March 21, 2019

Pete Enns: The Bible Demands that We Be Unbiblical

The Bible Demands that We Be Unbiblical
by Pete Enns

Speaking of evolution and Christian faith . . .

A crucial question to ask ourselves is: what have we the right to expect from the biblical origins texts? I call it “genre calibration” in The Evolution of Adam.

“Outside” information can “calibrate” the expectations we bring to the biblical texts in question.

This isn’t as odd a claim as you might think. Study Bibles are full of notes that do this very thing, as are seminary and college Bible classes. Whenever we read the Bible against its historical backdrop (i.e., reading it in historical context), we are using that backdrop to affect our understanding of the biblical text.

When it comes to creation texts, part of the backdrop involves (1) the context of the the biblical world itself (other ancient creation texts) and (2) various fields of science that deal with origins (biological, geological, cosmological). So things like genomic studies, the fossil record, and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths help us see that the genre of Genesis 1-3 is not what we call science or history but something else.

What that “something” can generate a lot of heat, but whether myth, legend, metaphor, symbol, story, or some other label, the point remains: seeking from the biblical creation stories scientific and historical information is to misidentify the genre of literature we are reading—to expect something from these stories they are not prepared to deliver.

Which brings me to a rather important point:

The findings of science and biblical scholarship are not the enemies of Christian faith. They are opportunities to be truly “biblical” because they are invitations to reconsider what it means to read the creation stories well—and that means turning down a different path than most Christians before us have taken.

Though, this would not be the first time Christians have had to divert their path from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We need only think of the ruckus caused by Copernicus and Galileo, telling us the earth whizzes around the sun, as do the other planets, when the Bible “clearly” says that the earth is fixed and stable (Ps 104:5) and the heavenly bodies do all the moving. Sometimes older views do give way to newer ones if the circumstances warrant.

In fact, shifts in thinking like this are a perfectly biblical notion. We find throughout the Bible older perspectives giving way to new ones.

The prophet Nahum rejoices at the destruction of the dreaded Assyrians and their capital Nineveh in 612 BCE, but the prophet Jonah, writing generations later after the return from exile, speaks of God’s desire that the Ninevites repent and be saved.

What happened? Travel broadens, and the experience of exile led the Judahites to think differently about who their God is and what this God is up to on the world stage.

In fact, Israel’s entire history is given a fresh coat of paint in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, which differs remarkably, and often flatly contradicts, the earlier history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings.

Why? Because the journey to exile and back home again led the Judahites to see God differently.

I could go on and talk about how the theology of the New Testament positively depends on fresh twists and turns to Israel’s story, such as a crucified messiah and tabling the “eternal covenant” of circumcision as well as the presumably timeless dietary restrictions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

What happened? Jesus forced a new path for Israel’s story that went well beyond what the Bible “says.”

Simply put, seeing the need to move beyond biblical categories is biblical—and as such poses a wonderful model, even divine permission—shall I say “mandate”—to move beyond the Bible when the need arises and reason dictates.

Being a “biblical” Christian today means accepting that challenge: a theology that genuinely grows out of the Bible but that is not confined to the Bible.

And so I see the matter of Christian faith and evolution not as a “debate” but as a discussion, not defending familiar orthodoxies as if in a fortress but accepting the challenge of a journey of theological exploration and discovery.

For me, that approach is much more than an intellectual exercise—though it is that—but a spiritual responsibility.

Comments

  1. Pellicano Solitudinis says:

    I just want to say thank you to everyone who responded to my comment yesterday. You have given me a lot to think about, and I feel very encouraged by the way that so many of you took the time and trouble to write. I’m not feeling very well today which is why I haven’t responded individually.

    I am so thankful that iMonk exists. Thank you, CM and all the other contributors of posts and comments.

    • A lot of that advice, in a nutshell, seems to me to be, ‘take your time’. All the best.

  2. Christiane says:

    the ‘Bible’ itself points us to the natural world to learn about Creation

    “7But ask the animals, and they will instruct you; ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. 8Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; let the fish of the sea inform you. 9Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this?… (from Job, chapter 12)

    my point is that those who ignore the witness of the natural world concerning how it was formed may not be ‘awakened’ to what it CAN teach them about the mysteries of Creation as these wonders are unveiled to observers who are humble and patient enough to learn from Creation itself directly . . . . even the ‘Bible’ attests to this truth

  3. Yes, okay. I agree with the gist of Enn’s post. But I also think it would be better to speak in terms of what the Bible allows rather than what it demands. Fundamentalist mentality is too wrapped up in the idea that the Bible makes demands; better not to reinforce that mentality and idea with language that is so familiar to fundamentalism, and that is part of its toxic lexicon.

  4. Simply put, seeing the need to move beyond biblical categories is biblical—and as such poses a wonderful model, even divine permission—shall I say “mandate”—to move beyond the Bible when the need arises and reason dictates.
    The problem is always;the same in all these discussions. Who decides when the need arises and reason dictates ?The chicken or the egg. I just don’t see Enns giving that much clarification when different voices answer the above question differently.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > I just don’t see Enns giving that much clarification when different voices answer the above question differently.

