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Willing to be Wrong

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September 29, 2012 Tags: Christian Unity
Willing to be Wrong

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

What we know

Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I read through it probably once every few months and repeatedly grind my Hebrew language skills on its opening chapters. Unlike Leviticus (at least in the opinion of most people I know), the Genesis narrative is exciting and adventurous. Some of our favorite stories come out of the book: Noah and the Ark, The Tower of Babel, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors, and so on.

But no story is perhaps as infamous and well known as the creation account (or accounts) as presented in Genesis 1-2. Almost every Christian or Jew, even those less than devout, know the opening words to the tale: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” We know that God created the earth in six days. We know Eve was taken from Adam's rib for a companion. We know that God called the general creation “good”, the special creation of man “very good” and, at the very end of it all, took a day of rest (which I'm sure most of us would call “very good.”)

Of course, we know all of this. Yet we challenge it (and are challenged by it), continually, when we consider the variety of interpretations of how this story intersects the world as described by science. With Genesis, are we dealing with a literal scientific account, where “day” means 24-hours; are we dealing with metaphorical “days” in which epochs or periods of time or even processes are being described; or are we readers of a creation mythology from the Ancient Near East that doesn’t have anything directly to do with material origins? Interpretations go on and on, as anyone who has spent any time at all studying the creation debate knows. By and large, however, we can probably categorize Genesis interpreters into three camps: the Young Earth Creationists, the Old Earth Creationists, and the Theistic Evolutionists.

Now, I have the unique benefit of falling into all of these individual camps at one point or another in my life, sometimes even mixing them up. I have made a strong transition from being a die-hard Young Earth Creationist to being convinced that the evolutionary story is, in fact, the more substantiated and evidenced position. I say this with no pride, since my own transition involved many agonizing questions, a whole lot of reading, and a significant internal spiritual battle: what I believed about when and how the earth was created would not only change the way I read Scripture, it would also change certain aspects of how I viewed the Creator.

While I've certainly learned a lot of information on my journey, it was not an accumulation of facts that has kept me following Christ through all the ups and downs, but Jesus himself, and the knowledge that truth is not something which the Christian should find spiritually threatening. Nevertheless, those same ups and downs—and my internalization of each of these views on creation in turn—has provided me with one simple realization about the debate over scripture and evolution: most of us are not so committed to finding the truth about Genesis and creation as we are to sustaining and maintaining our own interpretive boundaries and the boundaries of the communities which influence us. In other words, the debate is often not so much over Genesis—or even over whether we can all follow the same God when we believe different things about how he created—it's over our own ability to be right. I know this because admitting that I was wrong was the most difficult part of my own transition.

Interpretive communities

While I am pretty convinced of the truth of an evolutionary portrait of reality and an ANE reading of Genesis similar to that espoused by scholars like Peter Enns or Bruce Waltke, I can still make this claim about interpretive communities because my intention is not to dissuade others from debating the issues involved, but to ask that we simply recognize our own limits and check them as often as possible. This is part of following Jesus, is it not? Unfortunately, vigorous debate often deteriorates quickly into screaming matches where proponents of one position or another simply are talking heads, speaking past each other and forgetting our fellowship in Christ. We play into the same interpretive competition that the Pharisee and Sadducee scribes were well known for, each claiming to have a proper interpretation of the Scriptures, but all the while forgetting that interpretive arguments matter exceptionally little if a genuine search for God is not at the forefront. This is certainly not to insist that the discussions cease, but rather, to insist that these discussions can only be propelled forward if individuals—of whatever stripe—step outside of their own interpretive boundaries and communities and humbly present themselves before God, seeking His truth alone. It is to insist that “system maintenance” must die along with the self, because only then can we allow Scripture to interpret itself. Unfortunately (and this is an issue that goes way beyond the Genesis text), too many of us are more committed to a specific model than we are committed to seeking God’s truth, whatever inconvenience to us that truth proves to be.

In 2006, for instance, I heard a popular and well-trained Young Earth paleontologist make the following statement: “If all the evidence turns against young earth creationism, I will still believe it because that's what the Bible says.” I followed up with him in a conversation a year later over lunch and quickly realized that I did not misunderstand his statement. For him, the parameters of his convictions were set in concrete and the truth of the overarching story of Christianity rested on these parameters not being crossed. In his view, the Bible absolutely and fundamentally teaches a universe which came into existence 6,000-10,000 years ago; to deny that is to deny Scripture, and if evidence turned up to the contrary one must not alter those parameters but, instead, search (perhaps in vain) for counter-evidence or be willing to live in blind faith. For this paleontologist, confident Christianity hinged on the stability of those borders of interpretation. Transition wasn't allowed.

But I have heard and read statements coming out of the two other camps of thought that share this kind of certainty over interpretation, too. There is a sense of doing injustice to scripture, thereby doing an injustice to Christianity, and, thereby again, doing an injustice to God if one strays from the preferred reading. One Old Earth Creationist remarked in a popular book that an interpretation of Genesis that allows for evolution is a “contradiction in terms” and it's an unfortunate thing to “blame God for it.” Genesis, in the mind of this thinker, specifically precludes any interpretation which leads to the sort of story evolution tells. To think otherwise is to “blame” God for something which he intentionally tells us is otherwise against his nature.

