Thursday, October 20, 2011

Got problems?

Been helping some people work through some issues - sorry, I can't get any more specific than that. But this morning I am feeling the desperation of someone who knows that someone is about to drive a car off a cliff (metaphorically) and is headed for deep difficulties, and you've done what you can, and hearts are not changing.

As I was wrestling with that, I ran across Exodus 4:31, and was struck by it's simple statement. First, the background:

The Israelites were slaves, in cruel bondage, in Egypt. Egyptian task-masters were carving furrows in the backs of Hebrew slaves with their whips. The Egyptians were practicing infanticide, killing all the male Jewish newborns they could get their hands on. It was an outwardly hopeless situation. But God had made some promises, hundreds of years earlier, and now those promises were coming due, so He sends Moses to deliver His people. Moses has just arrived on the scene, and shared with the people God's plans to deliver them:
So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped. Exodus 4:31 (NASB)
Got problems, Christian? Meditate on that verse a little while, and see if it does not produce hope and worship.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Source of Authority #5: Paul was 'a man of his times.'

This is an admittedly long post. I beg you to stay with it until the end, because it reveals the potential danger of the kind of hermeneutics employed by scholars sympathetic to BioLogos.

When Christianity Today (CT) printed an article in the June issue that questioned whether or not Adam and Eve were historical figures, they were revealing the desperate state of mainstream evangelical theology. The reason for the doubts did not arise from the biblical text, but from the conclusions that Dr. Francis Collins arrived at as a result of his groundbreaking work on the Human Genome Project. In effect, greater confidence was being placed in the results of science, than in the plain statements of Scripture.

Dr. Francis Collins is part of BioLogos, an organization of scientists and biblical scholars who seek to show that there is no essential conflict between the Bible and science. I agree with them in that one limited sense; I don’t think there is any conflict either. But my reasons are different from theirs. There is no conflict, so far as I am concerned, because science is incompetent to comment on events in history when God supernaturally intrudes into the natural world. Genesis 1-3 is an accurate historic account of the supernatural origin of the cosmos in six days, and the ensuing Fall. When science contradicts biblical testimony, I am unconcerned since the results of science will be unreliable when dealing with events of supernatural origin.

BioLogos eliminates the supposed conflicts by deconstructing Scripture, so as to twist it into conformity with what they view as the conclusions of science, and in particular, theistic evolution. This is done by reducing portions of the biblical narrative to figurative language or mythical accounts. The point of these texts, it is said, is found in the spiritual principles they teach and not in their relationship to actual history. The source of authority, for BioLogos, is science; therefore the Bible must be made to agree with science.

Today’s post concerns one of the principles of interpretation, the ‘man of his times’ argument, employed by biblical scholars who wish to avoid dealing with Genesis as history. This principle enables scholars sympathetic to BioLogos’ commitments to embrace theistic evolution while claiming to remain faithful to the Bible and its teachings.

In CT’s June article, The Search for the Historical Adam, you will find the following statement: “[Pete] Enns has little doubt that Paul indeed thought Adam was ‘a real person.’ But Enns suggests that the apostle was reflecting beliefs about human origins that were common among the ancients” [emphasis mine].

Later in the article, Daniel Harlow is cited in much the same vein: “Whether or not Adam was historical, [Harlow] asserted, is ‘not central to biblical theology.’ Paul and Luke may have thought Adam was a literal man because they had no reason not to, he explained. But ‘we have many reasons’ to interpret Adam as a literary [meaning, non-historical] figure” [emphasis mine].

What both these scholars are saying is this: Paul was a ‘man of his times.’ He was educated in contemporary Jewish theology, and acculturated to the beliefs held by the society of which he was part. Consequently, he believed what he had been taught. Paul’s view of Adam as an actual, historical, first man, was something he had absorbed from the educational, social and religious influences around him.

From one perspective they are correct. Paul certainly was a man of his times, and undoubtedly entertained many notions, especially about the natural world, that were simply wrong. Where I depart from them is that I believe that Paul’s canonical writings are inspired, and therefore inerrant and infallible (a ‘canonical writing’ would be one found in our Bible, thus, in the canon of Scripture). If Paul (or Moses, etc.) writes about Adam as an actual man, then he is an actual, historical man.

According to the ‘man of his times’ principle as these scholars employ it, when Paul writes 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 (Adam’s headship of fallen humanity), or Romans 5:12-21 (Adam’s fall into sin and the resulting penalty of death imputed to all his progeny), or 1 Timothy 2:13-14 (the order of creation—Adam first, then Eve—and the shades of difference between Adam and Eve’s sin—she was deceived, he was not), he is simply alluding to what he thinks is true, as a man of his times. He’s wrong, according to BioLogos and its supporters, but poor Paul is too primitive in his scientific understandings to realize it.

The point is often made that it is the words of Scripture that are inspired, not the authors. As mentioned previously, Paul undoubtedly did hold opinions on different extra-biblical subjects that were in error. But if the words of Scripture are inspired, then the canonical documents Paul wrote carry divine authority and are inerrant and infallible. And Paul, in his writings, does represent Adam as an historical character; as do, indeed, the other writers of Scripture. Those who mention him at all write of him as an actual person, and plainly refer to the Genesis account of the creation event as a reliable representation of what happened. There’s not the slightest hint that any considered the Genesis account to be figurative.

