Evolution and our Theological Traditions: Calvinism


#Introduction

Calvinism has been a dominant Protestant theological tradition since its teachings were first systematically articulated by John Calvin (1509-64). Many, both Calvinists and others, would argue that there is no more intellectually potent tradition to come out of the Protestant Reformation, and not without reason. It is known for its intellectual depth and detailed argumentation, and has for these reasons had a strong influence on the development of Protestant thinking. Thus it is reasonable for us to begin our discussions here, for some of the issues we lay out with respect to Calvinism will be repeated in one form or another in other traditions (though not all) through to Evangelicalism today.

We will focus on Calvinism and the Bible. Specifically, we will begin today to look at how Calvin approached the task of biblical interpretation.

One way to focus our task further is to ask what was distinctive about how Calvin handled Scripture in his time. I think there are two distinctive elements: emphasis on the grammatical-historical dimension of Scripture, and the expectation that Christ is the central subject of Scripture. As we will see, these two elements can sometimes be in tension, but Calvin was nevertheless committed to them and expounded them with great insight.

Certainly Calvin’s view of Scripture could also be described by familiar concepts such as inspiration, infallibility, biblical authority, etc., but these are not what set Calvin and his followers apart from other traditions. I do not mean to suggest that Calvin held property rights to grammatical-historical interpretation or Christ-centeredness of Scripture. But, these were a focus of Calvin’s thinking more so than in other traditions.

One way to see these distinctives at work is to looks at how Calvin handled three issues of his day: (1) his reaction to Catholic and Anabaptist views; (2) literal vs. allegorical interpretation; and (3) accommodation and typology. We will look at the first of these today.

Calvin on Catholic and Anabaptist Interpretation

Calvin had rather harsh words for both Catholic and Anabaptist interpretation of the Bible. I do not agree personally with Calvin’s rhetoric on this topic, but if we look beyond it, we will see something of Calvin’s distinctives, which is our goal.

According to Calvin, Anabaptists and Catholics were both guilty of “Judaizing” Scripture—an unfortunate term that clearly echoes Paul’s energetic denunciation of the so-called Judaizers in Galatians. What Calvin meant was that both of these groups failed to read the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ. However, these two groups accomplished their Judaizing in two opposite ways.

Calvin argued that Catholics made the mistake of subordinating the New Testament message to that of the Old Testament. This implied for Calvin that the Old Testament was of a higher authority than the New Testament, and so, in substance, was no different than Jewish exegesis. In fact, in his polemics against the Catholic Church, Calvin even went so far as to refer to their theologians as “those rabbis.”

One example may help illustrate. The Catholic justification for priestly vestments was rooted in the Old Testament, for example the priestly regulations governing the tabernacle in the book of Exodus (chapter 25 and following). Calvin saw this as evidence of a Catholic tendency (or any liturgically-minded tradition) to read the Old Testament as a standard for Christian practice. In doing so, Calvin argued, Catholics either reject or at least subordinate the New Testament teaching (for example, in Hebrews) that the person and work of Christ renders null and void the legitimacy of these Old Testament regulations. (One might wonder if Calvin’s strong views on the Sabbath suggest an inconsistency on his part, but that is neither here nor there for our topic.)

Hence, in Calvin’s eyes, Catholics were guilty of Judaizing by elevating the Old Testament to an authoritative standard of religious practice even when the New Testament nullifies those practices. For Calvin, Catholics missed the point of the gospel. Of course, lying not too far beneath the surface of this rhetoric was the climate of deep suspicion and animosity in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Theological debates about Scripture never happen in a vacuum, which participants of the science/faith discussion today can readily attest to.

By contrast, the Anabaptists were guilty of the opposite extreme. They were so intent on reading the Old Testament in light of the New that they lost sight of the distinctiveness of God’s revelation in the period before the coming of Christ. As Calvin saw it, Anabaptists saw no role for the Old Testament in the life of the believer. Hence, Anabaptists “Judaized” the Old Testament by restricting its relevance to Judaism.

For example, Anabaptists argued that the Patriarchs partook merely of earthly blessings, e.g. the promise of possessions, land, and children. In response Calvin argued that the New Testament itself presents the Gospel of grace as being available by faith proleptically but in reality in the Old Testament—in which Calvin is following Paul’s presentation of Abraham’s faith in Romans 4. Anabaptists, although claiming the name of Christ, were actually Jewish in their interpretation of the Old Testament by failing to follow the lead of the New Testament.

To put it another way, Anabaptists held to a rigid promise-fulfillment scheme of the two testaments. The OT was merely promise. In other words, there was no actual salvation in the OT, since it was promise. The fulfillment came with Christ. In rejecting this view, Calvin argued that the OT believer actually partook of the blessings in Christ, albeit proleptically, but still in reality.

To summarize, Catholics Judaized the OT by putting it on a level higher than that of the NT. Anabaptists Judaized the OT by rendering it irrelevant to the Church, i.e., by relinquishing it to Judaism.

Whether or not Calvin was entirely correct in his estimations, his hermeneutic was an attempt to balance these two extremes. Against the Anabaptists, he wanted to give the Old Testament its due recognition as divine revelation that pointed to the Gospel. Against the Catholics, he refrained from elevating the Old Testament to the status of guide for interpreting the New.

This attempt to achieve balance also lead to some tensions in Calvin’s hermeneutic, and watching him work them out will give us a clearer picture of what he and his tradition have bequeathed to subsequent generations and centuries.

Calvin’s assessment of these two traditions has to be understood in terms of his own moment in history, and what he has to say about these two traditions can hardly be taken as the final word.

What his assessment shows us, however, is Calvin’s commitment to allow the voice of the Old Testament to speak while also allowing the New Testament to have the final word. Calvin is clearly committed to finding some balance between the beliefs that (1) all Scripture is revelatory and therefore is to be respected, and (2) that revelation ultimately finds its fullest expression in the gospel.

In other words: Calvin sought to respect the context of the Old Testament while also realizing that Christ makes a difference in how one appropriates the Old Testament. This, I would suggest, is an unavoidable tension for all Christian readers, and it comes to bear on the science/faith discussion (i.e., how to read Genesis), which we will get to after we look at the next two distinctive of Calvin’s hermeneutic. We turn to the second of those distinctives below.

#Literalism vs. Allegorical Interpretation: the Importance of Grammatical-Historical interpretation

The issue before Calvin was how to read the Old Testament without giving in to the “Judaizing” extremes that he saw in Catholicism and the Anabaptists. His approach was what we might call “grammatical-historical” today. This is not a term that Calvin would have recognized, but the idea was certainly familiar to him. In fact, Calvin’s attention to both the historical circumstances of the Old Testament and to the Hebrew grammar was as rigorous as one would find among his contemporaries.

It is worth noting that Calvin felt it important to address the historical context of Scripture as a way of grounding a text’s interpretation. Of course, Calvin’s understanding of the ancient world was minimal at best—much of the context of Scripture we take for granted today was unknown to him. Still, Calvin had keen historical instincts owing to his humanist training, which sought to rediscover the cultural values and norm of antiquity. This included a study of the original languages of texts. Calvin applied this same mindset to Scripture.

Put differently, this first question to be asked of the Old Testament was not “What does this mean for me?” or even “What does this mean in light of Christ?” Rather, the first question was “What did this mean in the original setting in which God’s revelation was given?” How that original context then relates to the Christological context and personal application is another matter, one that introduces some tensions, as already mentioned and which we will get to in time.

Calvin’s commitment to historical and grammatical contexts led him to arrive at interpretive conclusions that were not always in sync with his Christian contemporaries. For example, in his Genesis commentary (on 1:6 concerning the firmament), Calvin famously quipped, “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.” Calvin simply meant that, given its moment in history, Genesis does not teach astronomy, but rather speaks in such a way that everyone at all times can relate to: no scientific conclusions should be deduced from this description of the cosmos. In Genesis, the cosmos is described as it was seen by ancient peoples, not as it is scientifically.

Similarly, Calvin’s comment on Hosea 6:7 shows his attention to grammatical context. In this verse we have the lone reference to Adam outside of Genesis (with the exception of 1 Chronicles 1:1)—specifically, a reference to Israel breaking the covenant “like” Adam. The Hebrew could be understood as “like Adam”, meaning the person, or “as at Adam”, meaning a geographic location.

The fact that the passage continues by referring back to “Adam” by the adverb “there,” and also mentions Shechem and Bethel as other locations of rebellion, made the matter clear for Calvin: Adam is a place, not a person. It is very tempting to find here the lone Old Testament reference to Adam’s rebellion in the Garden, but Calvin would have none of it and seemed to lose patience with those who insisted on reading the person Adam into Hosea 6:7. Such a reading, Calvin wrote, is “frigid and diluted” and “vapid,” not worthy even of refutation.

Paying attention to the historical and grammatical context of the Old Testament sometimes led Calvin to bucking the trend. Most clearly this pertains to Calvin’s disdain for allegory. Since the examination of context was foundational to Calvin, he had no place for allegory, which he felt was arbitrary.

Calvin was not unique in his rejection of allegory (given the general “humanistic” climate mentioned above), but that rejection was still somewhat against the mainstream of the day. Allegory in the church is rooted in Origen (185-254) and was a common approach to biblical interpretation throughout much the 1500 years prior to Calvin (including Paul, see Galatians 4:21-31). But Calvin’s concern was that allegory downplayed the Christ-centered message of the Old.

Calvin felt that by divorcing Scripture from history (as allegory tends to do) the truth and reality of the gospel was in danger—which is a great irony, since allegorical interpretation arose precisely to advance Christological readings of Scripture.

Further, allegory took the Bible out of the hands of the people and into the hands of experts. Only those with literary sensitivity and training could see the deeper allegorical meanings in the text. Although here too is an irony, since a historically responsible handling of the Bible requires its own kind of expertise (e.g., knowing Greek and Hebrew), and the subjectivity of allegory actually made it more available to the uneducated.

In any event, Calvin’s grammatical-historical approach was a move to respect the context of Scripture, and so he saw himself as correcting the allegorical tradition of early and medieval exegesis. A contextual reading for Calvin was a necessary first step to mining Scripture in his theology. This is certainly understandable today—even instinctual—but it also introduced a tension for Calvin that we can see him working out here and there: the New Testament authors do not always seem rooted in the grammatical historical context of Scripture.

This problem led Calvin to the twin concepts of accommodation and typology. These concepts were Calvin’s way of respecting the climactic word of God in Christ without dismissing the Old Testament context. Seeing them at work shows something of Calvin’s theological sensitivity even where maintaining this balance creates interesting tensions.

At this juncture, the question for us to be pondering is the role that context plays today in interpreting Scripture. Should the approach Calvin advocated be practiced today in view of the great wealth of historical information we have at our finger tips, even if that leads to non-traditional interpretations? In other words, can one take a grammatical-historical reading of Scripture too far?

#Accommodation and Typology

Calvin’s embrace of a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, ironically, led him to reject time honored Christological interpretations of certain texts.

One example is the Hebrew word for God, elohim. This word is plural in form, and so many Christian interpreters had previously understood elohim as a reference to the Trinity. But Calvin thought that reading the Trinity into this plural word was frivolous and did not agree with the “natural” sense of the word as it is used throughout the Old Testament.

Ironically, it was just such a contextually sensitive approach to Old Testament interpretation that led some of Calvin’s opponents to accuse him of Judaizing! After all, if Calvin was so concerned about reading the Old Testament as a Christian book (as he claimed), why did he reject other people’s Christological interpretations? He did so because while reading elohim as a reference to the Trinity may be Christological, it was nevertheless wholly out of sync with how the word functions in context.

But this raises a big question: if Calvin rejected this kind of Christological interpretation, how did he read Christ in the Old Testament at all? How did he go about seeing Christ’s presence in the Old Testament on the one hand, while at the same time interpreting the Old Testament grammatical-historically?