I have equally heard some theistic evolutionists deride—in a very spiritually shallow and personally offensive way—those who do not accept an evolutionary viewpoint. As one who went through an interpretive evolution on biological evolution, I can say confidently that I believe my own transition would have been much easier both intellectually and spiritually if not for feeling as if certain theistic evolutionists accused me of intentionally lying or being mentally ignorant. It seems that all three camps are at least sometimes plagued by the issue of pride—especially in the cases of a few strong advocates. But pride is nothing less than the cement by which interpretive barriers are built, helping them become unmovable walls that protect the interpretive communities within.1

On the other hand, one of the great benefits of the fall of positivism (or verificationism) and the rise of postmodernism was the realization that total objectivity among individuals is a false conception. And, since individuals make up communities, neither are camps of thought above error and immune from being wrong. Yet way too many Christians continue to approach Genesis as if we can interpret it on its own terms, completely and totally, without reference to our own location in history and culture. We're still functionally positivists. But it is an illusion that we’re above the interpretive fray, and we must realize time and again that we are subjective individuals, affected by a number of factors and people. We are deeply influenced by those that speak into us, those that we trust, and those that we find credible. As W. Randolph Tate writes,

Interpretations...must be consistent with the established interpretive framework of the interpretive community. The worldview of the interpretive community sets the parameters within which interpretations are accepted or rejected.2

The Bible takes a slightly different angle and puts it this way: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, we are not objective data-interpreting individuals but fallen men and women, even as followers of Jesus.

So it’s when groups of folks line up on either side of an issue and make their positions part of their identity that the debate over interpreting Genesis reaches a near stalemate. It's communities against communities, PhDs against PhDs, experts against experts, and—perhaps more internally—interpretive parameters against interpretive parameters. The truth is that as long as we are first and foremost committed to maintaining the community in which we are involved, there will be very little chance of us getting at the real issues and the best conclusions, much less giving an adequate witness to our God, both Creator and Redeemer.

New eyes, fresh air

I mentioned earlier that I spent time in all three major camps of thought on this issue. I was a hard-lined Young Earth Creationist, debating on forums and writing creationist papers in college. I argued for the existence of modern-day dinosaurs, major flood geology, and so on. I was convinced I was right, that defending the truth meant digging my heels deeper into the sand. But two questions plagued my thoughts: first, I asked whether Christianity fell to pieces if I was wrong. Second, I asked whether I was committed to Christ or, rather, to myself and my interpretations. With that as my first major paradigm shift, I eventually came to accept an Old Earth view. I sat comfortably within the Old Earth view for several years, but the Lord was still at work in me, and, once again, brought those two questions to my mind. Back to the books I went, back to the Bible I went, and back to prayer I went.

Through months of extremely difficult and heart-rending transition, I found myself considering a particular reading of Genesis that I would have regarded as unacceptable as a YEC. But then I was confronted with this even more important point about Christianity: often God finds what is unacceptable to us very acceptable to Him! That included me, personally, and I felt the warmth of God’s grace flow over me. In the wake of that change of heart, people accused me of rejecting my background, my Christian education, and my interpretive communities. And, yet—whether I was right or wrong—I knew God accepted my path towards this new reading of Creation as a genuine search for Him. My spiritual struggle—contrary to what I thought while it was happening—was not a struggle to reject bad data and exegesis, it was a struggle to reject myself.

While the “facts” were important, that spiritual struggle was even more so for me. What was God showing me in the midst of it all? Was thinking differently about the creation making me appreciate the Creator less, or more? Did reading Genesis differently mean only that I had been wrong, or that it was somehow less true? What did any of this have to do with my sense of calling to love and serve God and my fellow men? In a way, I’m still figuring this out. But I can absolutely testify that the struggle transformed every single one of these questions. Indeed, for the first time, I believe I saw God as much this-worldly as other-worldly. I saw nature as intimately intertwined with itself, still being woven together by God’s hand. I saw Scripture as a beautiful expression of God’s desire that man should participate in creation. I saw that my fellow men and my fellow Christians were all on a journey, much the way I was. And I saw myself as a flawed, stubborn, and prideful man, yet forgiven for the times I’ve pitted myself and my presuppositions about Scripture against God, its author.

As settled as I am now, I have not forgotten that the common ribbon which ties together all of these transitions is my commitment to keep asking questions within my own circle, too—realizing that God still has much to teach all of us. I have learned the continuing importance of stepping outside of my camp and making sure I haven’t become merely a product of or a willing prisoner to thinking a certain way, unwilling to consider that it and I might be incorrect. I came to realize that everyone (including myself, of course) has stories and life experiences that become the framework in which they read Genesis 1-2. And if I stopped pretending that I, myself, could be perfectly objective, then I also had to stop pretending that those in the community that I trusted were necessarily objective, themselves.

Ultimately, I had to be willing to be wrong and to see that my friends might be wrong, too. That’s not something that any of us are “naturally” very good at, but it is possible when we realize that the world does not depend on us being right, but upon Jesus being right. For me, seeking truth rather than presupposition requires that we all be able to approach the communities that have influenced us deeply, and ask not just “what” they say but “why” they say it. We all have to guard our hearts even more than our heads. Frequently reminding myself to walk back to the edge of my own camp—to follow Jesus’ example and withdraw to a solitary place—has shown me that there is room to breathe outside our familiar interpretive parameters. At certain times, I have found it to be the most refreshing air I've ever tasted.


