Monday, 19 April 2010

Analogical Language about God

This is a long response to a comment from a discussion based on these posts.

Hello Nathan,

I have really enjoyed your comments to me in this thread. I think they have the potential to push the conversation up another whole notch, so thank you. I'm not sure how many comments it is going to take me to deal with everything you've raised, but I think we need to settle back for a very long trip.

Before we settle in, as someone who has regularly had people take offence at how I've said things on threads, I find using the scare quotes ' ' useful when I want to distance myself from something I'm saying in a thread. We're so used to journalists stating the side they like without the quotes and the side they don't like with the quotes that just using the quotes can often remove possible offence. e.g. 'Martin's "creaturely" view of God' or 'Mark's "mystery" view of God' I think takes most of the sting out of a one word summary. It seems to have cut down on the number of people I've unnecessarily offended, so something like that might work.

I’m afraid that I’m going to have to (very respectfully) disagree with both your position and Martin’s. Let me see if I can outline more clearly what I believe is a third (and more reformed) way through this semantic entanglement :)
Hee! I love third ways, and especially when they're more reformed than me. :) So the student has exceeded the teacher! Well then my young padawan, the force is clearly strong with you, lead the way. (And another thanks is in order: I always wanted to say that.)

I don’t think, however, that you have avoided apophatic theology in your formulation. You’re position is essentially (at this point) no different from the analogia entis of the scholastics.
You had to go and introduce analogia entis into this whole debate didn'tcha? This is going to take some words to address, because there's a huge amount at stake here.

Okay, for those reading along who live in the real world, analogia entis means something like 'analogy of being' and the idea at stake is usually explained as there being some kind of correlation between creation and Creator - the creation is something like the One who called it from nothing, and hence language means something similar. Human power is a little like God's power, human goodness is a little like God's goodness etc. So language for God is analogical because it draws upon this analogy in reality, in existence, between us and God - we are a little bit like God.

Behind such an idea is the notion of causality - cause and effect. God is the cause of creation, creation is the effect, and an effect will share some of the characteristics of its cause. Or to put it in a different approach again, works express nature. Human beings are only capable of doing human works, but those works truly express human nature - they are have human fingerprints on them. God's works express his nature. So creation is good because it is a work of the good God - God's attributes are displayed in a creaturely way in creation.

Karl Barth famously identified Aquinas as being based upon an analogy of being and levelled pretty well every theological cannon he could find at the concept. For Barth, such an analogy would mean that there was some other basis for knowing God than the Lord Jesus Christ. It would mean that creation itself points to God (natural theology), and that that link forged by the act of creation is what enables any knowledge of God to take place. All of that was incompatible with Barth's desire to establish that God is free in his relationship with us - that God is Lord.

In it's place, as far as I can see, Barth still insisted that language for God had to be analogical (please take note! - an analogy of language without the analogia entis) but suggested an analogy of faith, or analogy of grace as the bridge that made language work. There is no 'landing place' for God's Word in the human person, God effectively ignores creation and doesn't work with it. There is actually no way at all that language can be used to speak of God - the gulf between us and God is absolute and infinite. God creates the path specially in redemption. The Word of God creates the landing place in the person, it creates its own path between us and God.

Such an approach really helped his 'core task' - freeing the Word of God from its Babylonian Captivity to Liberal scholarship. There is no basis in reality for us to know God. We have no resources at all to speak of God or know him. And so we can't create revelation, we can't initiate it, and we can't stand over it and judge it. Revelation is accountable to no-one and nothing other than itself - it is its own ground for justifying itself. It is free, it is Lord. You can't disprove God's Word by science, history or the like, and you don't need to get into all that stuff to apologetically defend it. You just proclaim the Word and it does all the work itself.

With this in mind, you can see why so many people in Sydney feel drawn to Barth when they read him. Emphasising that God is in control in his revelation to us, that apologetics is a kind of unbelief and entirely useless for creating faith, that the Word of God preached creates faith and justifies itself and so we can ignore challenges from science, philosophy, history, social science etc, and that there is no other, more basic, ground to know God than Christ all gels with a lot of the concerns of 'Sydney Anglicanism'.

My problem is that people don't seem to prepared to face up to the cost of Barth's approach. You get a lot, but in life you get what you pay for, and Barth's price-tag is pretty steep. A few examples:

The biblical gospel is history. It is a statement about what happened in space and time in this world we live in. This means it doesn't simply justify itself, at least some of its ground comes from outside itself. If Christ's bones were discovered the gospel is gone. You need an empty tomb for the gospel to be true. Paul doesn't say in 1 Cor 15, "The resurrection of Christ is true because the Word of God says so." He doesn't even say, "It's true because an apostle says so, so pull your heads in." He says (implicitly), this happened in the world we live in and you, my original audience, can confirm it by talking to a whole bunch of witnesses. Barth's system implicitly sets up a 'two truth' approach - something is true in the 'real world' and yet when God speaks, for the purposes of hearing and obeying the Word of God (and only for those purposes) something else is true. Even if the bones of Christ were discovered the preacher would say, "Christ is risen" and the congregation would respond, "He is risen indeed" - because the Word of God entirely justifies itself and never has to give account to anything outside itself. It creates its own landing place and the contingent facts of history are irrelevant.

Barth's argument that if creation formed a bridge then there'd be some other basis for knowing God other than the Lord Jesus Christ only works when you recognise that Barth rejected the idea that we could speak of the eternal Son of God before the Incarnation. For Barth, as far as we are concerned, the Son has always been human. The Lord Jesus Christ is the revelation of God, and in that revelation he is both God and Man, so we have no authority to speak of him other than as Incarnate. But for orthodoxy God created the world in and by and for his Son and Word. Creation and the Son are linked because the Father worked through the Son to make the world. So analogia entis isn't establishing a basis other than Christ for our knowledge of God. Rather, it simply shifts the issue from Christ's work as Redeemer, to his work as Creator as the ultimate ground. Redemption is redemption of a world that already exists, it is not the creation of a new one ex nihilo (from nothing). Christ's work as Redeemer doesn't stand on its own, somehow creating its own ground to stand on. It builds on and works within the boundaries established by Christ's work as Redeemer. Barth's position tends to push people to see an interest in creation as somehow anti-gospel - it pits creation and redemption off against each other. It separates the world from the One by whom and in whom and for whom it was made and in whom it holds together. And that's chickenfeed compared to making Chalcedon, with its talk of both natures not being changed by their union in Christ, almost unintelligible because you're not allowed to talk of an eternal Son before the Incarnation.

Barth says that language still predicates something of God analogically in revelation. However, there is no basis in reality for that analogy. Creation is 'good' and God is 'good' but between God's goodness and creation's goodness is an absolute and infinite gulf. So what connection is there between our goodness and God's? Absolutely none. If it were otherwise then there'd be some ground in reality for the Word of God, it wouldn't have to create its own 'landing place' and the freedom of God in revelation would (supposedly) be curtailed. We could then say something about God's goodness from what we can see about the goodness of creation - natural theology. And that has to be avoided at all costs. So how does the analogy in language work? It just does. It says it does and therefore it does. As soon as the Word of God says that God is 'good' the link is established just by the Word of God saying so. It hasn't changed anything in reality - the gulf is still absolute and infinite, and so there's no comparison in reality between us and God, but somehow the comparison works in revelation and words can predicate things of God when they really can't. When it comes to Barth's theology people sometimes talk about 'building castles in the air'. I think it's more like some amazing, stunning, megapolis in the air. It's so impressive it takes the breath away. But as you keep digging into the foundations you realise that there's nothing there, it's built on nothing. Ontology (reality) has been collapsed into epistemology (knowing), it no longer forms the ground for knowledge to occur. And that's when you begin to feel like chicken little, running around crying 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling!'

But it's even worse than that. The analogy of language doesn't really work. Making truth statements about God like, "God is good" is not really revelation. Revelation and God are identical. God is his revelation in the strongest possible sense. That's why the Trinity can be derived from revelation - God reveals himself through himself: God, God, and God again. The God doing the revealing is true God, the one in whom revelation occurs is true God, and what is revealed is true God in the same sense as the other two instances. That's why the Lord Jesus Christ is, properly speaking, the revelation and Word of God, and the Bible is only *ahem* analogically the Word of God. God is not a collection of truth statements, he's not a collection of 66 books, nor is he absolutely identical to any message those 66 books teach. God is a person, so only a person can reveal God in such a way that you end up with God and not merely statements about God. So the Bible gets us in contact with Christ, but Christ is actually the revelation of God, not anything the Bible might say about God (hence why Barth could acknowledge that the Bible teaches the existence of a personal satan but say that Christians aren't obligated to believe in such a thing). Barth's whole enterprise actually makes positive theology penultimate to a new kind of negative theology. We use the positive statements the Bible makes to get us in touch with Christ and at that point we have Divine Reality itself, unmediated by language (and hence reason) at all. An immediate, person to person communion. The writer of the Cloud of Unknowing would be jealous.

The irony here is that people want to say, "No analogia enis there is no similarity at all between creation and God" and yet use language for God univocally. The same people who most are drawn to Barth (or sound like him, even if they're not aware whose footsteps they shadow) usually are the ones who just instinctively read the Bible as though it says things about God univocally. And yet, of the options, that's the one thing you absolutely can't do if Barth is right. Ultimately, language can only be analogical if God creates a path for it in the act of revelation itself. And even that has to be penultimate, for the purpose of taking us beyond itself to an encounter with God in Christ that goes beyond any truth statement made by the biblical writers.