This is where the two related ideas of accommodation and typology come in, and with these two ideas we really arrive at the heart of Calvin’s approach to Old Testament interpretation.

According to Calvin, accommodation is a pedagogical tool, so to speak, that God employs to communicate to human beings. God is infinite, and we are finite. God has complete knowledge, and we see only partially. This is even more so in light of sin: the gulf between God and us is greater still.

Therefore, if God wishes to speak to us, he must bridge this gulf by descending into our world and speaking our language. In other words, God accommodates himself to our ability to comprehend. This is what Calvin famously refers to as God’s “lisping.” He talks to his people as a father would talk to his young children. He speaks in ways that we understand.

Two brief examples will illustrate this point. First of all, God accommodates himself in his creation. We cannot observe God’s “naked essence,” as Calvin puts it—that is always hidden from his creatures. We cannot behold God directly. But we can see his glory through his creation. God speaks to us in ways that we can understand.

Another example, and by far the most important, is Christ himself. This is God’s ultimate act of accommodation. Jesus is fully God, yet he is fully human as well. There is no more direct way for God to speak to us than by becoming one of us.

Like creation and Christ, the Old Testament is an example of God accommodating himself to speak to ancient Israelites. Throughout the Old Testament, God was speaking in ways that the Israelites in their time and place could understand. This is why there are many elements of God’s revelation in the Old Testament that are very similar to what we find among Israel’s neighbors. In fact, as is well known, there is hardly a single element of Israelite culture that does not reflect well-established practices (e.g., sacrificial systems, priests, temples, kings, prophets, law codes, wisdom sayings).

But this does not mean that God, in accommodating himself in the Old Testament, was merely “reacting” to the culture. Rather, embedded (so to speak) in these cultural structures was their ultimate focus: Christ. And this is where the notion of typology comes in.

For example, God accommodated himself in the Old Testament sacrificial system. But, according to Calvin, God did so not merely to fit into the surrounding ancient Near Eastern environment. Rather, he did so because the idea of sacrifice is woven into creation to prefigure the sacrifice of Christ, an idea that is then parodied by other ancient cultures. Likewise, the temple as the dwelling place of God’s glory prefigures Christ in whom the fullness of God’s glory dwells.

Another way of putting this is that all cultures have in some sense God’s ultimate Christ-centered purpose “built in” to them. It is in this sense that Calvin can say Christ is truly “in” the Old Testament, even if his Old Testament presence is only a shadowy anticipation of the real thing.

Typology refers to the presence in seed form in the Old Testament (through sacrifice, temple, etc.) of what will later become a New Testament, in-Christ, full-flowered reality. That is how Calvin read the Old Testament respecting the original context while at the same time seeing that God’s accommodation to the Old Testament world is ultimately forward-looking.

This quick sketch does not do full justice to Calvin, but even so there are tensions in Calvin’s hermeneutic that may not be adequately worked out. Indeed, perhaps these could not be worked out during his historical moment, but the more generous point to note is that Calvin even attempted to work through these tensions at all.

Still, at times Calvin found himself in a hermeneutical dilemma. For Calvin, the Holy Spirit must be regarded as an authoritative guide to the meaning of the Old Testament. But Calvin also conceded that the New Testament writers sometimes appear to twist (his word, albeit in Latin) the Old Testament to meanings that are foreign to the original writer’s intention.

He sometimes solved the difficulty by arguing that it was not always the intent of the New Testament writers to interpret the Old Testament texts that they cited. Sometimes they used the Old Testament for illustrative, or “pious” purposes (e.g., Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 (preceding 7 verses provided for context)). Of course, one wonders how Calvin could know what the writers’ purposes were, but the principle remains all the same. No interpretive errors are made if no interpretation is taking place.

Sometimes, however, Calvin did believe that, even in their forced use of the Old Testament, the New Testament writers intended to interpret the Old Testament (e.g., Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17). In such cases he allowed the New Testament to inform him about what the Old Testament writer may have understood and intended.

This solution is ad hoc, however, and is in considerable tension with Calvin’s commitment to grammatical-historical interpretation: he is making a final interpretive judgment by appealing to something that is beyond the context of that passage and even in tension with that passage.

As I said, this is a tension all interpreters have to live with, and what is quite refreshing is that Calvin bothered to engage the issue at all.

#The Big Issue

The three distinctives mentioned above unite to point us toward a single hermeneutical dilemma that Christians still face and that is immediately relevant to the hermeneutical dimension of the science/faith discussion: How do the Old and New Testaments relate to each other, especially when we try to respect each in the historical context of their own revelatory moment?

To put it another way, Calvin operated under a hermeneutical tension: responsible biblical interpretation must respect the text’s historical context and the New Testament as God’s final revelatory, and therefore ultimately authoritative, word.

This same tension remains today. In fact, it is exacerbated due to one factor that is fundamental to the science/faith discussion and the source of much of its tensions: we know much more of the context of Scripture today than Calvin did. Sometimes that added understanding of ancient contexts can be in tension with familiar traditional views. Further, sometimes the differing historical context of the two testaments can suggest tensions within the Christian canon.

In other words, respecting the historical particularity of any part of the Bible (grammatical-historical exegesis) can bring to the surface true theological diversity within the Christian canon. As I said, this is a true tension in Calvin’s hermeneutic, and tensions are more pressing today because of our state of knowledge.

Ordering Chaos or Creation out of Nothing?

One example of these tensions is seen in Genesis 1:1-2. Biblical scholars today—including most evangelical scholars—understand the act of creation in Genesis 1:1-2 to be describing not creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) but the ordering of pre-existent chaotic material.

The primary reason for this conclusion is our increased knowledge of ancient views of creation, such as the well-known Babylonian story Enuma Elish. Although some demur, these verses in Genesis are now routinely read as describing a pre-existent chaotic state where there is a watery “deep” over which God’s spirit hovers. The heavens and earth are created (better “formed”) by God first shedding light on this chaotic mass in day one. Next, he separates the waters into waters above and below by means of a firmament—a solid dome structure of some sort (day two). Then, the waters below are gathered to one place allowing the dry land to appear (day three).

We see here the pre-existence of a watery mass that makes impossible the existence of any life. God forms the livable space by pushing the waters around in order to form sky (inhabited by birds in day five) and by revealing the earth that was hidden by the waters (inhabited by land creatures, including humans, in day six).

Reading Genesis 1:1-2 against its ancient backdrop (i.e., according to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic) has led to various re-translations. Conventionally, this passage has been translated as we see in the NIV:

v. 1: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

v. 2: Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Actually, if we understand v. 1 as a heading for the entire chapter, the conventional translation is perfectly consistent with the “order out of chaos” notion. Some, however, read verse 1 as the first creative act (of the waters and the earth)—out of nothing. Verse 2 then simply recounts what God does with this material that he had just created out of nothing.

But the creation accounts we know of in antiquity provide us with a fresh understanding of the historical contextin which Genesis 1 operated. This has led to different translations of Genesis 1:1-2 that emphasize the pre-existent nature of at least the watery chaos and the earth beneath it. These translations treat verses 1 and 2 as one sentence. For example, this is how the NRSV puts it:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

There are numerous differences between the NIV and NRSV, but the main difference is “when” in the latter. Hence, we read that the formless and void earth, along with the waters, were already in existence as God began his creative work.

There are two difficulties with this reading for many Christian interpreters. First, this suggests that at least two things—earth and water—are potentially uncreated. I think this can be addressed simply by appealing to grammatical-historical exegesis: Genesis 1:1-2 speaks in terms of ancient conventions and may, therefore, not be interested in this question of ultimate origins and earth and water. Israel’s questions are not ours.

A more pressing problem, however, is that the New Testament may speak of “creation out of nothing.” This may be the case in John 1:3 (“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made”); Colossians 1:16 (“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”); and Hebrews 1:2 (through Christ, God “made the universe.”)

This is not the place to engage what these three New Testament passages are getting at, but from my point of view, they can be easily read as fully consistent with the preferred reading of Genesis 1:1-2 laid out above: Christ was present with the Father as he ordered chaos.

On the other hand, reading these passages as “creation out of nothing” is quite possible given the influence of Greek thought on the New Testament writers. This is far from a settled issue, but if we concede the point for the sake of discussion, we see the tension: should Genesis 1:1-2 be read as creation out of nothing because of the influence of the New Testament writers?

This is the dilemma we have already seen in Calvin’s hermeneutic. How do we allow the Testaments to speak to each other here, particularly in view of the fact that our increased understanding of the historical contexts (ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman) draws these passages further away from each other, not closer together?

This often raises the question of “how far” to take the historical context of Scripture in determining how Scripture should be understood. Do we stop applying a grammatical-historical hermeneutic when such intra-canonical tensions are produced? Does theological unity trump historical particularity (and therefore diversity)?

This was Calvin’s dilemma and our increased understanding of historical context exacerbates the tension. The question before us all is what to do about that tension.

What further increases the tension is the obvious point not yet mentioned. Well established scientific models of cosmic origins are very different, to say the least, than the biblical model. We now have a “scientific context” that has to be taken into account, not simply a literary one, when discussing origins.

Calvin famously quips that we should not expect from Genesis a portrait of accurate scientific astronomical information. Calvin understood that Genesis 1 is not a book of science. But, here too, the tension is exacerbated for us today. We know much more about origins scientifically than Calvin did. Does this mean that Calvin’s principle here about the heavenly bodies should also be applied to other scientific areas Calvin did not himself know of: namely cosmic origins?

The tension for Calvin was that historical sensitivity to the Old Testament context and how the New Testament authors handled the Old Testament do not always align very well—and in fact sometimes the two bring readers to very different interpretive destinations. Biblical examples abound, and one example Calvin struggled with is Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17. Calvin recognized the disparity between what Habakkuk meant and how Paul handled Habakkuk’s words. Calvin resolved this dilemma by saying that the New Testament here must inform us of what the Old Testament writer may have understood and intended. We see the difficulty of the hermeneutical tension by the fact that Calvin simply ceded hermeneutical control from the Old Testament context to the New Testament.

That tension is still very much a part of modern biblical interpretation for Christians who share Calvin’s two hermeneutical commitments—as is the case, generally speaking I would say, among Evangelicals. (And I would repeat here that some of modern Evangelicalism’s hermeneutical trajectories can be traced to the influence of Calvin and the Calvinists, which we will look at soon.)

An added tension for contemporary Christian readers, particularly those who are working out matters of science and faith, concerns the issue of historical context. Calvin’s Renaissance humanistic training drove him to interpret a text according to its original intention, and this is an approach we today quickly recognize as part and parcel of responsible biblical interpretation.

(Although, to round out the picture, privileging historical context as Calvin and other reformers did has not been shared universally by the Church throughout its history, namely in the early and medieval church. Readers today would do well to avoid simplistic dismissal of the various other methods that have characterized God’s people through history, but that is beyond our topic here.)

#How Far to Take Grammatical-Historical Interpretation?

But, the acute problem today is that the trajectory of Calvin’s historical instincts has gone in directions that he never could have envisioned. We know much more today about past history than Calvin did, and much of what we know does not line up well with what Calvin or others thought about Scriptural interpretation.

As is widely known, the study of ancient history over the past two centuries, particularly through archaeology and modern scientific investigations beginning with Galileo, has called into question the historicity of the creation story in Genesis. These disciplines have painted a very different picture of the historical context of Scripture than Calvin knew.

For example, Calvin knew that there was never physically a firmament as Genesis 1:6 describes. Rather, Calvin attributed this to Moses’ accommodation to the common people, who looked up and saw what appeared to be a solid dome overhead holding back the waters.

Calvin’s historical instincts here are spot on, in my opinion. He interpreted the firmament in terms of what common people would deduce based on their limited (actually, non-existent) scientific knowledge.

Today, however, we know that the Israelites were not the first to make this deduction, but Babylonian and Egyptian stories were there long before. The point is that the Israelites were describing the sky overhead not simply “as they saw it,” but within the context of the religious environment they shared with their influential, super-power neighbors. This, of course, raises the perennially troubling issue for some: that Israel’s Scripture contains ways of thinking that it shares with pagan religion.

