One-sided discussion of theistic evolution
A review of Faith and Fossils: The Bible, creation, and evolution by Lester Grabbe
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2018
In a lot of ways, Lester Grabbe’s book fits the stereotype of the enlightened liberal proselytizing literature. He lets us know that a lot of Christians have no problem with evolution, and a lot of liberal theologians say we can’t trust the Bible as history. He is qualified to tell us about this because he has the totally original testimony of being a former fundamentalist whose training in science and theology enlightened him into a new way of reading the Bible. And now Faith and Fossils will tell us why only primitive cave-people who barely know how to read would think that there is such a thing as a historical Adam, question evolution, or think that there was a worldwide flood.
Genesis is neither science nor history
Grabbe says that whatever Genesis is, it is “neither science nor history” (p. 12). He begins his book by a painfully literalistic reading of Genesis 1 which wonders how light can be separated from darkness, when darkness is the absence of light, and how there can be day/night cycles before the creation of the sun. This is one of several places in the book where he discusses things that are directly relevant to his specialization in Hebrew, but he gives no indication of actually bringing that expertise to bear on the subject at hand.
Grabbe argues that Enuma Elish is an earlier creation narrative than Genesis, and he argues that Genesis is written as a polemic against the Babylonian text.
“The writer of Genesis 1 has turned the Babylonian version on its head. God does not fight active enemies as Marduk does but shapes and molds natural elements to produce an ordered cosmos. The Hebrew writer has deliberately told a creation story that asserts that the Hebrew God, YHWH, is sovereign over the gods of Babylonian mythology, which here become no gods at all. The forces of chaos have become lifeless elements that God shapes as he will” (p. 16).
Of course, the assumption is that Genesis was written, at least the final version of it, much later in history than Mosaic authorship would allow.
Grabbe does much the same thing with the Flood stories. He demonstrates that many ancient cultures have Flood legends, which bear striking similarity to the Genesis account in many ways. He takes this to be evidence that, likewise, Genesis borrowed from these more ancient accounts. The idea that they might be cultural ‘memories’ of the same historical event does not enter into consideration.
Genetics and evolution
Grabbe has a very out-dated view of genetics and makes several statements that are flat-out wrong. He says “Baramin—creation according to kinds—is argued and defended in scientific terms”. However, ‘baramin’ is a noun, and he gives the definition as a verb. That is a very odd mistake for a Hebrew professor to make. He points out that the Hebrew word translated ‘kind’ is used in various ways, including ways that differ from the modern creationist use, as if that’s a surprise to anyone. He says, correctly, “There is no certainty of animal types in the text” (p. 46), which would be a problem if anyone was arguing that Scripture gave any type of comprehensive taxonomy. But then he takes the bizarre lead to say “Then how much less can the text be argued to mandate that divine creation of individual kinds implies the impossibility of macroevolution?” (p. 46). He does not acknowledge that the language of creation of distinct ‘kinds’ which reproduce ‘after their kind’ rules out evolution’s universal common ancestry.
Grabbe then pulls a weird bait-and-switch talking about Jewish rabbinic commentators, who are assumed to be “much closer to the time and perspective of the biblical writers themselves” (p. 50). Those rabbis said some things that were biologically impossible, which then somehow discredits the biblical texts they were commenting on.
Grabbe does not address the major genetic arguments of creationists, such as genetic entropy. He demonstrates a knowledge of whale evolution and vestigial organs that is at least a couple of decades out of date.
Evolution and evangelicalism
Grabbe makes the argument that while some scientists say that evolution and Christianity are incompatible, some evolutionist scientists are Christian. He cites lots of theistic evolutionary biologists and geologists, but does not interact with the mainstream theologians and scientists who say there are problems with theistic evolution. He might have been expected to be familiar with some of the names and arguments featured, for example, in the 2017 book Theistic Evolution1 even if the book itself came out too late for him to reference it.
How we most certainly didn’t get the Bible
Grabbe’s conception of how we got the Bible would be more at home in mid-1800s German universities than in modern-day scholarship. He states:
“There is, in fact, evidence that the Pentateuch was not compiled until the Persian period, probably in the decades after 400 BCE, though some of the material in it is much older” (p. 102).
He also vastly overstates the problem of textual transmission.
Grabbe inexplicably says that “knowledge of ancient Greek was rediscovered in the Renaissance” (p. 97). The Vatican maintained a library of manuscripts which included Greek texts, for one thing. While interest in Greek declined as Latin became the standard ecclesiastical language, it never completely vanished. As the British Library states:
“It is common to speak of the ‘rediscovery’ of Greek in the Latin West in the Renaissance, the implication being that Greek was wholly forgotten in the West for the bulk of the Middle Ages. While it is true that Greek was far less well known in the West between the 5th and 15th centuries, throughout this period we find evidence of knowledge of Greek on the part of a few learned individuals, and awareness of the significance of Greek on the part of many more. In the 7th century, the Greek-speaking Theodore of Tarsus (602–690) travelled to England to take up the role of Archbishop of Canterbury.”2
Grabbe gives the LXX and MT differences in the Genesis 5 and 11 genealogies as a problem for biblical inerrancy (pp. 105–107). However, most biblical inerrantists, as well as the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, would limit inerrancy to the originals, meaning that variants that arose later are not a problem. There are inerrantists on both sides of the textual debate.