The final problem I'll raise here, is that this approach makes discipleship almost impossible. I'm going to stick my neck right out on this one, but I think it's the kind of thing that should happen on Sola Panel. For Barth, Revelation gives us the knowledge of God. Revelation is God. But revelation is all about God revealing himself. But for me to act I need God to stop talking about himself for a bit and start talking about me and the world. I need to know who I am, and what I'm supposed to do. But on Barth's system, all the Bible is doing is taking me to Christ who reveals God. That's it. Now, I need all of that. But I need more if I am to act - I need to know myself as well. And that's the big damage I think Barth has caused in Sydney. We don't have as good a grasp on the idea that theology gives us a knowledge of ourselves - we talk as though the Bible speaks 'only' about Christ. He's not just the centre, the centre has become the whole. (Now, I know that Barth does also say that Jesus Christ is the revelation of humanity as well. Jesus Christ isn't the true man - the ideal or perfect man who exemplifies what human beings should be. He is the real man - the man who reveals what it means to be human, the man who makes us all human. We are human because of the incarnation of Christ - the appearance of Jesus Christ in history retrospectively makes being human possible. It should be clear that, for me this is still more castles in the sky, and I can't say how relieved I am that this bit of Barth's theology has never had a lot of purchase in our circles.)

This is one of the reasons why I think peole are so worried about 'moralism' in our circles - and why 'typical' Sydney preaching that I have heard often lacks much of a cutting ethical edge compared to all the other resources we bring to our preaching. We preach as though God's demands on our lives - the moral imperatives in the Bible - are only there to lead us to Christ, they are just another way in which Christ is proclaimed to us. They aren't meant to bring us into the spotlight of God's Word, that shines on Christ and on Christ alone. We really struggle with 'the third use of the Law' - the idea that preaching and meditating on the Bible's commands and instructions can actually spur Christians on in the Christian life. For us, imperatives can't do that, only promises can. You don't help believers become more godly by exhorting, commanding, or correcting. You can only do it by pointing to the finished work of Christ on the cross.

I'm gong to stick my neck right out now. The irony here is that Sydney's two arguably most influential sons, the Jensen brothers senior, Peter and Philip, seem to me to be out of step with 'the Sydney Anglican' culture as a whole at this point. Their preaching is characterised by its ethical cutting edge. They have tried to encourage people to preach the 10 commandments. They invest serious time into understanding the world in which they live - cultural analysis - and see that what the Bible says correlates to the actual world they live in. They're good at listening to the enscripturated Word of God, looking at what life is like in modern Sydney and then pointing and saying "That, that there. That's what the Bible is talking about here. That's what sin (or godliness) looks like in our context." It's christocentric, but it's not christomonistic. It's theological but profoundly concerned with ethics, with godliness. It invests a lot into cultural analysis but that isn't the engine of what's being said, it's no pre-critical framework that Word of God has to fit into. They're hardly clones, but at this point they seem to be in agreement, an agreement whose example helped me debug Barth and the issues he raises. Now there are a lot of people in Sydney who know these two much better than I. So if I've managed to read either of them wrong and they're actually big fans of Barth and his whole enterprise, or even agree with Barth with demolishing the anologia entis then hopefully someone will join the thread and correct the record.

With all that in mind, here's where I stand on angalogia entis.

I am very sceptical about Barth's rejection of natural theology, analogy of being, et al. It's not so bad that I think, "Barth disagreed with analogia entis so therefore I should agree with it." That's just daft. But I do tread very, very carefully - I need some decent reasons to reject something that seems to me to have been assumed by mainstream theology in the early church, the middle ages, and in the Reformation. Barth's rejection of the analogia entis and his assertion of an 'absolute and infinite chasm' between God and creation seems to me to be little more than saying "Oh, and by the way chaps, Kant was right - you can't get there from here. There's no basis in reality for human language to predicate things of God." He's allowed to do that. But that's not really theology speaking at that point, that's German philosophy pretending to be theology. It might be right, but, to me, it seems to be a denial of the very thing Barth claims to be fighting for - pure theology that creates all its own ground. Moreover, in general evangelicals aren't overly happy with Kant. We don't think he's been a great friend to faith. So I'm not sure why we all seem to feel the need to adopt this orphan child of his offered to us in Barth's swaddling clothes.

Having said that, I'm not particularly committed to an analogy of being either. I just haven't done the work to chase it through, and it's such a senstive issue in our context that I'll hold off until I grasp things well enough to address it. Even if Barth's wrong as to why it's wrong (and I'm pretty sure about that) he might be right that it's wrong nonetheless.

But, at this point in time, it seems to make a lot of sense to me. Creation is good because it is the work of the God who is good. It seems strange to me to go stomping in at that point and say, "Unbelief! Unbelief! There's no relationship at all between the goodness of creation and the goodness of her Creator!" If Christ is the One in and through whom all things came to exist and be what they are, then I'm not bypassing him by saying that language can speak of God because of the Creator-created relationship. Understood rightly, it seems at least as strongly Christocentric as Barth's approach.

But I'll say that I don't think I have to sign up to any theory as to why language about God works analogically to say that it does. At this stage, I'm fairly confident that language about God has to work analogically. In time I might see what is the reason for that. And that might be the analogia entis. But it might be something else. I've been strongly influenced by reading Athanasius and he has some significant things to say about how objects precede words and how the words have to be understood in light of the object they name, not vice versa. It seems to me that the Arians tried the same kind of 'semantic domain has to carry through' argument on him that, in different ways, you and Martin have run on me. And Athanasius just blew raspberries at them. He argued for a theology from above, not from below, where the reality of God in Christ shapes the words and gives them a meaning proper to that object alone. The divine reality determines the meaning of words used on him, they don't govern what he can be by their pre-existing usage. That seems to me, at this point in time to have the potential to create the kind of theoretical framework necessary for analogical language to work without necessarily adopting an analogia entis.

So analogia entis? Pfft. The bogeyman is scarier.
The problem with saying, as you have done at least twice now,
The words mean something similar when used of God but not the same.
is that immediately we are forced to qualify in what way the words are similar, and in what way they are different. If you try to do this, you quickly discover that it is an impossible task to positively qualify their differences. You are left with only negative statements about God.
I don't think I am forced to do that all. I don't work out what 'father' means by creating a list of all the ways that it differs from every other word. I don't break every concept down into its bits, determine every bit in the puzzle and then construct a meaning of the word by putting those bits together in the right order. That's the usual empirical foundationalism nonesense (hello Hume) that I reject completely. I just 'get' what fatherhood is. I mightn't even be able to explain what it is well to someone else. I mightn't know where all the boundaries of the concept are and answer every possible question about it. But I still 'get' what it means to say - "This man is my father." And when I say, "God is my Father", I don't think that I either go, "Here's the core semantic meaning of fatherhood, and that carries through to God" (univocal approach) or I go "Here's all the ways that God's fatherhood is different from all other fatherhoods" (your view of how analogical has to work). I just get that God is my Father. And that it's different but the same as my human father. Discovering those differences and similarities is something that I grow into over time as I reflect, but I start by just getting the reality directly through the word 'father' and getting that it's speaking of something quite different than earlier occurences of the word.
I think words have the power to put me in touch with the reality or concept they name more or less directly. I get a sense of the thing more or less at the start, and over time begin to grasp its shape and boundaries as I get more familiar with it. Objects, especially God, reveal themselves to me through language. They don't sit there passively as I construct a concept to reach out to them. I think my understanding of language is so different from yours at this point that I can't find a way to respond to your critique other than to say, "Nup, it's not like that at all."

Perhaps an example might help. God is good. But not good like a good book - he isn’t enjoyable to read. And not good like a human - he doesn’t conform to the moral order for which he was created in relationship to his creator. In what way is God then good? He is in fact not good in any way in which we might apply the word to anything else. So God’s goodness fits into a semantic category all on its own, and is therefore beyond our ability to define. As far as I can see, this is where the analogia entis leaves us. He is good perhaps in some way similarly to us, but we can’t say positively how.
I respectfully disagree with your position here. :) God's moral order in creation is an expression and subset of his own goodness, justice, love, et al. God's not restrained or contained by his Law, sure. But that doesn't mean that the goodness of the Law of God is not grounded in the goodness of God. God doesn't murder. God doesn't lie. God is love. God does not acquit the guilty or condemn the innocent. Now, God's goodness transcends his Law, and so somehow the election of his people to eternal life and his passing over the unrighteous is good and just; the existence of sin in the world is good and right; the suffering we undergo that God could stop at any moment is good and right - all at some level above what the Law defines for human life.

But none of that is apophatic. The Law is a genuine expression of the goodness of God - they aren't arbitrary rules God's just whistled up for us. They are an expression into this creation of God's goodness to shape our human life. So God's goodness simply has to be more than the Law because God's 'life' is not a human life. But God is not less good than the Law or differently good than the Law, it's just that he's God and that's a very different 'job description' than we have. He's good in ways that apply particularly to being God - ways that we just can't grasp. But if that's apophatic (negative theology) then that means that God can't be good until the Law applies the exact same way to him that it does to us. And that really is disastrous - the price tag there for univocal language is just way too steep.

However, what prevents Calvin from descending into apophaticism at this point isn’t the analogia entis, Calvin won’t resort to this at all, in fact. What saves him at this point is his strong distinction between person and nature. When Calvin discusses the goodness of God (Inst. I.x.2) he claims that God is good in precisely the same way that we are good, because his goodness is seen in his personal relationship to us. The language can be univocal at this point because God is truly in his persons how he is towards us. Ultimately it’s the incarnation that allows us to speak positively of God, because it is the incarnation that proves that human language (and indeed humanity in general) is a fit vehicle for the description of God - as he relates in his persons.
Okay, I've read, and reread I.x.2 and if I've got the section and chapter right I can't see anything that resembles what you are saying here. Can you give me the quotes from there that lead you to say:
  • God is good in precisely the same way that we are good
  • That this is because God is truly in his persons how he is towards us.
  • That the incarnation proves that human language is a fit vehicle for the description of God.