1. Though, admittedly, the theistic evolutionists tend to have a greater sense of leeway when it comes to how the claims of Genesis 1-2 affect Christianity as a whole. It would be an odd thing to say that to not interpret Genesis 1-2 as an evolutionary metaphor is to reject Christianity. As far as I know, most Christian evolutionists are very much willing to acknowledge that Young and Old Earth Creationists are still within appropriate spiritual bounds, even if not scientific ones. It seems to me that if individual theistic evolutionists choose an issue about which to be rigid, it’s the Fall and the existence of Adam.
2. Tate, W. Randolpy. Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008, p 222.

Randal Hardman is a writer and blogger at www.thebarainitiative.com. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Appalachian State University, an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently finishing work on an M.A. in Theological Studies from Asbury. He worked with Summit ministries from 2007 to 2012 as the Classroom Director and a speaker. His academic interests include the historical Jesus, the early Church, scriptural inspiration, and the creation/evolution debate. He also loves coffee and the Packers.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #73238

September 29th 2012

John 1 begins, “In the beginning ....” also. 

edgarandrews - #73245

September 30th 2012

While empathising with Randal Hardman’s analysis of how worldviews affect our interpretations, I found the post unsatisfactory for several reasons. Firstly the breakdown of Genesis 1 interpretations into YEC, OEC, and TE is a very crude division. To give just one example, the position I adopt in my recent book “Who made God? Searching for a theory of everything” (as also in my 1978 book “From nothing to nature”) combines an old universe with a young formed-earth and largely follows the views of the renowned Hebrew scholar E. J. Young ... see http://www.christianbeliefs.org/books/genesis/gen-1.html ... who was once considered the expert on the interpretation of Genesis 1. Secondly, and probably even more important, is the absence in the post of any proper consideration of biblical hermeneutics, namely, that obscure Bible passages should be interpreted using more explicit Scriptures. For example, theistic evolutionists almost always find themselves dismissing the first 11 chapters of Genesis as mythological (in one sense or another) whereas the NT treats them as sober history. An obvious case is that TE must reject or seriously distort the historicity of the Fall of Adam, something clearly taught in the NT and without which the gospel of Christ becomes meaningless. Finally, the implication that YEC and OEC subscribers have to ignore or reject the findings of modern science is just plain wrong, as “Who made God?” sets out to prove (and I write as a physicist holding a higher doctorate in that subject). It isn’t only the Bible that is interpreted according to our worldview; the findings of science are also subject to interpretation and Christians should approach it from a biblical standpoint. One example of this is that the biblical worldview sees genetic mutations not as the causative agency of evolution from simple to complex organisms but rather as the cause of degeneration from ‘good’ created kinds (this also makes more sense scientifically, of course, again as discussed in my book).

Randy Hardman - #73250

September 30th 2012

Dr. Andrews,


Thanks for the comments. If I may, I would like to briefly respond to your thoughts:

1) I gather that it may be too simplistic to break down the groups into these categories. I am aware that the streams of thought on this question run in many different directions, but trying to deliniate all of them, especially in conjunction with my own journey (which I admitted sometimes was like a parfait of views), would take up the whole post and distract from my point. 

2) The post was more or less directed not to defend or explain scientifically or hermeneutically a TE view but, rather, to illustrate how our preconceptions and interpretive communities can influence our interpretations. The questions and objections you raise are dealt with and I’m sure a good parousal through Biologos will helpfully engage those questions (for the record, in my own journey those questions were critical to me and I have, while not addressing them here, addressed them in my own life).  So, while you may disagree with my own conclusions on this question, I don’t think it’s helpful to critique me on not defending it here since that was never my intention.

3) I hopefully encouraged all, whether YEC, OEC, or TE to be willing to step outside of their boxes. You correctly note that it’s not just the Bible that we come to subjectively but science. This is a solid point, and I think I recognized it by saying that communities all have their “experts” which claim to interpret data correctly. The question is not who is objective and who is not but who portrays (if at all) a correct view of the data. And my encouragement here is that we are much more likely to get at the truth if we recognize that our worlviews, our communities, our backgrounds, etc. all influence us and serve as factors in our conclusions.

Skl - #73252

September 30th 2012


Regarding your last sentence about genetic mutations as the cause of degeneration, not of evolution:

I sometimes hypothesize to myself that humanity is slowly falling apart physically. I read about the relatively recent expansion (and perhaps initial appearance) of human ailments, such as autism, AIDS, allergies (e.g. to peanuts, bread (gluten)). [I also wonder why the Old Testament says some of its figures lived super-long lifetimes (compared to our modern experience).]

Aren’t genetic mutations heritable, and might they not accumulate to ill effect over generations? If so, that would perhaps support my hypothesis.

Joriss - #73267

October 1st 2012

John Sanford has written an interesting book on this subject: Genetic Entropy and the mystery of the Genome. It is going deep into the fact that the human genome is deteriorating over time and  that “nearly neutral” mutations - mutations that are very, very little deleterious, even too small to be filtered out by selection - , will accumulate from generation to generation and finally disrupt the genome in such a manner that it even could make human life extinguish.
The book is praised by a number of scientists and  by even a greater number of scientists wipe the floor with it. I myself thought it very convincing, but being a layman I am unable to refute the refutations. Anyway, it seems interesting to me, both to evolutionists and creationists.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73266

October 1st 2012

Jesus died for our sin and the sins of the world.

That means that the biggest problem in the world today is not that people have commited sins, but that many people including Christians refuse to admit and confess their mistakes so they can change and be forgiven.

