December 2, 2020

Mere Science and Christian Faith, by Greg Cootsona: Chapter 4- On a Crash Course with Hermeneutics

Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, by Greg Cootsona: Chapter 4- On a Crash Course with Hermeneutics

We are reviewing the book, Mere Science and Christian Faith, by Greg Cootsona, subtitled Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults.  Today we look at Chapter 4- On a Crash Course with Hermeneutics.  I am going to be relatively brief on this post, as we covered this subject extensively in the review of Walton and Longman’s book, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate, as well as this being the subject of Chaplain Mike’s recent posts on, Genesis: Where It All Begins.

Cootsona begins this chapter with the idea that if he were to coach antagonists on how to challenge Christian faith, he’d say:

Camp out on progress.   And do so subtly.  Sell the idea that science and technology look forward and continually improve.  That today we know far more about the universe than in the first century.  That the current iPhone is faster, smaller, more exciting, and therefore better than when it first appeared in 2007.  On the other hand, present how religious knowledge always looks in the rearview mirror.  Then find a way to phrase the question, ‘Which would you rather follow—what’s new and constantly updating, or what’s old and outdated?’

Cootsona has a great point.  The law of modernity is—newer is always better.  C. S. Lewis termed this “chronological snobbery”, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited” (Surprised by Joy (chapter 13, p. 207–208).  Lewis went on to say:

You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.

So Greg feels that to respond to the issue of ancient texts and their contemporary relevance, a great deal depends on how the Bible is viewed.  What is the Bible?  What kind of book is it, what is its nature?  These questions are the field of hermeneutics; the philosophy and methodology of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts.  There is no escaping this.  The idea that “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” is specious; superficially plausible, but actually wrong.  The question is not whether you interpret the Bible, but whose interpretation you assume is authoritative.  Many of us regular commenters on Internet Monk, have grown up in conservative evangelicalism.  We have grown up assuming that conservative evangelical interpretation of the Bible was authoritative.  To challenge or question that version of hermeneutics was to “lose our faith”, and many of us struggled with that loss of faith. As Chaplain Mike noted, here is how we practiced that hermeneutic:

  1. Identify the issue: isolate that issue to one or two words. For example the word “day”.
  2. Get out your Strong’s Concordance and look up every instance of the word “day” in the Bible.
  3. Do an in-depth word study on the word. When you are done, you will find out that in Hebrew and Greek, the word means day.
  4. From collating and analyzing the verses, come up with a systematic statement of what the Bible says about that word.
  5. Conclusion: this is the Bible’s teaching about it.
  6. Apply your “biblical” position to a contemporary question such as “Are the days in Genesis literal days or does the Bible teach long periods of time?”

This was taking the Bible seriously, as the Word of God.  To come up with any other conclusion other than the Bible taught the world was created in six twenty-four-hour periods was to “take the word of fallible man over the infallible Word of God”.

But as many of us have since learned, that is not taking the Bible seriously at all. It is taking a collection of ancient manuscripts and treating them as a single post-Enlightenment dissertation.  It is reading scripture with a modernist mind-set and insisting that is the only way that scripture can be read.  That interpretation of scripture is actually disrespectful to both the ancient authors and their ancient audience.  It is disrespectful because it presumes that an engineering-technical-manual mode of writing is the only way that truth could be conveyed, when, in fact, that mode of writing is the worst of all ways to impart eternal spiritual truths.  It is also ironic, in that the very One to whom the Scriptures were supposed to point to spent most of his time teaching by telling stories.

Cootsona thinks that following 5 key hermeneutical principles, we’d be in a better place to engage with the sciences and to respond to the concerns of emerging adults.  First, we should remember that whatever word we use to describe our commitment to the truth and power of Scripture, we’re committed to the ultimate authority or primacy of Scripture, not to our interpretation of it.  The text is inspired, the interpretation is not.  Second is John Walton’s point that the Bible may speak to us, but it wasn’t written for us.   That is simply the historical fact at hand, if you can’t deal with it, it is your faith that is weak.