  • What you're claiming here runs strongly counter to my impression of Calvin's theology. My view lines up more with what Paul Helm says in John Calvin's Ideas, Oxford University Press, New York, 2004 p31

    At the same time, Aquinas and Calvin are to be distinguished from a number of modern philosophical theologians because their use of the distinction between God in himself and God as he is towards us signals the existence of a substantive ‘epistemic gap’ between God and ourselves. Those who acknowledge this distinction understand that it involves the recognition of cognitive limitations on our part…[all of this] is not acknowledge in some modern philosophical theology.

    There are perhaps two interconnected reasons for this. One is that modern philosophical discussion of the concept of God takes for granted that the language necessary to elucidate the concept of God is typically univocal. Modern philosophical theologians resist accounts of language about God that involve a theory of analogy or accommodation, for example. They prefer accounts that are univocal even while they stress human cognitive limitations.

    In both Aquinas and Calvin some of the human language about God is univocal, but it is couched mainly in negative terms. But apart from this (what we might call) ‘negative core,’ all other language about God is analogical or accommodated language, with elements of univocity but also with elements of equivocity. Modern discussion recognizes that we readily employ metaphors, similes, and analogies when talking about God; nevertheless, it takes there to be a univocal core that is usually much more extensive than that envisaged by Aquinas or Calvin, for it embraces the entire concept of God. Consequently, when we say that God is wise, or all-good, it is presumed that what is predicated of God has the same meaning as what is predicated of individuals distinct from God. Only in this way, it is believed, can we have a rigorous or philosophically controlled account of our thought about God.

    Behind this view of language lies a metaphysical thesis that involves a suspicion of, if not an outright rejection of, the idea of divine simplicity and with that a rejection of divine timeless eternity and of any strong sense of divine immutability and divine impassibility. Consequently, much modern philosophical theology takes God to be more human-like than the God of Calvin or Aquinas: he exists in time, he has a memory, he hopes and (perhaps) fears, he acts and reacts to the actions of his creatures. Human language, developed by reference to empirically identifiable states of affairs and the changes they undergo, is not then put under very much strain when it is applied to God.
    This is far more where I think Calvin is. Helm might have some details wrong, but his basic gist of Calvin's theology 'rings true' of my reading of Calvin. And it's somewhere around here that I think is probably where I should be as well.

    This allows us to avoid Martin’s creaturely God as well. The incarnation doesn’t reveal the divine nature. It reveals the divine persons - the divine Son in human nature - through whom we meet the Father and the Spirit. Thus we know God personally, and positively - but we don’t know at all what God is in Christ.
    Therefore, if we are speaking about the nature of God, then I think I am going with your use of language. We are going to be left with an equivocal use of language. Perhaps there is a sense in which the analogia entis will help us. I doubt it, but someone smarter than me will have to figure that out.
    However, if we are speaking about the persons of God then I am going with Martin. God is a person in the same way that we are because we are created in his image for a personal relationship with him, and because the second person of the trinity took on human flesh, and human language, in order to reveal the Father.
    Okay. Martin is wrong because the univocal approach ends up with God as a creature. I am wrong because the analogical approach is actually the equivocal approach and ends up with a God about whom we can't say anything with positive content. So the third way is to do one bankrupt approach at one point and the other bankrupt approach at another. We can't say anything at all about God's omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, immutability, aseity, omnipresence and the like. But when it comes to God's love, justice, holiness, goodness and the like then "he is good in precisely the same way we are good," he's a mirror image of us.

    You've really stessed this because it appears in your next comment to me as well:
    You are talking about personal categories, and the reason our language about God works so well when we use personal categories is that God is a person. Not in some way different to us being persons. But in exactly the same way that we are persons.
    When Jesus drove the money-changers out of the temple, God was angry in exactly the same way that we are angry (except without sin).
    There's two basic problems here. First is 'person'. From what I can see, the early church fathers (particularly the Greek speaking ones) didn't even think the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all 'persons' in the same way as each other. One of the Cappadocians (I think) even went so far as to say that there are not Three, but One and One and One. This is because everything that is common to the three persons is part of the being that is common to all three. So if 'personhood' was a quality identical in all three persons, then it would cease to be connected to personhood. 'Father' 'Son' and 'Spirit' aren't three names in the way that John, Jack, and Frank are for three identical persons. They don't simply describe some qualities that three people who are all persons in the same way. They are name the reality that is different between each one so named. If you like, the Father is a person in a fatherly way. The Son is a sonly way. And the Spirit in spiritally way. Contemporary social trinities just ignores this and treats them as though they are a community of three individuals who really really love each. If the three persons of the Godhead were persons in the exact same way we are then you would have tritheism.

    The other problem is what seems to be there in your 'personal qualities'. God is not loving, angry, good, wise et al. in the same way we are. Our anger could never justify sending someone to Hell, even if it was perfect. God's does. An eternal judgment for sins caused by finite creatures in a finite creation. Jesus' anger towards the money-changers definitely reveals the anger of God towards them, but it hardly exhausts it. They and us wait for judgment day to see that terror unfold.

    More than that, we acquire goodness, wisdom, love, mercy, justice and the like from outside us. They are qualities we can have more or less of, and acquire from outside ourselves. But Christ is Wisdom. God is love. These aren't just qualities God acquired. God has eternally been identical to these attributes. That's why he's the source of all these things in us and in creation - we acquire them through participation in God. This step in your position goes far beyond anything anyone has alleged about Martin's univocality. This really is to make God's personal qualities - his morality, so to speak - purely and entirely human. I think it is a bit of a stretch to say that this is 'more reformed.'

    This is where I stretch out my hands from within the folds of my robe, shoot lightning from my fingertips at you and declare, "Feel the power of the analogia entis!"

    Friday, 4 September 2009

    Discussion With Tony Payne about theology and ministry

    I wrote a medium-sized blog entry for the Sola Panel here. If somehow you've come to this and not via Sola Panel you may want to go and read that first to get the context. The blog prompted a (characteristically) very thoughtful collection of thoughts from Tony Payne. Unfortunately, his comment has now created something of a 'Perfect Storm' in terms of my response. I get the impression he's thinking about it a fair bit (which means I'm inclined to talk longer rather than more briefly) and it touches upon some issues I've been wrestling with for years now (which means I'm inclined to talk longer rather than more briefly....) and Sola Panel is going for a much shorter format than I tend to naturally go for. My comment to Tony is going to be about three times as long as the word limit Sola Panel likes us to aim to go under for our posts. As I didn't want Paul Grimmond virtually thumping me on the back of the head along NCIS lines, I thought I might put the comment here, along with any further disucssion it raises.

    Even more than normal, this isn't a carefully worked essay. It's a 'comment' and so I suspect that, even more than normal, it more points to connections and conclusions rather than spells them out. Anyway, here it is:


    Thanks for your great reflections and further thinking. Here's a bit more that is very much a work in progress of where I am up to on some of the issues.
    When we talk about the knowledge of ‘ourselves’, and the way it both proceeds from and feeds into our knowledge of God, how broad is the category of ‘ourselves’? Does it run to understanding human society and the way our world ‘works’? Does it extend to the way we understand and organize our churches and ministries?

    I think I would answer 'yes' on all these questions. Certainly Calvin seems to be happy to speak of the way churches (and hence minstries) and societies should and should not be organized in book 4 and these imperatives are based upon his understanding of the nature of church, ministry, and society.

    For where your thinking seems to be going, I’d want to bring in that Calvin is very strong on humanity's innate knowledge of understanding human society, distinguishing this "earthly" class of knowledge from the "heavenly" class of knowledge of God and true righteousness. The quote is from the Institutes Book 2 Chapter 2 and Section 13. I've paragraped it a bit more than the translation I got from the net, to make it easier to read. :)

    It may therefore be proper, in order to make it more manifest how far our ability extends in regard to these two classes of objects, to draw a distinction between them.

    The distinction is, that we have one kind of intelligence of earthly things, and another of heavenly things.

    By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries. By heavenly things, I mean the pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom.

    To the former belong matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies. To the latter (as to which, see the eighteenth and following sections) belong the knowledge of God and of his will, and the means of framing the life in accordance with them.

    As to the former, the view to be taken is this: Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must he regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver.

    For where your thinking seems to be going in the latter part of your comment, I think Calvin's statement at the start of the last of the "paragraphs" that I quoted is going to be important. The statement is:

    Since man is by nature a social animal

    And it is a paraphrase of a statement by Aristotle in his Politics that man is by nature a political animal. It is difficult to imagine that Calvin, being classically trained, didn’t know that he was nodding his head to the great pagan philosopher at this point.

    So at this point, Calvin’s anthropology involves insights from Scripture integrated with those from pagan philosophy. I’d argue that Calvin does something similar in Book 1 Chapter 15 section 6 where he discusses the faculties of the soul:

    But I leave it to philosophers to discourse more subtilely of these faculties. For the edification of the pious, a simple definition will be sufficient. I admit, indeed, that what they ingeniously teach on the subject is true, and not only pleasant, but also useful to be known; nor do I forbid any who are inclined to prosecute the study. First, I admit that there are five senses, which Plato (in TheƦteto) prefers calling organs, by which all objects are brought into a common sensorium, as into a kind of receptacle: Next comes the imagination (phantasia), which distinguishes between the objects brought into the sensorium: Next, reason, to which the general power of Judgment belongs: And, lastly, intellect, which contemplates with fixed and quiet look whatever reason discursively revolves. In like manner, to intellect, fancy, and reason, the three cognitive faculties of the soul, correspond three appetite faculties—viz. will—whose office is to choose whatever reason and intellect propound; irascibility, which seizes on what is set before it by reason and fancy; and concupiscence, which lays hold of the objects presented by sense and fancy.
    Though these things are true, or at least plausible, still, as I fear they are more fitted to entangle, by their obscurity, than to assist us, I think it best to omit them. If any one chooses to distribute the powers of the mind in a different manner, calling one appetive, which, though devoid of reason, yet obeys reason, if directed from a different quarter, and another intellectual, as being by itself participant of reason, I have no great objection.