This raises very practical questions, certainly for some Calvinists but for others as well:

How far do we follow through with the principle that Scripture should be interpreted in its historical context? What do we do if our study of historical context runs up against traditionally held interpretations? And, what do we do when our understanding of Genesis in its historical context runs up against what the New Testament says about those very same passages.

Biblical Origins and Historical Context

Calvin’s trajectories and the tensions that result come to a head when we enter the conversation between evolution and Christianity. (To be clear, in what follows, my intention is not to work toward a solution but to lay out the clear and unavoidable hermeneutical issues.)

How one today interprets the story of Adam in Genesis is greatly affected by the two factors that are in tension with each other in Calvin: historical context and canonical (between the New and Old Testaments) context.

As to historical context, our understanding of Genesis is now invariably set against the backdrop of our growing understanding of Israel’s faith in its own religious context (via biblical archaeology), and our scientific knowledge of the age and evolutionary development of the cosmos, our planet, and life on it.

The perennial hermeneutical question asked by Christians who look to Scripture as God’s word and who accept these historical evidences is: How does what we have come to know impact how we now read the Bible?

For some, the answer is to dismiss the challenge entirely—extra-biblical evidence, whether archaeology or science, has no place in biblical interpretation. Scripture, as God’s word, only interprets itself and no help is needed from the outside. This amounts to a rejection (or at least selective application) of Calvin’s hermeneutical trajectory. Others work through the data and interpret them differently, in ways that create less of a tension between the biblical and archaeological/scientific portrait, and that is another issue altogether. Here, the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation is still valued. The question is how to interpret the historical data and their value.

What brings the matter to an even more interesting level, however, is the second of Calvin’s principles: the role of the New Testament in how we understand the Old. The view of creation expressed in the New Testament is, not surprisingly, silent on the evolution of the cosmos. It speaks of a beginning in John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2, but is silent on what happens after the beginning. Paul, in Romans 5:12-21 and I Corinthians 15:21-49) does address the question of human origins. Paul clearly believed in a historical Adam as the first man with no hint of an evolutionary origin of humankind. We now know, however, that there was never a time when there was a single primordial couple who were the sole genetic progenitors for the entire human race.

Would Calvin have allowed this fact to influence his understanding of the New Testament writings? Would Calvin have placed Paul in a particular cultural context such that the question of whether Adam was the sole male genetic progenitor of humankind was beside the point? If so, what would Calvin have done with Paul’s understanding of “…by one man sin entered the world?” Calvin never had to address that question. However, those who follow in his hermeneutical footsteps do.

In his day, Calvin worked hard to resolve hermeneutical tensions. How do we resolve Calvin’s tension here today, particularly in view of the fact that the tensions are much greater than Calvin envisioned?

In my opinion, these are the central and inevitable hermeneutical questions before us in the science/faith conversation. These trajectories were already in place with Calvin and continue today.

Calvinism and “Old Princeton”

John Calvin was not a Calvinist. Many of the marks of Calvinism today—namely, adherence to one or more Reformed creeds (e.g., Westminster Confessions of Faith)—are theological developments intended by Calvin’s followers to maintain trajectories that Calvin began. However, Calvin and Calvinism are not the same thing.

There has always been some degree of scholarly disagreement of how much later Calvinism actually reflected the spirit and teaching of Calvin himself, but that is a topic we do not need to address. There is continuity and discontinuity with any tradition as it develops. Calvin’s followers remained in those general trajectories while also acting them out in their own way, given their own particular circumstances.

The dimension of the Calvinist legacy I want to begin addressing here is biblical interpretation in what is often referred to as the “Old Princeton” school. Princeton Theological Seminary was founded in 1812 to provide intellectual training to pastors in the Reformed tradition, specifically in the British strand of that tradition, largely seen in the Puritan movement. (The Dutch Reformed tradition is not the same animal, and we will touch on that tradition’s contribution at another time). Princeton also became a center of intellectual advancement of Calvinism, particularly in response to the challenges of modern biblical criticism coming out of Europe and making its way to America.

The term “Old Princeton” is used by those who reflect negatively on Princeton’s theological shift in the early twentieth century as it embraced certain developments in modern biblical scholarship, primarily more “modernist” views of Scripture (see below). Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) was founded in 1929 in order to continue the legacy of Princeton before these theological shifts, although various schools today claim to be the heirs to theological legacy of “Old Princeton.”

The reason it is important to focus on the Old Princeton school is that much of contemporary Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism owe their view of Scripture to trajectories set during this early stage in Princeton’s history. Men such as Charles Hodge (theology), B. W. Warfield (theology/New Testament) and William Henry Green (Old Testament) developed intellectual models for the doctrine of Scripture and its proper interpretation. Wherever notions of inspiration, inerrancy, and revelation are discussed in contemporary Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (including the two “Chicago Statements” of Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics), there is a clear debt to be paid to Old Princeton and how these issues were being worked out then in the face of various challenges.

How these issues were worked out have a direct bearing on how many understand the nature of Scripture today. It also has direct bearing on how the science/faith conversation is conducted in many Christian communities today, particularly in presenting obstacles to that conversation, although I feel it need not be so.

#The Historical Moment

To understand the theological trajectories set in the nineteenth century, it is vital that we be reminded of what was happening then.

There were three intellectual challenges in the nineteenth century to how people understood the nature of Scripture and its interpretation. In reality, there were more than three but I am approaching this from the vantage point of my discipline of biblical studies. Historians will note how a major social issue — slavery in America — also challenged traditional notions of biblical authority. The church was divided over whether slavery could be defended on biblical grounds. The fact that both sides used the same Bible to make opposite ironclad cases raised an obvious issue at the time: what good is biblical authority if it can be pressed into service to support opposite views? What good in an inerrant Bible if it can’t even help us solve such a pressing moral issue of our time? Some would even suggest that the slavery issue raised greater doctrinal concerns than European higher criticism.

The three pressing issues of the day we will look at, however, were:

(1) European Higher Criticism that challenged, among other things, traditional views of the authorship of biblical books, especially the Pentateuch, Isaiah, and Daniel. One reason why this was considered such a huge issue was that proponents on both sides assumed that eye-witness authorship assured some degree of historical accuracy, whereas later authorship cast aspersions on the historicity of Scripture. Old Princeton’s academic energy, at least in biblical studies, was focused almost entirely on defending traditional views of authorship for this reason. Historicity is a major issue—perhaps the major issue—that affects the science/faith issue with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists today.

(2) Biblical Archaeology brought into the academic discussion of Scripture the question of the cultural context of Scripture. Israel’s Scripture could now be compared and contrasted with the religions of the larger, and older, neighboring cultures (Babylonian, Egypt, Canaanite). This, too, affected our understanding of the extent to which the Old Testament in particular conforms to modern notions of historicity.

(3) Scientific advances, namely geology and biology, essentially synced with the previous two factors to challenge the historical veracity of Genesis and other portions of Scripture.

These three factors converged upon Christians in the nineteenth century, and Princeton’s faculty was centered on providing an intellectual, Reformed engagement of modern developments. The result was a mixed bag. At times we see innovation of older views, sometimes uneasy acceptance of change, and also, at the end of the day, a rigorous and intellectual defense of inerrancy and the historical reliability of Scripture.

Princeton in the nineteenth century has had a tremendous influence on contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Its defense of such things as the inspiration of Scripture, inerrancy, and Protestant/Reformed orthodoxy paved the way for how many continue to approach these and other issues. What is not always appreciated, however, is another side of the Old Princeton legacy: a creative, honest, intellectual rigor about addressing new challenges and rethinking older beliefs if necessary.

We will look at some examples in the next post, but one of those areas where Old Princeton pushed the church was on the matter of evolution. Both B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge accepted some form of evolution because they felt that the scientific evidence demanded it. They were also fully convinced, much to the chagrin of their critics, that there was no necessary conflict between the scientific explanation of origins and Scripture.

The dynamic tension between these progressive and conservative impulses in Old Princeton has left to contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism a dual legacy: serious intellectual engagement and progress in theological formulations in view of new evidence and a traditional/conservative formulation of the nature of Scripture. This dual legacy continues to reverberate today whenever issues arise that challenge existing doctrinal formulation.

One of those areas is evolution in the face of continued, significant scientific progress since the time of the Warfield and Hodge. Simply put, is the Old Princeton legacy best served by embracing its progressive spirit in view of the overwhelming evidence of common descent today, or is the Old Princeton legacy best expressed in maintaining its specific doctrinal conclusions despite scientific advances? To put it more pointedly, does the Old Princeton legacy require continued progress in our thinking or guard against it? Many of the tensions in contemporary Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism over evolution (and other issues) is an outworking of this very tension of how to be “faithful to the past.”

#European Higher Criticism

For several generations before the founding of Princeton Theological Seminary, European biblical scholars had been focusing their steady, penetrating, analytical, gaze at explaining internal tensions in the Old Testament. Their focus was on trying to understand how the biblical books came to be, and their explanations were typically at odds with traditional ideas.

The most famous of these controversies concerned the authorship of the Pentateuch. This discussion began in earnest with Spinoza (1632-77) and came to a head with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). Wellhausen’s famous Documentary Hypothesis said that the Pentateuch was not a single book written by Moses, or any one person. Rather it was made up of four originally independent documents (JEDP) originating much later than the time of Moses, and separated by geography, time, and ideology. These sources were not brought together until the postexilic period by a group of priests.

The problem with this was not so much the mere suggestion that sources were used in the forming of the Pentateuch. Conservative scholars granted the existence of source material that predated the Pentateuch. One later example is E. J. Young, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, who thought it “perfectly possible that in the compilation of the Pentateuch Moses may have made excerpts from previously existing written documents” (An Introduction to the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964], 153). Discerning the sources that Moses compiled was not a problem.

The real problem is the historical conclusions Wellhausen arrived at, which can be seen already in the title to Wellhausen’s 1883 source-critical magnum opus: Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Analyzing source documents was prolegomena—merely the first step to a complete rethinking of Israel’s history.

This rethinking of Israel’s history is best seen by how Wellhausen dated the Law of Moses. Based on a very complex set of arguments which centered on the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, Wellhausen argued that the Law of Moses was not written until after Israel returned from Babylonian exile. Specifically, Wellhausen argued that priests were responsible for transforming Israel’s faith from one of simple relationship with God (think of Abraham’s interactions with God) to rigorous legalism that kept God at a distance, mediated by priests.

Wellhausen’s theory caught on quickly among biblical scholars (many of whom had been working toward a similar solution). It was felt that Wellhausen’s theory was to that point the best theory for explaining some of the properties of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (for example, similar patterns of vocabulary and style that recur throughout the Pentateuch).

Whether or not Wellhausen arguments are good ones is not our focus here, however. Our focus is on the understandable reaction to all this from the Princeton scholars. They argued that Wellhausen’s theory undermined the truthfulness of the Old Testament. As a result, a number of Old Testament scholars at Old Princeton invested a significant amount of their academic energy in taking Wellhausen and others on.

Their counterargument was to demonstrate flaws in Wellhausen’s theory and make a case for an early date of the Law of Moses. If the early date of the law could be established, then Wellhausen’s whole thesis was undercut. One example of this reaction is Geerhardus Vos’s 1886 master’s thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary—which he wrote at the tender age of 24 and entitled “The Mosaic Origin of the Pentateuchal Codes.” The origin of the law was his primary concern.

This response to Wellhausen is what the Old Testament faculty at Old Princeton was known for. Most notable was W. H. Green (1825-1900), who built much of his fifty-year career on responding to Wellhausen, as can be seen in the following titles: The Pentateuch Vindicated from the Aspersions of Bishop Colenso (New York: John Wiley, 1863); Moses and the Prophets (New York: Robert Carter, 1883); and The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916).