Third, as his New Testament professor Joel Green used to say, “a text without a context is a pretext”.  There is no substitute for understanding the context in which God spoke through Scripture.  It is not God-honoring to say God bypassed the ancient cultural context or is not limited by that cultural context, when God Himself chose to speak through those people in their language and idiom.  That was God’s own self-limiting choice.  We can’t simply hope to apply a passage directly to our context without taking in the original setting.

Fourth, the literal interpretation is not the only one.  Genre’ matters.  The Bible is literature.  All the components of literature– analogy, allusion, hyperbole, metaphor, parallelism, simile, and understatement are present in scripture and must be recognized for an accurate interpretation rather than a misinterpretation. As I said in the review of Lost World, biblical authors are recounting history; all history is the author giving their perspective on the event.  This is accomplished through selection—what is included as well as what’s left out—and what the author chooses to emphasize.  In that sense all history is interpretation and all historical writing is rhetorically shaped.  No author can be exhaustive in their telling of the event, so they are forced to choose what they think is important about the event.  A moment’s reflection on this shows it cannot be any other way.

The fifth point for Cootsona is this:

One final sagacious piece of hermeneutical advice I treasure to this day came through the sermons I heard as an undergraduate at First Presbyterian in Berkeley.  Earl Palmer taught us repeatedly that lean is better than luxurious.  (This parallels the scientific principle of parsimony).  Go for the leaner more humble interpretation.  And when we don’t know, it’s okay to say that too.

In the case studies for this chapter, “Making Too Much of a Good Thing—Big Bang and Fine Tuning”, Greg makes the point that while the theory that the universe had a beginning at t=0, and the observation that life would not be possible anywhere in the universe if the values of various physical constants differed by small amounts (Anthropic Fine Tuning), is consistent with a theistic view, it is not proof of a theistic view.  We shouldn’t over-sell them.  He quotes Alister McGrath (Science and Religion, 155):

The cosmological factors highlighted by cosmic fine tuning don’t offer irrefutable evidence for the existence or character of a creator God.  What would be affirmed… is that they are consistent with a theistic worldview; that they reinforce the plausibility with greatest ease with such a worldview; that they reinforce the plausibility of such a worldview for those who are already committed to them, and that they offer apologetic possibilities for those who do not yet hold a theistic position.



  1. Christiane says

    ” The text is inspired, the interpretation is not. Second is John Walton’s point that the Bible may speak to us, but it wasn’t written for us. ”

    I expect there is much truth to the first sentence.

    But this sentence: ” Second is John Walton’s point that the Bible may speak to us, but it wasn’t written for us. ”
    I’m not so sure about this one. I am inclined to reject this idea instinctively UNLESS there is some meaningful connection to Isaiah 55, this:

    “8For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

    9For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.

    10And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater:

    11So shall my word be, which shall go forth from my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please, and shall prosper in the things for which I sent it.”

    ??? I wonder what the context of Walton’s reasoning was for his statement? I’m missing something here.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Christiane: here is the context for Walton and Longmans statement. I quoted in my review of their Propositon1- Genesis Is An Ancient Document.

      “Everyone in the ancient world believed in a cosmic ocean suspended above a solid sky. Therefore, when the biblical text talks about “the waters above” it is not offering authoritative revelation of scientific facts. If we conclude that there are not, strictly speaking, waters above, we have not thereby identified error in Scripture. Rather, we have recognized that God vests the authority of the text elsewhere. Authority is tied to the message the author intends to communicate as an agent of God’s revelation. This communication by God initiates that revelation by piggybacking on communication by a human addressing the world of ancient Israel. Even though the Bible is written for us, it is not written to us. The revelation it provides can equip us to know God, his plan, and his purposes and therefore to participate with him in the world we face today. But it was not written with our world in mind. In its context, it is not communicated in our language; it is not addressed to our culture; it does not anticipate the questions about the world and its operations that stem from our modern situation and issues.”

      • Christiane says

        Thanks Mike-the-Geologist, that helps to clarify, yes.