    Here Calvin seems to be broadly endorsing the understanding of human rational faculties that was present in the Greek philosophers, but opting to run with a simplified system for his own exposition.

    I think this is pretty significant. Calvin at this point is setting up a discussion of the faculties of the soul, which the broader context indicates is actually a discussion of what it means for us to be in the Image of God. And Calvin’s conviction that knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves is related is in large part grounded, I would suggest, on his view that we are in the Image of God. And we find that as Calvin is doing some of the key work of explaining what it means to be human, he brings in insights that are at least partially derived from philosophy, and pagan philosophy at that.

    And the impression I get is that Calvin saw himself as doing theology the whole way through the Institutes. These aren’t detours into areas that have little to say to ‘true wisdom’.

    In other words, Calvin seems quite happy to read the Bible in light of insights gleaned by human reason independently from the Bible, even as he is more than happy to critique the insights of human reason in light of what the Bible says.

    Calvin doesn’t seem to me to think that he has to choose between either reason or revelation, between natural theology and special revelation. And so he, if I had to capture his basic stance towards nonbiblical insights about human beings I’d say something like, “As a whole is a lie, in its parts is wrong the overwhelming majority of the time, but sometimes is both right and so useful that it needs to inform key component of one’s theology.”

    Part of the reason I say this is because Calvin considers humans better able to reason about themselves than about God and stops only a little short of this in his view about human reason’s knowledge of God:

    We must now explain what the power of human reason is, in regard to the kingdom of God, and spiritual discernments which consists chiefly of three things—the knowledge of God, the knowledge of his paternal favour towards us, which constitutes our salvation, and the method of regulating of our conduct in accordance with the Divine Law. With regard to the former two, but more properly the second, men otherwise the most ingenious are blinder than moles. I deny not, indeed, that in the writings of philosophers we meet occasionally with shrewd and apposite remarks on the nature of God, though they invariably savour somewhat of giddy imagination. As observed above, the Lord has bestowed on them some slight perception of his Godhead that they might not plead ignorance as an excuse for their impiety, and has, at times, instigated them to deliver some truths, the confession of which should be their own condemnation. Still, though seeing, they saw not. Their discernment was not such as to direct them to the truth, far less to enable them to attain it, but resembled that of the bewildered traveller, who sees the flash of lightning glance far and wide for a moment, and then vanish into the darkness of the night, before he can advance a single step. So far is such assistance from enabling him to find the right path. Besides, how many monstrous falsehoods intermingle with those minute particles of truth scattered up and down in their writings as if by chance. In short, not one of them even made the least approach to that assurance of the divine favour, without which the mind of man must ever remain a mere chaos of confusion. To the great truths, What God is in himself, and what he is in relation to us, human reason makes not the least approach.

    Here, unbiblical knowledge of God is no knowledge at all, because it leaves the person in darkness. Nonetheless there are occasional ‘shrewd’ and ‘apposite’ remarks on the knowledge of God (although even these have a certain flaw about them). So there are elements that are right, but most elements are wrong, and as whole it leaves the person in ignorance of God.

    So I would want to say that the Reformed tradition that Calvin is an example of is neither Barth nor liberal. It neither says ‘nein’ to natural theology (as Barth did), nor does it see natural theology as an independent field of knowledge, still less as the basis for theology (as liberal theology does). Natural theology, or reason, is a subsidiary authority that functions under the rule of the enscripturated Word of God, just like tradition and experience. But it has a positive role to play, and should not just be the fall guy in constant anti-natural theology polemics. And I think, as much as I’ve grasped this point, I think I’d want to stand with Calvin at this point. This seems to be part of what “Sola Scriptura” meant for him, and I find him a reliable (albeit fallible) exponent of Scripture.

    All this is prepatory to reflecting on the core of your concern:
    In other words, is Calvin’s insight (and yours!) a way of thinking about the currently vexed question of pragmatism in Christian ministry?

    To which I think I would say, “definitely.”
    It seems to me that as I observe those pastors and/or churches that I really admire, they have this constant running interplay between theological principle and smart practice. On the one hand, they are always being driven by the Bible and the gospel and the ‘strategies’ that God himself lays down in Scripture (knowledge of God), and they recognize their utter dependency on these. But on the other hand they keep noticing things about themselves and people and the way church and ministry ‘works’, and adjusting their practice accordingly (knowledge of ourselves). And the two aren’t separate, non-overlapping magisteria. The knowledge of God feeds into and informs the the understanding of people and how they tick, and the understanding of people and how they tick seems only to reinforce and foster more growth in the knowledge of God.
    This make any sense to you?

    It makes great sense, and I think you are putting your finger on one of the key marks of an effective ministry—one that probably remains true in any culture or time, I suspect.
    I have a big quibble with how you’ve taken my knowledge of God/knowledge of ourselves in your comment. Calvin’s point is about the object of our knowledge: who and what is known. You seem to have instinctively turned it into a question about the source of our knowledge: how we know.
    The two are quite separate issues. Almost everything you mention as “knowledge of God” would be for Calvin “knowledge of ourselves”—and it is knowledge derived entirely from special revelation. And everything you mention as “knowledge of ourselves” would also be that for Calvin—but he would see it as knowledge of ourselves that is derived from reason and experience.
    I may be jumping on a tiny misreading, but it seems to me symbolic of the kind of issue I’m concerned about in the original blog. For us “knowledge of ourselves” is automatically read as ‘nonbiblical’ and “knowledge of God” is read as ‘knowledge the Bible gives us.’ Calvin has two kinds of knowledge and he has two objects of knowledge, which gives his theological project as a whole a robustness and a flexibility to integrate the whole scope of Scripture and speak to the actual world in which sixteenth century Europeans lived—and did so in a way that his exposition has proven edifying for the following four centuries. His theology fitted in the ‘real world’ and it didn’t have to ask for permission to be there—it was ‘Lord.’
    As far as the recursive aspect of your insight goes, I’m right with you. I think I would possibly look more to a quote from Luther though for that one:
    'living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating'

    True wisdom (Calvin’s term) or being theologian (which I think might be Luther’s equivalent) is to do with living, and life. Both my life personally, and our life corporately. Where a church or a Christian does not engage with the great task of living (which will either include or be the same as ‘ministry’ depending on how one defines the terms) then there can be no growth in true wisdom, or being made into a theologian. So a church or a Christian that is idle will go nowhere in terms of the knowledge of God.
    But a church or Christian who engages in life apart from the knowledge of God and ourselves that the Word gives us will also go nowhere. A pragmatism that abstracts ends from the gospel, and then sees the getting of those ends as a practical, and not theological, matter can’t be the process for growth in the knowledge of God either. On that view knowing God and serving God must become somewhat hermetically sealed categories it seems to me.

    Luther points us to an integration of the what and the how. This is partly because he’s fundamentally concerned with the who’s—us and God. And partly because he doesn’t accept a divorce between knowing how to do things, and knowing what the Christian faith teaches.
    So I see a push to integrate in Calvin and Luther, and to let things sit along side each other as partners: for Calvin it is the object of knowledge (God/us) and the source of knowledge (Scripture/reason). For Luther it is the concern to see the knower and the doer as the same person (a theologian, who is formed by living in the knowledge of God, not so much by study). What we constantly set up as opposites they bring together, in a variety of different relationships.

    And this breads, especially in Luther, a healthy sense of realism about ministry that verges on pessimism. The Dread Pirate Roberts (actually Wesley, but let’s not quibble) said
    Life is pain, princess, anyone who tells you differently is selling something.

    Which I think Luther, with his strong view of seeing life under the shadow of the cross would sign off on. If you live life, personally and as a church, under the cross—and by that I mean really live it, live out one’s God given responsibilities (which will involve bringing one’s “A Game” to the question of doing ministry in changing circumstances) then one will be formed as a person who knows God. Either refuse the challenge or find a short cut and you won’t.
    I think it’s so simple people often grasp it irrespective of IQ or even anyone teaching on it explicitly. And it so cuts against the grain (especially in our context that sees everything as skills that can be taught) that it seems radically counter intuitive.

    That's a lot of words. I hope there's something in it that made it worth your time to read it. :)

    Thursday, 29 January 2009

    I think the long, long silence on this blog will probably start to get broken in the coming weeks. On top of that, I am now blogging on Sola Panel for Matthias Media. My first blog is reflecting on the Atheism Bus Campaign and can be found here.


    The British Humanist Association is running a bus campaign. I had heard about it a month or so back and was bemused. I thought the slogan they were running was a bit daft, but only a bit. But recently I saw a bus in Oxford with the advert upon it. You can see a photo of the real thing here:

    There’s something about seeing such a thing on a bus that helps focus the mind a bit. One sits there and actually thinks over the message and the values that produces such a sign. As a consequence of actually thinking about the humanist association’s advert for a more sustained period of time I no longer think it is a bit daft. I now think it is one of the strangest things I have seen for a long time.

    To begin with, is just running the advert campaign in the first place. I think it would be hard for Aussies reading this blog to get how disinterested in God the British are. We are used, Down Under, to see ourselves as living in a very secular society. That’s true by any standard of measurement. But the average Australian doesn’t have the almost passive-aggressive indifference towards God that I sense over here. It is almost an active lack of interest, if it is possible to have an active absence. It is almost as though the British find the God question socially embarrassing, and so deal with it by ignoring the question until it shuffles shamefacedly out of the room..... (the rest is over at Sola Panel)

    Monday, 10 December 2007

    Problems With Creation Science VI: Must Genesis 1 Be Taken Literally And Without Reference To Science? Part 3

    This leaves the other prong of the concern. Doesn’t a rejection of a strictly literal reading of Genesis 1-3 (at least, and possibly as far as Chapter 11) mean that the Bible is being subordinated to the findings of modern science? Aren’t evangelicals guilty of changing what the Bible says to fit what science declares about the nature of the world, and doesn’t that ultimately mean that science, not the Bible, calls the shots?

