Willing to be Wrong

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September 29, 2012 Tags: Christian Unity

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

Willing to be Wrong

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.

Notes

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 - #73391

October 7th 2012

GJDS wrote:

Christ told his disciples to do this in remembrance of Him -

No problem or question asbout this.

 the last supper was in fact celebrated during the Jewish holy day that commemorated Israel leaving Egypt,

Again no problem.  It is thought to a Passover Seder

and shown to represent leaving behind sin.

Communion means more than that.  Passover represents the Exodus event which marks the liberation of the Hebrews slaves and results in the Mosaic Covenant which is the basis if Judaism.  It also marks a paradigm by which John could say, “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”     

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.

This is a problem.  Are the bread and wine being offered or the body and blood?  During ther Passover Seder foods represent different aspects of the event.  Nowhere are they “real.” 

It seems to me that insisting that the body and the blood are real diminishes the spiritual, relational aspect of Communion.  It suggests that that the material Body and Blood are themselves a cure for sin of the eater and drinker, rather than an act of grace that demands a grateful response.  

The Protestant believes that Jesus Christ is our Mediator, so humans no longer need a human priest to act as mediator between God and humanity.  Jesus and the Holy Spirit is all we need and have. 

Read the book of Hebrews.  Jesus is our High Priest.  He offers Himself up on the Cross as Sacrifce once and for all for the sins and sin of the universe.  During the Seder there is no role for a priest.  During Passover there is no role for a priest.  Why do we need priests today in the Church other than the Priest of the order of Melchizedek?

Another problem is the closed nature communion table of the Roman Church.

With that said I as a Protestant believe that Christians are not saved by theology or by being a faithful member of a particular church.  Christians are saved by grace though faith in Jesus Christ.  This true from the beginning to the end.  We are members of the Body of God the Son, Jesus Christ, which believes in God the Father and are united by God the Holy Spirit.         

There are three historic faith communites, the Orthodox Eastern Church, which looks to the Ecumenical Councils for its authority; the Roman Catholic Church, which looks to its tradition for its authority; and the Western Protestant Church, which looks to the Bible and the Holy Spirit for its authority.

There are also three Persons of the Trinity.

I see all three faith communities believe in the Trinity, but each tends to emphasize a particular Person.  The Orthodox emphasize the Father more than the other two.  The Roman Church is headed by the Vicar of Christ.  The Protestant often depends too much on the Spirit.  

The Persons of the Trinity are equal.  Thus each faith community has a problem, but taken together they are right.  God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in three Persons.    


GJDS - #73397

October 8th 2012

Roger,

Christ said “do this ....” that means we are to do what Christ stated that we should do.

Christ said the bread symbolizes his body broken, and the wine his blood spilt, for the remission of our sins. They ate the bread and drank the wine. It is impossible to rationalise or re-read this.

As the the priesthood, Hebrews shows that the Levitical priesthood was set up by Moses, but an older priesthood is traced back to Christ, before Abraham who recognised him. This does not remove the preisthood - anything but - the priesthood is established forever, as Christ himself is the head, or High Priest. This is unambiguous; Paul also shows this in his letters, on how they are to serve/minster to the Church.

As to the trinity, it may be useful for you to follow the history and know the various arguments in the initial centuries regarding the attributes and nature of God and Christ. You will find out it is a formalism (or creed) to affirm that we believe in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The creed was set up to separate the Church from the heresies that were beginning to rage at about that time. It is not an addition to the Bible, but a wording that affirms the Biblical teaching. I do not know where you get your information, but the Orthodox tradition (and I am certain the Catholic tradition also) always says, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - God has revealed Himself to us as this. There is not need to elaborate or become intellectual on this matter.