An important reason why Wellhausen was met with such energy is not simply the idea itself. Rather, it was the popularity of the idea in seminaries and that future pastors and missionaries were being taught it. The ferocity of reaction to Wellhausen and others was prompted by fear of what his ideas could do to the people in the pew. For example, Green reserved some of his more caustic (and sarcastic) comments for John William Colenso (1814-83), the Anglican bishop who brought higher critical views to the mission field of Natal. Green and others felt they were at a crisis moment when biblical authority—even the Gospel itself—was at stake. This is why Green and others focused their energy on holding at bay this influence.

There is another factor in all of this that I would like to bring up here. The reason why authorship issues were such a focus at the time is that biblical scholars were trained primarily linguistically. They were trained to read the Hebrew text carefully and make judgments as to the text’s consistency, flow, and coherence. Much of what dominates biblical scholarship today—the historical context of Scripture vis-à-vis archaeological and historical studies—was at best in its infancy back then. Higher critical and conservative scholars came to polar-opposite conclusions, but they did so on the basis of the same linguistic methodologies.

This does not mean, however, that Old Princeton was wholly focused on purely linguistic arguments or simply content to rest in traditional formulations. Although not front-and-center, we do see in the writings of Old Princeton a true sensitivity for understanding Scripture in its historical context—even if that meant rethinking older views. This brings us to the other two challenges of the 19th century: extra-biblical archaeological evidence and evolution.

Old Princeton’s reaction to higher criticism reflected the traditionalist dimension of its history. How it handled biblical archaeology and evolution, although not developed nearly as thoroughly, helps us see the more progressive and flexible side of this tradition.

#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 later.)

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 an historical 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.

#Who Wrote Ecclesiastes?

Green came to the historical conclusion that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon in the early first millennium B.C., but several hundred years later, in the postexilic period. In coming to this conclusion, Green was in line with the growing consensus in Old Testament scholarship, that the long-standing traditional Jewish and Christian attribution of the book to Solomon was mistaken.

Why did Green arrive at this conclusion? It wasn’t a momentary compromise to liberal thought. Rather, Green heeded the results of comparative Semitic grammar (comparing the language of the Bible with other Semitic languages of the time). As more and more ancient Semitic texts began to be discovered and translated, it became more possible to compare them to each other linguistically and put these texts in some chronological sequence.

The far-reaching and lasting impact of such linguistic work for Old Testament studies was twofold: (1) Biblical Hebrew could be placed on a timeline with other Semitic languages. This led to debates about when Hebrew arose in the ancient world—in other words, where on the historical timeline of the surrounding cultures to place the Hebrew in our Bibles. On linguistic grounds, it is widely recognized today that the Hebrew of the Old Testament as a whole stems mostly from various periods in the first millennium B.C. (2) Individual books of the Old Testament itself could be placed on a timeline relative to each other. This led to debates about when to date certain books of the Old Testament.

It was this growing knowledge of the historical development of Semitic languages that led nineteenth century scholarship to state categorically that Ecclesiastes did not come from Solomon’s time. Franz Delitzsch is often cited as an early representative of this view: “If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.”1 Translation: on linguistic grounds, it is impossible that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. When to place Ecclesiastes linguistically was debated, of course, but a very general consensus is the postexilic period—5th century B.C. or later.

Green did not accept everything he read about Ecclesiastes and he did not arrive at his own conclusions quickly. In fact, Green came to his conclusion somewhat reluctantly. It was only later in his career that Green concluded that the language of Ecclesiastes “stands alone in the Bible.” He then concurred with Delitzsch.

After all that has been said, however, we do not see how the argument from the language can be met. We conclude, therefore, that it is decisive….It is alleged, and the fact seems to be, that the Hebrew of this book is so Aramean [i.e., Aramaic] that it must belong to a period later than Solomon.2

Follow Where the Evidence Leads

One can sense in Green a tone of resignation. But that is precisely the valuable point for us to bear in mind today.

Green, though a champion of conservative scholarship, was so committed to the historical study of Scripture that even if it led to uncomfortable waters, he followed. He may have tested those waters cautiously and for a long time, but he still wound up going in. Why? Because if that’s where the evidence leads, that’s where it leads. As a trained, Reformed, biblical scholar, Green already had a long pedigree of taking historical evidence seriously and felt, as a matter of integrity, he had to arrive at an uncomfortable conclusion.

And this was no trivial issue, for when you date Ecclesiastes, and who you think wrote it, affect how you understand it.

It has struck me that if Green could easily have taken a different approach, he could have reacted against the historical arguments—resisted the comparative data—wholesale, just as he resisted Wellhausen’s historical reconstruction of Israel’s history (that the Law of Moses was written after the exile). But Green took another path, and this should not be passed over too quickly.

We can put ourselves in his place. These were tense times, and there was volatility in the academy and in the churches. Battle lines were being drawn. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to avoid conflict altogether and simply reiterate familiar conclusions. But in the midst of all this, Green acknowledged the central importance of this newly introduced linguistic evidence. By current standards, Green may have been overly cautious at times, maybe in some cases even a bit too selective, but that is perfectly understandable given the climate and should not overshadow his willingness to innovate.

I do not mean to imply that Old Princeton would be walking arm in arm with BioLogos or any other “theistic evolution” position as articulated today. That would be too much to expect. What I mean to say is that we see in Old Princeton a very important philosophical commitment being articulated—reading the Bible in light of it historical contexts.

The issue we face today is that our knowledge of historical context is far broader and deeper than in the nineteenth century, and so raises a different set of concerns. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921), as is well known, accepted evolution as giving the proper scientific account of human origins. He believed that hearing God’s voice in scripture and the findings of solid scientific work were not at odds. As historians Mark Noll and David Livingston put it, “B. B. Warfield, the ablest modern defender of the theologically conservative doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible, was also an evolutionist.”1

Warfield, however, did not address the matter in as much theological and hermeneutical depth as is needed today, given our growing scientific and archaeological knowledge. In fact, Warfield did not address the latter (to my knowledge) at all. Thus, we should not call upon Warfield, or any other of his contemporaries, to settle the evolution question for ustoday. The question is whether we see in Warfield (and others) a hermeneutical trajectory for having the needed “Bible in context” discussion today.

In my opinion, there are valuable lessons to be learned here for contemporary Evangelicals.

#B. B. Warfield and the “Human Side” of the Bible

The theological reason why Warfield and the other Old Princeton theologians were so open to looking at the Bible in its historical context was because they understood the Bible to be analogous to Christ himself. As Christ was both divine and human, Scripture also has divine and human sides.

Of course, this is only an analogy. No one—least of all Warfield—is claiming that the Bible is “God incarnate” like Christ is. But he is saying that Christ the Word and Scripture the word are both evidence of “God with us” and both have a divine and human “dimension” (if you will forgive the imprecise language here).

The divine and human cannot be separated, either in Christ or in the Bible. Both are what they are. In fact, with Christ, his humanity is essential to who he is. Likewise, the Bible’s “human side” is an essential part of what Scripture is, and recognizing this has practical implications.

In an 1894 essay Warfield put it this way, saying it is fundamental,

that the whole of Scripture is the product of the divine activities which enter it, not by superseding the activities of the human authors, but by working confluently with them, so that the Scriptures are the joint product of divine and human activities, both of which penetrate them at every point, working harmoniously together to the production of a writing which is not divine here and human there, but at once divine and human in every part, every word and every particular.2

Warfield calls this relationship between the divine and human in the Bible “concursus.” He goes on to say:

On this conception, therefore, for the first time full justice is done to both elements of Scripture [human and divine]. Neither is denied because the other is recognized. And neither is limited to certain portions of Scripture so that place may be made for the other. As full justice is done to the human element as is done by those who deny that there is any divine element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible, it is asserted that it has been conceived in a human mind and written by a human hand. As full justice is done to the divine element as is done by those who deny that there is any human element in the Bible, for of every word in the Bible it is asserted that it is inspired by God, and has been written under the direct and immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.3

These words were written for a fairly popular readership, not for scholars. Here Warfield had a wonderful opportunity to perhaps mend a fence to protect the sheep against things that were new and might not be understood. But rather he affirmed, positively, and in no uncertain terms, the integral role of the “human element” (as he puts it) of Scripture.

As I said above, Warfield may not have applied this idea as much as we today might have hoped, but he was also keenly aware that concursus has clear practical implications for how we read our Bibles, especially in view of developments in biblical scholarship at his time.

More than an Abstract Idea

In his article cited above, Warfield is clear about the questions he was attempting to answer: “How are the two factors, the divine and the human, to be conceived as related to each other in the act of inspiration? And, how is the Scriptural relationship between the two consequent elements in the product, the divine and human, to be conceived?”

These “how” questions were prompted, according to Warfield, by the reality that,

[r]ecent discussion of the authenticity, authorship, integrity, structure of the several Biblical books, has called men’s attention, as possibly it has never before been called, to the human element in the Bible. Even those who were accustomed to look upon their Bible as simply divine, never once thinking of the human agents through whom the divine Spirit spoke, have had their eyes opened to the fact that the Scriptures are human writings, written by men, and bearing the traces of their human origin on their very face. In many minds the [“how”] questions have become quite pressing…

Warfield goes on to say that it is not enough to be content with the “effects of inspiration.” We must also strive to understand how inspiration works (a divine/human concursus). This is not an issue that could be left to the side in Warfield’s day, and certainly not in ours.

One cannot simply appeal to the fact of inspiration to settle disputes about the Bible. One must engage the “nature and mode” of inspiration (as Warfield put it), the fact that Scripture is a divine/human entity. To put this in plain English, according to Warfield, inspiration means the divine and human are working together to produce a product that is of divine authority and bears the indelible marks of its historical context. A proper understanding of inspiration does not marginalize the “human side” but respects it.

Putting it this way does not settle the big interpretive questions, and, as I said, Warfield did not apply this principle as much as we need to today. The principle, however, is not only sound but powerful. What remains for us is honest conversation about how this principle applies to our present challenges concerning evolution.

Next, we will look briefly at another wing of Calvinism roughly contemporary with Old Princeton, the Dutch Reformed tradition, and look at a very telling example of “Bible in context” from the New Testament.

#An “Organic” View of Scripture

In fact, when we turn to these Dutch Calvinists, we see that they were actually critical of their own tradition for failure to develop an “organic” doctrine of Scripture, i.e., one that takes account of its humanness as well as its divine authority.

We see this in the writings of two guiding lights of Dutch Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).

Abraham Kuyper appreciated the defenses of divine authorship that characterized his Calvinist predecessors, but added:

It can scarcely be denied that they had established themselves too firmly in the idea of a logical theory of inspiration, to allow the animated organism of the Scripture to fully assert itself.1

Kuyper felt that philosophical arguments for inspiration ignored the human dimension which is an irreducible part of Scripture. In a similar vein, Herman Bavinck noted the overall failure of his Calvinist predecessors to develop an organic view of inspiration:

The Reformed confessions [e.g., the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith] almost all have an article on Scripture and clearly express its divine authority; and all the Reformed theologians without exception take the same position. Occasionally one can discern a feeble attempt at developing a more organic view of Scripture.2

The development of a more organic view awaited the rise of modernity, as Bavinck noted:

In general, it can be said without fear of contradiction that insight into the historical and psychological mediation of revelation … only came to full clarity in modern times and that the mechanical view of inspiration, to the extent that it existed in the past, has increasingly made way for the organic (Ibid.,431).

There is a lot to unpack in these three quotes, but let me focus on the last point. Kuyper and Bavinck were hardly liberal renegades looking to destroy people’s faith. In fact, they were quite open about warning people of liberal extremes. Nevertheless, the rise of modern biblical scholarship, whatever downside there might be to it, served the purpose of alerting us to the thoroughly human product that Scripture is—not exclusively human, but nevertheless, thoroughly human.