    Part of what is at issue here is the difference between sola scriptura and what at least some writers have begun calling nudis sciptura.

    The latter idea moves from the idea that Scripture is the sole authority in the Church to the idea that it has to be interpreted without reference to anything outside it. The best way to read the Bible, which can never be achieved in reality, is to know nothing of the world, have no human thoughts to get in the way, and know nothing of how the Bible has been traditionally understood. The best Bible reader would come to the Bible with a tabula rasa (a blank slate). Traditional readings, readings that fit with what we know of the world, readings that make rational sense are all suspect precisely because they are traditional, fit with the world, and make rational sense. All human knowledge and wisdom just gets in the way of the word of God. (I suspect that this view is part of the cause of the phenomena that Bruce has labelled ‘ClergyBibleWorld’ in his comments on this blog). The Bible should be interpreted in a hermetic vacuum, as far as possible.

    If such a view does have any pedigree within Protestantism, then I think it should be traced to the Anabaptist end of the spectrum of the 16th Century, than to Calvin, Luther and the like. My growing suspicion is that this wrong view of the nature of Scripture is one of the reasons why the Anabaptists eventually turned on guys like Calvin and Luther and declared them to be a false church as much Rome. Just as the split between the Reformers and Rome was over both the nature of the gospel and the nature of the authority of the Word, so the split between the Reformers and the Anabaptists was over the nature of the gospel and the nature of the authority of the Word.

    The Magisterial Reformers held to a different view of the nature of the Bible’s authority, and that was sola scriptura. On this view, the Bible is the final authority in the Church. It is the final authority because it alone is the source for theology, for the knowledge of God. Sinful people cannot come to know God except through his word, whatever we may debate about whether creation would have sufficed for Adam and Eve before they ate. However, as was implicit in the Reformers, and was spelled out more explicitly in the centuries after them, the Bible is not intended to be read in a vacuum.

    Three other authorities exist and serve us in the way we hear the word of God. These are normally stated as Reason, Experience, and Tradition (listed here in no particular order, at least as far as I’m concerned). Unfortunately, as Liberalism has gotten a stronger hold on much of Church life in the West, there is often talk of the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ or the ‘Lambeth Quadrilateral’. This is unfortunate, because it often gives the impression (wrongly in my view) that Scripture is just one of four equally ranked authorities, and so can be trumped by another authority in theology. Classically, Scripture is the sole authority when it comes to the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of salvation. The other three exist to serve us as we receive and submit to that authority. They themselves are ruled by Scripture.

    However, I would suggest that there are several things to note with this basic position on the relationship between Scripture on the one hand, and Reason, Experience, and Tradition on the other.

    1. Each of the three subordinate authorities are authorities in their own right when it comes to issues of life in this world that are not part of knowing God and are part of their ‘portfolio’. It is entirely right and proper for one country to enjoy pasta while another enjoys potatoes. One country can adopt a Parliamentary Democracy, another an Athenian, and still another a Presidential (and seeing democracy is almost unquestioned these days, it’s worth saying that another country can be undemocratic) and it be a valid form of government. In areas such as national foods and styles of governments you’re in the realm of Tradition. If you’re pursuing logical arguments, philosophy, or mathematical theorems, then Reason is King. And experience is a powerful authority—Proverbs itself indicates that it is a mark of the fool and the simple that they do not learn life lessons from the events in their lives.

      Science, like the Arts, doesn’t really fit neatly into this schema, which shows that the Tradition/Reason/Experience break-up is not an infallible tool, and shouldn’t be used as a Procrustean Bed where everything is shoved into one and only one category. Science is a community of shared and inherited wisdom that rationally reflects upon experience. It makes use of all three categories as it undertakes its endeavours. Nonetheless, what this suggests is that there is a right and proper domain where Science is King, and where its findings should not be challenged by the Word of God. Because God has set up the world so that the Word of God isn’t the sole authority about everything in the world.

    2. Because the Bible speaks about the world and about life in the world, what it says about such matters are a source for other disciplines. The Bible’s descriptions of events and cultural practices in the history books of the OT and NT can be validly used by history and even such disciplines as psychology and anthropology. Much of the wisdom of Proverbs (so the commentators assure me, I’ve never learned another dead language to check it out for myself) have parallels in the traditional wisdom of other people groups—some aspects of living wisely in this world are part of common grace, even as the Bible issues them as part of its special revelation. And I’d want to hold that when the Bible does say things on such matters that are part of the ‘portfolio’ of other disciplines or spheres, it does so without error (which for me is a distinguishing feature of inerrancy as opposed to infallibility).

    3. Because the Bible is a book that is entangled in this world, in that it isn’t speaking of some ideal world hovering above our world, or some kind of ‘spiritual truth’ that bears no reference to the world we live in, it can in principle be overthrown by a challenge from one of the three subordinate authorities. If Jesus’ bones were discovered tomorrow I would cease to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. As a result I would reject the entire NT at least (I’d then have to look carefully at Judaism). Irrespective of what Scripture said, Jesus can’t have risen from the dead if Jesus’ bones are still in the ground. At this point Scripture’s claims hang upon the reality of the world matching the state of affairs that the NT describes. While not the focus of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 1:1-19, it does seem to me that Paul is implicitly acknowledging this point. Paul doesn’t respond to what appears to be a view going around the Corinthian Church that there will be no resurrection from the dead by simply stating that Christ rose and that, as the Word of God says it, it must be believed. He points out the different witnesses who could all independently testify. The logic of his argument suggests that if many or most of them came back and said, ‘actually this whole thing is a fabrication’ then Paul would be found to have testified falsely of God.

      In other words, even the heart of the Christian faith is ‘vulnerable’ to an attack from our knowledge of the world. Which is why Christians have taken a lot of interest in the historicity of the Gospels.

      And I think that’s a good thing. Ideas and beliefs that are not falsifiable even in principle are not genuine views of the world. They’re conspiracy theories. Human knowledge is knowledge of finite creatures, which means it is never free from the possibility of error, or the need to repent. Part of the great strength of Christianity is that it is at least theoretically able to be falsified, and so reflects the nature of human knowledge. (And if you think that has anything going for it, you’ve got an easy answer to the solipstic concern of ‘what if I’m a brain in vat and I’m just hallucinating all this’ a la The Matrix. The doubt can’t be falsified, which means it is automatically suspect. You can avoid Descartes’ attempt to locate an absolutely certain foundation to build all knowledge upon, and accept that human knowledge, like human beings, is limited.)

    4. Finally, there is a place for the subsidiary authorities to serve us in the way we understand Scripture. We do read the Bible in certain ways because the Word uses Reason, or Tradition, or Experience to teach us to read it that way. I’ll offer two examples, neither of which, it has to be said, are uncontroversial. However, even if neither specific example is accepted by someone, they should still illustrate the general point sufficiently for it to be grasped.

      The first is the issue of the law of non-contradiction. A cannot be non-A. An idea cannot be right and wrong simultaneously in the same sense. (For example, it can’t be the case that 1+1=2 and that 1+1=3 given standard bases and the like). It seems to me that the Bible presupposes this very basic law of rational thought throughout. Because the Bible regularly argues that ‘Because X, therefore Y’. If things could be both true and false simultaneously then no rational argument has any force. No rational argument would have any force because the argument could be true and false at the same time. And one could legitimately draw both one conclusion and the opposite conclusion at the same time from the same premise. The fact that the Bible argues that ‘because X, therefore Y’ is implicit testimony to the validity of the law of non-contradiction.

      Guys like Tertullian, Luther and Barth all probably rejected the law of non-contradiction either due to a radical view of God’s omnipotence or a radical view of the noetic effects of sin. Nonetheless, in practice Bible scholars recognise the law of non-contradiction whenever they say, “This view cannot be right, because it contradicts what the Bible says over here.” Without the law of non-contradiction, a contradiction would not be a good reason to reject something. In other words, the Bible is rightly read when it is read in a rational way.

      The second example is the doctrine of the Trinity. Christians today learn to read the Bible to see how it teaches the Trinity. It happens fairly naturally and tends to be taken for granted. But it is a gift to us from the first five or so centuries of Christians. It took hundreds of years to work together a clear grasp of what the Scriptures were saying, and there were a lot of mistakes made along the way—and not just by the heretics, even what the orthodox theologians said in most of the centuries leading up to Nicaea can make one’s hair stand on end. We avoid those struggles and difficulties precisely because of tradition. We pick up where earlier Christians left off.

      Most people find that the more they sit with Scripture, the more they see, the more connections they perceive, the more implications shine through. Tradition works like that on a bigger scale. The whole people of God pass on an inheritance to the next generation that enables them to see more than if they had to start again from scratch. And this is why the Church’s historic understanding of doctrines and passages needs to be respected and taken seriously. It is not to be taken as automatically right—the Reformation showed just how badly off track the Church could get. But it does need to be recognised as a gift from God to us for our good and accepted as such.

    It is this last point about subsidiary authorities serving us in our reading of Scripture that I think is the key one for the issue of reading Genesis in the light of science. Generally speaking, Creationists tend to give just two options. Either Genesis one and two are historical accounts that are roughly analogous to modern historical accounts and so are eyewitness narratives. Or they’re false, and the Bible isn’t what it claims to be. It is pitched as a basic conflict between science and Scripture.

    But this setting up of an opposition doesn’t take into account that our knowledge of the world is supposed to be something that helps guide our reading of the Bible. I’ll offer four examples that I hope will illustrate the point:

    First, there is the following statement by Jesus:

    Matthew 19:23-24 And Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. "Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

    There are two basic options here. Either Jesus is using some kind of poetic device when talking about a camel going through the eye of a needle, or he’s speaking of an actual physical gate in Jerusalem known as the Needle Gate, where it was difficult to get a fully laden camel through. It’s either a historical reference or it isn’t.

