INTRO BY BRAD: This is the final part of a series on the interaction between science and Scripture by physicist and lay theologian Loren Haarsma (parts 1 and 2 are linked on the sidebar). In this final part, he covers the crucial concept of accommodation in the Scriptures. Before we can talk about what the Bible says about anything (including origins), we must first have a good grasp on what the Bible is. And as Loren imaginatively explains, this must begin with an awareness of the cultural presuppositions we bring to the Bible about what its message is supposed to look like.
On another note, it appears that it has accidentally become Calvin Week on my blog. Actually, never mind. It was predestined.
“If God created using the Big Bang and evolution, why didn’t God just say so in Genesis?”
When I hear this question, I usually answer by talking about the pre-scientific picture of the world in the ancient Near East when Genesis was written. Cultures of that time believed in a flat earth, with waters below the earth and waters above the earth held in place by a solid dome firmament. I often mention John Calvin’s principle of accommodation. God, when inspiring Scripture, spoke in ways that were understandable to the original audience, making allowances for their language and general level of understanding. Calvin wrote in his commentary on Psalm 136:7, “The Holy Spirit had no intention to teach astronomy; and in proposing instruction meant to be common to the simplest and most uneducated person, He made use by Moses and other prophets of the popular language that none might shelter himself under the pretext of obscurity.”
I grew up in a tradition which accepted Calvin’s principle of accommodation. So when I first learned of the ancient Near East cosmology reflected in Genesis 1, I was delighted. I saw how I could affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture while embracing the discoveries of modern science. But I have also talked to Christians who reacted with horror when they first encounter the idea that God inspired a Scripture which talks about a solid dome firmament. “Are you saying that God lied in Scripture?”
Our modern, scientific culture is not the culture of the original audience of Genesis. We cannot avoid the influences of our modern culture on ourselves when we read Scripture. I wrote the following story to illustrate.
Once upon a time, there was a large tribe—more like a small nation—living in a remote part of the New World. They had their own language and culture. One of their central rules was, “Any story involving human characters must accurately describe what really happened to real people.” All children were taught this rule, and it was strictly enforced. As a result, this culture had very little malicious gossip, and very little bearing false witness in legal matters. Also as a result, this culture had no fictional stories with human characters. But they also knew the usefulness of having fictional morality tales, and the value of having fictional stories which explore human motivations, and even the simple value of having entertaining fictional stories to share with friends and family. So this culture had another rule, “Fictional stories must have talking animals as characters.” So if you lived in this culture, if ever you heard a story involving talking animals, you immediately knew it was a fictional story, although it might still be a story with an important lesson. And if ever you heard a story involving human characters, you could be assured that it described real events that really happened the way they were told.
One day, the gospel of Christ came to this nation. Many received it with joy. The Bible was translated into their language. The believers learned much from it and frequently discussed it.
One thing (among many) that these people occasionally talked about as they studied Scripture was Jesus’ parables. They were amazed that Jesus knew so many stories involving people which also perfectly illustrated the spiritual lesson that Jesus was teaching. How did Jesus know so many perfect stories? They all agreed that Jesus throughout his lifetime must often have been listening for and remembering such stories. Some people speculated that many other religious teachers of Jesus’ time must have done this as well, and perhaps they built up a collection of such stories that they shared with each other. They all agreed that Jesus was God’s Son, so of course nothing was too hard for him.
Three decades later, the leaders of this nation sent some of their brightest young people to the best seminaries of the old world to learn all that they could about the Bible and church history. These young seminarians did so and returned to their nation to pass on what they had learned.
One day, as the people were discussing Jesus’ parables and speculating as usual about how Jesus came to learn all these stories, some of the seminarians said, “Actually, we learned something interesting in seminary about the customs and culture of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. In that culture, in that time and place, it was not considered wrong for them to make up fictional stories involving human characters, provided all the listeners knew that it was a fictional story involving fictional humans, rather than a false story about real humans. It was common practice, in Jesus’ day, in that culture, for religious teachers to make up fictional stories about fictional humans in order to teach a true spiritual lesson. Everyone at the time knew this. It was an accepted practice of their culture. So it’s probably the case that Jesus did the same thing when he told his parables.”
You can imagine the shock and horror, as nearly all the listeners exclaimed to the seminarians, “Are you saying that Jesus told lies?”
We are that fictional nation. We have inherited, from the Enlightenment, certain cultural practices and expectations about what sorts of literature are appropriate for teaching certain sorts of truths and what sorts of literature are not appropriate for teaching certain sorts of truths. Scientific truths and historical accuracy are held in high esteem. Like the culture of that fictional nation, these cultural practices that we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment are not bad practices. Indeed, they have served us well over the centuries and much good has come from them. But we also need to understand that our particular cultural practices were not the cultural practices in place when Scriptures were written.
Back to the story: Later, when people got over the shock and horror of their first reaction to what the seminarians said, some of them began to ask, “We understand what you’re saying about the culture of Jesus’ time. We sort of accept that maybe it was OK for people at that time to tell fictional stories about fictional humans, as long as everyone understood what was going on, and that even the human religious leaders did this. But why do you insist that Jesus did it, too? Wouldn’t it have been possible for Jesus’ parables to also have been true stories about real people that Jesus happened to know? Even if some of Jesus’ listeners at that time thought he was just making up fictional stories to make a spiritual point, like the other religious teachers of the time, Jesus wasn’t limited like those human teachers. Couldn’t Jesus’ parables also have been true stories about real people?
The seminarians answered, “Yes, it’s possible that Jesus’ parables could have been true stories about real people. But they probably weren’t. That wasn’t the cultural practice at that time.”
And the people asked, “Why do you say that? Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus’ parables, in addition to teaching a true spiritual point, were also true stories about real people, rather than fictional stories about fictional people? Ever since we received the Bible, we interpreted Jesus’ parables one way. Now, decades later, you would have us change our interpretation based on this so-called historical scholarship. Aren’t you subjecting the authority of Scripture to the authority of human scholarship?”
At this point in the story, I’m not sure how to have the seminarians respond. Most days, I hope they would say, “No, by insisting on our traditional interpretation of the parables—by insisting that it would be unworthy of Jesus to tell fictional stories about fictional people—we are subjecting Scripture to the authority of our own particular cultural practices. Our cultural practices are not wrong. Our cultural practices have served us well, and we’re not suggesting that we should change them. But our practices were not the cultural practices in place when the gospels were written. Our cultural practices were not the cultural practices in place when Jesus taught his parables. Whether you accept our new interpretation, or stay with your traditional interpretation, the fundamental message of Jesus’ parables hasn’t changed. But the Scriptures were written at a time and place with different cultural practices for what sorts of literature could be used to teach certain kinds of truth. It seems to us that the best interpretation is one which accepts that and uses the best modern scholarship to understand the literary and cultural practices of that time, rather than one that insists that the truths of Scripture must be taught and Scripture must be interpreted according to our own cultural practices today.”