      What different directions?

      At a certain altitude there many seem to be a panoply of questions and answers; however there really is very wide scientific consensus on most issues. Both-Sidesism, on most issues, actually requires work.

    • Burro (Mule) says:

      The cynic in me wants to respond: When the moral sensibilities and intellectual presuppositions of the emancipated Academy deviate widely enough from the traditional interpretations of the Bible to expose credentialed Christians to mild ridicule and embarassment, its time for a “bold mandate” to “go beyond the Bible” in order to “be faithful to the Bible”.

      Usually, backward-compatibility be damned.

    • –> “Who decides when the need arises and reason dictates ?”

      Good point. One thing that came to my mind in thinking about this topic was how Satan used scripture to tempt Jesus while in the desert. Jesus was able to discern that Satan’s interpretation was being abused and used against him, and running counter to the way of God; I’m not so sure we humans are very capable of the same discernment. And given that I’ve seen the Bible abused and used in unhealthy manners against others… well, forgive me if I’m a little gun-shy around Bible literalists and solo scriptura-ists.

      That said, I’m more in line with Enns’ thinking here. If I want to get to know God better, the fundamentalist/literalist would tell me, “That can only be done through reading the Bible.” Personal experience suggests that for me that’s maybe 75% of the answer, but there are many other ways of connecting with Him and getting a sense of what he wants and desires from me.

    • “Who decides when the need arises and reason dictates?”

      When the Church and her theologians are defending what Jesus decried, and rejecting what Jesus commanded (hat tip to Ken 😉 ), that’s usually a pretty good indicator.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        Point.

        Craven supplication to belligerents is also an indicator one should be concerned.

        There was that thing called “prophetic voice”. It’s unlike Oliver asking “May I have some more, please?”.

      • While most of us may not blatantly defend what Jesus decried, or reject what he commands, I have to say that I’ve never personally known a single person who didn’t avoid obeying the full implication of Jesus’ teachings: Love your God with your whole heart, mind, and soul; love your neighbor as yourself; give to any who ask of you; turn the other cheek; love your enemies; etc. All Christians I have known either blatantly or sheepishly avoid the teaching, both in terms of what it decries and what it commands. Given that, who has the moral capital to call out others for their failure, or decide when the need arises and reason dictates?

  5. Dana Ames says:

    I wish I knew if Enns has ever investigated the interpretation of the ancient Greek Fathers. I think he would be shocked to find that the best minds of the 4th century anticipated him. They read the OT through the lens of the incarnation and Pascha (death and resurrection of Christ). They did not quibble about “what really happened and when”; they accepted Scripture as it was written, and at the same time their interpretative consensus in the light of Pascha was much like that of R. Hays in his work – reading backwards.

    The most important thing for them was not the “factuality” of the Genesis accounts. Maybe they knew about the Babylonian and ANE creation stories, maybe not; and St Basil the Great was arguably the most learned man of his day, in the sciences as well as rhetoric, etc. But for them the early chps of Genesis had to do with explaining why we’re in the predicament we’re in: subject to death and dissolution/corruption, headed toward non-existence, as we have turned away from the source of Life (and slavery to sin because of our multi-level fear of non-existence – Heb 2.14-15). And there was also, right away, the promise of the Deliverer as the Lord addresses the serpent: “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” “Seed/offspring” here is Christ.

    Furthermore, the Orthodox interpretation of the meaning of “garments of skin” is quite akin to that of Judaism: that prior to turning away from the Lord, A&E were clothed with the garment of the light of God; having turned to themselves, they lost that garment, but God mercifully gave them something to put on that would remind them of their mortality (and physical kinship to animals, which is not bad but also not the thing that defines humans and their purpose), so that they would long for communion with him and respond when he called them back. “Calling Adam back” – “Adam” as general term for all humanity, not slighting Eve – is the main theme of the liturgical readings during Lent in the Orthodox Church.

    While ANE context is insightful and very helpful for us moderns, we don’t have to depend on it to interpret early Genesis any more than we have to depend on some supposed scientific/compatibilistic interpretation. The consensus of the Fathers has already given us the ability to read Genesis in the light of Pascha. It’s our post-Enlightenment modernistic mindset (along with our thirst for the New and rejection of the Old) that gets us all twisted up over this.

    Dana

  6. I had a warm chuckle when I read this. I thought to myself, “Wow Chaplain Mike, you’re a brave man“. I haven’t looked at any of the comments yet but saw that there weren’t too many. That surprised me. I thought this idea would be very controversial but apparently not so much. It is a joy to hear you say these things. Our faith is an eternal, living thing whose story is forever being written. It is not in spite of everything that has gone before but rather founded and dependent upon it. Every path must be actively trod as the living extension of what has led to it.