    It seems to me the only way such an exegetical decision can be made is to allow what we know of the world to shape our reading of Jesus’ words. There is no evidence anywhere (last time I checked) of a gate referred to as either “The Eye of the Needle” or “The Needle Gate” in Jerusalem. And so most people take it that Jesus’ words here are a metaphor, they aren’t speaking of a gate because we know from sources outside the Bible that no such gate existed.

    We could, however, run the standard Creationist arguments used for Genesis 1 at this point:

    • Jesus was actually there, modern historians aren’t.

    • Surely Jesus’ words can be trusted, for he says, “I am the truth”.

    • Just because there is no evidence that it existed, there is nothing that says categorically that it didn’t exist.

    • Human beings (modern historians, Jesus’ contemporaries) have evil hearts and so their views can’t be trusted.

    And so we conclude that there really was a Needle Gate, and we can only trust the Bible for this knowledge of the world.

    Once again, there’s nothing in Jesus’ words that indicate that it is a metaphor. The only way you can decide it is, is if you think that our knowledge of the world has a legitimate role in determining how we are to understand the Bible. At this point most of us work from our knowledge of the world, to how we read Jesus’ words: Because we know there’s no Needle Gate therefore it must be a metaphor.

    The second is Paul’s words to Timothy:
    1 Timothy 5:23 No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
    How again are we supposed to take such words? They’re in the Bible, so they must give some kind of reliable information about the world. I’d suggest that if we took the kind of view that seems implicit in creationism’s arguments then we should see this as important medical advice, and would hold that regularly taking a little wine is an important aspect of dealing with frequent ailments. Sickly people should regularly drink some wine.

    Let’s run the arguments again: Who knows the human body better? Doctors, or God who made the body? This isn’t poetry, it’s a statement about an actual historical Timothy and his actual historical stomach. It’s either reliable medical information or it’s false, and so the Bible’s claims about itself fall to the ground. And who should Christian doctors or modern Christians receiving medical advice believe? God? Or unbelieving modern medicine?

    If we knew nothing about wine or about ailments, then I’d suggest we’d probably take Paul’s words as offering a reliable way to better health for the sickly. Our instincts (quite rightly) are to see the implications of what the Bible says as widely as possible. We don’t see these words as normative counsel on dealing with ailments simply because we allow our knowledge of medicine to shape how we take Paul’s words. And so we see it as advice for Timothy in particular, or as like much folk medicine of earlier centuries, capturing something, but not the final answer on dealing with ailments.

    The third is the relationship of the sun and the earth:

    Joshua 10:12-14 Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, "O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon." So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There was no day like that before it or after it, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man; for the LORD fought for Israel.
    Psalm 19:4-6 In them He has placed a tent for the sun, Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; It rejoices as a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens, And its circuit to the other end of them; And there is nothing hidden from its heat.
    I suggest that if we had no knowledge of astronomy, and were looking to the Bible to give reliable astronomical information, then the most natural way to read these two passages is as they straightforwardly appear. The sun moves around the earth in the same way the moon does. The psalm fairly clearly presupposes that the sun runs a course each day. And the Joshua passage draws a parallel between the sun stopping and the moon stopping, which would, if you hadn’t already known about the earth being a sphere that rotates, suggest that both sun and moon move around the earth in the same way. And it occurs in a historical narrative, where the narrator himself (and not just Joshua) says that the sun stopped.

    There’s nothing in the text that suggests that such descriptions should not be taken in a strictly literal sense. We could run the same creationist arguments again (but I’ll spare you, you should be able to do it yourself now), and show how here too we have a conflict between what the Word of God declares and what Science declares and so we have to choose who we’ll believe: God or the unbelieving astronomer. As far as I can see, the only reason why someone doesn’t take such descriptions literally is that:

    a) they don’t think that the Bible is particularly concerned to give good astronomical insights

    b) they read these statements in light of what they already know about the world.

    And so we conclude (quite rightly) that such descriptions are not intended to give a strictly literal account of ‘what actually happened’. It speaks of historical realities, but not with an eye to teach good astronomy.

    In this sense, it’s a bit like Judges 4 and 5, our final example. Both chapters relate the same event: the overthrow of Sisera’s dominion over Israel and his death at the hands of Jael and a trusty hammer-and-tent peg combination. Chapter 5 is a song that, by and large, seems to be retracing the event in fairly historical terms, not in metaphors. But then we get statements like the following thrown in:
    Judges 5:4-5 LORD, when You went out from Seir, When You marched from the field of Edom, The earth quaked, the heavens also dripped, Even the clouds dripped water. The mountains quaked at the presence of the LORD, This Sinai, at the presence of the LORD, the God of Israel.
    Judges 5:20-21 The stars fought from heaven, From their courses they fought against Sisera. The torrent of Kishon swept them away, The ancient torrent, the torrent Kishon. O my soul, march on with strength.
    Like other details that we would consider more obviously historical, these lines in the song these words don’t relate to anything we find in the account in chapter four. So what do we do with them? Some commentators will try and suggest that there were some miracles that occurred in the battle—particularly that the river Kishon swept away some of Sisera’s forces. Their reason seems to be, as far as I can see, that the song overall reads like a historical account. And hence, they slot it into the historical genre and so look for some kind of strictly literal referent to these words. But that just seems a bit odd given what we know about the historical event from chapter 4. If God had entered the field of battle in some kind of physical manifestation, why would he call for a small army of human warriors? Why go for a miracle with the Kishon river getting involved, but not also argue the same about the stars joining in the battle?

    For me, such a feature of the song suggests that the Bible doesn’t always draw the strong distinction between ‘historical fact’ and ‘theological interpretation’ that we have inherited from the Enlightenment. The Bible recounts the past to tell us about God and about how to live. It’s not interested in the past for the past’s sake. And so what is for us two separate steps: what happened, and what it means, are often interwoven in the Bible. And sometimes the meaning is more highlighted than the historical reporting. This means, I would suggest, that the Bible does at times not follow principles that we consider important for a factual account.

    You can see this in the way in which it is hard to reconcile the different accounts of who saw what at Jesus’ tombs in Matthew, Luke, and John. Matthew says there was one angel, Luke and John says two. John gives the impression that Mary was on her own, Matthew and Luke name the other women who were with her. John indicates that Mary saw the angels and Jesus after fetching Peter and John. Matthew implies that the women saw the angel and Jesus before going to see the disciples. And Luke tells us that the women saw two angels (and doesn’t mention seeing Jesus) before they went and fetched the disciples.

    Again, I think such discrepancies can be reconciled. But such discrepancies don’t fit the way we tell history. We wouldn’t accept saying there was one angel if there was two. Nor would we be all that inclined to pass over the fact that the women saw Jesus if we were giving an orderly account (you mentioned that the women saw angels, but passed over the fact that they saw Jesus? Just what sort of account is this?). Such features reflect an approach to history that subordinates just recounting facts for a broader purpose in showing the the meaning of the events. That such surface discrepancies arise, shows that the Bible’s concern isn’t to give us our kind of account of ‘how things really happened’. There’s more options in the Bible’s reporting than either ‘absolutely precise history’ or ‘false’, and they have to ascertained on a case by case basis.

    (If you want my take on Genesis 1-11 in a nutshell, that’s pretty well it. I think it’s historical, but is an account that is speaking of the historical reality it narrates first and foremost in terms of its meaning. And this means, like Apocalyptic, or like Judges 5, the details mightn’t be historical records in our sense of ‘historical’.)

    In other words, there is nothing wrong with reading the Bible in light of what we know about the world from other sources. Every time we appeal to archaeological findings, or even turn to a Greek lexicon to ascertain what a word meant, we are reading the Bible in light of our knowledge of the world. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. The Bible is designed to be read that way, that’s how its authority is supposed to be expressed over us.

    Our knowledge of the world is supposed to serve us, by guiding us to read the Bible rightly, and this is part of what it means to correctly understand the nature of the Bible’s authority. Sola scriptura not nudis scriptura.

    To sum up:

    What this means is that the relationship between the Bible on the one hand, and experience, tradition, and reason on the other is not simply dictator to functionaries. The Bible has a central concern. The Westminster Shorter Catechism calls it the principal teaching of the Scriptures:
    Q. 3. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
    A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
    In this kind of area, then Scripture speaks fairly much on its own. It gives us the knowledge of God, and how we are to live so as to please God.

    But Scripture also makes statements that bear upon the world we live in. In those areas where Scripture speaks to spheres where other authorities have a legitimate role, there is more give and take between what we think the Bible is saying, and what we know (acknowledging that human knowledge is fallible) about the world from other sources. Despite what creationists claim, this is not, in itself, a liberal failure of nerve about the Bible. It is recognising that the Bible has its own area of concern, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism indicates, and so what it says focuses on that sphere.

    Each case of an apparent conflict between what we thought the Bible was saying and what we think of the nature of the world therefore needs to be addressed on its merits. God hasn’t promised the church that it would get everything right in its reading of the Bible. And science is anything but infallible (and scientific popularises have a long history of using the respect that science is held in to claim certain views as 'scientific' that are outside the field of science).

    In seeking to address such tensions, I’d suggest the test that should be applied is not some criteria of literalness. I’d suggest that the proper test is theological, because that respects the fact that the Bible’s primary teaching is the knowledge of God and how to live. Does a possible revision of our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about the world undermine our knowledge of God in Christ Jesus or what it means to walk in the light? If so, then that needs to be resisted. If not, then the proper domain of science needs to be respected.

    Such a test doesn’t force an issue—in practice literary features of the text, tradition, knowledge of the world, how such a text is treated by other parts of Scripture, and the implications of a possible reading for the Bible’s teaching as a whole are all going to be factors that will need to be weighed. Someone, could, in my view, weigh everything up and still decide that Genesis 1 is a fairly strictly literal account of things.

