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CMI booklet reflects ‘stubbornness and arrogance’ (?)

Richard vdR, from Uganda, sent his friend Phil the CMI booklet 15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History. Phil wrote back a critical response, and we have published that with Phil’s permission, and a point by point response by CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland:

sxc.hu/gabetarian

Hi Richard,

I have just received your little booklet on Genesis as History. It is definitely an interesting book, and makes at least one valid point. However, I believe that it makes one major error, and this major error sadly undermines a lot of its content and thrust.

To start with the good point:

The writers make a strong case for many of the people mentioned in Genesis 1–11 being real historical people. I say a strong case—not one that is completely overwhelming—but definitely strong. I believe that they are correct in this, but (as see below) I am aware that I can be wrong in my interpretation of scripture, so I would be more cautious than them in the way they assert this.

Now for the bad points:

The biggest and overwhelming mistake of the authors is one we are all in danger of constantly—ARROGANCE. They start from a secure position—that the Bible is true and must be absolutely respected as such,

Actually, that is their presupposition, and it is openly declared. All reasoning involves presuppositions; it is actually better when these are frankly and openly stated. But the absolute truth of the Bible is also a vital presupposition for the credibility of the entire Gospel, for without it, we have no touchstone for even determining what the Gospel is.

and then move to a very bad position—that their particular interpretation of the bible must be held in the same esteem, and indeed that there can be no other!

CW: I have searched the booklet in vain to find such an arrogant position, which is different from being confident that the position espoused follows the straightforward rules of historical-grammatical exegesis without permitting any deviation in order to follow current cultural fashion.

This is a terrible mistake.

It might be if it were in fact what it was stated to be. But unfortunately, this sort of approach [i.e. Phil’s comment] readily detracts from a sober analysis of the position and its arguments, acting instead as a ‘relief valve’ for the discomfort as one starts to realize that one’s understanding flies in the face of what, for example, Jesus so plainly believed. One often hears it used in such a way as to drift to postmodernity, i.e. because ‘there are other interpretations’, it comes close to saying ‘your interpretation may not be stated to be superior to mine’. So let’s analyze this bit [coming] about the church fathers, etc.

The reality is that throughout Christian history bible believing, god-loving Christians have taken very different views on the detailed interpretation of Genesis 1–11, and particularly Genesis 1. For example, the early church father Origen, Augustine and Calvin all believed that interpreting Genesis 1 as scientific fact (or “history” as the writers refer to it) was not the only way, and might even be wrong.

As our literature has shown over and over, most of this appeal to such notables has been seriously distorted to serve an agenda, i.e. to imply that it’s OK to deny Genesis as history. I.e. things that really happened … . Note that apart from the heterodox allegorizer Origen (who still affirmed a ‘young’ earth), Augustine and Calvin believed in a universe created by fiat only thousands of years old. Both believed in a perfect world before sin.

Today many, possibly the majority of evangelical biblical scholars would hold the same view.

Our experience is over and over that evangelical Bible scholars and church leaders are driven to this position not from a serious consideration of the text, but by what they perceive as an overwhelming, almost do-or-die need to harmonize the Bible somehow with what they see as the ‘facts of science’. Even a great scholar like Norman Geisler, when asked for a theodicy1 to explain away suffering and death, including animal suffering, correctly appeals to the Fall and the originally perfect world. But he [also] claims that it’s OK for him to believe in billions of years of Earth history. Yet the two are totally impossible to harmonize, since the millions of years of geology is represented by the interpretation of fossils as a ‘tape recording’ of long ages of Earth history, and these show violence and bloodshed on a humongous scale—before sin, in that interpretation.

How can we be certain that our particular interpretation is correct? To assert as emphatically as they do is unwise in the extreme.

At some point, in any discussion, unless one concedes that some issues are crucially Gospel-relevant, one has to give up all hope of communicating a meaningful Gospel—or even being able to have a discussion about what it means to be a Christian. [For example; do we have no right to assume, for instance, that we can’t be certain that our interpretation that the Bible is teaching that Jesus rose bodily from the grave is correct? This can descend into farce if taken to its logical conclusion.] The booklet authors are making a powerful claim that needs to be engaged, not deflected in this way. Their claim is that issues like the history given in Scripture of the origin of sin and death are critically foundational to the entire logic of the Gospel, which is all about God’s solution to the twin problems of sin and death.

On the same lines as above, here is a question: How many times have you realised that a theological position you once fervently held you are now not so sure about, or maybe even have realised was completely wrong? I know this has happened to me many times—not on the key elements of our faith of course, but on peripheral issues, such as the exact understanding of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, the issue of “once saved always saved”, and many others. I don’t think I am unusual in this, and indeed, I think it would be very unhealthy if I had NOT had the changes of view above. Why? Because it is highly unlikely that I am right in all matters of scriptural interpretation, so a lack of change of view could mean only one thing—STUBBORNNESS and ARROGANCE on my part!

Again, this conveniently ducks the issues. [It also ignores the fact that issues such as whether the Bible is right about the origin of sin, or whether the bad things in the world are the result of sin (and thus God did not include death and cancer as being ‘very good’) are hardly ‘side issues’. In fact the reliability and trustworthiness of the Bible itself is at stake, without which all other issues become moot.]