Darwin Guy Dan - #73269

October 1st 2012

“Unfortunately (and this is an issue that goes way beyond the Genesis text), too many of us are more committed to a specific model than we are committed to seeing God’s truth, whatever inconvenience to us that truth proves to be.” ——Hardman, blog.

John 1:5—- “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

“[W]e are all much more likely to get at the truth if we recognize that our worldviews, our communities, our background, etc. all influence us and serve as factors in our conclusions.”——Hardman #73250.

Amen!  Amen!  So, are Evolutionists “willing to be wrong” regards their core assumption of Evolution, i.e., common descent?  In the last 153 years since Darwin have Evolutionists ever even been seriously skeptical?  Have they been willing to get at the truth?

In his ON THE ORIGINS OF SPECIES ([1871), 20120; also available as free ebook), St. George Mivart quoted “an eminently Christian writer” (p.15):

“The creationist theory does not necessitate the perpetual search after manifestations of miraculous powers and perpetual ‘catastrophes.’  Creation is not a miraculous interference with the laws of nature, but the very institution of those laws.  Law and regularity, not arbitrary intervention, was the patristic ideal of creation.  With this notion, they admitted without difficulty the most surprising origin of living creatures, provided it took place by LAW. […..]”

Mivart relates that the same writer quotes St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas:

n the institution of nature we do not look for miracles, but for the laws of nature.”

According to Mivart, St. Basil also “speaks of the continued operation of natural laws in the production of all organisms.”

Two years prior to Darwin’s ORIGINS OF SPECIES (1859), Louis Agassiz wrote the following in his ESSAY ON CLASSIFICATION ([1857], 2004; p.44):

“It was a great progress in our science when the more extensive and precise knowledge of the geographical distribution of organized beings forced upon its cultivators the conviction that neither animals nor plants could have originated upon one and the same spot upon the surface of the earth and hence have spread more and more widely until the whole globe became inhabited.  It was really an immense progress which freed science from the fetters of an old prejudice.”

This well studied biogeographical view of Agassiz’s seems, to me anyway, to be contrary to the implied and expressed singularity of origins of life and species that was to become Darwin’s view and the view of modern Evolutionists.  Singularities are necessitated by the hypothesis of common descent that Darwin assumed that in turn has inferred a universal common ancestor.  While modern Evolutionists may insist that Evolution is a theory of species origins and not life origins, avoiding the singularity at origins and the inference of a universal common ancestor is problematic, to say the least. Indeed, Evolutionists seem inconsistent in that they generally also do accept the assumption (false in my view) of a LUCA, last universal common ancestor. (Note:  apparently even Agassiz may have, erroneously in my view, eventually yielded to Darwin’s lobbyists.)

Dan, a.k.a. NaturalHistoryGuy / LocalTransportationGuy

PNG - #73300

October 2nd 2012

Common descent is not an assumption. It is a hypothesis that accounts for a huge amount of evidence that isn’t accounted for by any other hypothesis, other than that old standby, “God just did it that way,” which is of course completely untestable. If, like most laymen, one is unfamiliar with the evidence, common descent looks like an assumption, but it isn’t.

Darwin Guy Dan - #73314

October 3rd 2012

ERRATA:  In my comment #73266, if you are a geneticist or prone to think as one, you might note the sentence that is italicized.  Apparently, and unknowingly to this “mosquito,” I managed to turn on a “control gene” and switched on the italics.  At least this is the hypothesis that I am assuming accounts for the observation of the missing “I” and for the italics.  I had placed the “I” in brackets so as to indicate that in the original quote the letter wasn’t capitalized.  The sentence is supposed to begin with “In the institution [….].”  Are there other hypotheses that I might assume to be correct? Of course. Might I test this hypothesis, here?  Of course.

In rereading the “Editor’s Introduction” to Agassiz’s ESSAY ON CLASSIFICATION, it seems likely that I had misconstrued Agassiz’s change of thinking.  The editor, Edward Lurie wrote (p.x):

“Having staked so much on the ESSAY, Agassiz could never understand why Darwin’s work was accorded such a reception; he thought he had demolished all such notions of “development” in the ESSAY, and not until 1873, the year of his death, could he bring himself to a reluctant admission that Darwin’s method and proofs differed from those of earlier advocates of evolution.  If for no other reason, the ESSAY is remarkable in that two years before Darwin published, Agassiz took up and answered to his satisfaction the great majority of the problems which had led Darwin to the study of the idea of evolution.”

I am certainly not an expert on Louis Agassiz.  But from the above it would seem that what Agassiz came to accept was Darwin’s “method and proofs” rather than theory regards the origins of species, i.e., “evolution.”  That is, Agassiz had a tendency, as was the custom of the day, to use a great deal of theological and teleological language.  But if one is able to get past that, and stick with Agassiz’s naturalistic arguments then one can easily realize that Darwin’s arguments favoring the hypotheses of common descent, natural selection, etc, weren’t the only naturalistic arguments available.  Surely, there was little valid scientific reason for the scientific arguments of Darwin to go almost immediately from being Darwin’s hypotheses to, within a few years, posits by others of supposed truth certainty.  Note that George Mivart also used teleological language but far less than Agassiz.  (Actually, as I recall, Darwin also left some matters to “the Creator.,”)

Note that it makes no difference how much “evidence” may pile up suggesting common ancestry if there are no non-trivial common ancestors.

