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Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden Thompson Speaking at Adventist Forum Conference

Alden was my undergraduate advisor at Walla Walla University (then college), I publish two of his books (Inspiration: Hard Questions, Honest Answers and Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?), and he is a friend. Many of my friends have heard him speak in person. Here he is presenting a paper at a conference, so is somewhat less free-wheeling than he is normally, but he’s making some important points.


Morgan Guyton Reviews a Review

Morgan Guyton Reviews a Review

I will definitely be reading Rachel Held Evans’ new book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, but I haven’t done so yet, so I’m not commenting on that book. It’s always interesting to me, however, to see reviews of reviews before I’ve gotten my hands on a book.

In this case the review getting reviewed is by Kathy Keller at The Gospel Coalition, and Morgan Guyton is doing the reviewing of the review. The whole thing is interesting, but I’m particularly interested in one aspect that comes near the end:

Kathy Keller responds to this with a very presumptuous and uncharitable indictment: “If you say, ‘Parts of the Bible express love, and other parts express power interests,’ you’ve clearly gotten your standard and definition of love from outside the Bible—specifically, from contemporary sensibilities—and these are your ultimate authority and norm.” Beyond the breathtaking unfairness of leveling such a strong accusation with so little supporting evidence, the palpable irony here is that Rachel, without naming (or perhaps realizing) it, has articulated the hermeneutical principle of the spiritual godfather of the Reformation, Augustine, who says in his opus De Doctrina Christiana: “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them” (De Doctrina 1:36:40). Augustine is calling upon us to do precisely what Rachel tells us to do: read the Bible with the prejudice of love. This is similar to the hermeneutical standard of the famous 18th century British evangelical John Wesley who said, “No scripture can mean that God is not love or that his mercy is not over all his works.”

I’ve tagged this the “hanging rule” and of course it goes back to Jesus–“on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). You can see my KJV background by the fact I remember it that way and the name I use comes from that particular passage. And as Guyton notes it couldn’t be farther from original.

I consider this one of the best rules the non-expert can use in applying scripture. I’m not talking about writing scholarly papers on exegesis, unless one is doing theology, but rather about how one understands and applies scripture in one’s life.

What amazes me is how many people think that love is such a dangerous principle. Yes, one might improperly define the word “love” but that is true of any word. The problem I often see is that by letting scripture define “love” (or claiming to do so), people often rob the word “love” of any meaning. If you take any interpretation of any violent passage and claim that must somehow be part of God’s love, then you can easily make love meaningless, and thus statements in scripture such as “God is love” are robbed of any force.

“God is love” should be permitted to stand against our theology and correct it.


Connecting the Scriptural Dots – From Then to Then … to Now

Connecting the Scriptural Dots – From Then to Then … to Now

When it came time for third year Greek at Walla Walla College (now University), I had Dr. Sakae Kubo, who had just become dean of the School of Theology. Taking a Greek class with Dr. Kubo was an experience. I credit him with bringing my Greek to the level that allowed it to stick with me. He gave me a workout!

Recently he wrote two articles for Spectrum, the first Slavery, Circumcision, and the Subordinate Role of Women (Nov.  21, 2011) and second Jesus, Galileo, and the Interpretation of Scripture (Dec. 19, 2011). The Seventh-day Adventist Church is going through a great deal of controversy right now over the ordination of women. Right now they have women as “commissioned” ministers. In local churches in North America and Europe, these ministers perform the same function as ordained ministers, just under another name. One of the key questions of the moment is whether women can be conference presidents, which would place them in a position similar to that of Bishop in the United Methodist Church.

Kubo’s basic argument is that in the case of circumcision we see a change in right and wrong within scripture itself. At one time circumcision is commanded, and then at another that command is set aside and membership in God’s people is determined by a different means. He notes as well that the new means, faith in Christ, is no longer male-centered as was circumcision. In the case of slavery, we came to understand that slavery was wrong at a much later date, but nonetheless a change was made.

He extends this argument to dealing with the subordinate role of women, and thus to ordination and to eligibility for other offices in the church. (This is a very abbreviated form of the argument. You should read both articles linked before commenting on Kubo’s position.)

Now this is not a complete argument for the ordination of women. One could (and should) discuss some specific texts as well. But what Kubo has done is provide a framework for the egalitarian argument. This is not how it is often done, but I think it is a more robust approach. It is similar to arguments I made earlier regarding trajectories in Scripture.

That is why I used “then to then” in the title before “to now.” We often do biblical interpretation in a simple progression of discovering what the Bible writer was saying to people then, determining from that eternal principles, and then applying those principles to a modern situation. This is similar to the nutshell process illustrated given by Michael Patton on his blog.

That approach is generally quite useful, but we also need to recognize that there is more than one “then” involved generally before we get to a good general principle. And if we look at multiple points of “then,” such as statements regarding vengeance that I referenced in my trajectories post, then we may find that the eternal principles are somewhat different than what we would get if we took just one passage and went from the “then” statement through theology to the “now” statement.

Now many egalitarians make their argument almost exclusively with the very same exegetical methods as complementarians, which sometimes results in some odd readings of the various texts. I would argue that the key here is in the hermeneutics, and particularly in the way we get at the principles and apply them to modern times. It is much easier, though not necessarily simple, to discover what a passage meant to the original hearers/readers.

I believe that Kubo’s method allows one to both be very faithful to what the text said originally, while also being flexible enough to apply the principles to modern times in a valid way.

But why do we need flexibility? The accusation is generally that those who are more liberal in their interpretation are flexible in order to avoid the plain commands of Scripture. I would say instead that the flexibility is required so that we can be faithful to the broadest (and I think clearest) principles of Scripture. I see a very clear effort to move people from one set of practices to another in many areas. Galatians 3:28 provides a template for this, I believe.