The writers completely overlook the fact that the main point of Genesis transcends differences of interpretation. This point is key. The POINT of Genesis 1 is clear

—Interesting comment—but how do we know this, is this not the result of STUBBORNNESS AND ARROGANCE, etc etc? Note, I’m only reinforcing my earlier point here that such fingerpointing is useless. If one can make a statement about what the writer’s point was, then one can only do so on the basis of what is actually written. So let’s engage with that, rather than what has been happening to this point.

it is to assert that God created everything, culminating in his finest work in man, who is special. THIS IS THE POINT THE THE WRITER WANTS US TO COME AWAY WITH.

Really? But on what basis can one assert this, is this not ‘our particular interpretation’? (See the folly of postmodern approaches to exegesis, they are eventually all self-refuting).

If we get caught up in battles over asserting our particular interpretation to be the only one, we will completely distract from the actual point of the passage—

But this has been asserted, not proved.

and cause terrible harm to the body of Christ through unnecessary accusations,

The booklet makes no accusations. This seems to be a case of an angry reaction to not being able to carefully answer the booklet’s claims from God’s Word.

not to mention shame to the body of Christ through wild and silly rejections of the body of scientific knowledge.

Ah, this is now where the real issue starts to emerge, and it is the same reason why at one point Augustine, despite his belief in literal fiat recent creation, wanted to have the days be allegorical [he wanted them to be shorter periods of time]; because of the influence of ‘the body of recognized knowledge’ in his day, the Greek philosophers, he wanted God to create everything in an instant.

We must major on the majors—and the major here is God as creator, not whether the passage is science or not.

It’s not being claimed as science in the sense of a detailed organised body of knowledge for the purpose of teaching us [facts about the natural world]. The claim is far simpler than that, but at the same time far more profound and crucial, namely the claim is that it is a truthful account. Death either entered the world through Adam’s sin or it did not. There either was a historical [first man] Adam, with a wife Eve and a list of named descendants leading to Christ, or there was not. It is an account that Jesus and Paul believed, so either (as many evangelical leaders are now doing) one says that these two believed error, and that God’s Word contains error (e.g. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus) or one squarely faces the issue and starts to look carefully at the consequences. There are reasons why the church is going backwards so quickly in today’s world, and compromise has not only been impotent in arresting this, it has been complicit.

The writers want to insist that all Genesis 1–11 is “history”. By this they clearly mean “scientific-like” description.

Already addressed directly.

This is a highly dubious assumption—one that many biblical scholars would reject. There are many suggestions within the passage that this is not the case, not least the form of the writing, and the obvious comparisons that the writer is clearly drawing with the creation myths of the surrounding cultures.

Again, this depends on one’s presuppositions. If Genesis is a truthful account, then it makes more sense to regard other creation accounts as corruptions of the original.

Additionally, Genesis contains many statements that are extremely difficult to reconcile with this view that this is modern western style “history”. To take but one, consider Gen 4 v 10–16. Cain has just killed Abel and is now being expelled from the garden of Eden. He complains to God that “whoever finds me will kill me”. Of course God replies, “Don’t be silly Cain there are only two other people on earth—and they are staying behind in the garden of Eden”. Actually, no, he doesn’t. He takes Cain’s point completely on board, and puts a mark on Cain to protect him from all the other people. Cain is being expelled into a populated world! Adam and Eve are not the only humans around! This alone should give us pause for thought about overly scientific interpretations of Gen 1–11.

This attempt at sarcasm actually backfires, since it is completely compatible with Genesis as history. (And I deliberately use that word ‘history’, in the sense of truthful history. That is the point that is being evaded here.) There is no biblical indicator of when Cain was driven away and there is ample time for hundreds of people to be in existence. But again, one has to take the Bible as its own interpreter, which means that people had the long lifespans it indicates. Note too it was not Cain but his parents, Adam and Eve, who were expelled from the garden of Eden, before Cain was born, and no-one could re-enter the garden (Genesis 3:24).

The writers’ treatment of science is ignorant and shameful. They seem to know very little about it, and indeed to want to know very little. Their artificial division between “historical” and “operational” science is, just that, completely artificial. The two are completely intertwined and cannot be separated. For example, if we measure the light coming from a distant supernova that exploded 100,000 years ago are we doing “operational” or “historical” science? The answer is clearly both, and indeed all “historical” science can be “operationally” checked, and is based on the same approaches of logic and evidence that we use when for example looking at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. It is a huge mistake to exalt the writers particular desires in terms of biblical interpretation above evidence from science. To do so is to abandon evidence altogether-something we as Christians should hold in high regard.
Flickr/stevendepolo

I wonder what sort of comment would have been given by this person if the writers had used the sort of language against their fellow believers that he uses here, namely to describe the position of two PhD scientists with research experience, one of them a master logician in addition, as “ignorant and shameful”? Does he really think that his example of the supernova invalidates the distinction between experimental science that has verified the way the world works, as opposed to historical sciences like archaeology, etc? The fact that there is methodological overlap is not exactly news. His command of the philosophy of science is not sufficient to justify this level of, well, arrogance mixed with anger. Does he think, for instance, that such a puerile error as he is implying would have been committed by e.g. research Professor at the University of Western Australia John Hartnett, who wrote Starlight, Time and the New Physics, addressing the very issue of starlight that this person raises here?