        I suppose we do tend to ‘color’ the wording of sacred Scripture from our own time and experiences . . . . like the way the Anglo-Saxons of early Britain spoke the Lord’s Prayer to reflect their own culture of the ‘wereguild’ using their vernacular a thousand years ago:

      • Norma Cenva says

        And yet we now know that the innermost planet (Mercury) in our system has water ice at her poles.
        It’s in perpetually shadowed craters yes, but it’s nonetheless there.
        How does one explain such an unlikely anomaly on a small rocky planet so close to our G2V type sun?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Primeval ice from formation that stayed shielded from the sun after the sun lit off. I would conjecture that Mercury has little or no axial tilt.

          Though your last sentence… All it needs is an additional “Hmmmmmm…” and maybe a verse or two Zip Code to become a one-upmanship Jesus Juke. Beware Thou of God-of-the-Gaps explanations.

          More puzzling question:
          Why is Mercury so small and so far away from the sun compared to the torch-orbiting super-Earths of so many other systems? Was there another, closer world that ended up going into the sun and/or getting kicked out-of-system via gravitational pinball? And all we have remaining is just the smaller debris of formation and possible migration? Did Mercury form farther out (like other systems’ red-hot Jupiters) and drift in (like Uranus & Neptune drifted out) as the early system’s orbits sorted out?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Isaiah 55:8-9 has been quoted as Proof Text to justify some of the most insane and destructive stuff.

  2. Michael Z says

    This might only be true in my own circles, but I feel like the idea that science and technology are producing “progress” was a lot more popular a few decades ago than it is now. As people begin to recognize the cost of that progress, and the ways in which better technology (e.g. faster computers) doesn’t necessarily lead to a higher quality of life, we’re becoming a lot more ambivalent about “progress.”

    Opposition to Christianity is not about “chronological snobbery” these days; it’s about Christians behaving in ways that the secular culture considers deeply immoral.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > the ways in which better technology doesn’t necessarily lead to a higher quality of life

      Yes. Many many loud Techno-Optimists remain, but there is [thanks be!] a rising tide of Techno-Skeptics.
      Sadly the T-Os have superior funding.

      > Opposition to Christianity is not about “chronological snobbery”

      Yet it is certainly is a way the many people who believe reality is a detached ethereal intellectual argument can maneuver for a “take down” of Christianity|Religion|anything-old – it is really a rather indiscriminate argument. Which loops back to your first point: this is a favorite point for the T-Os; TED talk style futurists can still easily fill a room with people who want to hear their blather.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      “Opposition to Christianity is not about “chronological snobbery” these days; it’s about Christians behaving in ways that the secular culture considers deeply immoral.”

      Indeed, and then justifying that immoral behavior using the specious hermeneutics that Chaplain MIke called attention to e.g. Wayne Grudem and “biblical wall building”. Sad.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        At least in my corner of the world both conversations appear to be alive and well. We have atheist|”skeptic” groups, and of course many civil-and-civic groups; there must be overlap but they feel quite distinct from one another. [I do wonder if the 2018 elections will blend them, inevitably]

        Also, possibly encouraging, I find most people to be very clear on the Christian vs. Evangelical distinction. While the screaming and chattering class may broad brush the categories joe six pack knows hyperbole when he hears it.

        Maybe that is a Midwestern thing, as Church is still doing pretty well here.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Opposition to Christianity is not about “chronological snobbery” these days; it’s about Christians behaving in ways that the secular culture considers deeply immoral.

      Already anticipated you:
      “All Who Live Godly In Christ Jesus Shall Suffer PERSECUTION! PERSECUTION!! PERSECUTION!!!”
      (See How Godly *I* Am?)

    • john barry says

      Michael Z. Where does secular society get its definition of what is immoral? My question is what is secular morality based on, what is the foundations of secular morality.? Thanks

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > Where does secular society get its definition of what is immoral?

        It is inherited culturally, just like 90% of “Christian” morality.

      • Michael Z says

        I’d say that in progressive circles, the principles of moral rhetoric tend to be: 1. Is there abuse of an unequal power dynamic? 2. Is there clear harm inflicted on someone? 3. Does it break a commonly agreed-upon moral law? 4. Is it “disgusting” (according to our particular cultural lens)?

        In conservative circles, those priorities are exactly inverted, i.e. people tend to reason primarily based on disgust and communal ethical laws, while being suspicious of utilitarian ethics and ignoring the question of abuse of power altogether.