Dan, a.k.a NaturalHistoryGuy / LocalTranportationGuy

Darwin Guy Dan - #73315

October 3rd 2012

Oops.  The comment of mine referred to in the errata is actually #73269, not #73266.

wesseldawn - #73288

October 2nd 2012

“Willing to be wrong” is really good (if that truly is the case) where we humans are concerned. Concerning God’s written work the interpretation will never change because He would have authored a perfect book…change merely reveals that the interpretation did not originate with God! Any new view based on the same interpretation methods is as suspect as the old one!

God, being the benevolent entity that He is, would have put in place failsafes to protect us where interpretation is concerned. He must be the interpreter and only then can we say it’s infallible.

Darek Barefoot - #73297

October 2nd 2012


I enjoyed your post.

Just a thought on biblical perspectives in general. Many Jews of Jesus’ day appear to have believed that Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah (Mark 9:11-13), presumably based on Malachi 3:1; 4:5. That this would be Elijah of old seemed to fit with the mysterious assumption of Elijah into the sky as related in 2 Kings. “Elijah” was taken in a very literal sense, in other words. But Jesus told the disciples that the prophecy in Malachi was fulfilled by an Elijah-like figure, John the Baptist, rather than Elijah of centuries before. This was definitely a kind of figurative, or at least non-literal, interpretation of the prophecy. The conviction that Elijah of old had literally to return before the coming of the Messiah, if held to tenaciously, would have caused a person to miss the coming of the true Messiah, Jesus. This just illustrates that biblical interpretations are guided by sound spiritual judgment of all the evidence, not a formula that says, in effect, that our faith is measured by how literally we are willing to take every verse.

Merv - #73310

October 3rd 2012

Thanks, Darek; that is an excellent point!  It explains the ambiguity over this that we find in the New Testament.  John is asked point blank (John 1:21):  “Are you Elijah?” and he answers in the negative.  But Jesus does confirm that John was “Elijah” ...“for those willing to accept it.”  (Matthew 11:14)

This is exactly the kinds of response we would expect in the discourse of that time if there were some controversy as to how literally to interpret all prophecy.  How many of us in our zeal to be seen as faithful (to a literal word) instead become spiritual descendants of these same literalists who missed the boat because they were so attached to their own understandings, making their understanding equal to God’s truth?


Dunemeister - #73334

October 4th 2012

Another, and to my mind more significant, problem is our refusal to acknowledge that there is such a thing as the church and tradition. The West, and most especially North America, is a sectarian place. We are cut off from the church’s 2000-year tradition, both written and oral. Instead, we are alone, just us with our minds / consciences and scripture. We each interpret it according to our own predilections with no accountability whatsoever. When two people or sects disagree, there is no tradition or arbiter. It comes down to a battle of proof texts or “perspectives”, and the perspective you finally adopt is the one that “sits best” with you. If what my pastor says doesn’t “sit well” with me, I can go down the block (or turn on the TV / radio / Internet) and find someone else who does. If those sources do not satisfy, I can call myself a pastor and start my own thing. And in North America, all this is perfectly legitimate. Our culture affirms and encourages it. And THIS is the root of all the controversies we confront in evangelicalism or the church more broadly. Within this context, being unwilling to be wrong is not the problem, it’s a symptom.

Skl - #73346

October 4th 2012

To Dunemeister,

Very well said. And I think, very true.

Merv - #73347

October 4th 2012

I can just imagine Catholics around the world nodding their heads and agreeing with you, Dunemeister, only they would hearken back a bit more in history ... to the reformation and the onset of protestantism as when all this splintering began.  

But even so, the one-church authority back then didn’t guarantee the infallibility as we all well know.  It just guaranteed that you had a much larger ship on which to attempt any course corrections (which took correspondingly longer—as relates to some science issues like a moveable earth).  But move the Catholic church did, in its own slow way.  So while I agree with you that accountability is very important, centralized authority still comes with its own perils.  And maybe the jury is still out from some future historical perspective on whether the splintered factions or the juggernaut authority do a better job of orienting us to truth.  


Dunemeister - #73364

October 5th 2012

I’m not looking for infallibility. I’m looking for authority. I’m looking for a church which has carried on as Paul instructed Timothy—passing along the faith as taught by the apostles to the next generation. Evangelicals tend to do religion just any old way they want. THAT’s the problem, not mere unwillingness to be wrong.

What makes things worse is North American culture, which idolizes individualism and autonomy. Quite the recipe for DIY religion.

Merv - #73348

October 4th 2012


The centralized authority model has the advantage/disadvantage of being a relatively stable force over tumultuous periods of history—a solid edifice by which compasses can find a true setting while cultural fads come and go.

The competing splintered factions have the advantage/disadvantage of being more rapidly responsive to new data and making necessary course corrections.

I don’t think the latter model need be faulted as long as it assimilates data that itself forms a kind of edifice not likely to change over time (i.e.  a view that the earth does move or that processes have been happening over deep time, etc.)

Dunemeister - #73365

October 5th 2012

Yeah, so how’s that working out for you?

FWIW, I’m seriously flirting with orthodoxy. Perhaps hence the somewhat sharp critique of my present community.

Eddie - #73393

October 7th 2012


Your comment above—“Evangelicals tend to do religion just any old way they want”—is wonderfully stated, as are your more detailed objections further above.  And certainly there is a cultural connection here with individualism and autonomy, whereby individualistic religion and individualistic culture feed and reinforce in each other in a kind of infinite feedback loop.  

