It is no secret that developments in modern thought have challenged traditional notions of the Bible—not simply how to handle a verse here or there, but how to think of the Bible as a whole. To say, for example, that the Bible is inspired or the revealed word of God is fine, but it does not really address the situation at hand, for it leaves unaddressed how we are to think of inspiration and revelation in light of these recent challenges.Two of these challenges crystallized in the nineteenth century and are still very much with us today. In biblical studies, texts from ancient cultures surrounding Israel began to be discovered and deciphered, and these texts bore striking similarities to foundational texts of the Old Testament. The first and still most famous of these discoveries are stories of creation and the flood from ancient Mesopotamia that are older than the biblical account. Although there are important differences between the Genesis stories and these other texts, it quickly became very hard to escape the conclusion that the authors of all of these texts—Genesis included—share a conceptual world about the nature of reality; they “breathed the same air”.In subsequent generations, as archaeological studies shed more light on the ancient Mesopotamian world, the Old Testament came to be seen more and more as reflecting the environments in which those writings were produced. An entire field of inquiry arose called “The Bible and the Ancient Near East,” or similar designations. It was clear that the Old Testament could be profitably set in its ancient settings, and doing so would yield a deeper understanding of the Bible and its world, even if it challenged some traditional views. This is not to say that the Old Testament is “just like” other ancient writings or could be understood merely on the basis of these comparisons. No two writings from antiquity can be so closely equated, and certainly the Old Testament has many distinctive marks. But the pressure point was the striking similarities.
It is beyond any reasonable debate that the various writings of the Old Testament reflect the ancient contexts in which they were written. The interconnectedness of the Bible and the ancient world can be both confirming of Evangelical instincts regarding the Bible, but also presents very important challenges concerning the uniqueness and historical content of the Old Testament, Genesis 1-11 being a particularly famous example. However one may think through the specifics of these challenges, the more basic point should not be lost: any move to articulate very important concepts like inspiration and revelation cannot blissfully ignore the circumstance described above, but rather must account squarely with the “ancient near eastern way” God chose to speak.
A second challenge to traditional notions of the Bible in the nineteenth century is well known to readers of this blog: Darwin and evolution. Here we have a way of looking at human origins that was persuasive to scientists, spread quickly, and, in tandem with advances in geology from the previous century, called into serious question whether Genesis 1-11—especially creation, the flood, and age of the earth—has any historical value whatsoever.
It was a tough century for Christians. Challenges were coming from the halls of academic inquiry, both biblical studies and scientific disciplines. For traditional thinking about the Bible, the dominoes were unraveling down the slippery slope, so to speak. And judging by the persistent resistance offered by conservative scholars during the latter half of the nineteenth century (particularly at Princeton Theological Seminary), the threat was very real indeed.
It is not at all an exaggeration to say that, for many, “attacking” the Bible in this way was nothing less than an “attack” on the gospel itself. It is fair to say that Fundamentalism and by extension Evangelicalism were born out of this conflict between older views and new discoveries. In my opinion, even though some of the dust has settled, the nineteenth century is a blow from which Evangelicalism has yet to recover—a point demonstrated by the very existence of the BioLogos project.
The work before Evangelicals is essentially one of synthesis. How can we (1) speak of the Bible as God’s word while also (2) facing with integrity things like archaeological discoveries and advances in scientific knowledge of the world? This is an important, even vital, question to consider, for apologetic reasons as well as encouraging the faithful. How can we talk about God and the Bible now, in view of these circumstances?
I would like to suggest that a very helpful way of talking about the Bible that can account for the present challenges is what I call an incarnational model, where the nature of the Bible is understood on analogy with the person of Christ. As Christ is both completely divine and human, the Bible is a book that is both authored by God and by human beings. This has important implications for how we read the Bible, indeed, for what we expect from it.
An Incarnational Model of Scripture
Models are intellectual constructs that try to account for data. They are ways of putting the pieces together and aim to achieve the greatest degree of explanatory power.
We all have models of reality, whether or not we know it. We all hold to hypotheses and theories (which I will take as roughly synonymous with “model”) to explain what we see.
This is also the case for how we interpret the Bible. All of us–from the most ardent Fundamentalist to the most Liberal Christian–construct models to account for the “data.” The models that are the most coherent (account for the most data) wind up being the most persuasive. No model is pure and objectively correct. They are all working hypotheses, and as such are also always up for revision.