But in addition, I think we often ignore the story (or stories) of Scripture, and the fact that what is practiced is not what we think the authors are preaching. I think the evidence of women in leadership in the early church needs to be laid alongside our understanding of specific commands. Which should have priority? Perhaps if we follow the trajectory, neither. Both can have their place.


Of Lists and Understanding

Of Lists and Understanding

A couple of days ago I linked to a post by J. K. Gayle which is in response to John Hobbins on the question of listing things one needs to read in order to understand the Bible.  I mentioned that I might sound more like J. K. Gayle than John Hobbins when I got around to writing.  John since drew blood (only in the very best sense!) when he drew attention in a comment to the list that is shown in my own masthead.

And indeed my masthead (or header) is a list, and perhaps a more specialized list than either Hobbins or Gayle were discussing.  I produced the header by cropping a section from a picture of my “ready reading” bookcase, the one that sits on my desk and provides my “at arm’s reach” reference and reading.  Those are books I either use regularly in study or that I’m reading or planning to read soon.  There are two more shelves in that bookcase, but those shelves wouldn’t change the composition.  The books would still generally be written by “privileged white males” and the range of subjects would remain largely the same.

But that list also has a context.  It’s the one on my desk.  In my office there is also a computer table, at which I sit more often than I sit at my desk.  There are also eight additional bookcases around the walls, generally much larger than the one that actually sits on my desk.  On these shelves you will find books that vary from mystery and science fiction to literary classics.  You’ll find books in a number of languages.  One of those bookcases is given over to various Bible translations and editions that have interested me over the years.

There are books that reflect my theological history, such as a substantial selection of the books of Ellen G. White, early leader and prophetess of the Seventh-day Adventist church and the full set of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary and associated reference series, with my uncle Don F. Neufeld as associate editor of earlier volumes and finally editor of the later ones, such as the Bible Dictionary.  There are books reflecting my search through various traditions and through skepticism, and there are others that reflect my examination of the United Methodist Church.

Finally, I can point to the list of books my company publishes.  We’re about to release our 28th title, The Character of Our Discontent by Dr. Allan R. Bevere.  One might make a similar criticism of that list, which is that it is largely written by white males of privilege, though the list does include some women as writers, one of whom is my wife and partner in this business, Jody.

But as I noted in the previous post I have made many lists myself.  When I teach classes, even Sunday School classes, I make suggested reading lists.  I have suggested reading lists in my own books, trying to tell learners where more can be found.  So it is not so much the idea of lists in itself that I find objectionable, though I approach them with mixed emotions.  It’s particularly the idea of lists that try to specify what one must read in order to be regarded as literate, or, for that matter, in order to understand the Bible or some other piece of literature.

And even there I must try to nuance my point.  It’s not that lists of suggested reading that will help one understand a particular text are not of value, or even necessary.  The problem is that they are, I believe, at one and the same time both incomplete and too overbearing.  A few times over the years I’ve heard two list builders get into debates about their particular lists, claiming that you really didn’t know ____ unless you had read ______, but the lists didn’t coincide.  Then come the accusations that one or the other person hasn’t done his or her homework because of the missing reading.  It’s especially humorous if the accusations can go both ways–and they usually can.

But here’s what set me off about John’s post in the first place:

Frye taught me, in my own words, that you cannot understand the Bible unless you’ve read Ovid, Milton, and Blake first. Who do you think one must read first in order to understand the Bible?

Really?  I cannot understand the Bible unless I’ve read those particular people?  I just don’t see it.  They’re all pretty good reading recommendations, and I think it would be interesting to take a class discussing reading through that particular set of lenses, but I see no reason whatsoever to privilege that set of lenses over another.

There are many possibilities for how I might be reading and studying the Bible.  I would place considerable emphasis, for example, on finding the historical meaning.  That quest is being ridiculed now in many quarters, but I’m not in agreement.  I think there’s a point to being chastened in our assurance that we actually can get to the precise historical meaning, but I don’t agree that there’s little point in trying.

Studying through reception is itself an interesting and valuable quest, but it is not the only one.  It seems that this particular quest shares a failing that I see through the entire history of modern Biblical studies and even leading into postmodern–the notion that one’s particular approach to the Bible is the whole story.  Form critics tend to see everything as orally transmitted even when it isn’t, and once form criticism is done, one “understands” the text.  Redaction and source critics think that once they’ve untangled the threads (or think they have) and described how they were woven together, they understand the text.  Canonical critics, in turn, think that everything about the text when they understand it in its canonical setting.  (This is the form of the error to which I believe I am personally most susceptible.) When we move to reader-response, suddenly the historical writer gets lost and it’s all about readers and how they feel about the text.

Now doubtless I have oversimplified the picture here and aficionados of various of these methodologies will likely point out to me where they do not entirely ignore any valid data from the other disciplines, but it is a rare book that really pays tribute to the various approaches, and I suspect it’s unfair to ask that.

But what I would ask is that when providing lists, one might nuance them by saying something like, “You need to read ______ in order to study the text in the way that I prefer.”

My training emphasized languages and ancient near eastern literature.  That’s the way I wanted to study the Bible, particularly the Hebrew scriptures–as a piece of ancient near eastern literature.  Now a number of other approaches have become part of my arsenal, precisely because I ended up both teaching in the church, largely teaching people who will never see a seminary, and they need to hear the Bible as something other than a merely historical text.  That doesn’t mean I abandoned history.  It does mean that I picked up some of these additional tools.  But I find Milton and Blake distinctly unhelpful in the historical part of my studies.  (I can’t say the same for Ovid, but that would be another topic.)

