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Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 9

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April 23, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 9

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


In my last post, we ended by looking at progressive trajectories in Old Princeton, specifically with W. H. Green and his commitment to reading the Old Testament in its historical context. He wrote that inspiration does not “obliterate those distinctive qualities and characteristics which link men to their own age.”

This may seem like a rather obvious statement from our vantage point, but in Green’s day, reading the Bible in its historical context was a cause of concern for many, especially as biblical scholars were learning more and more about that context in the second half of the nineteenth century.

One example illustrates the point: Green’s conclusion that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes. Again, today, such a conclusion is commonplace, appearing in nearly any evangelical commentary on the book (e.g., Tremper Longman’s Eerdmans commentary and Craig Bartholomew’s Baker commentary). But for some in Green’s day, this was simply caving in to unbelief.

Who Wrote Ecclesiastes?

Green came to the historical conclusion that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon in the early first millennium B.C., but several hundred years later, in the postexilic period. In coming to this conclusion, Green was in line with the growing consensus in Old Testament scholarship, that the long-standing traditional Jewish and Christian attribution of the book to Solomon was mistaken.

Why did Green arrive at this conclusion? It wasn’t a momentary compromise to liberal thought. Rather, Green heeded the results of comparative Semitic grammar (comparing the language of the Bible with other Semitic languages of the time). As more and more ancient Semitic texts began to be discovered and translated, it became more possible to compare them to each other linguistically and put these texts in some chronological sequence.

The far-reaching and lasting impact of such linguistic work for Old Testament studies was twofold: (1) Biblical Hebrew could be placed on a timeline with other Semitic languages. This led to debates about when Hebrew arose in the ancient world—in other words, where on the historical timeline of the surrounding cultures to place the Hebrew in our Bibles. On linguistic grounds, it is widely recognized today that the Hebrew of the Old Testament as a whole stems mostly from various periods in the first millennium B.C. (2) Individual books of the Old Testament itself could be placed on a timeline relative to each other. This led to debates about when to date certain books of the Old Testament.

It was this growing knowledge of the historical development of Semitic languages that led nineteenth century scholarship to state categorically that Ecclesiastes did not come from Solomon’s time. Franz Delitzsch is often cited as an early representative of this view: “If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.”1 Translation: on linguistic grounds, it is impossible that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. When to place Ecclesiastes linguistically was debated, of course, but a very general consensus is the postexilic period—5th century B.C. or later.

Green did not accept everything he read about Ecclesiastes and he did not arrive at his own conclusions quickly. In fact, Green came to his conclusion somewhat reluctantly. It was only later in his career that Green concluded that the language of Ecclesiastes “stands alone in the Bible.” He then concurred with Delitzsch.

After all that has been said, however, we do not see how the argument from the language can be met. We conclude, therefore, that it is decisive….It is alleged, and the fact seems to be, that the Hebrew of this book is so Aramean [i.e., Aramaic] that it must belong to a period later than Solomon.2

Follow Where the Evidence Leads

One can sense in Green a tone of resignation. But that is precisely the valuable point for us to bear in mind today.

Green, though a champion of conservative scholarship, was so committed to the historical study of Scripture that even if it led to uncomfortable waters, he followed. He may have tested those waters cautiously and for a long time, but he still wound up going in. Why? Because if that’s where the evidence leads, that’s where it leads. As a trained, Reformed, biblical scholar, Green already had a long pedigree of taking historical evidence seriously and felt, as a matter of integrity, he had to arrive at an uncomfortable conclusion.

And this was no trivial issue, for when you date Ecclesiastes, and who you think wrote it, affect how you understand it.

It has struck me that if Green could easily have taken a different approach, he could have reacted against the historical arguments—resisted the comparative data—wholesale, just as he resisted Wellhausen’s historical reconstruction of Israel’s history (that the Law of Moses was written after the exile). But Green took another path, and this should not be passed over too quickly.

We can put ourselves in his place. These were tense times, and there was volatility in the academy and in the churches. Battle lines were being drawn. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to avoid conflict altogether and simply reiterate familiar conclusions. But in the midst of all this, Green acknowledged the central importance of this newly introduced linguistic evidence. By current standards, Green may have been overly cautious at times, maybe in some cases even a bit too selective, but that is perfectly understandable given the climate and should not overshadow his willingness to innovate.

In my next post we will look at other instances where reading the Bible in context was honored in the Reformed tradition. As we do so, a question for us is whether the current state of evidence concerning evolution and the genre of Genesis should be met with the same commitment to reading the Bible in context.


1. F. Delitzsch, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (trans. M. G. Easton; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1877; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 190.

2. W. H. Green, Old Testament Literature: Lectures on the Poetical Books of the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton College, 1884), 56.

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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Papalinton - #60624

April 29th 2011

You do not have to call yourself a Christian to love others, but you have to care about others to be a Christian.  God does not care about what you call yourself, but God does care about how you relate to others.  What is important is to follow the example of Jesus Who died for the sins of all, so we can truly act like loving brothers and sisters instead of fighting over power, land, and wealth.”

