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Response from One of Jerry Coyne’s Fleas

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February 17, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Response from One of Jerry Coyne’s Fleas

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

In discussing Kent Spark’s recent post, the noted atheist and evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne has referred to BioLogos as a flea that needs to be scratched. Coyne writes that by showing that Augustine and Calvin did not view Scripture as a sourcebook for information about nature, Sparks was setting up some straw men that do not represent Christianity as a whole.

Except for a few dissenters like Augustine and Calvin, the bulk of Christian theology up to the rise of science in the sixteenth century involved seeing the Bible literally—in its entirety.

It is true that throughout history many Christians have looked to the Bible as a source of knowledge about the natural world—not just the supernatural. However many of the historical leaders in Christianity—those who defined the faith best through the centuries—have long called for something richer than simple face value.

Although many Christians are not aware of it, (and clearly this includes certain non-Christians, like Coyne himself) the Christian and Jewish traditions, going back to around the time of Christ and earlier, understood that a literal reading of Genesis either undersells or even misunderstands its theology. One need only mention figures like the Jewish interpreter Philo or Origen and other early Church Fathers and the point becomes self-evident. Despite our desire to find easy answers to our questions, many leading past thinkers have long known there is a much deeper message in Scripture.

Coyne, himself a fundamentalist of sorts, does not seem to appreciate the theological flexibility of Christianity (and Judaism) as seen in its own Scripture. The entire New Testament is, if anything, one large hermeneutical rethinking of the meaning of the Old Testament in light of the Christ event. To say the least, the first Christians were hardly constricted to a literal reading of the Old Testament. New circumstances called for new articulations. The same phenomenon is seen within the Hebrew Bible, where the writer of Chronicles does nothing less than recast Israel's entire history in light of the author's experience of exile and return from Babylon.

The message of Scripture reflects the cultures in which it is written, yet we also believe it transcends those cultures. There is a delicate balance but our best thinkers have always understood this. At BioLogos we, and the many others like us, are simply responding to new knowledge in the way that the Judeo-Christian tradition has long been known to do.

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.
Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Steve - #4716

February 17th 2010

Poor Jerry—so desperate for Christians to be monolithically idiotic.

Please, BioLogos, you ought to know that you can’t correct errors in majority understandings when so many people are counting on imperfection in order to dismiss what you believe!

MF - #4729

February 17th 2010

At the risk of redundancy, it appears to me that Dr. Sparks has mischaracterized Calvin’s approach and made it more similar to his own than it is. Calvin takes a phenomenological approach to Genesis 1 (e.g., “nothing is here [in Gen 1] treated of but the visible form of the world”).

For the record, I do not agree with Calvin on this point and consequently don’t feel like I have horse in this race. After considering Dr. Sparks’s argument and studying his primary source, I simply don’t think he has represented Calvin fairly on this score. See my comments on his recent posts for more details.

Charlie - #4736

February 17th 2010

With such flexibility, why is Christianity an organized religion where the majority of the followers are told how to interpret the Bible?  I’ve gone to many churches ranging from Catholic to Lutheran and Episcopal (ranging from the midwest to the west coast) and not one service has encouraged the people to interpret it the way you want.

Glen Davidson - #4740

February 17th 2010

It’s silly to call Augustine a “dissenter.”  He’s a Church Father, and had an immense influence on shaping Christianity and its views.  It’s sort of like calling Madison one of the dissenters from the Constitution.

Augustine was one of the authorities acceptable for use in disputation and in coming to conclusions concerning doctrine and dogma.

Glen Davidson

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #4743

February 17th 2010

>Except for a few dissenters like Augustine and Calvin, the bulk of Christian theology up to the rise of science in the sixteenth century involved seeing the Bible literally—in its entirety.

I reply: Try Philo, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, pseudo-Eucherius, Alcuin of York, Scotus Eriugenam, Rupertus, and Abelard.  That covers the first thousand years of Christianity & is by no means a complete list.  Plus in the middle ages we have Cajetan and Melchior Cano.

This is all in the Catholic Encylopedia under the Hexaemeron entry.  It’s not hard Jerry Coyne but then again thinking you have ANY reasonable knowledge of Christian belief & history outside of boilerplate Young Earth Creationism is like believing Ray Comfort is an expert in Evolution.

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #4744

February 17th 2010

>It is true that throughout history many Christians have looked to the Bible as a source of knowledge about the natural world—not just the supernatural. 

I reply: Well technically in regards to the Hexaemeron if we belief Stanley Jaki (& we do since he documents it in his book GENESIS 1 Though the Ages) Christians STARTED with a set of contemporary “scientific” beliefs(i.e. opinions of philosophers, pagan luminaries, pagan myths etc, primitive obervational data etc) & read them into Genesis using a concordinate interpretation.  Of course as documented by Jaki as “scientific” opinions about the natural world changed Christians changed over the centuries their interpretations accordingly till the advent of the modern scientific era.

Jerry being a fundie himself really does believe ANSWERS IN GENESIS type thinking somehow represents historic Christian & Jewish understandings of Genesis.  You don’t have to believe in God to realize that is just intellectual lazyness on his part.  The hallmark of New Atheism.

Nick Altman - #4796

February 18th 2010


Because in our current society, fundamentalism has changed how we view our bible from how others before this movement viewed theirs. The same can be said of people after every significant philosophical or ideological change.  In the early church, for example, you wouldn’t have given much thought to the literal meaning; it was there an on some level important but it was the lowest form of meaning in scripture. The real meat (they believed) was found in the tropological (moral), allegorical (figurative) and anagogical (mystical/afterlife based) interpretations of the text.