If I might now turn to J. K. Gayle’s response, I was planning to write something which would doubtless have occupied may words, but Bob MacDonald already said it, and did so much more efficiently than I would have in this comment.  I would copy it here, but I think that would blunt the point.  You really should read J. K. Gayle’s post first (and preferable go back from there to John’s post) before you’ll hear it.  Then Bob applied a few more good words to the topic in his post a good argument for wider reading.

Just so, Bob.  Just so!

Interpreting the Bible VIII: Biblical Literalism, Attitude, and Avoidance

Interpreting the Bible VIII: Biblical Literalism, Attitude, and Avoidance

This is a continuation of my series on interpreting the Bible. The first post in the series is Interpreting the Bible I: Obvious Exegesis, while the most recent one was Interpreting the Bible VII: Christians Contribute to Confusion.

As a reminder, my starting point was a number of comments that suggested that those who take the Bible less literally are thereby less serious Christians. These suggestions were not coming from conservative Christians, but from non-Christians. In some cases, I question the motivation of such suggestions. I believe that Richard Dawkins, for example, prefers to debate hard-line fundamentalists, and so would like to dismiss the rest of us from the Christian faith.

What I believe I have done so far is to show that interpreting the Bible, broadly called hermeneutics, is a bit more complex than these folks would like, and that just taking the Bible literally, as best as I can understand what they mean by “literally,” is not the way Christians have read the Bible historically. I have further noted that even basic exegesis, which I define as looking for the text as it was intended to be understood by the original audience, is more complex than these folks let on.

Those who are eagerly waiting for me to solve issues such as the violent passages in the Bible or gay and lesbian marriage will still have to wait. While I will discuss those issues, my primary purpose here is to look at the method. I believe that our discussions of the Bible would be much more profitable if we would simply think and talk more about how we come to our understanding, rather than simply trying to defend that understanding. Two people may mean very different things by saying that a concept is “Biblical.”

Let me reiterate here, as I believe has been demonstrated previously with the help of commenters, that the issues I’m discussing do not hinge on belief in inerrancy. Belief that the Bible is inerrant does not limit one with reference to determining what type of literature a particular passage is.

I want to clarify this further by using a couple of examples. Two controversial books amongst conservatives are Jonah and Job. There are quite a number of people, even conservatives, who will claim that these books are fiction. To make that claim doesn’t mean that the books contain error. Rather, it means that they intentionally present whatever it is they present in fictional form. Now there are those who regard fiction itself as evil, but that is a different argument.

Let’s say you have a historical novel, written with the intent of accurately portraying a certain place and time in history, but doing so using fictional characters in a fictional narrative. What would constitute an error? Well, if one introduced an historical event connecting to the story, and placed this event at the wrong time, it might be an error. Suppose one had an historical building, and it didn’t exist at the time in question. That might be an error as well.

The key in all of these points would be the author’s intent. Such an author might well introduce a house or a small street that was not historical, but wouldn’t presumably introduce a new city hall. There are things that the historical novel wishes to convey that are facts, and there is a story to be enjoyed along the way. Similarly, C. S. Lewis is not in error in the Screwtape Letters if there is no demon named Screwtape, nor is he in error in the Chronicles of Narnia if there is no Narnia.

I find this comparison to be of interest in the books of Jonah and Job, because I think we often get to argument about little houses and back streets in the story, while missing the big things.

In Jonah, I frequently hear discussions of two major issues: First, was Jonah really swallowed by a “great fish” or a “whale”? Second, was Nineveh really so big it would take three days to walk across it. (Those who know some Hebrew may laugh a bit at the particular rendering there–I’m using the form in which I normally hear the question.) But are those really the questions?

I would suggest several themes in the book of Jonah:

  1. God can call you to uncomfortable places and missions on which you would rather not go.
  2. Even when you’re going the other direction, God is likely to take note.
  3. Intervention may be uncomfortable–note how Jonah ends up on shore.
  4. God offers repentance even to people I may hate.
  5. God is gracious and merciful, even to the worst of sinners.

… and a few more, none of which are really impacted by whether the story is fictional. All of these points have annoyed someone at some time, and indeed according to the story, they annoyed Jonah, and presumably were controversial amongst the readers of the book. I am not here trying to argue these points. I’m simply saying that finding fiction in the Bible is not the same thing as finding error.

I consider Job even more interesting. If the book is historical, then we have an individual who suffered because God allowed him to be attacked and tormented. This may, of course, be extended by analogy or in principle to others. On the other hand, if the story is fictional, then one would have to assume that Job is presented as a type of sufferer, and that it is quite possible that God might call on me–or you–to suffer to make a demonstration for him. Are you concerned that bad things seem to happen to good and bad people alike? Here are some bad things that happen specifically to good people.

Now you can get that second idea while reading Job as historical, though I have heard some folks argue that this is something that happened only once (they forget about Jesus, apparently), but I think that if you read it as a fictional account, you are forced to the conclusion that it applies broadly in principle–God’s servants may be called to suffer in the fight against evil, and they may never know just why. Note that Job never receives an explanation of his suffering.

So you note here that the issue is not whether the text is in error or not, or whether one takes it literally or not, but rather just what are the literary characteristics, what is meant by them, and just how that might apply. If I could delete one statement from the vocabulary of Christian conservatives it would be: “I take the Bible literally.” If I could delete one statement from the vocabulary of liberal Christians: “I don’t take the Bible that literally.” Both are misleading. (As I note in my review of his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, Tim LaHaye makes this his first rule of hermeneutics. Needless to say, I disagree; in fact, I regard it as one of the worst rules.)

