Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Calvinism, Part 8

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In my last post, we looked at how nineteenth century Princeton Theological Seminary (a.k.a. “Old Princeton”) handled one pressing challenge of the day: European Higher Criticism, especially that of Julius Wellhausen and the Documentary Hypothesis. The Old Princeton response to Wellhausen was not over the existence of sources behind the Pentateuch, but where Wellhausen placed the Law of Moses—after the return from Babylonian Exile.

Placing the Law of Moses last in Israel’s history rather than at the beginning essentially claimed that the entire Old Testament is not a revelation of God’s acts in history but a product of late political propaganda. This theory was widely accepted in academic circles at the time and was also being taught to future pastors and missionaries (as we saw in mylast post). Old Princeton’s Old Testament scholars, namely W. H. Green, dedicated much of their scholarly energy in countering Wellhausen’s theory.

Old Princeton was very keen to defend the essential historical value of the Old Testament, but that does not mean that its scholars were oblivious to the need to treat new and challenging data fairly and to adjust views when needed. They were quite aware of the need to interpret the Old Testament in its historical context, and that advances in our understanding of that context should affect the interpretation of Scripture.

Wellhausen’s theory was rooted entirely in what we might call “internal data”—the biblical text itself. His theory was met with counterarguments by Old Princeton, likewise dealing with the internal data of Scripture. But the two other challenges of the nineteenth century—Biblical Archaeology and science—introduced “external data” that had to be accounted for.

We see in the writings of Old Princeton’s scholars a clear awareness of the need to account for external data. But, unlike their response to Wellhausen, their interactions with the external data were not as pronounced. Given the pressing need of the day—to respond to Wellhausen—plus the fact that archaeology and evolutionary theory were only very recent developments, we can understand why Old Princeton did not deal as fully with the external data.

There are in their writings, however, progressive trajectories that are promising for the current state of Evangelicalism regarding how Scripture and science can be in conversation.

Bible in Context

The distinctive mark of a Calvinist approach to the Bible, as we saw in earlier posts about John Calvin, is that the Bible reflects its historical contexts. God did not “write the Bible” as an abstract treatise, hurtled down to earth from an Olympian height, nor as a Platonic ideal kept at a safe distance from the human drama. (The Dutch Reformed theologians were particularly adamant about that, and we will look at them at a later post.)

Rather, Scripture is God’s gracious revelation of himself and his actions in the concrete, everyday world of ancient Semitic and Hellenistic peoples. And for this reason, the study of Scripture as anhistorical phenomenon is neither optional nor peripheral for the church. Rather, although at times very challenging, it is a wonderful, vital, and indispensable responsibility for students of Scripture. Through such study, by God’s spirit, we, as students of Scripture, come to learn more deeply and more broadly who God is and what he has done.

This attitude is a distinctive mark of the history of Reformed biblical scholarship, back to Calvin, but I do not want to imply that such historical sensitivity is the sole property of Calvinism. Not at all. Also, I am not implying that the work of Old Princeton in this regard is above criticism. I simply mean that “Bible in context” has been handled quite intentionally, seriously, and with great profit in the history of Reformed biblical scholarship. Bearing this point of view in mind is indispensable for current Evangelical conversations about the nature of Scripture and the science/faith dialogue.

Some Soundings of a Trajectory

Given the tense climate of the nineteenth century, it is instructive to see how relatively daring Old Princeton was in reading the Bible with historical sensitivity. A good example is none other than W. H. Green, the fierce opponent of Wellhausen’s influence. Green was clear that one cannot divorce the Bible from serious historical investigation. The following excerpt from Green reflects a sound principle of biblical interpretation:

No objection can be made to the demand that the sacred writings should be subject to the same critical tests as other literary products of antiquity. When were they written, and by whom? For whom were they intended, and with what end in view? These are questions that may fairly be asked respecting the several books of the Bible, as respecting other books, and the same criteria that are applicable likewise in the other. Every production of any age bears the stamp of that age. It takes its shape from influences then at work. It is part of the life of the period, and can only be properly estimated and understood from being viewed in its original connections. Its language will be the language of the time when it was produced. The subject, the style of thought, the local and personal allusions, will have relation to the circumstances of the period, to which in fact the whole and every part of it must have its adaptation, and which must have their rightful place in determining its true explanation. Inspiration has no tendency to obliterate those distinctive qualities and characteristics which link men to their own age.

This is a wonderful articulation of Reformed biblical scholarship. The Bible “bears the stamp” of the age in which it was written. The language, style of thought, and local flavor of Scripture reflect the fact that it is produced in concrete times and places, which influence what Scripture looks like. The authors of Scripture are linked “to their own age.”

These are not just nice, theoretical sentiments about Scripture. They reflect what it means to show Scripture its due respect as historically situated revelation. Clearly, Green’s words indicate an expectation to be influenced by developments in Old Testament studies concerning “Bible in Context.”

This is just one example of a general “attitude” of Old Princeton concerning the Bible as text that reflects historical circumstances. The question, though, is how and where to apply the principle. In my next post, I will give one concrete example where this principle is put into practice: the book of Ecclesiastes.


About the Author

Pete Enns

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

More posts by Pete Enns