If you allow for the notion that the biblical writers’ own mistaken views became part of the warp and woof of Scripture, as the scholars sympathetic to BioLogos do, you no longer have a meaningful doctrine of inspiration: Scripture can be stretched like a rubber band to accommodate any idea or avoid any difficulty.

A couple of actual examples will suffice to make this point:
  • Some modern interpreters use the ‘man of his times’ argument to claim that Paul’s bias against homosexuality was nothing more than his expressing the prejudice of the day.
  • Some modern interpreters use the argument to claim that Paul’s view of women in the church and the home was nothing more than an expression of the bias of first-century culture.
  • Some modern interpreters use the argument to claim that Jude 9 is mythical, that Jude only mentioned it because it was what he had been taught. Others use the same argument to dispense with various miracles in the Old Testament.

Once we allow the ‘man of his times’ argument to judge portions of the Scripture as historically inaccurate, modern theology is placed once again on the same lethal trajectory as that of the naturalistic theological liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. It opens the door to an eventual attack on the very foundations of redemption.

Let me show you how this works.

Paul was surrounded by a religious culture (Jew and Gentile) that was wholly taken up with blood sacrifice. Throughout history blood sacrifice has been a basic staple of many religions, whether you are talking about the Aztecs, the Canaanites, Israel, the Greeks, etc. The first-century butcher shops of Corinth, for example, were filled with meat from animals slaughtered in sacrifice to the Greek gods. Since Paul was a man of his times, then perhaps Paul’s belief about the blood atonement of Christ was unduly influenced by his acculturation to the bloody practices of the first century.

Oh, Chris, relax!" you respond. "Give your fevered imagination a rest! BioLogos is just talking about Adam here, no one is denying the atonement!

Really? BioLogos is not the only player in this game. Let’s all exercise our fevered imaginations together, for a moment. In fact, let’s just pretend that there is an imaginary British Baptist pastor, we’ll give him a name, maybe ‘Steve Chalke,’ and let’s pretend he employs this very ‘man of his times’ argument. Let’s just pretend that Chalke says that Moses was a man of his times and wrote all those instructions for animal sacrifice, having been unduly influenced by the pagan nations surrounding Israel.

Then let’s imagine that Chalke begins to deconstruct the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God [gee, wonder what that means?], in part by saying that Moses was actually wrong regarding all those bloody sacrifices. Therefore the atoning sacrifice of Christ, our understanding of which has been anchored to the Mosaic sacrifices (see the book of Hebrews), can not actually be the sacrifice of a substitute, since Moses was wrong to begin with. In fact, lets pretend that Chalke’s new understanding of Moses’ mistaken view of sacrifice leads him to label the theology of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ as a case of “divine child abuse.”

But, of course, that’s just the product of my fevered imagination, using the slippery-slope straw man against those who disagree with me. Right? Wrong. None of this is imaginary. Steve Chalke’s ideas are garnering serious consideration, and are anchored, in part, on viewing Moses as ‘a man of his times,’ acculturated in a primitive, pagan world. Here’s what Chalke says:
The emphasis on Yahweh’s apparent appetite for continuous appeasement through blood sacrifice, present within some Pentateuchal texts, is to be understood in the light of later prophetic writings as a reflection of the worship practices of the pagan cults of the nations that surrounded the people of Israel. However, the story of Israel’s salvation is the story of her journey away from these primal practices towards a new and more enlightened understanding by way of Yahweh’s self-revelation.”
[Emphasis mine. Quote is from Steve Chalke’s article, The Redemption of the Cross, from page 38, The Atonement Debate, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008. Disclaimer: I have not read The Atonement Debate; I copied this citation from Adrian Warnock’s blog at Any errors of understanding are mine, not Warnock’s. Accessed 10/18/2011]

Here is the bottom line: when we use the “man of his times” principle to find factual error in the inspired biblical text, as Enns has, as Chalke has, no doctrine is safe from deconstruction. The foundations of the faith of Christianity are wide-open for a free-wheeling reinterpretation, according to the ultimate source of authority recognized by the interpreter. And in BioLogos’ case, that source of authority is science, not Scripture.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Book Review: C. H. Bullock's Encountering the Book of Psalms

Encountering the Book of Psalms is an excellent, single-volume, introduction to the Psalms. The author writes from a thoroughly conservative standpoint, but at appropriate junctures demonstrates his awareness of liberal speculations scattered throughout the recent history of psalms studies that arise from the various schools of higher criticism. Although he deals with these respectfully and intelligently, he ultimately dismisses them and moves into a scholarly examination of the content of the psalms themselves. Overall, the text is college level but should not be found difficult by readers with a solid high-school education. The pedagogy of the text is excellent: each chapter opens with an outline of the chapter and a set of objectives for the student. The chapter closes with a list of key terms encountered, as well as questions for further study. The book can be used very profitably for individual or group study settings.