If I might pound this point into the ground a bit, some interpreters, including LaHaye, have applied this to the book of Revelation. But just what should one take “literally” in the book of Revelation? Personally, I tend to take the introduction quite literally when it uses a variety of literary indicators to show that John saw a vision. Once we’re in a vision, I take things as a vision, which may have varying degrees of attachment to physical things, and I believe that is the correct way to take them. Even where there are likely literal connections, such as with the churches, or with a number of symbols, the vision context warns us to look for more than meets the eye. Revelation 12 & 13, for example, while containing symbols that may be attached to specifics, also provide a very good general appreciation of the battle between good and evil, and numerous principles for living in the midst of such a battle. The literal/non-literal dichotomy is terribly inadequate to the task of understanding such a passage.

Some may be wondering how one would take the vision framework non-literally. There are many commentators who would treat the “vision” as a literary device used to present a set of symbols. It is quite possible to understand it in that way, though I disagree. In fact, I think assuming an ecstatic state, in vision, for some of the writing of Revelation will explain some literary and linguistic peculiarities, but that is a completely different topic.

Now I would maintain that conservatives, liberals, and those between are all susceptible to coming up with ad hoc interpretations that allow one to avoid the impact of a text, or to make a text have an inappropriate impact. Let me start with a controversial one.

Leviticus 18:22 is commonly presented as a text demonstrating that homosexuality is sin and unacceptable. (Note that “I don’t take it that literally” doesn’t seem to work here. It’s pretty literal.) I like to present people with Leviticus 19:33-34, which says to treat an alien living among you as one of your own citizen. Now I’m not arguing what applies here and what doesn’t. Both are literal commands given in the same general body of law. A valid approach would be to ask just how commands given to Israel in Leviticus apply to others.

But avoiding all of those issues, it’s very interesting to watch people’s responses to this connection. First, it is almost universally assumed that simply because I present Leviticus 19:33-34 I believe that Leviticus 18:22 is not applicable. Liberal audiences often assume that because they want to; conservative audiences assume that because they can’t imagine why I would present them with such an alternative text if it isn’t to undermine the impact of the first text.

But the real question here is why and how either text should apply. I would suggest that there are similar tasks of interpretation and application that need to be used in both cases. In actuality, however, with most lay audiences I find that these two texts apply according to cultural inclinations. Those who favor gay and lesbian inclusion exclude 18:22 and very often the same people are delighted to include 19:33-34. Those who oppose homosexuality accept 18:22 as applicable, but will explain that 19:33-34 was for a different time and place.

I would suggest that the processes of interpretation and application for both are complex, and that in neither case is the best approach simply trying to interpret the individual text. If your question is how should our nation treat aliens residing in the country, I doubt you will find clear direction as to what the law should be. If the question is how you, as an individual Christian, should treat aliens, I think you will find many scriptures that you can group together in finding the proper principles to guide your behavior. Similarly with homosexuality, I think the approach that says, essentially, “How many texts are there that forbid homosexual acts, and how can I (or can I not) explain them,” is precisely the wrong approach. A better approach to any question is to try to discover God’s ideal, and then look at how we might approach that.

To continue with my examples, however, let me look at another passage:

32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. — Acts 4:32-35

Here again you have a verse that can split interpreters right in the middle! Out of the characteristics of the early church just what are we supposed to apply today. Many of my more liberal brethren are pretty happy with the common ownership thing, and there being nobody in need in the church. They will take various attitudes toward the rest, such as whether this should be done entirely by the church, testimony to the resurrection, and so forth. There are many who would make Christianity a matter of the distribution of wealth, without any regard for the testimony to the resurrection.

On the other hand, I can cite my own uncle, Don F. Neufeld, an interpreter in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, associate editor of the SDA Bible Commentary and editor of the SDA Bible Dictionary. In a personal conversation he was quick to point out to me that this practice was quickly abandoned by the church and didn’t appear to be the norm in Paul’s congregations, for example. This strikes me as an example of finding trajectories in scripture, something I think is quite appropriate, yet is often criticized as too subjective.

I have heard many other explanations for common ownership, most aimed at keeping the early church from being too socialist. So here we have otherwise conservative interpreters finding the exit ramp in the middle of this verse. But liberals need not crow, because Christian unity, power, and mutual support is inextricably linked to the testimony of Jesus risen from the dead, and I think it would be difficult to build a case that the author of Luke-Acts would think it possible for it to be any other way.

(I am aware that liberals do not necessarily deny the resurrection, though many do deny a physical resurrection. I am called liberal, and I personally accept a physcial–or bodily–resurrection. Nonetheless I believe that it is a liberal weakness to attempt to separate good works from the incarnation, and that is a weakness I see as ultimately fatal to Christianity.)

The issue, I think, is our attitude in approaching scripture. There can be quite a variety of approaches to understanding scripture, and none of them are necessarily related to whether we take scripture seriously. What I would say characterizes a distinctly Christian approach to (Christian) scripture is the attitude of openness to correction. Each approach to interpretation can be used as a means of avoiding things I don’t like, i.e. of making scripture simply the excuse for what I wanted to do anyway.

Liberal and conservative Christians don’t differ so much on the basic desire to avoid certain passages as on which passages they avoid and how they go about avoiding them.

(I will continue next time by trying to look faithfully at some of the violent passages in the Old Testament. Don’t get impatient–this series will go on for a long time. Apologies to those who want a quick answer; I don’t believe in quick answers.)

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

Interpreting the Bible – Mid-Course Focus

This isn’t a summary of previous posts, but rather an attempt to focus on the issue I’m trying to address with this series before I continue. The problem with a series like this is that the examples begin to take over the topic. Since I have used complementarianism and theistic evolution as examples, and brought inerrancy into the discussion in order to demonstrate that it is not the key issue involved, it is easy for a reader to decide that I’m trying to debate any one of those issues, or perhaps to prefer that I debate them and try to redirect the topic.