    Nonetheless, the basic point from this should (hopefully) be clear. There’s nothing wrong with a reading of the Bible arising because we know something about the world that we didn’t before. There’s no such a priori formal law that governs the word of God. Each case must be looked at on its own merits. And so, for example, it can be entirely consistent to accept current scientific consensus about cosmological age and biological evolution on the one hand, and reject homosexual practice on the other.

    Saturday, 8 December 2007

    Problems With Creation Science VI: Must Genesis 1 Be Taken Literally And Without Reference To Science? Part 2

    Part of the nature of language is its robustness. We can do a lot with it. In Western contexts we tend to prize precision, accuracy, and clarity in speech and writing. The more serious the context—making laws, academia—the more language rules prioritise these values. Hence, we tend not to use highly ornate patterns of speech, because having such features tends to get in the way of clearly saying exactly what we mean with little room for misunderstanding. We aim for maximum light, even though it tends to mean that such communication in less compelling and less moving for the recipient. People know what we are saying, but they aren’t caught up in why it matters. It’s a very safe way of communicating, because there’s little ambiguity (at least that’s the ideal), but it also tends to have all the impact of overcooked pasta.

    The Bible, overall, doesn’t adopt those values in the way it uses language. It tends to use a more risky strategy. Jesus says, ‘If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.’ Or the Gospel records Jesus telling a rich young ruler ‘sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me’—and doesn’t try to include an explanatory note with it to avoid the multitude of misunderstandings such a bald statement can (and has) witnessed. Even someone who can seem as straightforward and expository as Paul can still leave many of his key concepts sufficiently unexplained so as to leave room for multiple disagreements about all kinds of aspects of Pauline theology.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Bible is a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction each reader likes. I think the Bible has a fixed meaning and is able to be understood on its own terms. But it is also the case that most English speaking thinkers of the last two centuries don’t generate the kind of interpretative debates as to what they meant that the Bible does. The Bible does not spell itself out at every point and guide the reader by the hand past every possible area of difficulty, the way we tend to think a speaker or writer should. It does not aim for clarity (in our sense) at the expense of every other resource that language offers. Often it uses strategies that run the risk of misunderstanding, but have a huge pay-off in terms of their effect upon the reader, like our Lord’s hyperbole. The Bible is written throughout in a way that makes it hard for the reader to hold themselves at arm’s length from what is being said. It makes demands, it speaks in a way that is not the detached, clear, precise academic giving a lecture, but the cutting words of a soldier’s blade or a surgeon’s scalpel, whose work is messy and lacks detachment.

    The principle of reading literally unless one can’t, which I think is implicit in the way a lot of creationism attacks other ways of reading Genesis 1, just isn’t faithful to this aspect of Scripture’s nature. I suggest that it mistakes the idea of Scripture’s clarity with an idea of Scripture’s transparency. The latter idea is what I think most people tend to think is meant by Scripture’s clarity. And it’s usually something like, “The Bible should be fairly easily understood at almost all points when it is picked up by an average reader.” While popular, that’s never really what ‘clarity of Scripture’ was ever intended to mean.

    The clarity of Scripture means something more like, “The Bible can be understood sufficiently to give people all they need for faith in Christ and to live for him”. This idea rejects the position that the Bible is so obscure as a whole that it needs an authoritative interpreter to stand between it and the reader (like the Church Magisterium as in Roman Catholicism). It holds that the Bible has a central message, a central concern, and this can be reliably ascertained by an average reader. Hence people can read the Bible for themselves, come to faith, and begin to live a life of discipleship.

    However, the clarity of Scripture also includes a degree of realism about the nature of Scripture. It contains both the idea that some parts of the Bible will remain obscure—like Paul’s mention of the practice of baptising for the dead—as well as the idea that understanding the Bible properly at some points will need a lot of work and a lot of ability. This is why Evangelicalism has traditionally, going back to the Reformers, been committed to an educated clergy who were capable in the original languages. (I’d suggest that the exchange of the idea of the clarity of Scripture for the idea of the transparency of Scripture has often been behind moves to eliminate language learning for clergy among Evangelicals). In other words, the idea of the clarity of Scripture has the idea that not all the Bible is equally clear, which means both that there is a place for teachers, and a place for sustained hard work by everyone.

    And it is the last point that I would suggest is the real pay-off from the Bible’s communication strategy. Precisely the fact that parts of the Bible need work to understand, or have more to offer if you go back over them, is part of what gives the Bible that unique capability it has to never be exhausted. Christians find that it always has more to offer, and that as their life experience changes it often sheds light in new and unexpected ways. In that sense, the whole Bible has the character of a parable or proverb. It’s not easy to unlock its meaning, and so it invites the reader to come back and chew on it some more, always generating the nagging feeling that “I haven’t quite gotten it yet.” That is, it is precisely because the Bible isn’t safe it is inexhaustible. The two go together.

    But that wildness or lack of safe domesticity to the Bible is a problem for human beings. We like to be in control. We like to have rules to appeal to that govern those who have authority over us. If we must have monarchies we want them to be constitutional. Yet the word of God is a monarchy in the Church, it is the means by which Christ rules his people. And so it is a recurring feature in the Church that people try to form abstract rules that determine how we are to interpret the Bible. The Pharisees’ traditions that sought to place a hedge around the law have been repeated often throughout the millennia, as people sought to place interpretative hedges around the word of God.

    And so, in the present, it is not uncommon for Evangelicals to try and create rules that govern how we can read the Bible and so regulate the different debates we find ourselves embroiled in. When I was in my teens, for example, it was common for evangelicals to argue that Pentecostals were wrong because history books in the Bible (like Acts) must be interpreted in light of the Epistles. But Acts isn’t just a modern style history that relates events without any sense of a message, a theology, that it is seeking to teach. There is a genuine sense in which Acts is just as self-interpreting as Romans or 1 Peter. Evangelicalism, like much of the modern Christian world in the West, is almost paralysed by its concern to get its rules right, as though the problems and disagreements have arisen just because we haven’t perfected the right methodology for reading the Bible.

    Into such a context Martin Luther’s little statement seems almost wilfully obtuse (and didn’t you just know that Luther was going to make a showing again…):
    Moreover, I cannot bear with laws for the interpretation of the word of God, since the word of God, which teaches liberty in all other things, ought not to be bound.
    These words appear in the open letter to Pope Leo X that prefaces Luther’s short, but amazing, work On the Freedom of the Christian. Luther is stating his willingness to let the debate over justification abate in the interest of peace in the church. He offers only two conditions on his offer of not continuing to publish on the matter. The first is that he won’t retract what he’s said—his silence is in the interests of peace, it’s not a backdown.

    The other condition is what I’ve just quoted.

    In other words, for Luther, this statement about no fixed rules for the interpretation of God’s word is on a par with the truth of justification by grace alone through faith alone. (No surprise there, Christ’s role as the sole Saviour who saves through the gospel, and his role as the sole Lord of the Church who rules through Scripture are intertwined). And like so many of Luther’s quotable quotes, it uses the risky approach to language. It’s easy to misconstrue, or even abuse, what he’s saying here. (I came across an internet article by an American Lutheran that indicated that Liberals within Lutheranism appealed to this statement by Luther in the 70s to justify their fundamentally unbelieving stance against Scripture).

    Nonetheless, precisely because of that risky strategy in communicating, Luther makes his point powerfully. Coming up with a priori laws that govern the interpretation of the word of God cannot be squared with the word of God’s own fundamental nature. The word of God is the very essence of freedom, for it liberates us from our bondage and, ‘teaches liberty in all other things’. You can’t bind something like that.

    What you can offer are principles or guidelines that work by and large, like the grammatico-historico method, or the fundamentally christo-centric nature of the OT (and the New…). But these can only be after the fact (a posteori), and they can only be rules of thumb, not laws. We learn to interpret the Bible by listening to it first and foremost, and paying attention to what it says. It’s not a matter of ironing out an ironclad methodology that we then apply to it.

    At this point, I’m probably trying to restate things I think I said far more clearly (and with less words!) back in the post Scriptural Interpretation. Nonetheless, I’ll play it again Sam.

    It seems to me that when the Bible speaks explicitly to the issue of how to interpret it and how not to interpret it, we get statements like the following:

    2 Peter 3:15-18 …and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.
    James 1:21-25 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

    The problem of wresting Scripture, or of not receiving the implanted word, has been with us since the Apostolic era. And the apostles do not give us a technique that, if followed, would guarantee an end to such interpretative cul de sacs. What they suggest is that the issue is found at a deeper level than methodology. It is an issue of the heart.

    Hearing the word of God, correctly understanding the hard to understand things in Paul and the rest of Scripture, is fundamentally a moral and spiritual issue. The word of God will provide its own path for us to understand it. It is the light that lightens our darkness. It doesn’t need rules to shed the light upon it. The issue of biblical interpretation is fundamentally whether we are prepared to hear and obey the word of God. And that’s it. No silver bullet. No magic answer that, if followed, means we’ll never put a foot wrong interpretatively. We just have to trust the word of God itself to lead us into all truth. We are shut up to the Word of God alone. We have no other resource when it comes to the knowledge of God.

    And, so we’re under no illusions, we can be fairly sure that God won’t give us exhaustive knowledge of everything the Bible teaches. We’ll get it wrong. Because every teacher that God has given the Church has disagreed with another teacher at some point. Which means that, at a minimum, all but one was wrong somewhere. So the idea that God is offering us an encyclopaedic knowledge of his ways, that often seems entailed by the transparency view of Scripture, is just ridiculous. We are the darkness that the Word shines its light upon.

    So, if we have ‘demythologised’ the early chapters of Genesis (which is not the wording I’d choose, but I’ll pick up the words Michael’s offered), what keeps us from it becoming the thin edge of the wedge? What stops us from demythologising more broadly? Absolutely nothing. And absolutely everything. The word of God itself will teach us how to hear it, just as it has already begun to teach us in the way it brought us to faith in Christ. We are to read each part of Scripture in the way that it itself invites us to read it. ‘Literally’ when we think that is obedient, ‘non-literally’ when we think that is faithful hearing. It’s not a matter of consistency within our abstract systems of thought first and foremost (although I’ll acknowledge that that’s not an irrelevant consideration). First and foremost we need to grasp that the word of God is self-interpreting. Because it is the sole instrument whereby Christ rules us. The words disclose the reality they speak of. It's not technique that prevents unbelief, it's the power of the word of God itself that creates faith.