As to what people may believe regarding salvation, no matter what their tradition of background, we either believe that Christ is our saviour, and He paid for our sins by His broken body and shed blood, and His death, or we are not Christian. Again we do not need elaboration on this.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73398

October 8th 2012

GJDS,

I was arguing against the Catholic doctrine of the transubstantiation of the wine and bread.  I expect that this is a situation where the scholastic philosophy has ill served the Roman Church.  Protestants certainly agree that the bread and the win represent or symbolize the Body and Blood of Jesus, but in no way are transformed into them.  Do you?

Another issue at the time of Luther was that the laity received Communion only of one kind, while the clergy received Communion of both kinds.  Thank God that now that Catholic laity receive Communion of both.

I also want to make the point that I and other Protestants are not against Communion or even against the Catholic form of Communion.  We just disagree with it and the theology behind it.  If Catholics want to join with us in Communion as we understand it that is great and we could unite the Christian Church around the world.     


GJDS - #73399

October 8th 2012

Roger,

The teaching in the Gospels is clear. The traditions and activities may implement this in slightly differing ways; that is why they are called traditions. The Orthodox tradition stipulates that if one wishes to partake of the bread and the wine, he/she needs to observe a prescribed fast for one week, and then present before the priest as he offers the bread and wine. Ask anyone and they will tell you they recieve the body of Christ and his blood, for the remission of sin.

I do not know of anyone who would be bothered with the exact wording, nor would anyone say they had just eaten human flesh or drank human blood. I have heard extreme atheists using such horrifoc terminalology; I think they are nuts.

So I do not know of the theology you are refering to. I agree with you that differing traditions may celebrate in different ways of ‘doing this to remember Christ’, but they are doing what Christ instructed.

The understanding is the same, if it is according to the Gospel.


lancelot10 - #75561

December 20th 2012

In John did not the Jewish converts walk away when they heard Jesus talk of eating his flesh and blood  - Jesus did not reassure them but used stronger terms for eating his flesh and blood.    I thought this was one reason that christians were persecuted by the romans who called them cannibals - who eat the flesh of their God.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73400

October 8th 2012

GJDS wrote:

The understanding is the same, if it is according to the Gospel.

The problem is how the different churces understand the Gospel. 

If you think that there are no important theological differences that separate the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Churches, you are mistaken.  If you think that there are important spiritual ties that should unite them, I agree.


GJDS - #73401

October 8th 2012

Roger,

I am refering to the subject under discussion - you have somehow changed the discussion; obviously there are differences otherwise they would be one organisation.


Skl - #73410

October 8th 2012

To Dunemeister,

Eddie wrote to you “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.”

You might also look in particular at the many Anglicans/Episcopalians who have entered the Catholic Church through the Pastoral Provision. Here are 400 from Texas who are coming en masse into the fold this year.  http://www.virtueonline.org/portal/modules/news/article.php?storyid=16529


Skl - #73412

October 8th 2012

To GJDS,

You wrote “Christ said the bread symbolizes his body broken”.

Christ did not say anything about symbols in this context. He said this IS my body. The Church has always taught that He meant exactly what He said.

 

Many believe Christ was using symbols or metaphors here, similar to the way He said I am the vine, or I am the light of the world. I don’t know if anything’s been written about this, but I wonder if it is significant that Christ’s supposed use of metaphor at the Last Supper goes in the opposite direction of His obvious use of metaphors elsewhere. In the latter cases, He goes from Himself to something else, e.g. I am the vine. At the Last Supper, however, He goes from something else to Himself, i.e. This bread is my body.  


GJDS - #73421

October 8th 2012

Ski,

My point is on the activity the priest undergoes when he offers the bread and wine; there are some differences in this between traditions, but not in the belief. The question you are asking would simply lead to useless arguments. For example, Christ is sitting next to his disciples and says, breaking the bread, this is my body. Are you suggesting he dissapeared and became the bread in his hands, to make the meaning IS in his statement? I think not. I am simply illustrating how we can easily get into pointless debates.