Since the posts to which I responded brought up two more issues, homosexuality and violent passages in the Bible, which are again controversial issues, I want to focus back on the point I’m trying to make: It’s both difficult and inappropriate to tell your opponent what his or her position ought to be. In this case I’m responding to the charge that a Christian who accepts the theory of evolution is less Biblical because the “obvious exegesis” of Genesis favors a young earth creationist position.

Also, though I believe that theistic evolution is the best position to take at the moment, I am not attempting to demonstrate that. Rather, I’m attempting to show that it, along with a number of other positions on Genesis, can be held plausibly as interpretations of the Biblical text. The particular position one adopts depends on other factors, including the particular approach one takes to Biblical interpretation. After this mid-course focus I’m going to look at other issues and ask whether the exegesis is so obvious that an opponent of some particular brand of theology can easily dismiss it as “not real Christianity.” Within some limits, Christianity allows, and has always allowed, some flexibility.

The problem often starts with a charge that goes something like this:

1) The Bible clearly teaches X
2) X is unthinkable or false
3) So Christianity must be false

Now there are numerous and huge gaps in the logic as I have written it, but I think those gaps generally exist in the argument as presented by critics of Christianity. (Note to my philosophically inclined friends: To avoid general implosion with possible damage to the space-time continuum, do not try to critique that as a syllogism. Did I say it was a syllogism? I did not!) Let me apply this to a couple of relevant issues:

1) The Bible clearly teaches that the earth was created in seven literal days 6,000 years ago
2) That teaching is false
3) Christianity must be false

One obviously missing element here is “Christianity actually teaches X” but that is generally assumed, as is the direct connection between “The Bible clearly teaches X” and “Christianity accepts X as true.”

For example, one could say that the Bible teaches that an animal must be brought as a sacrifice if one sins, but Christianity does not teach this, for reasons that seem good and proper to pretty much all Christians. Here we have a teaching that is fairly clear, but that Christians believe applied to a particular set of times and places, not including the present. You can try to use this to demonstrate that Christians don’t really follow the Bible, but it’s not going to help as an argument against Christianity because it teaches animal sacrifice. (PETA beware!)

That would fit more with another form of the argument:

1) The Bible teaches that God condones and even commands violence
2) Condoning violence is unthinkable (but where is the demonstration that it is wrong?)
3) Therefore Christianity is false

Now supposing this argument is used against a Christian who is a pacifist. Clearly the conclusion is false with reference to that person’s belief.

The point I am trying to make here is not primarily whether the Bible teaches any of these things, or whether they are true or false, but whether a Christian can believe or disbelieve them and still be a Christian. Is it proper to dismiss theistic evolutionists and even old earth creationists as “not real Christians,” rather than to respond to their actual position?

Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, clearly wants to argue with fundamentalists and then dismiss all Christians based on his arguments against fundamentalists. I blogged about that starting in From the Land of the Deluded, where I make some similar points.

I have two suggestions here. First, that Christianity is not defined by American fundamentalism. I have supported that partially and will continue to do so as the series progresses. Second, that it is better to respond to an opponent based on what that opponent actually believes rather than what you imagine them to believe or what you think they ought to believe.

It is inevitable that this will sometimes fail, but it is an admirable goal in any case, and trying to define your opponent out of existence as the first step to a debate is probably not going to get you very far.

Christians do this to atheists from time to time as well, in particular by concluding that an atheist actually hates God or does not desire to be under authority. This suggests that an atheist isn’t really an atheist, but is rather a rebellious theist. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stretch our Christian imaginations a little bit, and allow that someone might just not find the idea of God convincing, or might not see sufficient evidence to believe. Imagine, in other words, that the atheist is honestly stating his or her beliefs.

Further, we need to realize that what seems to us a certain result of a particular belief might not be so certain for someone else. In talking about grief, I am likely to mention that my relationship with Jesus Christ and spiritual disciplines including prayer and fasting have been critical to me in facing loss. Do I mean that someone without those particular beliefs will not be able to handle what I have handled? Not at all! From personal experience I know persons from other faith traditions who have found their beliefs and spiritual practices critical, and I know non-believers who have also endured and come out of such trials successfully. I mention this particular case because it is very common for Christians to believe that atheists will be unable to endure hardship and loss.

One last illustration might help. I speak frequently to Methodist groups, as I’m a member of a United Methodist congregation. Every Methodist group with whom I have discussed Calvinism has come to the conclusion that Calvinists will not engage in evangelism. Why? If Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has determined who will be saved or lost–what purpose is their for evangelism? The result is already determined!

Now I have always pointed out that Calvinists do, in fact, practice evangelism, and thus attacking them for a failure in outreach would be inappropriate. A few years ago, however, I had the experience of hearing John Blanchard, a Calvinist evangelist (something many Methodists would regard as an oxymoron), who was asked this very question: Why, if you believe in predestination, are you an evangelist?

His answer, as I remember it, was this: Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it; evangelism is a command, and I obey it.

Hmmm. A bit different logic than we Methodists were assuming he would use, but here we have him believing both things. He is not the person we assumed he would be.

Neither is the theistic evolutionist the person you assumed him to be. He is not necessarily a scientist whose religion is loosely pasted on. He might be a devout believer and a scientist. On the other hand, his training might be in Biblical studies, like mine is, and the church and faith might be the stuff of his daily life. In any case, he (or she) not likely to be impressed when you claim he’s not who he says he is.

As I move forward I’m going to discuss views on homosexuality and the church. It may surprise some to know that many advocates of acceptance of gays and lesbians in the full fellowship of the church are actually quite conservative in their understanding of exegesis. One can fault their results in a number of passages, in my view, but one can hardly say that they lack the intent or a conservative approach, even as one charges them with special pleading in particular cases.

And so as not to disappoint, let me note right now that my intention will not be to argue one side or another here, but rather to look at the types of Biblical interpretation involved.