The Bible and the Incarnation

Furthermore, in their development of the doctrine of organic inspiration, both Bavinck and Kuyper made bold use of the incarnational analogy of Scripture (as Christ is both divine/human, so too does Scripture reflect divine and human authorship). They argued that inspiration despised no cultural form, but wove itself fully into the fabric of human life at the time.

The following from Bavinck illustrates the point beautifully:

The theory of organic inspiration alone does justice to Scripture. In the doctrine of Scripture, it is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours.3

Several pages later, Bavinck puts it this way:

The organic nature of Scripture…implies the idea that the Holy Spirit, in the inscripturation of the word of God, did not spurn anything human to serve as an organ of the divine. The revelation of God is not abstractly supernatural but has entered into the human fabric, into persons and states of beings, into forms and usages, into history and life. It does not fly high above us but descends into our situation; it has become flesh and blood, like us in all things except sin. Divine revelation is now an ineradicable constituent of this cosmos in which we live and, effecting renewal and restoration, continues its operation. The human has become an instrument of the divine; the natural has become a revelation of the supernatural; the visible has become a sign and seal of the invisible. In the process of inspiration, use has been made of all the gifts and forces resident in human nature” (“Reformed Dogmatics” 1.442–43; my emphasis).

What I find so refreshing in Bavinck is his eloquent—almost poetic—enthusiasm for the irreducible theological value of the humanity of Scripture. There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, with all its bumps and bruises, peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes. As counterintuitive as it might sound to, the “humiliation” of Scripture is there to exalt God’s power, not ours.

Accenting the Bible’s humanity does not mean ignoring or marginalizing the divine authorship of Scripture. Rather, to acknowledge the historical contexts in which Scripture was produced is to proclaim as good and powerful what that divine author has actually, by his wisdom, produced. The Spirit’s primary authorship is not questioned, nor does Scripture’s humiliation imply error. Bavinck’s point is simply that the “creatureliness” of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome, but the very means by which Scripture’s divinity can be seen.

In fact, Scripture’s divinity can only be seen because of its humanity—God’s chosen means of communication—not by looking past it. And it is not just humanity as a safe theoretical construct. It is a humanity that is “weak and despised and ignoble.” That is what points us to the divine, just as Christ does in his state of humiliation. To marginalize, or minimize, or somehow get behind the Bible’s “creatureliness” to the “real” word of God is, for Bavinck, to strip God of his glory.

And the point is…

Old Princeton and the Dutch Calvinists understood that the human dimension of Scripture—which pervades Scripture thoroughly—is not merely tolerable of a divine book, but a necessary component of what inspiration means.

These traditions have had a marked influence on contemporary Evangelicalism, and applying their general approach to Scripture to current challenges such as science and faith seems like a continuation of that trajectory.

Machen Introduction

I would like to expand our scope a bit by bringing into the conversation J. Gresham Machen and Geerhardus Vos. Machen (1881-1937), a New Testament scholar, was a faculty member at Princeton but left over doctrinal disputes to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929. Hence, he took with him something of the Old Princeton spirit. Vos (1862-1949) was a biblical theologian trained in Arabic studies (what is called ancient Near Eastern studies today). Although sympathetic to Machen’s concerns, Vos did not follow Machen to Westminster but remained at Princeton until his retirement in 1932.

In their own way, both Machen and Vos attempted to continue the legacy of honoring the hard work of reading Scripture in its historical context, even if it meant rethinking their own tradition.

Now, we begin to look at a specific issue in New Testament scholarship at the time: the influence that the Second Temple Jewish context had on the New Testament writers. This issue is analogous to the ancient Mesopotamian context of the Old Testament.

Machen and Vos were well aware of this pressing issue in New Testament scholarship, though they approached it from different angles. The bottom line for both, however, is that our growing knowledge of the historical background of the New Testament must affect how we read it.

#Machen and the Origin of Paul’s Religion

Machen echoed the principle that we have seen throughout this series: to study Scripture was to study history. He writes,

The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The center and core of the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads to an historical conclusion…

Give up on history, and you can retain some things. You can retain a belief in God. But philosophical theism has never been a powerful force in the world. You can retain a lofty ethical ideal. But be perfectly clear about one point—you can never retain a gospel. For gospel means “good news,” tidings, information about something that has happened. A gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction in terms.1

These words are from a sermon Machen preached in 1915. And, as the context of these quotes indicates, he is contending here against the liberal notion of the time that what is central to the gospel is not whether these things happened, but whether belief can inspire an ethical life.

The recent challenges of biblical scholarship at that time were for some simply too great to maintain traditional views about the Bible as a historical record. But, in an effort to retain some semblance of Christianity (its ethical teachings), Machen argued that the gospel was redefined, even neutered, to conform better to the nagging historical data. Machen felt that this was actually a different religion altogether.

But Machen’s response to this trend—in a sermon, to a popular audience—is telling. In Machen’s view, what was needed to defend the gospel, amid these new historical challenges, was more attention to history, not less. The way to address the historical argument was not to dismiss it simply on theological grounds or reiterate a theological tradition. The only response that would “have teeth” would come through the study of ancient history.

As a trained New Testament scholar, Machen applied this principle to concrete, pressing issues of the day, one of which was the origin of Paul’s religion. In the book by the same name,2 Machen challenged, on historical grounds, the view that Paul’s theology had little connection with the historical Jesus, i.e., that Paul “invented” Christianity in a specifically Greco-Roman context (mystery religions and Gnostic-like thought).

As part of his response, Machen wrote:

In order that this hypothesis may be examined, it will be advisable to begin with a brief general survey of the Jewish environment of Paul. The survey will necessarily be of the most cursory character, and it will not be based upon original research.3

Two things are worth noting in this brief quote. First, a “survey of the Jewish environment” is “advisable” for examining the critical position that Paul invented Christianity. An historical argument requires an historical counter argument.

Second, it is telling that Machen makes a specific appeal to Paul’s Jewish environment at all. Machen was trained in New Testament studies. But, as indicated in the quote above, his chapter on the Jewish environment of Paul (from which this quote is taken) relied almost entirely on secondary sources.4 This suggests that he was not entirely comfortable with the Jewish primary literature, at least not enough to use it in the heat of battle.

The reason Machen was unfamiliar with Second Temple Judaism was not that he was a slough or thought it unimportant—quite the opposite. Rather, Machen had spent a year in Marburg and Göttingen to study New Testament. At that time, the Jewish context of the New Testament was not a central academic focal point, and so Machen was not trained to handle Jewish sources. The Greco-Roman context of the New Testament was seen as the only proper background of New Testament theology. In fact, Greco-Romanism was considered the sourceof New Testament theology.

It is telling indeed that Machen’s historical instincts led him to consider “a survey of the Jewish environment” to be “advisable.” To counter the critical view, supported as it was by an overblown appreciation of Greco-Romanism, Machen expanded his historical research rather than narrowing it—even if he was restricted to secondary sources.

Machen was limited in his academic scope, but he knew well enough that the historical nature of the gospel required serious interaction with the historical context of the New Testament. His former Princeton colleague, Geerhardus Vos, who was trained in the Jewish background of the New Testament, applied this attitude of historical sensitivity with great insight.

#The New Testament, Eschatology, and Early Judaism

A central element of Paul’s teaching is eschatology, i.e., how the resurrected Jesus brings about the end of God’s story that began in the Old Testament. Paul’s eschatology is often described as an “already/not yet” eschatology, meaning that in Christ’s first coming, God already set into motion a process that will inevitably come to its consummation (not yet) at Christ’s second coming.

In other words, the resurrection of Christ is a present-time in-breaking of future reality. Those who are “in Christ,” as Paul likes to put it, already take part in the future that will not be fully realized until the final consummation. Much of Paul’s letters is devoted to explaining how Christians are to live in this in-between time where they already possess future reality even though the fullness of that future is not yet present to them.

This view of eschatology pervades Paul’s letters, and it is all anchored in the significance of Christ’s resurrection. Vos, however, saw in Paul’s theology another anchor—a cultural one.

Vos investigated the “already/not yet” against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism and concluded that Paul’s eschatology is to a certain degree dependent upon this earlier theological development—even though Paul certainly has distinctive marks.

Vos argued that both Pauline and Second Temple Jewish eschatology have their basis in the Old Testament. However, he goes on to say, correctly, that both Paul and Judaism go beyond what the Old Testament says. He writes,

There is no escape from the conclusion that a piece of Jewish eschatology has been here by Revelation incorporated into the Apostle’s teaching. Paul had none less than Jesus Himself as a predecessor in this. The main structure of the Jewish Apocalyptic is embodied in our Lord’s teaching as well as in Paul’s.1

There is little ambiguity here. Vos states there is an ultimate Old Testament root for both Jewish and Pauline eschatology, but that root cannot fully account for those eschatologies. Something happened in Judaism before Paul’s time to shape views on eschatology. Those views were then brought by Paul into his thinking about the gospel. Vos claimed that this entire historical process was part of God’s revelation (itself a provocative thought) to Paul and that Jesus himself was already incorporating that Jewish eschatology into his teaching.

It is perhaps an indication of a cautionary stance that we find this quote embedded in a footnote—albeit in a two-page footnote—in Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology. Still, scanning those footnotes reveals that Vos seemed to be quite conversant with the Jewish primary sources, more so than Machen. The reason for this is that Vos’s doctoral work, although likewise in Germany, was in Arabic Studies, which is the nineteenth century equivalent of ancient Near Eastern studies today. Vos’s education necessarily dealt with Semitic matters, and so for him it was perhaps quite natural to engage this important historical dimension.

For us, however, the crucial point to appreciate is how Vos brought contemporary historical biblical scholarship to bear on understanding particular issues regarding the Bible—in this case Paul. And let us not lose sight of what these synthetic insights were applied to: not something so relatively innocuous as the dating of Ecclesiastes (as we saw in an earlier post with W. H. Green of Old Princeton) and not simply left as a general observation (as with Machen), but for understanding nothing less than a central element in Paul’s theology.

Vos’s handling of the Jewish evidence illustrates how an increased understanding of the context of Scripture should, with great joy, be brought into a deepening and broadening of how we understand Paul—even if that deepening and broadening presents theological challenges like “Paul’s eschatology was directly influenced by his culture.”

The historical context does not control Paul, the Spirit does. But the “Paul” that the Spirit controls was a first century Jew. And a deeper understanding of that environment, Vos is saying, cannot be ignored. It is not simplythe Old Testament that forms the background for the study of Paul, but Paul’s Second Temple context, as well. To understand the Jewish background better is to understand Paul better.

The purpose of this example, as well as several others in previous posts, is to illustrate the profound attention to historical context within the Calvinist tradition—a tradition that has had a marked influence on mainstream evangelical thought in the twentieth and now twenty-first century.

#Why So Much Time on Calvinism?

This is now the fourteenth section on how Calvinism has approached biblical interpretation—and even here we have only scratched the surface, in part because we have focused on that branch of Calvinism best known for its defense of traditional views of inspiration and biblical authority.

I chose to highlight this branch of Calvinism and to spend considerable time discussing it because of its disproportionate influence on theological developments in American Evangelicalism in general, not simply Calvinism.

We see Calvinist influence beyond Calvinist denominations wherever an intellectual attempt is made to defend inerrancy. In particular we see Calvinism’s influence in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (1978) and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982). The focus of these documents was on the nature of inerrancy in the form of a series of “affirmations and denials,” and so were an attempt at a precise definition and intellectual defense of the authority of Scripture. These two documents have not proven to be the last word on an Evangelical doctrine of Scripture, but they continue an intellectual process at least going back to Old Princeton.

This series will eventually look more closely at these Chicago statements because of their role in how much of Evangelicalism approaches biblical interpretation. At this point, we only need be reminded of the important role the Old Princeton tradition has played in the American Evangelical intellectual defense of the Bible.

Revelation and Humiliation

In the last two posts, we saw how Machen and Vos, following the Old Princeton legacy, engaged historical evidence and allowed the engagement to affect how they read the Bible. But actually, attention to historical evidence not only shapes how one understands portions of the Bible—it also affects what one understands the Bible to be.