One model that accounts for why the Bible behaves the way it does is an incarnational model. Simply put, an incarnational model of Scripture is one that expects Scripture to have an unapologetically thorough human dimension analogous to Jesus’ complete humanity. Both the human dimension of Scripture and the humanity of Jesus are essential to making them what they are.
If Jesus were less than 100% human, or only appeared to be human, or if his humanity is something that could be dispensed with, he would not be Jesus of Nazareth, and his death and resurrection would be non-sensical. Likewise, if the Bible were a book dropped out of heaven with only a tangential, peripheral participation in the human contexts in which it is written–sort of a divine dictation–it ceases being the Word of God.
I stress an incarnational model because so often, whether knowingly or unknowingly, assumptions are made about the nature of Scripture where the human dimension winds up being something of an embarrassment or scandal. True, many willingly embrace some form of an incarnational model when speaking of less problematic things like how the personalities of biblical writers affect what they say or how their ancient worldview would lead them to assume that the sun revolves around the earth.
But that is the easy part. A thoroughly incarnational model is also poised to address some of the more difficult problems that other models of Scripture have not done a good job of handling–such as the challenges posed by Darwin and Mesopotamian literature in the nineteenth century which I mentioned in my last post.
A literalist/historicistic model has not done a good job at all of explaining Genesis, and this has become increasingly clear over the last 150 years. When faced as we are with the strong, even overwhelming, evidence for evolution and the presence of Mesopotamian creation and flood stories that look like what we see in Genesis, it is clear that models are needed that do not force these data into existing models that are ill-suited to handle them.
An incarnational model accounts theologically for why the Bible would speak in such ancient, contextual terms and not in modern ones. An incarnational model presumes a book like Genesis to express itself in ancient conventions. And such an ancient, contextual expression is not an embarrassment but an indication of how willing God is to meet us where we are–a willingness seen most clearly in the incarnate Lord.
In his preface to J. B. Phillips’s translation of the New Testament letters into contemporary English, C.S. Lewis articulately addresses this issue of incarnation. Lewis observes that the Greek style of the New Testament betrays writers for whom Greek was not a language at their full command. He writes:
Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby in a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as an earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper and further in.
Although the topic here is translation, Lewis’s defense of Phillips is easily applicable to our topic. Lewis’s point is that those who take offense at the low Greek style of the New Testament have not come to grips with the incarnation. The same holds for those who take offense at the thoroughly encultured, ancient style of the opening chapters of Genesis and expect from it a more explicitly literal, historical style.
Let’s Come at this From a Different Angle
That is all fine and well, but let’s come at this from a different angle. There is a factor that rarely enters the discussion among conservative readers of Scripture. It is only one factor, but it is very important. If we want a clue as to how to read the opening chapters of the Christian Bible, we should go to the closing chapters.At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, in the very last chapter of the last book, we read the following:Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5, NIV).The book of Revelation is an apocalyptic book, which means it is a figurative, symbolic description of what the “end” will look like. Much of Revelation is concerned with showing God’s ultimate rule over history, and how he is bringing that history to its consummation in Christ.And note how history will end: in a garden, with a river, a tree of life, and the removal of the curse. I hope bells are going off right about now.In a manner of speaking, the point of the entire story of redemption laid out in the Christian Bible is to get us “back into the garden,” to regain what was lost, for the obedient Second Adam to undo the disobedience of the first Adam.
The book of Revelation, however, is not a literal description of events in time and space. To be sure, God will bring history to its consummation, but the description of that consummation in Revelation is figurative or symbolic. That is the nature of apocalyptic literature in the ancient world, and Revelation participates in that literary convention.
Although it has occasionally been tried, a “literal” (meaning time-space, historical) reading of Revelation does not work at all. The message behind Revelation is something God will do in history, but the description of those events are figurative. This is especially clear beginning in Chapter 21, where we read of a “New Jerusalem” descending from the sky. Its description is a symbolic amalgamation of Jerusalem, temple, and Garden of Eden imagery. It is not a literal city crashing down on the Earth, but a theologically potent, concrete, ancient description of what God will eventually do in time and space.
The use of such imagery was a powerful communicator of theological truth to ancient peoples–and it should be to us, as well. And here is my point to ponder: the symbolic, non-literal nature of the renewed Garden in Revelation 22 should suggest to us, quite strongly in fact, that the Garden of Genesis 2-4 likewise, although communicating theological truth, is also symbolic and non-literal. Both are “true,” deeply so, but neither are literal, historical, or physical.