Previous posts in this series were:

Interpreting the Bible II: Excursus on the Plain Sense

Interpreting the Bible II: Excursus on the Plain Sense

I want to tie up a few loose ends in my first post on this series as well as point out some things on which I will need to comment further. In particular, I read this post by John Hobbins that references a post by Wayne Leman regarding complementarianism and the “plain sense” of scripture. I want to distinguish what I mean by “obvious exegesis” from the idea of “plain sense” and define what I would mean by either one. One should note, of course, that what I mean by those terms may differ from the way others use similar terms.

One might ask why I would bring in a second controversial topic when I started with evolution. Here, at least, there is a method to my madness. I think it’s very important to check out methods of interpretation by applying them to other texts and other topics. Very often we change our approach to interpretation when the topic or text changes–always a bad sign.

I recall one online discussion about plain text of scripture in which the texts were limited to the Sermon on the Mount. The individual with whom I was discussing started with Matthew 5:33-37. He told me I was in violation because I said I would take an oath as a juror, or in the unlikely event I took a public office.

No discussion worked, even to the point of getting him to understand the possibility that someone else might understand the application of the text differently. He appealed to the “plain sense,” and after several rounds of discussion defined this as the way an average American high school student would understand the text.

So I pointed him to Matthew 5:29-30 in which Jesus says to pluck out your right eye if it offends, or to cut off your hand. How would the average high school student understand that command? Now he had a very complex explanation which involved fulfillment of the command through the willingness to face martyrdom for one’s faith–a much more allegorical explanation than my view that 33-37 is a hyperbolic way of saying “Just tell the truth!”

One point here is that the “plain sense,” however defined, is very often not all that plain, and the way in which one comes to a “plain sense” in one text may differ substantially from the way in which one discovers it in another.

But further, the idea of plain sense is not the same as what I mean here by “obvious exegesis.” People have very little patience for distinguishing between the historical meaning of a text and it’s application, but the distinction is important. These terms are not always used consistently, but I’m using “exegesis” to refer to that historical meaning, or more precisely the meaning of the original author to his or her audience.

That historical meaning is much easier to discern than is the application, but even so, one of the main points of this series is that it is not only difficult to define, such as whether one goes into the prehistory of a redacted text, but difficult to achieve once you’ve chosen the precise target. It simply isn’t always all that obvious what an ancient text means.

Application, which is usually in view when one hears “plain sense,” is even more complex than is the historical meaning. The fact is that one cannot keep all the commands in scripture. Many of them are obviously intended for particular times, but even amongst the rest there are many commands that do not work well together, or which we would even regard as evil, such as the death penalty for sabbath breaking.

This isn’t exactly a new problem, invented by modernist or liberal Christians (perhaps like me?) who want to avoid following the Bible, but don’t want to admit it. Acts 15 describes an early church conference at which the discussion was precisely about what commands would apply to what people, particularly gentiles. In 1 Corinthians, starting with chapter 8, Paul expresses a somewhat different theology on the issue. The arguments all around might be very similar to modern ones. One side might well have relied on the plain sense of scripture, while the other relied more on theological nuances.

Now the topic of John Hobbins’ and Wayne Leman’s posts, the complementarian vs egalitarian debate, is a good test case. Let me limit myself to Paul as an illustration.

There are egalitarians who believe Paul was actually an egalitarian, and that there are good explanations for all of his comments that make them consistent with egalitarianism. There are those who believe that Paul personally had a problem with women, but that egalitarianism is nonetheless the correct theological position today.

Complementarians generally would regard Paul as supportive of their position, but this depends to large extent on the idea that we today should do the same thing as Paul did in this particular case.

When I discussed my own position (very egalitarian), I cited Galatians 3:28, “no more . . . male or female” in support of my position. Do I think Paul intends here to support an egalitarian position? If so, why does he elsewhere forbid women to teach?

The fact is that I don’t think Paul is an egalitarian, or that he intends to support egalitarianism here. I think he got pretty close to erasing the Jew or Greek boundary, and probably anticipated seeing slave or free become equal in practice. I doubt he thought of a day when women would be pastors on an equal basis with men.

So how can I be egalitarian and also claim to give any authority to the Bible? Well, there are certainly many things that I think were appropriate for a particular time or place, but are not appropriate for others. What Paul taught in his pastoral messages to his churches is not good advice for he 21st century.

So I’m arrogant enough to put myself above Paul? Well, yes, in the sense that I live in the 21st century, and he most definitely didn’t. I get to look at my situation and my time and try to apply the principles that come from the gospel to what I find here.

I think Paul glimpsed this, and points to it in passages such as Galatians 3:28 or Romans 16:7 when he calls Junia as apostle. But the path to that application is nothing like direct, and nothing that I think anyone would define as the “plain sense.”

I believe it permits me to express the historical meaning without having to bend it to modern practice, while at the same time letting the gospel guide me beyond the word to a more appropriate application today.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that my point here is not to provide a substantial support for any particular position but rather to show that Biblical interpretation, from historical meaning to current application is much more complex in practice than most people believe, and that this complexity is not something new.

In later posts I will provide further examples of cases in which multiple and perhaps odd interpretations of scripture have been made within scripture itself and in the history of the church. I also want to discuss both the definition of inerrancy and its application in interpretation.

Historicity of Genesis 1-11

Historicity of Genesis 1-11

I think those of us who are not all that conservative, as in moderates and liberals, do everyone a disservice with the admonition, “Don’t take it so literally.” Unless, of course, we break down “not literally” a bit further. The word “literal” has gotten muddied in the public understanding, and is often taken to mean “true,” so “not taking it so literally” is “not taking it so truthfully.” But more importantly, literal is (or should be) a fairly narrow category and “not literal” involves quite a number of possible types of literature.