He also claims that NT quotes of the OT that are different from the MT are a problem for inerrancy (pp. 108–110), but they fall under the same category. Either the MT is original, and the NT authors are quoting the LXX, thus making that LXX reading authoritative New Testament Scripture while not affecting the biblical status of the MT reading, or the LXX reading is actually original and the copyist error arose in the MT, meaning that the LXX reading reflects the original, inspired Hebrew reading. And such instances are usually very minor and do not involve a radically different meaning.
Adam and human ancestry
Grabbe’s understanding of anthropology is significantly flawed. He does not recognize Neandertals as human (figure 1), despite the evidence of many human behaviours such as artistic expression, ritualistic burial of the dead, and technological innovation. Nor does the fact that Neandertals are the ancestors of a significant portion of humanity factor in (p. 119). He buys into the myth that humans and chimps share 96–99% of their DNA, and that this proves common ancestry (p. 122).
The biblically literate person, at this point, may remember that the Genesis creation account says that the first two humans, Adam and Eve, were special creations of God in a way that does not lend itself to common ancestry. Grabbe demonstrates admirable consistency in using decades-old arguments that do not respect the best work in the field. He gives a laughably simplistic exegesis of Genesis, where he apparently does his best to avoid looking like a Hebrew professor at a not-insignificant university (and he succeeds admirably!).
It doesn’t get any better when he moves to the writings of the Apostle Paul. He conflates allegory and typology. To explain Romans 5 (typology), he moves to Galatians 4 (allegory), but then even manages to botch an exegesis of allegory. He asks, “Is Paul trying to tell us that there was a literal, historical Isaac and a literal, historical Ishmael? Is that his purpose?” (p. 136). To which the biblically literate individual would say, “No, he’s assuming their historicity, and using that as a jumping off point to make a theological point.” But that wouldn’t fit the vibe he’s been going for this entire time, so he says, “Of course not. He is using figures from the book of Genesis to make a point” (p. 136). Well, yes … but anyone who says that Paul, a super-conservative Pharisee turned Christian apostle, Hebrew of Hebrews, does not believe that Adam, Eve, and every other historical figure from the Tanakh is as real as you or me has apparently never cracked open a Bible.
Grabbe asks, “Why should we assume that Paul had a modern knowledge of science?” (p. 138). Because that’s the dichotomy—either you have to believe that Paul was an ignoramus with no idea about anything resembling the most basic proto-scientific ideas (despite his having the best education from the Greek and Jewish standpoints), or he knew everything we know with the benefit of electron microscopes, telescopes, and germ theory.
What you have to give up to be a Christian evolutionist
Grabbe says, “Assumptions of ‘inerrancy’ are patently untenable when we recognize the history of the text” (p. 153). So if you want to be a Christian evolutionist, you have to believe the Bible has errors, that people who sure sound like they’re being described as historical characters are actually “characters in a theological narrative” (p. 144)—and by the way, ‘theological’ is being used to mean ‘not historical’.
This wouldn’t be a problem if there was some sort of pre-history/historical split—as if Moses (oh, sorry—I meant the Persians) put a statement somewhere in the Pentateuch that says, “Ok, that was all myth and theology—the history starts here!” Except it’s not clear where the history starts in Grabbe’s view. What about the genealogies of Jesus? Because Jesus is a direct descendant of Adam (Luke 3). And Jesus thought Abel was a real person, and that Noah’s Flood actually happened. Was Jesus wrong? If Jesus was wrong there, what else was He wrong about? And if we’re using the scientific understanding of [insert current date here] as our barometer for what’s true in the Bible, what do we do with the virginal conception of Christ? What do we do with the Resurrection? I mean, if we’re discarding all the stuff that Richard Dawkins thinks is silly, he’s not even sure that Jesus is historical!
This is a good book to get to see the standard arguments against creation that are still being used, even by people who should know better. Grabbe is an emeritus professor of Hebrew at a not-insignificant university, whose book is published by Eerdmans, which is one of the major theological publishers. This makes it all the more disappointing that every page is littered with misrepresentations, outdated arguments, and outright falsehoods.
References and notes
- Cosner, L., New book offers comprehensive critique of theistic evolution: A review of >Theistic Evolution: A scientific, philosophical, and theological critique by J.P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger, and Wayne Grudem (Editors), Journal of Creation 33(1):23–25, 2019. Return to text.
- O’Hogan, C., Knowledge of Greek in the medieval Latin West, British Library, bl.uk/greek-manuscripts/articles/knowledge-of-greek-in-the-medieval-latin-west, accessed 7 November 2018. Return to text.