Skl - #73413

October 8th 2012

To Roger:

You noted “There are three historic faith communites, the Orthodox Eastern Church … the Roman Catholic Church …and the Western Protestant Church”. You highlighted some differences among them and seemed to find fault(s) with each.

If none of these have it completely right, are you considering founding a fourth historic faith community?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73418

October 8th 2012

GJDS,

You say we have gotten off topic and maybe we have.

Let me review the discusion as I experienced it.  People were discussing the differences between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches and talk turned to the Reformation.

One of the big issues of the Reformation was the sale of indulgences and some one said that this practice was forbiden by the Council of Trent.  My response was that the sale of indulgences was a serious problem, a bigger issue was the doctrine of Purgatory which was behind the sale of indulgences.  An example of how this doctrine still works is the payment by people to priests for the saying of Masses in order to help dearly departed friends and family speed their way through purgatory to heaven.  

Now I understand that you are a member of the Orthodox communion.  I do not know if you are familiar with the issues between Protestant and the Catholic theological traditions.  That is all I was discussing.  They are real and important, even though they should not preclude discussion, cooperation, and fellowship.  


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73420

October 8th 2012

Skl,

I am sorry you did not understand my point of view. 

We need to work to improve our churches and the theology that we have.  We should not be satisfied until we have done our best.

I am not a relativist.  I believe that Truth really exists and people through the Bible, the Holy Spirit and their God given minds can find it, but we must be still looking.  We should not be satisfied with our tradition because it is our tradition. 

On the other hand God has established the churches that we do have.  They are informed by the Bible and inspired by the Holy Spirit, even though they are imperfect.  There is no reason to throw them into the ash heap because they are not perfect.  We must seek out the best of each and build on it.   

We are sinners made loving by grace, not people made perfect by Wisdom.   

 


Skl - #73425

October 8th 2012

To Roger:

Speaking, I assume, of at least the Orthodox Eastern Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Western Protestant Church, you wrote “On the other hand God has established the churches that we do have.”

No, God did not establish the churches (plural) that we have. He established one Church (cf. Mat 16:18).

He has allowed many churches. He allows many things (cf. Mat 13:24-43).


Skl - #73427

October 8th 2012

To GJDS,

You wrote “For example, Christ is sitting next to his disciples and says, breaking the bread, this is my body. Are you suggesting he dissapeared and became the bread in his hands, to make the meaning IS in his statement?”

Of course I’m not suggesting Jesus disappeared into the bread. But I am saying, the Church is saying, that at that point, the bread was no longer bread. At this point, one would need to delve into discussions of reality, involving philosophical definitions for terms like “form”, “substance”, “accidents”. I’m not going to so delve. At least not now.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73475

October 9th 2012

IMHO the question is not the words of Communion, but the meaning of Communion.

Christanity, like Judaism is a covenantal faith.  We have the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  We don’t talk about covenant, but there it is in the words of Jesus “the new covenant in My Blood, which is shed for you.” 

Protestants recognize only 2 sacraments Baptism and Communion.  Baptism marks our the initiation into the covenant by the Holy Spirit, while Communion marks our renewal of the covenant.  The problem is that the Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestant Church understand our covenant with God through Jesus somewhat differently and this is reflected in how they celebrate Communion.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #73480

October 9th 2012

The topic of this post is Willing to be Wrong.

There is only one way not to do make a mistake and that is to do nothing.

Christians are sinners, which mean we have done our share of wrong.  However we recognize our sinfulness.  We do not ask people to follow us, but to follow Jesus Christ. 

It should not be hard for us to admit that we are wrong, but it is much of the time.  We need to confess the pride that makes us unwilling to reconsider our way of thinking and follow Jesus. 

The Canaanite woman asked Jesus to cure her daughter.  He said, No.  I have come for the lost sheep of Israel.  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”   

He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and admited that she had no right to his help, but appealed to His good nature. 

Jesus relented and healed her daughter, thus reversing the curse against the descendants of Canaan.    


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