But there’s another question that non-scholarly readers of the Bible have pretty regularly: Just what is it that I’m supposed to get out of this? I’ve heard this many times teaching groups of United Methodist laypeople, well educated folks, but not Bible scholars. They’re pretty well convinced they shouldn’t take it too literally, but they are often uncertain where to go from there. Then they hear anyone who doesn’t take it literally condemned as one who doesn’t believe the Bible at all.

To narrow that down again, just what historical information might one get out of a non-historical passage of scripture? In the case of Genesis 1-11, I have frequently noted that it is not narrative history. But “narrative history” is not necessarily equivalent to “no historical value at all.” There is more of a continuum (one of my favorite words) of possibilities for historical values, and a number of twists and turns.

For example, I could say that a book is a work of fiction. Does that mean that it has no historical value? Consider these examples:

  • A fantasy novel/series, not set in the real world, such as Lord of the Rings
    One might extract information on the time of the writer, but vanishingly little information about the real world. Even extrapolating to the time of the writer based on his themes would be a difficult proposition.
  • A generic novel set in the real world, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
    This book is intentionally set in an indefinite future (from the time of writing) with generic titles for government officials such as head of state rather than president, for example. There are incidental references to real historical figures, numerous references to real places, but also numerous references to things that don’t exist. One would get a very skewed view of the United States if this is one’s source. Yet one would find historical data embedded in it.
  • A novel set in a realistic historical period, Rand’s The Fountainhead, for example.
    I’m distinguishing this category from historical novel in that presenting historical information is not part of the author’s intent, yet the setting is intended to reflect a specific period.
  • A historical novel
    Often a fictional story intended to present a realistic view of a period of history. While the actual characters and character-specific events are fictional, the background and the major historical events are generally intended as accurate.
  • A biography
    Generally this is intended as true, yet dialog and information about the subject may limit the general historical value.
  • A history with a mission
    Portrayal of a period of history intended to present a particular philosophy of history, or the viewpoint of a particular group or something similar.
  • An objective (wishfully) history
    In this case, the author intends to write a sequence of events from an objective point of view in order to correctly portray those events, not accomplish some philosophical goal. Absolute objectivity is impossible, I believe. I’m speaking about the intent.

That gives a kind of summary of some of the levels of historicity that one might find. Consider the gospels briefly. It is fairly common in a course in the gospels (or one particular gospel) to note that the gospel writers did not set out with the intent of writing history. They are presenting a picture of Jesus. Many things that an objective historian (remember: intention!) might present are subordinated to the picture the writer is trying to portray. Some people here this comment as a statement that the gospels contain no historical information, or no reliable historical information. That is certainly never my intent in making the statement. I’m simply pointing out that we should expect the needs of the historian to be thoroughly subordinated to the needs of the biographer and even more so to the theologian.

So let’s briefly look at some historical options in Genesis 1-11 now that we have some loose collection of ideas to which to compare.

The first option, of course, is to regard this portion of scripture as narrative history. Many Christians have done so. This assumption leaves a number of details to be discussed. How detailed is that history? Is it chronological? This latter question can come in two parts: 1) Is it intended as sequential or descriptive in another sense? and 2) Is it intended to portray the passage of time accurately?

Young earth creationists (YEC) would answer that it is narrative history, that it is intended to be sequential, and that the passage of time is intended as an accurate portrayal. This involves two aspects of the text. First, we have the days of Genesis 1 & 2. In the YEC position, these are literal, 24 hours days. But secondly we have the years in the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11. Here the YEC position is that the years are real years, are accurately portrayed, and that there are no gaps in the genealogies, in other words they are complete.

That’s a substantial number of claims. I would simply note that if you start from level ground, looking at the story in the context of ancient near eastern literature, none of these things is obvious. Nonetheless it is not my purpose to evaluate, so much as to point out the possibilities.

Old earth creationists (OEC), differ from this in that while most of them would hold that the sequence is intended as true, the flow of time in the narrative is not even. For example, between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:6 there would be nine billion+ years, while between Genesis 1:6 and 1:11 there would be a bit less than 4 billion years, while starting with verse 14 we have some difficulties with sequence. The genealogies are assumed to contain gaps so as to provide a longer history following Adam and Eve.

Some OECs read the passage more symbolically, i.e. it contains valid historical information, but this information is presented in the form of symbols. Thus sequence, consistency of timing, and referent can be adjusted substantially while still maintaining that there is historical content.

Finally, Christians who accept evolution, but not all theistic evolutionists, most commonly see the passage as mythology, i.e. God presents truth through the medium of the cosmology and the way in which such information was presented in that culture. Now one might think this means there is no historical information in the passage, but again that is not the case. It will still present information about how the world was understood in its time, and how the authors understood themselves and their relationship to God. That is historical information, even though that is not what is intended.

Note that there are some Christian theistic evolutionists who would also see these passages symbolically and find some sense of a presentation of the way it happened in the passage. Thus there are a variety of views on the historical content of the material, and those views don’t precisely match. I have been extremely brief here and probably have left some holes. Hopefully readers will quibble with me in the comments to some can get filled in.

Two additional notes:

  1. I don’t regard any of this as an issue with inerrancy. I know folks who accept Biblical inerrancy who have no problem with the idea of regarding a passage as symbolic or as myth, provided that one is assuming that was the way God intended it to be presented. Then the portion that would be inerrant is whatever message God intended to present in that medium. I don’t accept inerrancy, but I like my debates over the topic to relate to actual disputes!
  2. I distinguish here Christian theistic evolutions as there are numerous other options for those who are theists but not Christians, including ignoring the Bible completely. Deistic views of evolution similarly have no need of discussing how Genesis is understood. This is strictly a Christian or Jewish enterprise, and is different in nature for each of those groups.
Book: Evolution and Christian Faith

Book: Evolution and Christian Faith

I’m constantly on the lookout for books on evolutionary theory aimed at the general public rather than specialized audiences, so when I saw this little book on the shelf of the local university library, I took it home to check out.