In other words, paying attention to the historical context of Scripture highlights what such words as “inspiration” and “revelation” mean. This, in my opinion, is perhaps the most vital—if also sometimes undervalued—dimension of the Old Princeton legacy, and one that, if properly grasped, will invite participation in the science/faith dialogue rather than antagonism.

As we have seen in previous posts, for Warfield, Scripture is a product of divine/human “confluence.” For Bavinck, Scripture participates in the same kind “humiliation” as does Christ himself. The question we might ask is whether Evangelicalism has yet to take to heart fully this dimension of the Calvinist legacy. The implications of such an understanding of Scripture are considerable, especially when we approach the science/faith discussion.

To see this concept of the “humiliation” of Scripture in action, I want to return to one portion of a quote from Vos that I cited earlier but that likely got lost in the shuffle. Recall that Vos explained that Paul’s “already/not yet” eschatology had Jewish intertestamental roots. It was not a concept that could be derived from the Old Testament alone, nor was it simply introduced by Jesus or Paul out of thin air. As David Hubbard, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary put it, “[T]he train of revelation, at the end of the OT period, enters an intertestamental tunnel. Upon reemerging in the NT period, it obviously carried additional cargo.”1

Paul’s theology was in a true sense dependent upon this historical, extrabiblical phenomenon. We should let the implications of this settle in for a moment: the concept of eschatology in authoritative Scripture rests largely on an extrabiblical development. But note how Vos describes this process whereby extrabiblical information can inform an inspired author:

There is no escape from the conclusion that a piece of Jewish eschatology has been here by Revelation incorporated into the Apostle’s teaching.

Vos claims that the process whereby extrabiblical information makes its way into inspired Scripture is all part of revelation. Vos is not saying that the Bible and extrabiblical theology are equal. But, he is saying that in inspiring Paul, God incorporates a concept that is of non-biblical origin—even a concept so important as the doctrine of “last things.”

What this illustrates for us is that Scripture by God’s design may be more firmly embedded in its historical moment than we might sometimes be willing to concede. And in saying that, we hear the echo of much of what we have seen throughout this series, that Scripture’s very nature is such that it takes on it “human form” more profoundly than we are sometimes willing to concede. And the great paradox of Scripture is the paradox of the incarnation: the power of God is not diminished by taking on such a “servant” form, but it actually displayed in that form.

To put it all another way, the Calvinist tradition seems to be quite adamant about this point, that Scripture as an act of revelation is a product of its time. Such historical situatedness is not a concession or an unfortunate development—it is how God speaks. One does not hear God’s voice by looking past Scripture’s humiliation but by looking at it, face to face.

Such an attitude, though not as appreciated as it might be, is part of the important legacy of Calvinism to contemporary Evangelicalism. It also opens up doors of discussion for how evolution and the Christian faith rooted in Scripture can be in dialogue. If we can understand more clearly how Scripture is shaped by its environment, we will be in a better position to see more clearly what we can expect of it when we read it.

The trajectory that Calvinism was taking early in the 20th century appears to have become diverted. Why? What do you think may have been the forces that stopped it in its tracks?

#Calvinism: Summary and Conclusion

The Old Princeton legacy (which I began discussing here) is not immune to criticism. A common criticism is that it tends towards a degree of theological precision that the text itself may not be able to bear. Others say that it tends to exclude alternate perspectives. These and other criticisms may have merit, and I do not wish to create the impression that Calvinism is worthy of more respect than other models.

As I mentioned last week, the reason we are beginning here and spending a considerable amount of time on Calvinism is because of its pervasive influence on how much of contemporary Evangelicalism understands the nature of Scripture. That being said, in my opinion, the Calvinist tradition has not been seized as fully as it could be to help the science/faith discussion along.

In its best iterations, Calvinism is a “third way” that negotiates between the extremes of (1) a dismissal of Scripture as God’s word because of it obvious human dimension, and (2) a dismissal of the historical dimension of Scripture in an effort to protect its divine dimension. The first option is typically referred to as “liberalism” and the second as “fundamentalism.” That is a bit reductionistic as far as I am concerned, but those are the popularly accepted labels.

The Calvinist legacy, at least in principle, is well suited to avoid these extremes for one simple reason. It embraces the “incarnate” nature of Scripture, that it is God’s word but in human form. Scripture is a divine, inspired text, and also on every page bears the unmistakable, discernable, and wonderful stamp of the time and space bound human beings who by inspiration produced it.

And this stamp is not to be observed theoretically nor as an unfortunate concession. Rather it is an affirmation that the human element of Scripture is worthy of the most careful and thoughtful reflection, with potentially important, theologically significant payoff. This is a distinctive and vital mark of the Calvinist legacy.

I would like to suggest one specific area in which a Calvinist approach to Scripture could, in principle, be employed with great profit in moving forward in how Christians can think through the intersection of evolution and Scripture.

Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern Context

A Calvinist approach to Scripture entails a genuine and enthusiastic embrace of the historical context of Scripture and the implications of that context for how we understand Scripture. If Scripture is truly a historically situated phenomenon, a product of a God who is willing to speak the idiom of the time, than it is incumbent upon all Christians to interpret Scripture in view of its historical context.

There are few portions of Scripture where our increasing understanding of its historical context has had a more striking impact than the creation texts in Genesis 1-2, as well as other texts (especially in the Psalms) that clearly play off of ancient Near Eastern themes.

Archaeological discoveries spanning the last 150 years have brought to light texts from ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt that have had a direct and profound impact on how we understand the biblical creation texts. There is hardly a verse of Genesis 1-2 that is not illuminated by some corresponding theme from the religious texts of Israel’s neighbors.

The details cannot be treated here, and several blog posts and essays on this site have already done so. In general, the creation texts from the ancient Near East have helped us come to terms with the kind of information we can expect the biblical creation accounts to deliver. This context helps us to see that Israel’s creation stories were written to speak to profound theological realities about who their God is, what he is like, and what it means for Israel to be in a covenant relationship with him.

In other words, Israel’s creation stories, when understood in the historical context in which they were written, do not address modern curiosities about the formation of the physical universe in scientific terms. To expect as much from Genesis is to read it against the historical grain, which, if we take our cue from the Calvinist tradition, is to show disrespect for God who chose to speak within the confines of the particulars of history.

God is not an enemy of the drama of human history but participates in it. To lift Genesis out of its historical moment and read it in a manner that its audience would not have remotely grasped—actually, that no audience would have grasped before the advent of modern science—is not a high view of Scripture but a marginalizing—if not dismissal—of the very manner in which God has chosen to speak.

The ancient Near Eastern material helps us identify properly the genre of Genesis—it helps us calibrate the genre of Genesis to keep us from making the all-too-common error in genre misidentification. These texts force us, in ways earlier generations of Christians did not have to, to read Genesis in ancient ways, and in doing so to marvel, once again, at how willing God is to come to our level in order to speak. This point, as we recall, is a regular theme among Calvinist interpreters.

Knowing what we know about Bible in context, especially the biblical creation texts, should discourage any sort of concordism between Scripture and contemporary science. Following the lead of the Calvinists, we misread Genesis if we expect to find there information that corresponds to modern science—as if God has hidden there a story that would not have been understood for over 2000 years of its existence.

Rather, the “language” of Genesis will be respected for what it is: an ancient story speaking in an ancient idiom but with enduring theological significance. And that enduring significance is not found in how well Genesis and science dovetail, but in hearing Israel’s theology ring out through the ancient idiom.

This, in my opinion, is a strong legacy of the Calvinist tradition and one that would greatly aid continued Evangelical discussion over the relationship between Scripture and evolution.

#Wesleyanism: Introduction

The second theological tradition we will look at is Wesleyanism. Of course, as with Calvinism or any other theological tradition, we must take care not to oversimplify the complexities present in a tradition that is now nearly three centuries old and practiced by diverse groups in diverse times and places. I will aim for aspects of Wesleyanism that, I trust, are commonly accepted even if disagreements exist over specifics or how theory should be put into practice.

Thus far I have been writing about Calvinism out of my own familiarity with that tradition, but I have also been an admiring observer of how Wesleyanism approaches the subject of how one gains theological knowledge, which is at the end of the day the topic before us throughout this series. Although the interpretation of Scripture is a central issue in the evolution/Christianity discussion, what is in view ultimately is what we feel we have the right to say about God himself and how he acts in the world. That question has obvious hermeneutical roots, for Scripture is always a core part of that conversation, but it does not remain on the level of biblical interpretation. It is a theological/synthetic question.

In this respect, I feel that the Wesleyan tradition broadens our discussion beyond Calvinism’s focus. In saying so I do not mean to pit one tradition against the other. I have been very clear throughout that I am interested in no such facile debate. I also hope I have made it clear that Calvinism has in its “system” an approach to Scripture (incarnational) that invites the kinds of dialogue we are seeking here.

Rather than competition, I am hoping to draw out from both Calvinism and Wesleyanism something of value for the general topic that occupies our readers and is the very reason for BioLogos’s existence.

With that in mind, whereas a core element of the Calvinist tradition is what I call an incarnational approach to Scripture, the broader Wesleyan dimension that I would like to draw upon is, not surprisingly, the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral (so-called because the term did not originate with John or Charles Wesley but only in the last century).

The quadrilateral is a means of describing (rather than prescribing) how one arrives at theological knowledge. I have always found this dimension of Wesleyanism to be bristling with commonsense in that it recognizes the unavoidable interplay between four factors: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. (The Anglican tradition speaks of the first three only, but it is clear that Experience is subsumed under discussions of Tradition and Reason.)

As these posts progress, I will be looking at each of these quadrants individually in more details and how they interact, all with a view toward informing a more subtle interaction in the faith/science dialogue. At this point, however, I would like to draw out briefly two things that Wesleyanism offers to the conversation that is distinct from Calvinism.

First, a common criticism of Calvinism’s theological models (I am speaking of the conservative iterations we looked at in previous posts) is that they do not always lend themselves to a dialogical approach. A Wesleyan approach, at least in principle, recognizes that Scriptural interpretation is informed by the tradition we are a part of—which includes the Christian tradition as a whole, one’s spiritual experiences as a follower of Christ, and one’s reasoning faculties.

Calvinism, especially what was produced in the influential Old Princeton school, worked from a different principle, namely the commonsensical nature of biblical interpretation as a sure—almost objective—guide to the will of God. Scripture’s meaning is essentially clear and plain for all to see.

Now, right here we need to be very careful. Calvinists are not oblivious to how the setting of the interpreters affects biblical interpretation, and Wesleyans are hardly suggesting that Scripture is an equal partner with the others three quadrants. Nevertheless, there is clearly a difference in emphasis between these two traditions, and built into Wesleyanism, if I may offer my opinion, is a more clear invitation to accept some diversity of opinions.

For example, for all of his generosity and sophistication in many areas, B. B. Warfield is noted for saying that the Calvinism is the “true religion of the world,” a “perfectly developed representative” of Christianity. Such a theological self-appraisal not only discourages dialogue among otherwise united believers, but it also loses sight of the very thing that the Wesleyan tradition seems to embrace: Scripture, although holding a place of primary importance, is never understood in a vacuum, insulated from the cultural context of the interpreter. Ironically, Calvinism’s deep appreciation for how the context of Scripture’s production affects how we understand it is not extended to include the context of the interpreter who is reading the text thousands of years later.

A second, and related, point is that the quadrilateral gives us theological language for explaining a rather obvious point that a hermeneutical “commonsensical” approach to Scripture has trouble accounting for: the fact of diachronic and synchronic diversity in the Christian church. Simply put, there have been—unquestionably—diverse interpretative and theological traditions throughout the history of the church (diachronic diversity) as well as at any one given time in the church globally considered (synchronic diversity).

