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.

1 comment:

  1. When we put ourselves in the place that is God's alone then we will be in error. It seems to me that ALOT of "Christians" have no idea of what is meant by saying scripture is Inspired. If they did, they would recognize the error that is being taught by these "Theologians". Great Post PC.