I could go on, but I would maybe just blunt the basic points above. The key issue for me, as I have said is that we must be so careful not to fall into the trap of arrogantly assuming only our interpretation can be right. The reality is that on many biblical issues—and Gen 1 in particular—

Actually, until long-ageism became the dominant philosophy, Genesis 1 was one of the few areas in which there was among evangelical theologians very little perceived need to disagree with each other. The reason is that far from the situation being as is implied here, the Hebrew is actually overwhelmingly plain. As Regius Professor of Hebrew and OT at Oxford, James Barr* said:

“ … probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

  1. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
  2. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
  3. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.”

(*James Barr, Oriel Professor of the interpretation of the Holy Scripture, Oxford University, England, in a letter to David C.C. Watson, 23 April 1984.)

Barr, consistent with his neo-orthodox views, does not believe Genesis, but he understood what the Hebrew so clearly taught. It was only the perceived need to harmonise with the alleged age of the earth which led people to think anything different—it was nothing to do with the text itself.

many possible interpretations exist, and we should be humble enough, and gracious enough, to accept that these might have validity.

Yes, they might, [any interpretation of anything ‘might’ in theory be valid a priori] but their validity still needs to be demonstrated in the light of Scripture, otherwise these are mere assertions, seeming to justify the rejection of what God tells us about these Gospel-critical issues, using the not-so-subtle implication that the problem is lack of humility and grace. Such things can easily become ‘cover words’.

If we can maintain this humility it will save us from the biggest mistake it is possible to make—missing the wood for the trees!

Again, an assertion, with no biblical backing provided.

God is wanting us to focus on and rejoice in the fact that he is the creator God who made all things. Is this the message we are communicating to the world? No, rather we are communicating (as this writer does very emphatically) that we Christians want to live in a pre-scientific ghetto where we reject modern science.

What a great message to communicate! “Hi world, come and be a Christian, a full frontal lobotomy is a pre-requisite, but don’t worry once we have amputated your reasoning powers you won’t even remember you had them!” I jest, but sadly this is exactly how Christians are perceived these days in the scientific world. And why? because writers like this have earned us this reputation.

Interesting, but surely a much bigger question—in fact the huge elephant in the room—is, how much are we supposed to alter the Gospel and God’s Word in order to avoid having a ‘bad reputation’ with the wise of this world?

Aren’t Dawkins et al. being more consistent by tossing it out altogether? How is it even remotely biblical to suggest that the primary message of Christianity is that “God is wanting us to focus on and rejoice in the fact that he is the creator God who made all things”? How will that save people from their sin, and from God’s wrath, for example? One thing this issue certainly seems to do is to expose the yawning chasm between much of today’s ‘fuzzy feel-good’ approach to the Cross, and what Scripture calls the ‘faith delivered once for all to the saints’. But then it is no surprise to find that issues clearly defined in Scripture as truth propositions should do this. As Hebrews 4:12 puts it: “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

A suitable closing message may be this one from the atheist Frank Zindler, who hits the nail on the head for those whom Dawkins calls ‘deluded’; [i.e.] those who imagine that they can have their cake of ‘God’s love’ while throwing out the entire historical Gospel ‘big picture’. In a 1996 debate with William Lane Craig, Zindler said something which is highly pertinent to the evangelical majority today, who think that they can have evolution (which means no historical Adam, as was canvassed in Christianity Today recently) and still cling to some semblance of the faith:

‘The most devastating thing though that biology did to Christianity was the discovery of biological evolution. Now that we know that Adam and Eve never were real people the central myth of Christianity is destroyed. If there never was an Adam and Eve there never was an original sin. If there never was an original sin there is no need of salvation. If there is no need of salvation there is no need of a saviour. And I submit that puts Jesus, historical or otherwise, into the ranks of the unemployed. I think that evolution is absolutely the death knell of Christianity.’2

Atheists can see it. I suggest that most Christians trying to have their ‘two bob each way’3 can see it too, it’s mostly that they don’t want to have it pointed out. It’s no wonder that the responses are often so intemperate.

Carl

Much love,

Philip

Published: 16 June 2012

References

  1. A justification of God’s goodness in the face of evil is known as a theodicy, from Greek θεός (theos) = God and δίκη (dikē) = justice, right. Return to text.
  2. Frank Zindler, American atheist, in a debate with William Craig, Atheism vs Christianity video, Zondervan, 1996. Return to text.
  3. Australian slang derived from gambling on horse racing; by betting ‘each way’ one wins, whether the horse wins or simply comes 2nd or 3rd. It is used to imply roughly the same thing as ‘have your cake and eat it too’. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Creation, Fall, Restoration
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Refuting Compromise
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15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History
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