Bullock divides his examination of the psalms into three major pieces. The first part deals with the literary and hermeneutical issues of psalms studies. Captions (superscriptions) and the difficult terms found in some of them, the relationship of the psalms to music, the literary structure of the book on a macro level (the five books within the Psalms) and micro level (the structure of Hebrew poetry) are all considered in a scholarly but accessible manner.

In the second section, the author examines the uses of the psalms in worship and faith, considering the different ways in which they can be approached, as well as a history of the use of the psalms, ranging from the original readers through to modern times. Bullock also explores key theological and historical themes that appear in Psalms.

In the final section, the Psalms are considered from the perspective of genre classification. This section is outstanding; the busy pastor or scholar will find plenty of helpful charts that map the genre characteristics to individual psalms. Not only has Bullock presented an excellent approach to classification, he has managed to do so in a manner that is sometimes richly devotional for the reader. Of particular excellence is the final chapter dealing with the imprecatory psalms.

The book concludes with a select bibliography, a handy glossary of terms encountered in psalms studies, and a comprehensive Scripture index. Although serious scholars will need to add more books than this to their Psalms library, if you can afford but one book of prolegomena on the Psalms, this one will serve you very well.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Source of Authority #4: Figurative Language

Moses writes in Genesis 1-2, in a straightforward fashion about God creating the earth in six days. He indicates what was created on each day. He provides specific details extraneous to a merely figurative account (notice, for instance, in verses 11-12, the details about the trees “bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind”, or the statement in 2:5-6 regarding the lack of rain and the function of the mist).

Obviously, Moses' account does not square with Darwinian theories of the origin of the species. Herein is the problem. For latter-day prophets of science, this round peg of creation won’t fit into the straight lines of the square hole of science’s competing view of the beginnings of the cosmos and its diverse life-forms.

So what do we do now? The answer to that question depends on your chosen Source of Authority. We all agree that Moses is not writing a science textbook. That’s a straw man raised by people hoping to score easy points on people who believe in the Genesis account of creation. What we don’t agree on is whether Moses is writing a historical account of an actual event, or a stylized, figurative account that functions as an etiological narrative of the origin of the cosmos, and of the origin of evil.

So what, you ask, is an etiological narrative? In answer to that, let me simply ask you to think of Paul Bunyan (yes, Paul, not John) and his blue ox Babe. Perhaps you have forgotten that this dynamic duo dug the Grand Canyon, created the Great Lakes, and left footprints behind them as they meandered through Minnesota, forming puddles known as the 10,000 lakes. The legend of Paul Bunyan is a piece of American folklore, an etiological narrative, a myth, that explains various features of the North American landscape. The etiological narrative Genesis presents, as BioLogos would have it, is a figurative creation myth that teaches higher spiritual truths.

So to what do some bible scholars resort when they wish to avoid conflicts between science and the Bible? They retreat to the “figurative language” argument. Genesis, they say, is highly figurative. Christianity Today cites Tremper Longman: “there is nothing that insists on a literal understanding of Adam in a passage [Gen. 1-3] so filled with obvious figurative description.”

Apparently, figurative language must exist in the eye of the beholder, because there is nothing obviously figurative to me, at all, in Genesis 1-3. Every word can be taken in its plain sense without violating any human sensibility, especially when you consider that any account of a supernatural origin will necessarily include features for which science can give no account. Having said that, there is nothing in Genesis 1-3 that even remotely approaches the jarring narratives of, say, Ezekiel 1 or Revelation, or the even the beautiful imagery of the Psalms.

Longman is comfortable with a mythical Adam (although in fairness to him, he states that he has not yet come to his own firm conclusions regarding Adam). In the CT article he is quoted as saying, “it is possible, even natural, to make an analogy between a literary figure and a historical one.” Yes, it is possible, but it does not carry near the force of an analogy between two actual, historical figures, nor do fictional figures establish that which is normative. Keller rebuts this dodge in the CT article, saying, “If Adam doesn’t exist, Paul’s whole argument—that both sin and grace work ‘covenantally’—falls apart.”

Why do some say that there is figurative language in Genesis 1-3? Because there must be, since science, so obviously true, renders a literal reading of Genesis impossible. It’s not a question of language, at all, in the end. It’s a question of what you trust, what your Source of Authority is.

After all, it is quite impossible to divide a sea below the waterline, walk on water or stop a meteorological event (think, storm on the sea of Galilee) with a simple spoken word. Are these features of Scripture also explained away as ‘figurative language,’ and if not, why not? On what grounds is the simple reading of Genesis rejected in favor of a figurative one, and the simple reading of Exodus 14:21-31 is allowed to stand. Surely the dividing of the sea as presented there is anathema to modern scientists.

The truth of the matter is that once you label as figurative a narrative that Paul did not consider figurative, you are setting yourself up as "more enlightened" than God's apostles. Tremper Longman, Pete Enns, and other BioLogos supporters are truly brilliant men, but I would not begin to compare their knowledge and skill at interpreting the Hebrew language with Paul's. We know from Galatians 4:24 that Paul was no stranger to figurative language (in that case, allegory). The claim of "figurative language" in Genesis 1-3 withers if the apostles did not see it that way.