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Southern Baptist Voices: Expressing Our Concerns, Part 2

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February 29, 2012 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Southern Baptist Voices: Expressing Our Concerns, Part 2

Today's entry was written by Kenneth Keathley. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This essay is the first in the series Southern Baptist Voices, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of the BioLogos perspective on science and Christian faith.For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.

This post is Part 2 of Dr. Keathley’s two-part paper, in which he lays the groundwork for more in-depth discussion going forward. In yesterday’s Part 1, Dr. Keathley named the first three of six areas of concern he has with BioLogos positions. Today, the essay concludes with issues four, five and six.

4. The status of Adam and Eve: Evolutionary creationists appear to disagree among themselves about whether or not Adam was a historical figure. Some, such as Denis Lamoureux, declare Adam to be a mythical character. Others (Denis Alexander comes to mind) view Adam as representative of the first Neolithic farmers with whom God entered into a relationship.

For most Southern Baptists, including me, the historicity of Adam and Eve is a litmus test. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals why we believe this way. The New Testament authors treat Adam as a historical figure, and they interconnect the mission and work of Jesus with the first man. Paul repeatedly presents Christ as the last Adam—succeeding where the first Adam failed and redeeming fallen humanity in the process. C. John Collins has written an excellent book on the subject entitled Did Adam and Eve Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care. He gives three criteria for an orthodox understanding of Adam and Eve (pp 120-21), and I believe they are worth repeating here.

  1. The origin of the human could not have come about by mere natural processes.
  2. Adam and Eve were “at the headwaters of the human race."
  3. A historical fall must have occurred very closely to the beginning of the human race.

Evolutionary creationists still have a great deal of work to do in this area. If no evolutionary theory can be found that can reasonably incorporate above three criteria, then that would be a deal killer.

5. The perennial problem of evil: Selfishness, suffering, and death are not spiritually neutral phenomena. YEC and OEC adherents believe a rupture occurred in the natural order when Lucifer rebelled, and in some ways again when Adam joined him. The Fall was a ruinous event. As a result, both moral evil and natural evil exists. Granted, natural evil is far more ambiguous than moral evil. But all Christians agree that—as beautiful as the present order is—things are not the way they are supposed to be. And Christians throughout church history have attributed the sad condition of this present age to the free moral choices of angels and humans.

Evolutionary creationism seems to have a particularly difficult problem on this point. Evolutionary theory presents selfishness as a virtue—perhaps the only virtue. Even altruism is seen as well-disguised selfishness. Christianity has historically viewed selfishness as among the greatest of vices and has seen death as the greatest of enemies. But according to EC, suffering and death are not tragedies. Rather they are creative agents that assist the engine of natural selection.

6. The nature and authority of Scripture: Southern Baptists are inerrantists, without apology. We hold to the infallibility of the Bible because we believe it is the Word of God. God is truth, so the very nature of the divine disclosure is truth, without any mixture of error. In addition, we believe that the Bible presents itself as inspired, infallible, and inerrant, and that this was the understanding Jesus had of the Scriptures during his earthly ministry. One is free to reject the Bible’s infallibility, but I think anyone who does so must admit that his view of Scripture is different from our Lord’s.

B.B. Warfield, the Princeton theologian who coined the term “inerrancy,” held to theistic evolution, so clearly one can adhere to both. And J. I. Packer, one of the framers of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, holds to EC, so evidently he views EC as compatible with inerrancy as expressed by the Chicago Statement. However, many advocates of EC have abandoned inerrancy, or reduce the doctrine to a mere inerrancy of purpose. The BioLogos Foundation has not made clear its view of Scripture, but the nature and authority of the Bible will have to be a major portion of any serious conversation between Southern Baptists and BioLogos.

Last June, Francis Collins, the founder of BioLogos, was a plenary presenter at the Christian Scholars Conference at Pepperdine Univ., and it was there I heard him speak in person for the first time. How could one not be impressed? I rejoice in the contributions he has made as a scientist and for the clear, positive witness he gives for the Gospel. If the members of the BioLogos Foundation someday demonstrate how evolutionary creationism fits reasonably with a high view of Scripture, a credible approach to Gen 1-3, a historical Adam and Eve, and a historical Fall, then I will be the first to take their arguments seriously. I just don’t think they’ve done that yet.

Next, the dialogue continues with a BioLogos response to the first three of Dr. Keathley's areas of concern.

Kenneth Keathley is Professor of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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melanogaster - #68377

March 6th 2012

“If no evolutionary theory can be found that can reasonably incorporate above three criteria, then that would be a deal killer.”

I don’t understand the reference to a deal here. This strikes me as a statement of LACK of real faith. If one has faith that the Bible inerrantly describes the real world, one must necessarily have faith that the descriptions of the Bible and science must converge. There simply is no deal to kill.

“Evolutionary theory presents selfishness as a virtue—perhaps the only virtue.”

Dr. Keathley is mistaken, not simply because theories don’t present anything—people do.

“Even altruism is seen as well-disguised selfishness.”