Merv’s comments in response are pertinent as well.  Indeed the Church of Rome might well have reason to say “I told you so!”; at least if one is Roman Catholic one does have to go along with the anarchistic tendencies latent in some aspects of Protestant teaching, not to mention the insufferable arrogance of some fundamentalists who seem to think they are incapable of error when it comes to reading the Bible, because the Holy Spirit speaks directly to them.  On the other hand, as Merv also points out, flying from anarchy into the arms of authoritarianism, just for the sake of having an authority (as if any authoritative doctrine, however much one might disagree with it, is automatically better than having doctrinal conflicts), is hardly a genuine solution.  

Things were certainly not perfect in Europe, either ethically or spiritually, when Mother Church was the only religious game in town.  And anyone who knows European history, and Church history as well, knows that Rome did not reform itself without external pressure.  The Council of Trent would not have occurred, or would not have occurred as soon as is did, had there not been Luther and Zwingli and all the other Reformers pounding at the gates.  And while the selling of indulgences was not official Catholic teaching, plenty of officials were “looking the other way” as the money rolled in to Rome, so official Roman religion was not innocent; it was not simply a case of maverick provincial indulgence-sellers acting without license.  A stop could have been put to it sooner, and the stop would have come much later, were it not for the courage of Luther.  Roman authority is not today nearly as tyrannical as Protestants imagine, but part of the reason that Roman authority is not as tyrannical is that it now inhabits a world in which there are religious options.  Had the Protestants not been able to get the State on their side in certain crucial locations, we can be sure that the whole lot of magisterial Reformers would have ended their days at the stake, or rotting in dungeons, in a Europe in which the Roman was still the only legal Christian Church.  That is in fact how Rome behaved when it had monopoly powers.

So the Protestant sectarians run to their Bibles, but because they have no authoritative interpretation of the Bible, end up re-inventing Christianity in accord with their own tastes; and the Roman Catholics, though wise enough to see the need of authoritative interpretation, have often enough abused their monopoly power, to produce abominable moral and political practice, and questionable doctrinal decisions.  It seems that bibliolatry and ecclesiolatry are both dangerous, and both unsatisfactory.  I therefore think your instinct to investigate Eastern Orthodox teaching (which I guess is what you mean by “orthodoxy”) is sound.  I’ve made some tentative investigations  in that direction myself.  Let us know what you discover.  I might also add that, before the Anglican Communion fell into the abyss of liberalism, there was a strong Anglican theological tradition which avoided the defects of both Romanism and sectarianism.  The difficulty today, of course, is finding socially viable Anglican congregations where that tradition is lived out.  Certainly it is not lived out in most parts of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA.  But there are some breakaway Episcopal congregations which retain the tradition which the left-liberal leadership of the Episcopalians has willingly betrayed.  So you  might look in that direction as well.

Eddie - #73402

October 8th 2012


Correction to the note to you and Dunemeister above:

In the second line of the second paragraph, it should be:

“at least if one is Roman Catholic one does not have to go along with the anarchistic tendencies latent in some aspects of Protestant teaching”

But probably you would have figured out from the context that I had slipped up.

Skl - #73350

October 4th 2012

To Merv,

You wrote “But even so, the one-church authority back then didn’t guarantee the infallibility as we all well know.”

I have to admit, I’m one who doesn’t well know. You make note of a moveable earth and processes happening over deep time. Perhaps you meant that the Church had official and infallible teaching, which requires the Faithful’s assent, on these two matters. If so, where, specifically, could I find these Church doctrines or dogmas?

Secondly, you wrote “The competing splintered factions have the advantage/disadvantage of being more rapidly responsive to new data and making necessary course corrections.”

How do each of these splintering factions determine infallibly what course corrections are necessary? (I say “infallibly” because otherwise I don’t know why I, or anyone, would feel compelled to observe such corrections.) And if a faction deems its old course false, on what basis does it have confidence that its new course is true? How valid is such confidence if the faction has already admitted that it shouldn’t have had confidence in its old official course?

Merv - #73366

October 5th 2012

Hi, Skl;  I don’t know that science issues like an immoveable earth ever ranked as an ‘official’ Catholic position, though there were high church officials in Galileo’s time and before that certainly felt passionately enough on this that they persecuted the opposition and attempted to stir religious piety against it.  Some of that history is referenced right here at Biologos in some of Ted Davis’ posts (see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1615bellarmine-letter.asp ) as a letter from Cardinal Bellarmine over the immoveable earth affair.  Again—not that it was official doctrine, but it was definitely defended as the position of the church fathers to hear Bellarmine tell it.

But regarding doctrines in general (whether ‘official’ or not)—the Catholic church at one time sold ‘indulgences’ as a way to buy people out of purgatory and into Heaven sooner.  I would have to look up what historical documents demonstrate that if someone was skeptical;  I’ve never heard of anyone trying to deny such common knowledge history.  There are other practices they had at the time (burning ‘heretics’ at the stake, etc.) for which I believe there have even been recent official apologies.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have an axe to grind against Catholics generally, and see much to respect and admire.  But nor do I put any such institution on a pedestal of infallibility.