    Problems With Creation Science VI: Must Genesis 1 Be Taken Literally And Without Reference To Science? Part 1

    Perhaps the biggest issue for many Christians with a high view of the Bible is the concern about not reading Genesis chapter one literally. For people like me, who are inerrantists, and not just infalliblists, the problem is particularly acute. I don’t believe the Bible is wrong in anything that it teaches.

    If that’s the case, the creationist asks, then why not read Genesis 1 as what it clearly seems to be: a straightforward historical account like any other in the Bible? Isn’t this a clear example of one’s nerve failing and finding a way to get the Bible to say what fits with modern science? And, I’ve heard it regularly suggested, this is the Achilles heel. If when people open their Bible, they explain away the first thing God says, the statement about origins, then the whole foundation is destroyed. It’s irrelevant if you take anything else literally, because it’s got no foundations to support it.

    As I’ve heard it put (again a paraphrase from memory, not a direct quote):

    What more would God have need to have done to get across the point that chapter one is meant to be taken literally?
    When the issue is put that way it is extremely powerful. (I should know, for I’ve used it with Jehovah’s Witnesses on the issue of the personhood of the Holy Spirit when looking at texts that speak of the Holy Spirit in a personal way.) It’s powerful because it is a good principle—it’s a way of trying to get at what the Reformers would call ‘the natural sense’ of a text: reading it in a way that isn’t too clever by half, but seems ‘natural’. What could God have done to flag any more clearly that this is a straightforward historical account?

    This is one of the few genuinely valuable things that I think Creationism throws up—how do we understand the nature of Scripture, and so what does it mean to be a faithful hearer of the Word of God? So this is going to be a fairly wide-ranging discussion. (Which means, expect more thought for further reflection rather than settled answers by the end of this post.)

    We’ll begin with the question of whether chapter one is self-evidently a historical narrative. As I’ve already indicated in earlier posts, I think there are features of chapter one that are not taken literally (at least, not taken literally by people with any kind of orthodox theology). Some examples of these are:
    1. The deep waters of verse 2 existing before God says anything in verse 3.

    2. The fact that in verse 2 ‘darkness’ exists before God says anything in verse 3 to create anything which could be dark. (After all, you can’t have darkness without space, and space—physical dimensions—is one of those things that is created in verses 3 and following).

    3. The firmament separating the waters above from the waters below in verses 6-8, which is an expanse in which floodgates are opened in 7:11 to bring about the Flood.

    4. The fact that all celestial objects only exist to give light and regulate human time in verses 14-18.

    5. The fact that the seventh day doesn’t end. It’s quite noticeable, if you have your eyes open. Every day has the same refrain:

      And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
      And there was evening and there was morning, the seventh day.

      No wait. My mistake. Scratch the last one. The refrain is not repeated on the seventh day, the day when God rests from his labours of creating. It is repeated six times and then missed out on the seventh day.

      Creationists make much of this refrain: evening and morning, to stress that this has to mean actual, historical 24 hour days. (And I don’t disagree, the days in chapter one are 24 hours, they aren’t ages or the like. The issue is, is this a strict historical account?)

      And yet, the seventh day has no evening and morning, it does not end. Why not give that its due weight? Why not take that just as strictly literally? Hold to the view that the seventh day wasn’t twenty four hours, and a week is made up of six twenty-four days and we rest on the seventh, indeterminately long, day.

      Or acknowledge, that this another piece of evidence that suggests that the account mightn’t be intended to be taken in a highly literal way.

    6. Finally, as has been pointed out, the account of chapter one and the account of chapter two are difficult to reconcile. The most probable scenario is that at least one has to be not providing a strictly literal historical account. And I would argue that chapter two ‘feels’ similar to chapter one. One could ask the same question: What more would God have to do to make it clear that the account in chapter two is meant to be taken literally? In fact, chapter two is fairly free of the kind of features that I’ve just highlighted from chapter one, so it’s got more grounds for being taken as a strictly literal historical account.
    Now none of this proves that we must not read Genesis 1 in a strictly literal fashion. As I’ve said, looked at as an internal question of reading the Bible in the abstract, I think a literal reading of chapter one is a respectable position.

    But what it should do is indicate that there are features of chapter one that no-one should take literally. And if that’s the case, it is not as simple as ‘good guys read this literally’ and ‘bad guys explain it away’. All of us recognise that faithfully hearing this chapter as the Word of God involves not taking all the features in a strict literal sense. And if that’s the case, then a less strictly literal reading does not necessarily signify a weakening of trust in God’s Word.

    But where does this approach stop? If Genesis 1 or 2 is going to be taken in a less strictly literal sense, what basis can you give for not sitting loosely on other things that seem to run counter to modern wisdom? After all, creationists generally tend to argue that if Genesis 1 goes, you’ve basically lost everything.

    Here I want to start with an issue that I’m indebted to Tony Payne of Matthias Media for raising in The Briefing. In a kind of sidebar argument in an issue dedicated to Intelligent Design he drew an analogy between the current debate over whether Genesis 1 has to be taken literally to the debate between Luther and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. I’m going to use the issue a bit differently here than how he did, but I’m indebted to him for drawing the link between the two issues to my attention.

    The issue relates to the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper as recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels:

    Matthew 26:26-28 And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
    Mark 14:22-24 And while they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it; and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup, and given thanks, He gave it to them; and they all drank from it. And He said to them, "This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
    Luke 22:19-20 And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me." And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.

    Here we have no less than a threefold (four if you include 1 Cor 11) repetition of what Jesus said about the emblems of bread and wine in Scripture. Unlike most parts of the Bible, this isn’t mentioned once and we move on. It is repeated three times in the Gospels, and once more in an Epistle. That’s a high level of repetition for the Bible, it suggests it is important.

    So let’s revisit the arguments we opened with. What more would Jesus have to do to indicate that we are meant to take his words here in a strict literal sense? After all, it’s a strict, literal command—take and eat this physical bread and drink this physical wine. So why do you not take the description of the bread and wine in a strict literal sense?—that it is the actual body and blood of Jesus. It’s a short statement, there’s nothing in the text to even remotely suggest that it isn’t literal. Command, and statement about the emblem. That’s it. So why don’t you take the description of the emblem strictly literally? You interpret the command literally, but the reason for the command as some kind of metaphor.

    And you can see the same kind of argument get raised as I summarised at the start for the Creation Scientist. What could be more central to Christianity than Word and Sacrament? If you are going to explain away the sacrament, which stands at the heart of Christianity, then what does it matter if you take any other part of Scripture literally? If you can’t trust the word of God here, in the face of contemporary wisdom that physical bread and wine can’t ‘become Jesus’ and still remain bread and wine to all empirical experimentation, then you’ve already surrendered to the world.

    The sacramentalist—Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic, can look you in the eye knowing that they take these words of Jesus in a strict literal sense, and don’t try and explain them away, and they have a lot of Church tradition on their side. The bread is Jesus’ body. The wine is Jesus’ blood. Jesus himself says it. A realist view of the sacrament is the overwhelming position of church tradition.

    The general response is to argue that the words are to be taken poetically, that they are a metaphor. Bread and wine symbolises Jesus’ body and blood.

    Support is generally enlisted from Paul’s version of the words in 1 Cor 11:
    1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.

    Here, it is argued, we are told that we to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. If it is a ‘remembrance feast’ then it is a symbolic identity between emblem and Jesus’ body and blood. But this argument hardly proves that Jesus’ words must not be taken literally. It’s a literal command—do this in remembrance of me. So why read the other bit non-literally—this is my body? And why does doing it in remembrance of Jesus automatically mean it isn’t strictly his body and blood? Surely I remember Jesus more if what I consume really is part of him than if I just eat bread and wine?

    Other support for a metaphorical reading come from Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel where there are a number of statements like:

    John 6:48 I am the bread of life.

    John 10:7 I am the door of the sheep.

    John 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches;

    Here are examples where Jesus uses metaphors—saying that he is something, when it is clear that the ‘is’ is not meant to be taken literally. Jesus is not a physical door to physical sheep. So, it is argued, when Jesus says the bread is his body, the ‘is’ shouldn’t be taken literally. It is a metaphor.

    This argument is weaker than the argument from 1 Cor 11 if you hold to the principle that the Bible should be taken literally except where it can’t.

    It’s one thing to say:

    I am the vine
    That can be fairly easily seen to be a metaphor. Whether you say ‘I am the vine’ or ‘My love is a red rose’ the kind of principles of metaphors are fairly clearly kept.

    But when Jesus says, ‘this bread is my body’ it doesn’t fit all that obviously into the principles of a metaphor. ‘this bread is a body’, ‘this bread is the body’—those are fairly clearly candidates for a metaphor. But ‘this bread is my body’ really strains the principles of metaphors. If I said, ‘My love is this rose bush’ at least half of my hearers, I’d suggest, would take me to mean that I devote myself to the rose bush I’d singled out, rather than thinking I was treating that particular rose bush as a metaphorical symbol of a human female for whom I had affection. And if I said “This rose bush is my love” I’d suggest the proportion of hearers would climb even higher.

    In other words, there’s no clinching textual argument to show that the words of institution must be taken metaphorically. So, if the Bible should be taken literally as the basic way of reading it, shouldn’t we take the words of institution literally?

    What I think this shows is that reading the Bible is not a matter of just taking things literally unless that’s ‘obviously’ wrong and only then accepting a non-literal reading. The Bible doesn’t work according to those rules. And so it’ll be to the issue of rules for controlling the reading of the Bible that we turn to next.