Dr. Keathley is mistaken. Might I suggest that the way to understanding does not involve misrepresenting how other people see things?

“Southern Baptists are inerrantists, without apology. We hold to the infallibility of the Bible because we believe it is the Word of God.”

This suggests to me that the need to follow the tribe trumps the idea of following God Himself.
beaglelady - #68378

March 6th 2012

  “God is truth, so the very nature of the divine disclosure is truth, without any mixture of error.”

Except for when you choose to believe otherwise, perhaps.  Does the firmament really exist? Do we literally eat Jesus?

Ted Davis - #68403

March 7th 2012

I am glad that BioLogos has invited contributions from Southern Baptist theologians, and I commend Dr. Keathley for composing a clear and forthright statement of his concerns—concerns that are, no doubt, shared by most (perhaps all?) Southern Baptists. I hope he is able to come back in from time to time with responses to at least a few of the comments.

I can think of half a dozen basic issues I’d like to talk about, but let me spell out just one, which I’ll put in the form of a comment and question for Dr. Keathley.

First, the comment: it’s difficult for me to separate an understanding of biblical inerrancy from the notion of accommodation. As Dr. Keathley would know, for a very long time (no later than the time of Augustine, ca. 390 AD), Christian thinkers have recognized that the Bible is “accommodated” to the understanding of the audience (we finite and fallen creatures, who lack God’s knowledge of all things). Although accommodation has probably not meant exactly the same thing to all theologians, it has surely meant that the Bible does not always mean what the bare words signify (as Galileo put it). It has also usually meant that the Bible was not intended to teach astronomy—he who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere (as John Calvin said). In some cases, such as at least once for Calvin, accommodation could even mean that “a vulgar error” (I think that is how Calvin put it) can be present in a biblical text, in order to make a particular point. (He said this in reference to Psalm 53 about snakes stopping up their ears and not hearing the charmers.)

So, here is my question for Dr. Keathley: To what extent would you couple your view of inerrancy with a view of accommodation?

Ken Keathley - #69945

May 13th 2012

Hi Ted, very good question about the relationship of the doctrine of inerrancy and the notion of accommodation.  Actually, inerrantists by and large would agree with most of what you wrote.  Adherence to a historical-grammatical interpretation requires that we attempt to know how the human author and original audience would have understood the text.  We also recognize that the Holy Spirit had to accommodate the message to the limitations of the original audience.  Conservative Old Testament scholars (C John Collins and John Walton come to mind) argue that a high view of Scripture requires one to take accommodation into consideration.  However, they (and I) would not think it necessary to accept a doctrine of accommodation that views God as embracing and adopting erroneous texts as His own (this seems to be the position of Denis Lamoureaux).

Ted Davis - #71475

July 30th 2012

I’m glad you returned to answer my question, Dr Keathley. I only just read it, and I doubt you will see this further comment, given the time interval. The part about God embracing “erroneous texts” (as you put it) is indeed where we differ, but perhaps even here it is simply a matter of saying just a little in this place and leaving so much unsaid.

I would say myself that there are at least two options in such cases (where the Bible seems to assume or teach a view (whether scientific or otherwise) that we now think is simply erroneous). (1) God knows the full truth, but is content to accept some “vulgar errors” without challenging them when speaking to us, on the level we are at the time the revelation is being given. (This is probably what Calvin was doing in the passage I refer to, and IMO it’s what Galileo does in his “Letter to Christina,” about which I’ve said more on my own columns on “Science and the Bible.” (See http://biologos.org/blog/galileo-and-other-good-books-about-science-and-the-bible and the columns linked with it).  (2) God knows the full truth, and God never allowed biblical writers to accept “vulgar errors.” Any instances in which this appears to be true reflect our own ignorance of what was actually being said.

You’ve hinted at problems with (1), and I assume that somewhere one can read more about those, perhaps (it’s not clear) in Collins, Walton, or your own writings). If you see this, I would appreciate a few references on this matter. As for (2), I see the main problem being that an argument from ignorance might not work in all instances. For example, from what we actually do know, all biblical writers who mention it did seem to think of the cosmos in terms that cannot be reconciled with modern notions of it. So, if we don’t really understand what was going on in those texts, then we must be careful to say that we just don’t have any knowledge of biblical cosmology.

I invite further comments, if you see this, Dr Keathley.

Eddie - #71485

July 30th 2012


I hope that Dr. Keathley will reply.

My comment is this:

I think there are clearly examples of “vulgar errors” used by the Biblical writers to convey truths.  The “waters above the heavens” are an obvious example.  They indicate a false  understanding of meteorology.   But since the point of the Biblical stories is not meteorological, e.g., in the Flood story the point is that God made it rain by whatever means God has at his disposal to make it rain, such errors don’t matter.  

But what happens when the category of “vulgar errors” becomes wider?  Is it a “vulgar error,” for example, when Genesis indicates that God plans what he is going to create, and achieves what he plans?   That doesn’t seem to fit in with modern evolutionary theory, which, as interpreted by many if not most leading TE/EC people, teaches us that a good part of what evolution produces is the product of chance, not of planning or guidance.  Should we drop the idea that God controls the outcomes of evolution, as we have dropped the idea that there are waters above the sky?  It seems to me that the waters above the sky have no theological significance in the Christian faith, whereas the teaching that God is in control of everything that happens is central to Christian faith.  

