting series Pete! 

Unfortunately many of the interesting commentators have either reduced the number of comments they write or have withdrawn.
Dave W

(Normally I do not read comments any more since the RSS comment feed has been broken and it is now too hard to follow conversations without it.  I don’t like the need to write a empty comment just in order to subscribe to the comment thread.)

Stephen Mapes - #58256

April 20th 2011

Hi Dave,

We have changed the links in the RSS feed to point to the general blog rather than the exact location of the comment because of our new pagination system.

However, we will still be maintaining the RSS, which will show the comment text and where it was made.

merlintx - #58248

April 20th 2011

As a Calvinist, I have been following your series with some interest.  I will be commenting, but I am trying to give you the courtesy of finishing first.  Since this has now been going for a month, is there any indication you can give as to when this particular series will end?  I am eager to interact, but I want you to get to your punchline first.

PeteEnns - #58254

April 20th 2011

No punch line. Feel free to comment.

Darach - #58278

April 21st 2011

It is a helpful the way you make the distinction between the Pentateuch being composed of different documents, and the issue of when those documents were written and compiled.

It is interesting how a form of the documentary hypothesis is making deep inroads into highly conservative creationism, Wiseman’s colophon hypothesis, aka the tablet theory. So while Wiseman’s toledoth were not accepted by documentary hypothesis scholars and conservatives adopting the tablet theory think of documentary hypothesis as a synonym for apostate, they both end up dividing the book of Genesis into very similar documents.

A bigger issue is the Mosaic authorship, Wiseman’s hypothesis allows Moses to be the editor of much older tablets (written by Adam Seth Noah etc though there is no reference in Genesis to them writing or having books, scrolls or tablets). Why was/is Mosaic authorship of the Torah such a major issue. Nowhere in the Torah is Moses described as writing the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And while the NT refers to Moses as the one who gave the law and refers to the Torah by the title Moses or book of Moses, does that mean he wrote all of these five books? Giving Israel the law which was to the Jews the most important part of the Torah is reason enough to describe the books as ‘Moses’. After all it is called the Torah, the Law even though it isn’t all laws either. Was the bigger problem with the documentary hypothesis that it contradicted tradition?

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