Yesterday we posted the first part of an interview with Denis Lamoureux as part of our series, Interpreting Adam. There he introduced the Message-Incident Principle as a key to proper biblical interpretation. Today Denis develops that principle further, and we give the rest of his interview.
Jim Stump: Your "Message-Incident Principle" (p. 50) is crucial for sorting out the culturally bound statements in Scripture from the universally true message of Scripture. (1) But how do we know which is which? Christian theology itself seems to have "evolved" over the centuries from the writings in the New Testament to the Ecumenical Creeds to the Reformers. (2) Is the spiritual message of one generation the incidental vessel of another? (3) Does this principle put us on a slippery slope of dismissing those parts of Scripture that don't seem to fit with our own culture as incidental?
Denis Lamoureux: Thank you for this question because it helps to further explain the Message-Incident Principle. As stated, this question subtly introduces the concept of culture into my interpretative principle. The notion of culture is an extremely wide concept. However, as Figure 2 reveals, the Message-Incident Principle is restricted to statements about the physical world as understood by an ancient science and conceived through an ancient phenomenological perspective.
Consequently, if we respect thelimits of my interpretative principle, I believe most Christians can easily distinguish between statements dealing with the physical world (e.g., sun, moon, stars, earth, seas, plants, animals, etc.) and statements about spiritual realities (e.g., God, Image of God, goodness, sin, Divine Judgment, etc.).
Regarding the “evolution” of Christian theology, it is true that there has been development throughout church history. However, we must always remember that theology is a human endeavor and that humans are finite and sinful, and we make errors. I know this personally as a professional theologian. Consequently, theology is not inerrant. Only the spirituals truths in Scripture are inerrant.
Let me give an example. When Protestant reformer Martin Luther read the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” he did not conceive the structure of the world as we do today, or as it was understood by the author of Genesis 1 (see Figure 1 inyesterday’s post). Instead, Luther believed in a geocentric (earth-centered) universe as depicted inFigure 3. Notably, this diagram appears across from Genesis 1 in his 1534 German translation of the Bible.
There is no doubt Luther definitely believed that Figure 3 was the actual structure of the universe. In his Lectures on Genesis (1536), he argued:
Scripture . . . simply says that the moon, the sun, and the stars were placed . . . in the firmament of the heaven (below and above which are the waters) . . . The bodies of the stars, like that of the sun, are round, and they are fastened to the firmament like globes of fire. . . We Christians must, therefore, be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of things. And if some are beyond our comprehension (like those before us concerning the waters above the heavens), we must believe them . . . rather than wickedly deny them or presumptuouslyinterpret them in conformity with our understanding (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Lectures on Genesis, J. Pelikan, ed.(St. Louis: Concordia, 1958 ), 30, 42-3; my italics).
Do Christians today believe they are “wicked” or “presumptuous” for not believing in a heavenly sea (the waters above)? I don’t think so.
Here’s the lesson we can learn from history. Theologians throughout time have embraced many different understandings of the structure of the physical world. In light of the Message-Incident Principle, I contend that these are all incidental and not essential to our Christian faith. However, all these theologians throughout church history, including Martin Luther in the 16th century, were able to identify the most foundational inerrant spiritual truth in Genesis 1—God created the entire world. As the history of theology reveals, this spiritual message has never become an incidental vessel.
The Message-Incident Principle does not put us on the proverbial slippery slope. Instead, it challenges us to separate the inerrant spiritual truths in the Bible from the incidental ancient science that acts like a vessel carrying these life-changing Messages of Faith.
So let’s return to our topic of Adam and the great creeds of the church. The historicity of Adam is clearly present in the Council of Carthage (418), Augsburg Confession (1530), Thirty-Nine Articles (1571), and Westminster Confession (1646). But is this surprising? No. The theologians who formulated these creeds all accepted the science-of-their-day, which was the de novo creation of Adam. Human evolution was not part of science in those generations.