You ask good questions about how factions could have any confidence in their new course if their old one proved untrustworthy.  It depends on what they’ve based their information on.  God’s creation and revealed word are truths that we all seek to know more closely and accurately.  If our interpretations of either are skewed and we base much of our doctrine on that skewed understanding, then our foundation is shaken when the light of day reveals our faulty belief.  It matters not if our belief has been a long-standing ‘tradition of men’ or some short-lived fad.  In both cases, false is false.  So how do we know what is true?  While I am not a Methodist, I think the Wesleyan quadrilateral has much wisdom to ponder:  Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition are all seen as providing guidance to those pursuing truth.  And I would add that the Spirit is the necessary glue by which all four of these things need to be bound together to provide balance and necessary critique to each other (since all four require fallible interpretation).  There is no shortcut to which we can point (other than to refer to Jesus himself—but since we don’t have him in the flesh with us, our access to Him comes  through these portals).  So despite our desire to be able to point to one absolute institutionalized authority somewhere by which we can safely set our compasses, we nevertheless are compelled to work for and be attentive to Truth the more difficult way.  God gave us brains to do just that. 

If I engage two men in conversation wishing to learn much from them, and the first declares he has never made a mistake in his life while the second admits he has been compelled to change his mind many times, I will attend what the latter one says with greater interest since he has been more attentive to those contrary experiences of life. Hence my ‘protestant-honed’ preference for the factional diversity that necessarily requires an attendant skepticism.


Skl - #73367

October 5th 2012

To Merv,

That some in the Catholic Church sold indulgences is indeed widely known. What apparently is less widely known is that the selling of indulgences was never allowed by the Church. The abusive practice was addressed and condemned at the Council of Trent in the 16th century. And yes, the Church has issued apologies for the actions of many of its members throughout history. That abuses were committed is saddening but unfortunately not surprising - for the Church is comprised entirely of sinners. The Church continues to apologize, even to the current day - for example, with the sexual abuse scandal. I think we would both agree, however, that sexual abuse has never been encouraged in Church teaching.

One short word on infallibility: Infallibility is not to be confused with impeccability, and infallibility does not apply to just anything issuing from a priest or even a
Pope. The gift (from the Lord to the Church) of infallibility is rarely exercised. To my knowledge, the last infallible proclamation was in 1950, for the Assumption of Mary.

I agree with you that a Christian pursuit of truth must necessarily rely on what you noted - “Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition.” However, how could it be that “the Spirit is the necessary glue by which all four of these things need to be bound together”, when virtually all of the many “splintered factions” claim that they are lead by the Holy Spirit? I don’t think the Spirit is the glue - the real life, practical, flesh and blood, “incarnational” glue.

I think that absent an acknowledged earthly authority (“he who hears you hears me”), Christian congregations will inexorably splinter further into what Dunemeister calls “DIY religion”.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73374

October 6th 2012

While it was the selling of indulgences which sparked the protest of Martin Luther and the Reformation, it was Luther’s theology that was behind this protest.  I understand that Catholics still pay money to have priests say Mass on behald of loved ones in order to speed their souls to heaven from purgatory.   

I agree with Luther that Christians are saved by grace or not at all.  I agree with Luther that humans have direct relationship with God the Father and God the Son through the Holy Spirit.  I agree with Luther that Jesus Christ died once and for all for the sins of humanity and not repeatly with every performing of the Mass.

A big problem I have with the Roman Church is its acceptance as standard of the theology of Thomas Aquinas and the philosophy of Aristotle.  The problem the Church has with Copernicus was that his understanding of the solar system violated Aristotle, not the Bible. 

Merv - #73376

October 6th 2012

Skl wrote:

I agree with you that a Christian pursuit of truth must necessarily rely on what you noted - “Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition.” However, how could it be that “the Spirit is the necessary glue by which all four of these things need to be bound together”, when virtually all of the many “splintered factions” claim that they are lead by the Holy Spirit? 

What I mean is that the Spirit must be present as the Christian exercises the use of any or all of these four avenues.  Without the Spirit, any of these four easily becomes perverted into other directions or practices that lead away from truth.  One might also ask why ‘church’ isn’t one of the four listed (unless we deem ‘church’ to be a part of tradition).  But I think the church, like the Spirit is involved in all of these, and that no believer is a Christian in isolation. We must be part of the body of Christ—a community of believers (a church functions this way—or should) so that we are hopefully less likely to bend Scripture, reason, etc.  to our own selfish devices rather than learning to conform ourselves to truth.  Even so, your next point is well taken.

I think that absent an acknowledged earthly authority (“he who hears you hears me”), Christian congregations will inexorably splinter further into what Dunemeister calls “DIY religion”.

It should be noted that this is what happened anyway, even when authority was centralized—that didn’t prevent the reformation from happening, and for many good reasons.  Now protestants in their own turn get to taste the difference between ‘claiming’ to be led by the Spirit and ‘actually’ being led by the Spirit, as many ‘mini-reformations’ continue within protestant circles with their own established authorities.  The splintering continues for better or worse.  (I. Cor. 11:18-19 make for interesting commentary on this in contrast with Jesus’ prayers for unity among His followers.)

In the O.T. we read God’s instructions to them to distinguish between false and true prophets by the fruits of their prophecy (i.e.  did it come to pass?)  So they (and we) are given license to check out what people claim even if - especially if - they claim it came from God.  Reality (God’s creation) as we can best apprehend it (science is a great helper here, but not the only one) is a pretty good guide when we use it cautiously and with humility.  I think we Protestants have much to learn from Catholics who have been around the block on all these things a few times more than we have.  Thanks for your continued discussion.