I think that what many literalist-inerrantists—I’m not one!—fear is that important theological teachings of the Bible will be thrown out along with the “vulgar errors”—in the name of modern science.  And to be fair to them, it’s pretty hard to find a theme that is so constant in the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, as that God is in control of events.  On the face of it, God ought to be controlling the outcomes of evolution.  But at least some prominent TE/EC people appear to believe that some, maybe most, of the outcomes of evolution, are not determined by God, but are the product of randomness or “the freedom of nature.”  This sometimes applies even to man:  I’ve heard a number of prominent TE/EC people suggest that even if—as is quite possible, given the vagaries of random mutations—man had never appeared, God could have worked with some super-bright cetacean or octopus or carnivore, endowing it with the image of God instead.  So that God said “Let us make man” turns out to be a negotiable idea, rather than a firm truth of the faith.  Where do you draw the line?  What are the rock-bottom affirmations of the Old Testament regarding Creation which cannot be surrendered without damage to the Christian faith?  Or is Old Testament theology almost infinitely malleable, and Protean enough to change into whatever modern science needs it to be?

Ted Davis - #71528

July 31st 2012

Interesting questions, Eddie, very interesting. The beauty of “accommodation” is that it really does help us focus on what God is actually trying to tell us, not (IMO) by diminishing the importance of truth in the way that it allows God to employ erroneous human notions, but by elevating the Truth above the vehicle (the human verbal and conceptual language) in which that Truth is (I would say inevitably) being conveyed to us. The other side of the coin for “accommodation” is that it doesn’t come with an “off switch,” i.e., it doesn’t carry with it a principle or rule to invoke, telling us which uses are legitimate and which are not. To offer an extreme hypothetical, if the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are not essentially true (that is, there was no Jesus, or if there was he was not crucified and raised bodily from the grave), then Christianity is both false and pointless.

I would not apply “accommodation” to the great theological truths of the Bible, such as the one you mention here about divine sovereignty. However, I would still suggest that *theologies* of divine sovereignty, which are constructed from the Bible and from reason, are not all identical. When (e.g.) Calvinists speak of divine sovereignty, it is for them the single most important tenet in their system. I once heard a famous Calvinist preacher, at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, explain it as follows: what are the 3 most important beliefs or tenets of Reformed theology? The first is the sovereignty of God; there is no second, there is no third.

Theologians in other traditions would, very likely, affirm divine sovereignty without hesitation, but they also would probably answer that question differently, such that a Calvinist might even say that the other person does not actually believe in the sovereignty of God. I’m sure you see my point.

My own theology tends to be “voluntaristic,” a term that I explained briefly in a lengthy book review many years ago. I’ve said a lot more about it elsewhere, but those things are not available for free on the internet and this one is, so I’ll link it: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1994/PSCF6-94Davis.html

(Incidentally, some readers may want to obtain the two books I reviewed there, both of which are of high quality and deal with important issues in the history of Christianity and science. Voluntarist theological currents were central to Luther and Calvin, and it may well be partly from Calvin that Boyle got them.)

At least one very prominent theological “voluntarist,” Robert Boyle, went so far as to say that God had no obligation to create human beings in the first place, saying that from the same clay God might have made a dog or an ape, instead of the first man, if he so pleased. Taking that further, I see no reason why God could not have bestowed the “image of God” on any creature he wanted to. From the point of view taken by Boyle, then, “let us make man” was indeed a negotiable idea, at least in terms of speculative theology. And all of this long before Mr Darwin.

From the point of view of biblical theology, however, God clearly intended to make humans in his image. Whatever that means—the Bible is not forthcoming, and we have to be careful to read “image of God” against the cultural and literary context of the Ancient Near East—God gave it to us, not to other creatures. And, God did so intentionally. How precisely God accomplished that is a great mystery. Just as the apparent contingencies of events in human history do not mean that God is not sovereign over history, the apparent contingencies in evolutionary history do not mean that God is not sovereign over them, either. IMO, God’s sovereignty does not translate readily into scientific/mathematical categories, such as “chance,” “law,” “determinism,” or “indeterminism,” which makes it really hard to answer your question to the satisfaction of all. Where was I when God laid the foundations of the earth? To quote Boyle (this time directly), “

For if we believe God to be the author of things, it is rational to conceive, that he may have made them commensurate, rather to his own designs in them, than to the notions we men may best be able to frame of them. On which occasion I would crave leave to represent, that it appears by the history of the creation [Genesis], that the world itself was first made before the contemplator of it, man: whence we may learn, that the author of nature consulted not, in the production of things, with human capacities; but first made things in such manner, as he was pleased to think fit, and afterwards left human understandings to speculate as well as they could upon those corporeal, as well as other things.”

That pretty much sums it up, from where I sit.

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