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.

Monday, 3 December 2007

An Award Winning Cultic Blog

This was going to wait until after Part VII, but noses are already out of joint, so I've opted to move it forward a bit.

The blog Sydney Anglican Heretics has apparently given this blog an award, 'the Baddeley Award', and has even named it after me (one presumes - I mean it could be after my cousin, who is a lot more famous, but that's probably unlikely). The award is for putting some effort into my posts where I indicate my problems with Creation Science (although it is looking like "Creationism" might be a term that that blog at least finds less problematic).

I'm a bit bemused to be the recipient of the inaugural award. I can't quite imagine Calvin giving Servetus an award for putting some effort into his heresy. Athanasius giving Arius an 'Arius' award for being the 'most improved' heretic also doesn't quite sit right.

Nonetheless, it looks like they're hoping to undertake some kind of response to what I've posted. I'm a firm believer that, by and large, one needs to hear two sides of an argument to draw even provisional conclusions, so, given that the name of the blog has already appeared in the comments (and that SAH even became aware of this blog, which I didn't think would happen), I was going to link the blog at the end of Part VII so people could have a read of the critiques as they are produced. It was with some misgiving, as I don't think this group is likely to do a particularly good job of it, which people might take as evidence that the arguments I've put forward are stronger than they might actually be. Nonetheless, some critique is better than none. So the name is now in the blog proper, not just the comments.

I would wait a while before going over to read it at this stage. At the moment the only response has been a post by "Neil Moore" trying to accuse me of being cultic. The reasons are:
  • I control who can post on the blog (I won't allow SAH to post inflammatory comments here under a cloak of anonymity).

  • I selectively use Scripture, 'to the exclusion of that which undermines his point'.

  • I'm motivated by an overweening desire to defend the Diocese and Peter Jensen.

The only argument offered to support these accusations is a story about one Mark Kay's ability to reduce a woman university student to tears by his manner in criticising the current Archbishop of Sydney. It's classic ad hominem, and probably deserves an award of its own, as there's probably a difficulty rating in not just playing the man rather than the ball, but in trying to play the man by playing a completely disconnected woman.

It certainly is the case that I hold the Diocese and its leaders in esteem, including both the Jensens senior, and also others who are sometimes seen as their opposition within the Diocese. I'm not ashamed of that and, given the Bible's injunctions to hold leaders in honour, it's a bit disappointing that this is being seen as a defect. It's probably a sad reflection on church life generally, that such a feature would be considered cultic. Some of us find we can respect people and institutions deeply and yet feel free to dissent at points. It's sad to think that kind of freedom might not be open to others.

I would also suggest that writing some exploratory posts on an obscure and brand new blog is a strange way to try and defend the Diocese from the attacks of SAH. I don't think the Diocese needs defending anyway. SAH is, as I've said before, a bad reflection on creationism, and anonymous accusations don't warrant a defence. The posts are what I've said they are - a series of reflections that crystalised after an unfortunate experience on SAH. They aren't even particularly about SAH.

Hopefully there'll be something about the arguments I put forward in the future. But for the moment it seems I have graduated from heretic to award winning cultist. Bet the rest of you mere heretics out there are jealous. If SAH produces something significant I might take the time to interact with it here. But I think I'm only obligated to engage with their first post. It's just a shame that they began this way.

Edited: After much further reflection and prayer, and a number of communications from people who had visited the blog in question I have removed the link to the blog that was here originally. I originally ended my conversation with them (as I informed them) because I judged them to be the kind of people Paul describes (or people who would tolerate such people in the interests of having a coalition against us):
Titus 3:9-11 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.
1 Timothy 6:3-5 If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction between men of depraved mind and deprived of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.

Of the comments I've received publicly and privately, every one, (even, in one case, someone who is a creationist) has made the same judgement of the people on that blog and their actions. It is not their ideas, but the rampant ungodliness of their actions that has caused complaint. In such a case, it is not simply a matter of openly comparing ideas. So I've removed the link, it's easy enough to find the blog if you really need to read them. It's a symbolic action to indicate my rejection of their claims to be serving Christ in their manner of operating. I'll again discharge my responsibility by saying: I recommend against visiting the blog, if all that's motivating you is idle curioristy. And do not comment on the blog, it just tempts them to more ungodliness.