The quadrilateral is prepared to accept—indeed, expect—such diversity not as an unfortunate accident to be corrected, but as a function of the Spirit’s work among diverse human experiences. Such diversity is more difficult to explain positively in Calvinism, or any tradition, that looks to Scripture as a plain guide to faith and practice, ideally unaffected by the circumstance of the interpreter. Instead, these traditions seek to minimize such diversity, even to the point of exposing alternate theological systems as in error and in need of correction (see footnote above).

The Wesleyan quadrilateral is well suited to engage in dialogical fashion the challenges that face any interpreter of Scripture living in particular times and places. Of course, this hardly solves interpretive problems, but it does provide a “culture of interpretation” that aims for much needed subtlety in the evolution/Christianity discussion.

#The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a spatial metaphor for describing how to gain true theological knowledge. Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience—each has its own quadrant and the four are mutually dependent. It will be helpful to keep in mind that the Quadrilateral does not say how theological knowledge ought to be gained, but how in fact it is gained.

The first quadrant we will look at is Scripture. This is fitting, of course, because in Wesleyanism, Scripture has a primary place. The Protestant dictum sola Scriptura (“scripture alone”) is often misunderstood as suggesting that no other factor is involved in how we do theology. This misunderstanding proliferates particularly in American Fundamentalism, with its tendency toward literalism and rejection of insight gained through archaeology as well as a rejection of that gained through science.

On a more balanced front, however, it is widely recognized by the Protestant tradition in general, and very clearly in Wesleyanism in particular, that Scripture is never truly “alone.” In that respect, the Quadrilateral tries to articulate explicitly what is implicit in other traditions, i.e., Scripture’s primary function for the church rather than its “aloneness.”

The Quadrilateral is an Incarnational Hermeneutic

A way of clarifying the Quadrilateral is by comparing it to a different metaphor, one that is common among Evangelicals for describing Scripture’s function: a “Foundation.”

In one respect, the Foundation metaphor is somewhat compatible with the Quadrilateral. Foundations are primary but never alone. The foundation counts for little of that which will eventually come to comprise the building: the framing, dry walling, plumbing, wiring, furnishing, and the interior and exterior finish among many other things. The foundation is necessary to build the house, but without all these other components, all you ever have is a foundation.

In this respect, the Foundation metaphor acknowledges what the Quadrilateral aims for: Scripture has a primary role but it is of no value for gaining theological knowledge apart from the work of real, live, time and space human beings, living in particular contexts, asking particular questions.

Although many appeal to the Foundation metaphor, frequently it is used in a manner that fails to appreciate the interpretive dimension so well expressed in the Quadrilateral. We often hear statements such as, “Make sure your interpretations line up with what Scripture actually says.” I think all Christians will see the value of such a sentiment, but what is missing is a commonsensical acknowledgment that “what Scripture actually says” cannot be lifted high above the human drama, free of the perceptions of its readers. Scripture is always being interpreted.

The value of the Quadrilateral over the Foundational metaphor is the clearer acknowledgment that Scripture is always and forever being interpreted by its readers. It is not just “out there” ready to be accessed independent of our human limitations. Rather it is through those very limitations that the primary word of God is accessed.

We find here an interesting intersection between a Calvinist Incarnational model of Scripture and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Incarnational model of Calvinism finds expression in a Wesleyan hermeneutic (interpretation). In Wesleyanism, “incarnational” does not only describe the nature of Scripture itself (as it does in Calvinism)–reflecting, by God’s will, the limitations of its time and place. In a Wesleyan approach, the act of interpretation participates in those very same limits. Hermeneutics itself is incarnational, which the Quadrilateral draws out beautifully.

As with the Incarnational model of Scripture in Calvinism, I feel it is imperative that we not come to the Incarnational model of hermeneutics begrudgingly. Rather, the incarnation, the central mystery of the Christian faith, is pervasive in Christian theology. Both Scripture itself (Calvinism) and its interpretation (the Quadrilateral) are incarnational, and so should be accepted with as much joy as one accepts Christ as the incarnate Son of God.

The paradox of the primacy of Scripture and its necessary participation in human limitation in the act of interpretation reflects the incarnational structure of the Christian faith. This paradox is nicely captured in Wesleyanism in ways that are not always done in Calvinism.

The Pyramid and the Net

Another spatial metaphor to describe the Scripture quadrant of the Quadrilateral is illustrated by comparing a pyramid and a net. I came across this metaphor years ago while reading an essay by British postmodern biblical scholar David J. A. Clines, “The Pyramid and the Net: The Postmodern Adventure in Biblical Studies.”1 Don’t let the title turn you off (as the term “postmodern” might for some). There are many points Clines makes in this essay, but I am only interested in his use of the special metaphor of a pyramid and a net, which may help draw out some of the potential of the Quadrilateral.

A net suggests interdependence between parts. The nodes of a net are mutually dependent, with no one node seen as “primary.” A net is flexible, relational, and decentered. To illustrate, Clines encourages his readers to think of how the internet works. There is no starting point and no foundation. Every point of the net is of equal importance and is one series of keystrokes away from multiple other nodes.

A pyramid is roughly equivalent to the Foundational metaphor mentioned above. (The five-sided nature of the pyramid is not relevant to the metaphor.) A pyramid is a structure that connotes hierarchy and inflexibility. Just as a pyramid is built from the ground up and each level rests upon the previous one, theological knowledge is gained by “building” upon the solid ground of Scripture.

When it comes to Scripture’s role in gaining theological knowledge, for many evangelicals the pyramid (or foundation) is the operative metaphor. Now, of course, all metaphors have limitations, but I think it is worthwhile to consider the value of thinking more in terms of a net—which I am suggesting is more what the Quadrilateral is after. Scripture mutually interacts with tradition, reason, and experience.

I readily acknowledge that the net/quadrilateral metaphor does not spatially address well the paradox of theprimacy of Scripture, but for discussion purposes, that can be set aside. The shortcomings of the foundational/pyramid metaphor are more damaging, in my view, for that metaphor does not take into account effectively how, in fact, all Christians actually do procure theological knowledge—via the interrelationship of multiple factors, not the isolation of one “foundational” factor. The notion, as some insist, that one can interpret Scripture “plainly,” i.e., free of interpretive lenses, is not credible, and the Quadrilateral helps us see that.

Truth be told, both the Quadrilateral and Net models have to do some hard work in accounting for the paradox of Scripture’s primacy and its mutual interdependence with other factors. In my view, the Quadrilateral has a great advantage in allowing Scripture to constrain theological thought without limiting it prematurely. Such an approach is crucial for the profitable engagement of science and faith, particularly as it relates to evolution.

For some, a shift in theological thinking will be needed, for the Pyramid metaphor is commonly accepted implicitly. But that way of thinking is a barrier to the kind of deep and creative engagement that the evolution question requires, as will become clearer in our continued discussion of the remainder of the Quadrilateral.

#Tradition

“Tradition” refers to beliefs and practices transmitted over time among a particular group that selects to engage those transmitted beliefs and practices. The word can sometimes come across as a “take it or leave it” proposition, such as when people say “That’s just tradition.” The truth, however, is that tradition refers to the inevitable manner in which beliefs and practices continue to survive from generation to generation. Traditions are communicated through language (oral or written) and through practices (which are also typically communicated verbally on some level). We are human beings, and the passing on of how we think and act is “tradition.”

We have traditions about all sorts of things like how or when to decorate the Christmas tree, whom to visit Christmas morning, what sports team we follow, etc. But, for our purposes, we are obviously focusing on religious tradition—or if you will, theological tradition, where sets of beliefs and practices about God and ultimate meaning are articulated and passed on.

As I see it, “tradition” in Wesleyan theology refers to two distinct but interconnected notions:

(1) The Christian tradition understood in its most basic and broadest sense. Christianity is the grand tradition of the faith, and all others are attempts to articulate that grand tradition faithfully and contextually. For many the grand tradition is captured in the ancient creeds of the church, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.

(2) The various and diverse ways in which the Christian tradition has been articulated throughout its history. This sense of tradition refers to the “subsets” of Christianity—Calvinist, Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, etc. Each of these subsets has fairly well defined histories and parameters (even if there is movement and dialogue among adherents within these traditions).

Tradition, in other words, refers to the how Christians have articulated the gospel throughout history, both broadly to include Christianity as a whole and narrowly to include particular expressions of Christianity at various times and places.

Tradition as Broad, Ecumenical, Dialogical, and Spirit Driven

By making tradition one quadrant of the Quadrilateral, Wesleyan theology acknowledges that attaining theological knowledge obligates Christians to revisit the thinking of the church as broadly as possible. Christian thought in all its breadth and diversity is an asset for contemporary theological thinking, not a hindrance or an unfortunate circumstance to be corrected.

Embracing tradition in all its fullness will encourage an ecumenical and dialogical approach to gaining theological knowledge. The focus shifts from protecting theological territory for its own sake to exploring theological avenues as each generation of the church seeks to learn from the tradition while engaging that tradition in modern contexts.

In my opinion, this is precisely what needs to happen more and more in the science/faith discussion. Seeing ourselves as part of tradition, broadly and narrowly considered, and seeing one’s obligation to tradition as an active engagement with the past for present benefit is vital to the kind of theological work necessary to bring science and faith into meaningful conversation.

One can see this attitude in the renewed interest of the last generation or so of Evangelicals exploring such great influences of the history of Christianity as the Early Church Fathers or medieval Christianity. (Among others, I am thinking here of the influential writings of the late theologian Robert E. Webber, such as Ancient-Future Faith, Ancient-Future Worship, Ancient-Future Evangelism.) This attitude reflects an enthusiastic recognition that we can all learn from the voices of the past, not simply to confirm what we might believe to be true, but with a view toward adjusting our own convictions of the Christian faith.

One might take this a step further. An attitude of broad ecumenical respect for various traditions is a show of respect and thankfulness to the Spirit of God in promoting the “diachronic” and “synchronic” diversity in the church.

Throughout the ages (diachronic) and at any one time in the history of the church (synchronic), Christians have been of different minds on a number of important issues. To say so is to state the obvious. I do not mean to suggest that everything that people claming to be Christians have said at any time is part of the grand tradition—Christianity has boundaries, and one can be outside of those boundaries, a point that I don’t feel needs to be belabored here.

My point is that there has been and continues to be legitimate diversity in the Christian tradition. Unless we wish to think of the Christian tradition as one unfortunate slide into “impurity” after another, we have no choice but to see that diversity as something that pleases God—perhaps something he actually rejoices in.

Keeping this in mind will guard against enforced synchronic unanimity among Christians (the worst expressions being inquisitions and the like) or artificial diachronic unanimity, where we mute the varied voices of the past that disagree with our own. In fact, imposed unanimity might even be thought of as heretical, for it implies that the Spirit of God has not done a very good job of insuring the purity of his message. Cults and some Christian traditions are in fact rooted in just such a notion: “God’s truth is getting watered down and it is up to us to put a stop to it.”

Again, I am not suggesting that “anything goes,” but clearly it is the case in God’s wisdom that “many things go.”

The diversity of the Christian tradition, broadly and narrowly considered, reflects the fact that traditions are born by human beings, living in particular movements and times. This quadrant of the Quadrilateral reminds us all that traditions have an unmistakable fluidity—they are works in progress. This is a good thing to remember when the topic turns to science and faith, when too often the impulse is to “protect” tradition rather than dialogue with it.

#Reason

Human beings are reasoning machines. We are constantly sifting through stimuli and data and putting them together into a coherent and meaningful “whole.” Our minds naturally “put pieces together” to structure and make sense of our reality.

When it comes to theology, “reason” has a more restricted focus, but the process of “putting together the pieces” is no less evident. Reason is the process by which we sift through data and draw theological conclusions. Reason is the means by which the other three quadrants enter into dialogue with each other, so to speak.

One might be tempted to think of Scripture, tradition, and our own experience as tainted by subjectivity and religious content, whereas reason is objective and free of religious influence. But we should not think of “reason” as an outside, neutral force of some sort, as it is often portrayed in modern western thought.