Merv - #73377

October 6th 2012

Roger, one could see the church’s adoption of Aristotle as a nod to the person and his specific teachings (which it certainly was in that long age of established scholarly authority) or one could also take it to be the church’s adoption (baptism) of the best natural philosophy the present age had to offer (i.e. Aristotle).  The Islamic world was pursuing such knowledge and rapidly advancing beyond the European world in mathematical and scientific learnings.  So while one can fault Aquinas for claiming ‘Aristotle’ for Christianity, he probably shouldn’t be faulted for claiming reason and knowledge in general as a necessary tool for the Christian life; especially in light of evangelical shortcomings of recent centuries.  Had Aquinas been alive today, do you imagine he would have scorned the science of our day?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73378

October 6th 2012


I do not blame Aquinas or Aristotle for their ideas.

I blame the Church for accepting them as final.

Skl - #73381

October 6th 2012

To Roger,

Regarding your #73374:

I think the Catholic Church would agree completely with Luther on those beliefs as you state them.

One clarification on your last Luther point: I believe the Church would say that the “holy sacrifice” of the Mass does not mean Christ is being sacrificed and dying again, for He died once for all. The Church says His one-time sacrifice is re-presented; His sacrifice on Calvary was in time (i.e. a real historical event), was for all time, and is now beyond time, just as God is beyond time. Jesus’ sacrifice is made present in the Mass.

Paying a priest - to celebrate a Mass for a soul in purgatory - is customary but not required. The dollar amount is usually nominal (e.g. five dollars) but is at the discretion of the requester, not the priest. Such a Mass would be in addition to the ordinary daily Masses and multiple Sunday Masses a typical parish has. Most non-Catholic pastors not only appreciate, but require the financial contributions of their flock. Priests aren’t getting rich on this. I think these guys are worth their “wages” (cf. Luke 10:7).

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73382

October 6th 2012


If Catholics believe in Purgatory, their faith is very different from that of Protestants.

I am not arguing that people should not pay ministers, I am saying that the theology behind this is not correct.  Christians are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any works done before or after death. 

Also if the bread and the wine of the Mass are truly the body and blood of Jesus Christ, then how can one really say that His Body is not being broken and His Blood is not being shed at the Mass?  Maybe I do not understand how something can be real and not be real.

It seems to me that the reality of the Covenant of Jesus Christ is present through the Holy Spirit, not through the reality of the Body and Blood.   

GJDS - #73384

October 6th 2012

Christ told his disciples to do this in remeberance of him - the last supper was in fact celebrated during the Jewish holy day that commemorated Israel leaving Egypt, and shown to represent leaving behind sin. Arguing against the bread and wine offered by the priest to the Christian (for the remission of our sins) is an odd argument and contradicts the Gospel.

Skl - #73385

October 6th 2012

To Roger,

You said “If Catholics believe in Purgatory, their faith is very different from that of Protestants.”

I would think that is one of those things that goes without saying. Not just about purgatory but many other things too.

The unavoidable implication, of course, is that Protestants believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Church which is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (cf. 1 Tim 3:15), taught and practiced theological falsehoods for 1,500 years, until Martin Luther set things aright. (Or perhaps Calvin or Zwingli.) And has continued to do so for the 500 years since. 

But that goes without saying.

Merv - #73386

October 7th 2012

Skl wrote:

The unavoidable implication, of course, is that Protestants believe that the Church founded by Jesus Christ, the Church which is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (cf. 1 Tim 3:15), taught and practiced theological falsehoods for 1,500 years, until…

You said it!  (even if you don’t agree with it ... but let’s run with it for a moment.)

Martin Luther set a few things straight that badly needed straightening, and others beyond him also  (I’m from the Anabaptist / Mennonite tradition that insisted Luther, Zwingli stopped too soon and made the same mistakes of trying to be cozy with the state.)  But all of us, in the end, have to some extent practiced and preached falsehoods if we’ve practiced or preached at all.  So don’t be too hard on yourselves.  Peter was called ‘Satan’ by Christ at one point (quite the rebuke, don’t you think?), but that didn’t stop Christ from using Peter even with Peter’s continued faultiness.


Merv - #73387

October 7th 2012

I just was blessed with a church service where we celebrated communion (and I guess this was part of a ‘world-communion Sunday’, so perhaps some of you did too.)

We were challenged to have softened hearts towards each other (emphasis on the relational side of life—I thought of you, Roger, and appreciate your reminders to us about that.)  And, in fact, I thought of all of you—‘you’ being those on this thread and this web site as a kind of fellowship that has meant much to me even though I don’t even know most of your real names.  But all our petty squabbles and differing perspectives aside for the moment, I appreciate all of you, Catholic and Protestant alike, and continue to learn from you all.  As far as cyber-fellowships go, this one is precious to me—imperfections and all.  May any of you reading this also enjoy our unity in Christ among your own communities as well as right here.


Skl - #73388

October 7th 2012

To Merv,

Communion is great, if it’s true communion, communion in every key sense. Otherwise, it’s disingenuous.

If there be a question here, it is not about whether “all of us, in the end, have to some extent practiced and preached falsehoods if we’ve practiced or preached at all. So don’t be too hard on yourselves.”

Christians’ practice and preaching of course usually lacks perfection.

If there be a question here, I think it is whether what the Church calls doctrinal, dogmatic truth is indeed true.

A follow up question is whether St. Paul was delusional or deceitful. Or disingenuous (cf. 1 Tim 3:15).

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