My response to it is a bit mixed. There are a number of good things about it. It’s simple, it presents most of the basics of evolutionary theory at the most basic level, and it deals with intelligence design briefly and vigorously. On the other hand, its approach to Biblical interpretation is vague, its theology is a bit soft, and its assumption that these arguments have any hope of reaching fundamentalists or even conservative evangelicals is frankly just a bit naive.

The author, Dr. Joan Roughgarden, is an evolutionary biologist who is also a Christian and a member of the Episcopal church. She begins by discussing the relationship between science and religion. She suggests that the conflict between religion and science is fostered by the fact that we don’t discuss the two together. Her favorite topic of research is lizards, and she laments that evolutionists rarely discuss God and anti-evolutionists discuss God and rarely discuss lizards (p. 6).

Unfortunately she really doesn’t do very much of discussing the two together. She does draw a few lines of connection between the Bible and science, but these can be divided between the naive and the distantly metaphorical. I don’t mean to be too cruel here, because there are a number of wonderful passages in this book, especially in describing the basics of evolutionary theory in non-specialists terms.

In this early chapter she also intends to draw a distinction between what is solid and what is still questionable or “squishy” in evolutionary theory. That promise is very interesting, as is her distinction between the “real” controversies, which are in the details and in the leading edge of evolutionary theory, as opposed to the fake controversy created by intelligent design.

In the second chapter, Dr. Roughgarden discuss the first “solid” element of evolutionary theory which she rightly calls a fact, common descent. She argues that there is nothing in a literal reading of Genesis that would deny this. The then continues in the third chapter with variation, which again she says does not contradict a literal reading of Genesis. I happen to agree with her on this point, as I state in my earlier blog post An Evolutionary Understanding of Kinds. The problem, as most people who have discussed this issue will see, is that with these two elements we’re pretty much out of literal readings of Genesis 1 and 2 that will support evolutionary theory, and most conservative Christians will not even agree to those.

Thus it is no surprise that chapter 4 deals with reading the Bible literally, and suggests essentially that Jesus came to change a rule-based approach to one based on principles and relationships. Most interpreters would have some trouble using that point to suggest that we now have permission to read certain things literally or not literally based on whether they agree with our scientific understanding. The connection there is a bit vague. Further the dividing line is also a bit vague. How do you decide?

Dr. Roughgarden doesn’t tell us. She leaves us with the literal reconciliation of common descent and variation without a “kinds” boundary in living things, while suddenly rejecting such a literal reading of the days of creation based on the changed approach brought by Jesus. I don’t think this will provide a consistent approach to hermeneutics, and I don’t think it will impress the fundamentalists.

In the fifth chapter she carries this point to the other extreme, using the vine and the branches (John 15:1-6) as an illustration connecting natural breeding (which she prefers to natural selection) in the Bible. This is such a metaphorical connection that it strains my reading a bit, and I’m quite an advocate of metaphorical readings. But she goes on in chapter 6 using Mark 13 and the parable of the sower as a connection to random mutation (p. 45). The explanation of random mutation is pretty good, however.

Chapter 7 is a discussion of direction in evolution which, in my opinion, doesn’t deal adequately with the challenge presented by the theory of evolution to the older Christian understanding of the way in which the universe works. This is followed by chapter 8 which is occupied by a discussion of Roman Catholic theology. In it, Dr. Roughgarden acknowledges that the challenge to evolutionary theory and the impetus to teach intelligent design in the science classroom are not largely driven by Catholics. Those who are pushing it are, to a large extent, not going to be moved by statements by the Pope, however good those statements are.

Following this is a chapter on the things that evolution has not accomplished yet which is largely dedicated to discussing the definition of an individual, and where natural selection operates, individual or group.

The chapter on intelligent design was quite good. I was surprised that after a call largely for peace, this chapter is a pretty vigorous attack. On page 94 Dr. Roughgarden provides four things that intelligent design proponents need to do in order to get their views examined scientifically (p. 94). These are good criteria that would require the ID folks to do some actual science, an unlikely prospect. She further describes the controversy proposed by ID (as in “teach the controversy”) as “concocted” (p. 95), and finally calls ID “junk religion” (p. 101). She says it should be discussed in religion classes in order to point out just how bad it is as theology. She doesn’t think it has any place in science classrooms. On this, of course, I agree!

Chapter 11 is given to sexual selection, and I have a hard time seeing why it is in the book. It makes little sense to me, but I’m not an evolutionary biologist. If it does have a purpose, that would seem to be to suggest that we shouldn’t present natural selection in such a competitive fashion. I’m not sure just how this works. Natural selection does involve a fairly heavy competitive element.

The last chapter points to new directions. These could be summarized by saying that scientists should present themselves less like Richard Dawkins, and theologians should avoid referring to a wrathful God so much. I’m pretty much in agreement with that, but I don’t think either Dawkins or Falwell and Roberts (who she uses to illustrate what’s wrong in religion) will follow the suggestions.

My overall impression is that Dr. Roughgarden is a good scientist who has a liberal view of religion, but has a limited understanding of the type of theological ideas that drive evangelicals and fundamentalists. She expresses a peaceful and experiential faith that I can truly appreciate. If my review sounds rough, it’s because I don’t think that she has engaged the controversy that is actually going on. She’s hoping for peace.

I enjoyed this book, but I don’t feel I can add it to my list of recommended reading for those who are trying to get acquainted with the creation-evolution controversy.