Particularly in Christian theology, reason is not the neutral and objective guide of theological truth. Instead, reason is informed by and in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, and experience. In other words, reason is every bit a part of this mutually informative dialogue among the four quadrants as we have seen scripture and tradition to be (and we will look at experience in the next post).

It might be tempting to say that reason is subject to the teachings of Scripture. But as we have seen, the “teachings of Scripture” are only discerned by means of the unavoidable interplay between the four quadrants. It is important to get our heads around this, for what can be said of Scripture must certainly be said of reason. Reason is informed by and in dialogue with the other three quadrants. Reason is not “over” the other three, even if reason’s role is to bring together the other three to some coherent expression. Rather, reason is inconversation with the other three.

In other words, reason in theological discourse is reason in relationship, i.e., part of the delicate interplay between the quadrants.

Reason is not exhaustive

Just as reason is not neutral, neither is it exhaustive. To embrace the Quadrilateral is to know that reason has its limits—it cannot fathom the mysteries of ultimate religious truth.

This should strike home quickly when we consider how “unreasonable” the Christian faith is at times. For example, God is both three and one. This is not a “reasonable” statement by any normal standards of reason. But the Trinity is a mystery of the Christian faith that is not attainable by “normal” standards of reason, but one informed by the interplay of Scripture and early church tradition.

The most profound truth of the Christian faith is likewise “unreasonable”: the incarnation. The incarnation is both foundational to Christianity and a profound mystery that transcends human faculties of reason. “God dwelling with us as a man” is not an idea that would readily come to mind apart from the Christian story as seen in the New Testament.

Moreover, neither is the incarnation a concept that one can truly understand. Since the very beginning of the church, theologians have been pondering this mystery, trying to explain it, and very often disagreeing strongly over it.

The fact that two such core elements of Christianity (Trinity and incarnation) are so outside the realm of what we would normally arrive at through “reason” tells us that reason has its limits, even if at the very same time it is indispensable to the task of doing theology.

The big task of reason

The Book of Disciple of the United Methodist Church, in speaking of the role of reason in the Quadrilateral, makes the following point: “By reason we relate our witness to the full range of human knowledge, experience, and service.”

There is much to unpack in this brief statement, but I want to draw our attention to one element that is particularly important for the science/faith discussion. Reason has a big task of not only articulating theology, but in bringing those theological articulations into conversation with “the full range of human knowledge.”

Reason functions not only to listen to the delicate interplay between Scripture, tradition and experience. It also obligates us to engage human knowledge in our time and place. With respect to the evolution discussion, that knowledge pertains to two well known areas: scientific advances in our understanding of human origins and our growing understanding of the nature of religious literature from the ancient Near Eastern world in which Israel originated.

A proper, Christian use of reason obligates us to be in dialogue not only with Scripture, tradition, and experience, but with the human intellectual journey as a whole. That is why a simplistic appeal to Scripture will not settle profoundly complex scientific issues such as the origin of life on our planet. The matters before us require much greater intellectual subtlety, and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral provides a potentially powerful model for leading us in that direction.

#Experience

We recall that the Quadrilateral is a spatial metaphor for describing how human beings do in fact attain theological knowledge (rather than prescribing how one should attain such knowledge). Wesleyan theology includes experience among those factors for attaining theological knowledge.

At first blush, many evangelicals might pull back from such an assertion. Personal experience is often seen as a subjective entity that must be tamed in some sense by the other three quadrants, especially Scripture since it is authoritative. Likewise, reason is unencumbered by subjectivity, and tradition represents the collective wisdom of the ages. If we rely on our personal experience, we will likely go astray. We need these other factors to hold our experience in check.

But there are some problems with this line of thinking. Subjectivity is not simply restricted to personal experience, but involves the other quadrants as well. Scripture, as we have seen, must inevitably be interpreted by human beings, which introduces the personal, subjective, flawed, presence of the interpreter. Likewise it is living, breathing, subjective people who reason and create traditions.

So, experience is not some lesser member of the Quadrilateral, but has its rightful place in it. In fact, the type of experience emphasized in the Quadrilateral is primarily spiritual experience, which is understood both individually and communally. We must be clear that knowledge of spiritual things is not in view here, but a spiritual experience of the risen Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9). In this respect, experience takes a certain pride of place in the Quadrilateral, for it speaks to the end goal for why theological knowledge is attained in the first place.

The Quadrilateral insists that one’s spiritual experience of Christ is a positive contributor to the attainment of theological knowledge. It is not a guarantee in and of itself of such knowledge—committed and sincere Christians are quite often wrong about things, and equally committed Christians will have genuine disagreements over theological matters. Rather, one’s experience of Christ affects how one sees oneself and the world. That experience, if truly spiritual rather than nominal, affects one deeply and thoroughly.

The New Testament speaks of the Church as individuals comprising a collective whole—as members of one body where each member plays its vital role while mutually dependent upon the other members (1 Corinthians 12:12). The spiritual experience that contributes to the attainment of theological knowledge, therefore, is never simply a personal matter but collective, generated and reinforced by the body as a whole.

Embracing the collective spiritual experience for attaining theological knowledge has important implications. One of the more vital implications is what we might call the ethical dimension of theological knowledge. If we are all part of one body and our collective spiritual experience is a key factor in attainting theological knowledge, we will need to proceed with a posture of love and respect for each other.

A second implication is that intelligence and academic achievement, although to be properly honored and utilized, will be submissive to the collective wisdom of the group. Scholars do not lead the Church; the Spirit does, working in and through the collective experience of the members of the body, where each one contributes his or her part with true humility and love.

As we all know, this is a lofty goal, to be sure. In the quest for theological knowledge, disagreements and even animosity can quickly follow. Theological knowledge throughout the church’s history has been used to control others rather than serve. But any theological knowledge divorced from the collective, mutually accepting love of the community is at best only a parody.

There is one last way in which experience comes into play in attaining theological knowledge, what we might call life experience. Life experience is not a wholly distinct category from spiritual experience, since, for spiritual beings, all experiences are folded into the spiritual life. Nevertheless, general life experience most certainly affects how one comes to terms with theological knowledge.

We cannot help when we were born or where. We do not choose our families of origin and the cultures in which we are raised. In our ever-decreasing global village, we are becoming more and more aware of how much our thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs are shaped by matters wholly out of our control—accidents of birth, so to speak.

I have taught in many situations where a significant part of the class population is from Asian and African contexts. It quickly became apparent that their experiences are not mine and that those differences lead us to ask very different kinds of theological questions and arrive at very different kinds of answers. For example, Asian and African cultures will be less interested in, say, inerrancy and more interested in what the faith has to say about ancestor worship. African Christians in particular (at least those in my experience, and without wanting to over-generalize) are not overly concerned about reconciling Adam with evolution, but more with things like demon possession and colonialism.

Western Christianity has had an uninspiring track record of imposing their theological interests on other cultures—which is to say, of devaluing the experiences and resultant wisdom that those alternate experiences generate. Today, however, Christians are becoming increasingly aware of how those larger life experiences add to the wisdom of the whole precisely because they are different. The cultures into which we are born make a difference in the attainment of theological knowledge.

Finally, differing personal life experience also affects how one goes bout the theological task. Certainly, the cultural factors mentioned above are in a real sense “personal” life experiences, but here I mean the term in different way. I am thinking particularly of those types of experiences that are universal to all cultures but that do not affect all individuals.

Poverty, oppression from the powerful, emotional and mental suffering (depression, for example) and other factors are all highly formative an in individual’s view of the world and of faith. Jesus himself had a special relationship to the poor, oppressed, and sufferers, because he knew that their life experiences put them in a different vantage point from which to hear the gospel.

The wisdom of this fourth quadrant is recognizing the role that experience necessarily plays in how we theologize. Who we are as people—especially in our collective and individual spiritual union with the crucified and risen Christ—affects the theological task, as do other experiential factors. If anything, recognizing this fact will breed humility and create a context where theological movement via vibrant conversation is expected rather than avoided.

#Evolution and Our Theological Traditions: Summing Up

The conversation between evolution and Christianity is an intellectually challenging one. Too often, however, the conversation proceeds on a faulty premise, namely that one’s understanding of Christianity is the sure basis upon which the conversation takes place. One sees this faulty premise at work whenever the conversation begins by one party declaring what is and is not “at stake” in the conversation. In this case, science is seen as the intruder whose merits are judged on the basis of what Scripture “clearly” says.

But the matter is certainly much more complicated than that. What the Bible says and does not say, and how one makes that determination, and how that determination applies to any given issue, including evolution, puts us squarely—and unavoidably—in a deeply theological and hermeneutical conversation. These factors quickly come into play anytime a serious conversation occurs between science and faith.

One of the points I have been trying to make in this series, which is here coming to a close, is how the two dominant theological strands in American Evangelicalism—Calvinism and Wesleyanism—have demonstrated wisdom and sophistication in recognizing and addressing the hermeneutical questions. These movements form much of the intellectual foundation for current Evangelicalism, but the hermeneutical lessons of those traditions have not always been mined in contemporary discussions over science/faith issues.

Of course, I do not mean either or both of these traditions have provided final answers to the pressing questions science puts before Christians. They do, however, model for us how hermeneutics can and must contribute to the conversation.

In closing, I would like to highlight one major hermeneutical contribution from each of these traditions. Taking these factors to heart will add needed depth and substance to the science/faith conversation within Evangelicalism today, drawing upon its own traditional roots.

One central hermeneutical contribution of the Calvinist legacy to the science/faith discussion is its persistent attention to the historical context of Scripture. Today this is often referred to the grammatical-historical interpretation: Scripture must be understood, not as one wishes, but against the backdrop of its historical setting, which includes close attention to the words on the page according to the ancient language in which they were written.

This stands to reason, since a core Christian conviction is that Christianity is a historical faith, meaning it tells the story of God’s dealings with people in history. Hence, understanding someone of the historical setting of the Bible will elucidate, not obscure, a text’s meaning. A Christian reading of Scripture must embrace the historical dimension, wherever it leads.

Now, of course, historical setting can sometimes be vague or difficult (or impossible) to understand, and some scholarly historical judgments can certainly be incorrect at the end of the day. Much of what occupies biblical scholars is the difficult task of trying to discern that setting and then how that setting actually affects biblical interpretation. There is nothing mechanical about the process; biblical interpretation is rightly said to be both a science and an art. Nevertheless, the Calvinist legacy keeps the struggle between “then and now” front and center. Regardless of how unclear such a process might be at times, in principle that is precisely what responsible biblical interpretation aims for.

Those interested in the science/faith discussion will take this lesson to heart by following as best as we are able where the historical evidence leads, even if it takes one in unfamiliar and even uncomfortable territory. The goal, after all, is to let Scripture speak to us, not to have Scripture speak as we wish.

The Wesleyan hermeneutical contribution to the contemporary science/faith discussion is its recognition of the unavoidable complexity involved in arriving at any sort of theological knowledge. Scripture has a primary role, as God’s word, but discerning how Scripture is to be understood is not a simple matter. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral explains that four factors invariably are working together: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.

The Wesleyan legacy reminds us that true theological knowledge is not simply a matter of reading Scripture as if from a blank slate; or simply applying one’s reasoning powers as if neutral; or appealing to one’s own tradition as if firmly settled; or simply opting to listen to one’s own inner spiritual convictions. Instead, theological knowledge is a product of a vibrant interplay of numerous factors. Therefore, those participating in the theological conversation will do so with an attitude of patient, humble service for the church, ever willing to turn the critical eye inward instead of thinking that difficult matters can be quickly settled.

It is my observation that the discussion over evolution is not always undertaken with these theological trajectories in mind, and true progress is hindered as a result. To embrace and embody these elements of the Calvinist and Wesleyan legacies does not predetermine the final answers to be offered—it only helps secure that the conversation will proceed in the proper way.


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