In reading these creeds we need to be aware, that similar to Scripture, they were composed at a certain point in history. Consequently, they feature an ancient understanding of human origins. And in the same way that we can apply the Message-Incident Principle to the Bible, we can draw the inerrant spiritual truths (which originated from Scripture) from the incidental science-of-the-day held by the formulators of the creeds. In this way, the historical Adam found in the creeds is an incidental ancient vessel that is not essential to our Christian faith.
JS: You've advocated the term "evolutionary creation" for emphasizing all Christians' commitment to God as the Creator, and evolution as the means of creation. Do you see the "No Adam" position as an essential component of the "evolutionary creation" view, or is there room for other views on Adam to fit under that rubric?
DL: Let me begin by stating that though I have written a 500-page book entitled Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution (2008), I did not coin the term, nor do I have the copyright for it (!). It was a professor a Calvin College who introduced me to the category in 1996; and it was another Calvin professor who pointed out to me that it probably originated with Abraham Kuyper in 1899.
Over the last 10 to 15 years this term has been embraced by evangelical Christians who also accept biological evolution. Of course, the issue of Adam is a point of disagreement. Some who identify themselves as “evolutionary creationists” accept that there was a historical Adam. In other words, they tack Adam on the tail end of evolution.
But I disagree with this approach. It would be similar to attaching a 3-tier universe at the end of cosmological evolution. I doubt anyone wants to do that. Why? It’s categorically inappropriate. We cannot mix modern science (biological evolution and cosmological evolution) with ancient science (de novo creation of Adam and a 3-tier universe).
Those who pin Adam to the tail end of evolution are scientific concordists because modern genetics offers no evidence for his existence. Their belief in Adam comes from Scripture, not science. And from my perspective, scientific concordism always falls short.
Now there are some who attempt to argue that Adam was taken from a population of humans and that he was the first person to be in a relationship with God. The analogy used is that Adam is like Abraham in that he was called by God. However, this is definitely not in the Bible. Genesis 2 does not talk about Adam being called from some group of humans. Genesis 2 is a creation account and clearly states that the Lord made Adam de novo from the dust of the ground.
From my perspective, a foundational tenet of evolutionary creation is that it rejects scientific concordism. Consequently, those who accept human evolution and a historical Adam should really be classified with the progressive creationists because they embrace concordism.
JS: What do you take to be the most vulnerable point of your "No Adam" position?
DL: Let me respond to this question by asking a question: What is the most vulnerable point to the view that we do not live in a 3-tier universe? Needless to say, if indeed we live in a 3-tier universe, then we are going to need to respond to centuries and centuries of arguments against this view of the structure of the cosmos.
But let me now answer your question more directly. If the central concept to my origins position deals with biblical interpretation as I stated in Question 2, then the most vulnerable point is my interpretative approach to Scripture.
Here is what my critics need to do. They need to show me that scientific concordism is true and that it is an inerrant feature of the Bible. Find me only one verse in Scripture where God has revealed a modern scientific fact to a biblical writer thousands of years before its discovery by modern scientists. Do that and I will rethink my position. However, I do not know of one such verse. From my reading of Scripture, every statement about the natural world reflects the science-of-the-day as conceived through the ancient phenomenological perspective at that time.
JS: You've been involved in the science and Christianity conversations for many years as an unabashed Evangelical who accepts evolution. Sometimes, no doubt, you must have felt yours was a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Have you seen the climate change at all in this respect for Evangelicals?
DL: One of the great blessings of academic life is that you have the privilege of meeting some of the best scholars in the world. I have found that there are many evangelical colleagues who hold views similar to mine regarding Adam, but they reveal this to me in private because they fear reprisal from their academic institutions. It is a fact that professors have lost their jobs for rejecting the historicity of Adam. In fact, I have experienced this personally with the two evangelical denominations where I have fellowshipped. I was blocked by one, and dismissed by the other.
But as I noted in the first question, there is a shift going on in evangelical circles. I suspect it will take a generation for us to come to terms with biological evolution, in particular human evolution. If there is one thing we can learn from the history of science it is that the church is always cautious in embracing new scientific ideas, but in the end she is able to accommodate them into her theology, without any loss or damage to the inerrant spiritual truths of the Bible. I see the same happening with the issue of Adam in the future.