Unadulterated sermonizing.  Proselytizing at its purest.  
A resort to teleological intentionality, a perfectly natural process of the human mind with a genetic predisposition towards ‘agency detection’ as a means of making the inexplicable explicable.  The only  ‘causal’ [?]  link to such a proposition is through Theology.  Indeed, there has been no evidentiary basis for the claim in any other realm of human investigative activity, be it anthropology, sociology, history, biology, physics, the neurosciences, or any other discipline.  On the contrary,  there is a mountain of evidence to indicate that religion is the dependent cultural variable of the independent variables of everyday social and physical reality.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #60649

April 30th 2011

Papalionton wrote:

Unadulterated sermonizing. Proselytizing at its purest.

Thank you for the compliment. 

You still have not given a definition of what you think the Good is.

You haven’t even given one person who can be a model for being good.     

You haven’t given a scientific basis for human rights. 

You have said that you think there is moral sense deeply embedded in humanity, but not one good  scientific explanation how that might have happened.   

You have raised a lot of sand and dust, but have said nothing except that you don’t believe in God.  That is you right, but please can’t you give some positive explanation of your world view? Does a-theology mean a-rationality?

Papalinton - #60654

May 1st 2011

Thank you for the compliment. “

From a theological point of view, you’re welcome.

You still have not given a definition of what you think the Good is.”
And neither have you.  The removal of n ‘o’ from ‘good’ to make ‘god’ is not a definition.

You haven’t even given one person who can be a model for being good.”
And nor have you.  And in terms of the supernatural, I would much prefer Superman or Captain Marvel as models.

You haven’t given a scientific basis for human rights. “
And nor has the judeo-christian writings given a scientific basis.  Equally, had I done so, you would scream ‘scientism’ at me.

Does a-theology mean a-rationality?”
No, no, definitely not.  But then, the obverse, ‘does theology mean rationality?’ - definitely does not either.  The study of theology is exponentially closer to mythology than it is to the natural sciences.  Indeed both theology and mythology owe their meme-plex to the same root source forged in the mist of ancient history when ‘hear-say’ was the basis for evidence,  and ‘fact’ emerged from factoid. 


Papalinton - #60655

May 1st 2011

@ roger  [cont]

Roger, It’s interesting how so many theists seem to hold this simplistic notion about atheists, that we are genuinely implying someone or some group more or less sat down and made religion up from beginning to end because of some desire for an afterlife and an ultimate purpose. This view is good for a laugh, but:   rather we are suggesting that the tendency to attribute agency to things, the need to have moral codes for an effectively functioning society, and the need to explain natural phenomena in pre-scientific societies has, in a very complex and tangled way, merged with various tribal customs and legends to form the differing systems of religious belief we see today, perpetuated by other sets of psychological reinforcement, cognitive bias, tradition etc. It’s enormously complex of course, which is why I think the religious tend to find it hard to deal with; it is actually much easier in some ways to just go with the idea that religion represents truth and avoid the mental exertion.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60677

May 1st 2011


If you think that you can get off the hook by changing the subject, think again. 

Papalinton - #60680

May 1st 2011


If you think that you can get off the hook by changing the subject, think again.”

Is this ‘bible code’ or a euphemism for, ‘you are not engaging with what  *I * want to talk about’?

Roger, I recall the story of the philosopher and the theologian. The two were engaged in disputation and the theologian used the old quip about a philosopher resembling a blind man, in a dark room, looking for a black cat—which wasn’t there. “That may be,” said the philosopher: “but a theologian would have found it.”

—Julian Huxley, The Creed of a Scientific Humanist

Roger A. Sawtelle - #60681

May 1st 2011


We were discussing the Good, which you say is not based on God.

I gave you scientific, metaphysical, and theological reasons why it that is not true..

Your response has been piffle, which does not merit a response.   

Papalinton - #60683

May 1st 2011


God is not all that exists.  God is all that does not exist.
“God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable.  They find not only sanctuary in ‘his’ arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.”  Henry Mencken.

Again, what was the scientific evidence that god is good?  please cite references and peer reviewed science papers only.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #60699

May 2nd 2011


I asked you for a person who was an example of the Good that you say exists.  Henry Menckhen was a tralented writer, but I think that he was a very flawed human being.  Certainly he did have a sense of superiority over others that I doubt was truly deserved.  

Then I believe that all persons are created equal and the sense of elitist snobbery demonstrated by Mencken and Dawkins should play no role in our society.  I do not glorify the common man, whatever that is, as the only source of wisdom, nor the church nor science, but we need to work together to solve our problems.

what was the scientific evidence that god is good? please cite references and peer reviewed science papers only.

Thank you for coming back to the topic.  Fortunately most people do not need someone of authority, scientific or other type, to tell them that life is good.  That is fortunate because if they listened to Darwin and Dawkins they would hear that life is not good, but is mean and brutal.  Out of all of the wonders and beauty of life, they have to focus on a wasp which is a parasite in a caterpillar.  

If you want to accept that kind of “scientific evidence” that Life is meaningless, that is your right and priviledge.  Most people know better, and if life is good, then it follows that God is good.  It is that clear and simple.  

So if you value the scientific process so much, then you prove that life is mean, brutal, and meaningless, and maybe the rest of the world will agree with you.     

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