So it isn’t the case that theological interpretation is static or monolithic. Rather it is a fluid, changing and moving discipline like many other fields such as the sciences or fine arts. Biblical exegesis grows as we discover new material and concepts, and it adapts (as any good theory does) when the evidence dictates it ought to. Christianity is organized (in part) around her diversity of culture, but her singleness of heart remains the gospel of Christ and it always has.

Pax Christi…Nick

Charlie - #4803

February 18th 2010

Nick Altman,

Would you agree that it is impossible to determine what are actually historical events, moral lessons, analogies, and supernatural events within the Bible; that it is all based on self-interpretation?

Nick Altman - #4916

February 19th 2010


No, I wouldn’t. By doing genre identification, and paying careful attention to devices in literature such as metonymy, alliteration, metalepsis, and by carefully exegeting repetitive devices in the text, such as call narratives or etiological data, etc… we can often deduce how to treat a certain text. WE can date it, figure out the culture it is written in and then begin to exegete. What many scholars offer (the writer of this blog post being one of them) is not a literary guess at some deep concealed meaning. Rather they are attempting to construct the text as it was meant to be read by its original audience Textual Criticism is a science, albeit a very soft one, which uses evidence to argue towards some conclusion. So while we cannot have absolute understandings of second temple texts, we can have pretty good ones as to what they mean, how to read them, and how they played a part in the formation of the greater Levant.

Francis Beckwith - #4920

February 19th 2010

The problem, of course, is that Professor Coyne believes that a properly functioning human person ought to have his beliefs ordered in a way appropriate to the acquisition of truth. For without that belief his criticisms of everyone from BioLogos to YEC’s do not make sense. But this belief is an immaterial normative principle which Professor Coyne believes ought to guide our inquiries about the natural world.  Consequently, Professor Coyne’s judgment requires a first philosophy, one that suggests intrinsic purposes and proper ends, i.e., final and formal causes. In other words, Professor Coyne must conscript a mind-ordered cosmos in order to reject a mind-ordered cosmos.  Reason, it turns out, is not Professor Coyne’s friend. It is an outlier on which he claims to rely but for which he cannot account. He’s like the brat who whines that he didn’t ask to be born by parents who made his whining, and the celebrity his whining procures, possible.

Sabio - #4949

February 20th 2010

As an Atheist, I see one of the core issues of this discussion as the simple fight over terms.
In this case, all sides are trying to take the word “Christian” or “Christianity” and give it their definition.  They are trying to homogenize the term.  Oddly, each side points to the variety of Christians theologies and perspectives but always go back to using the term too broadly.

For instance:

Sparks was setting up some straw men that do not represent Christianity as a whole.

Point: there is no “Christianity as a whole”

the bulk of Christian theology

Point: as if “the bulk” matters—you see , each side is trying to blur out the particulars.  In this sense, the word, “Christianity” should be avoided or at least always couched carefully to be clear of the use.  Each side is using the term normatively.

Nick - #5167

February 23rd 2010

To somewhat randomly pick up on your reference to the strange (to us) hermeneutic of the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, I have been very persuaded of the approach you mention here in terms of the relationship to the presentation of 1 and 2 Kings.  Are there any particularly good and helpful resources/essays/books you would recommend for one to dig into how 1 and 2 Chronicles fits into the overall canon of Scripture and how we should read it in comparison to 1 and 2 Kings?  Thanks!

Pete Enns - #5224

February 23rd 2010

Nick, here is the problem. The kinds of issues we are discussing on this blog, like the inventive retelling of Israel’s history is Chronicles, is the very stuff of professional biblical scholars, but among evangelicals it does not filter down to non-specialists. In a nutshell, I think this is the problem with lay-readers (this is very reductionistic, so forgive me) who are looking for fresh, needed innovation in reading the Bible for looking at difficult issues like evolution but have few resources. I might recommend a commentary by Ray Dillard (a seminary professor of mine) on 2 Chronicles, although it is a bit technical. I address the issue generally in my book Inspiration and Incarnation, although there might jot be enough there to keep you satisfied.

Edward T. Babinski - #5698

March 2nd 2010

Hi Dr. Sparks,

I agree there are church fathers and even Jewish philosophers like Philo who employed allegorical interpretations of Genesis and rejected absolutely literalistic interpretations. However. . .  Augustine assumes an overall creation that is “young” and a literal Adam and Eve, and even adds that Christians “must” believe in a literally firm firmament with waters above it.

“. . . the firmament was made between the waters above and beneath, and was called ‘Heaven,’ in which firmament the stars were made on the fourth day.” [City of God chapter 11.5-9]  “The term ‘firmament’ does not compel us to imagine a stationary heaven: we may understand this name as given to indicate not that it is motionless but that it is solid and that it constitutes an impassable boundary between the water above and the waters below. . . . Whatever the nature of the waters [above the firmament], we must believe in them, for the authority of Scripture is greater than the capacity of man’s mind.” [Augustine’s work on Genesis]

Edward T. Babinski - #5699

March 2nd 2010


1000 years later Martin Luther was continuing to say and teach the same thing as Augustine, namely that Christians “must believe” there are waters above the sun, moon, and stars:

“Scripture simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed in the firmament of the heaven, below and above which . . . are the waters. . . . We Christians must be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens, we must believe them rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuously interpret them in conformity with our understanding” [Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, Lectures on Genesis, ed. Janoslaw Pelikan (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1958), pp. 30, 42, 43].

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