  3. john barry says

    Adam T. W. Where does the culture that it is inherited from get its morality? What is cultural morality founded on?

    Just ordered a chicken and an egg from Amazon, waiting to see which one comes first. Read this the other day and thought it cute.

    • Robert F says

      Most of the morality of any given society develops just the way that other aspects of culture do, gradually as the community unfolds in time and place. Occasionally there are sudden changes, but those are few and far between, depen of course on the pace at which technologies develop; in our particular society, that pace is quickly, and so there has been much dramatic change over what seems like a short period of time, but that’s because the pace of all kinds of change is racing. And if you don’t think technology and technological changes played a big part in the development of morality in every age, ancient and modern, think again. Perhaps nothing has been as significant as technology for the development of morality in societies since the dawn of time.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      >What is cultural morality founded on?

      It’s not; it just is. We principally make up the justification for our morality and norm; we stitch the story together from history, myth, experience, and self-interest.

      And it is interesting that the morality of human societies have more in common then they don’t. You will not find a culture which does not at least claim admiration for honesty, charity, courage, loyalty. Because some “morals” are vital for basic economic function.

      > chicken and an egg

      Chicken-and-egg is a “Faulty Dilemma” fallacy. The chicken came from an egg laid by something very, but not quite entirely, like a Chicken.

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      A basic level.of morality makes for a more stable society – moral-less (as opposed to immoral) societies are anarchic and won’t survive. Therefore morality is a positive evolutionary trait.

      Also, it has been well documented how morality is present in other species as well. Read Frans de Waal’s “The Bonobo and the Atheist” for this.

  4. Do I detect a bit of a contradiction here? Or perhaps a necessary ambiguity?

    “What is the Bible? What kind of book is it, what is its nature? These questions are the field of hermeneutics; the philosophy and methodology of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. There is no escaping this. The idea that “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” is specious; superficially plausible, but actually wrong. The question is not whether you interpret the Bible, but whose interpretation you assume is authoritative.”

    and –

    “…we should remember that whatever word we use to describe our commitment to the truth and power of Scripture, we’re committed to the ultimate authority or primacy of Scripture, not to our interpretation of it. The text is inspired, the interpretation is not.”

    What does it mean to say the text is “inspired” if we have no access to it? Aren’t we in the same situation as the inerrantists who claim the “original autographs” were inerrant even if the copies we have are not? Well we don’t possess the original autographs so this becomes rather a moot point, a difference that makes no difference, a move more designed to save a doctrine than derived from the materials we have available. .

    Do we have the “text”? I’m not willing to plunge all the way into post-modernist agnosticism but I am probably willing to go further along than most. But if all is interpretation then what confirms, or perhaps more importantly, disconfirms an interpretation? We will have to accept the possibility of multiple valid interpretations each with it’s own rules and strategies. (In some games when the ball hits the line it’s out of play; in some it’s in.)

    The struggle is not to confuse the categories. isn’t this what creationists do when they read Genesis as history? I think you could make a case for reading Genesis through a contemporary conceptual lens but just don’t pretend you’re doing history or science. There would even be room for creative (mis)reading of the text. The example that comes to mind Is Martin Luther King’s use of the image of the “Promised Land” as a symbol of the hopes of his beleaguered people. If you read the biblical accounts of the conquest it is a bloody almost genocidal campaign against indigenous populations by an invading army. But when you listen to MLK deliver that fateful last speech that’s come to be known as “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” well nobody but a clueless pedant is going to quibble.

    All interpretations are not equal. They are confirmed by their applicability and disconfirmed by their methodology.

  5. john barry says

    Adam T. W. “:very, not quite entirely , like a chicken”. I think you are on to something , I just got some Chicken McNuggets or as I call them McDroppings at McDonalds and I think your description is right on.

    Lady, walks into Deli, ask for sandwich of day, deli man says “beef tongue”. Lady ” I will eat nothing out of an animals mouth ” Deli man yells out “give the lady an egg sandwich”.. Depends on your culture.

    So do the morals influence the culture or does the culture influence the morals? I am order morals and culture from Amazon and see which one comes first.

  6. During a Sunday class on creation vs evolution a while back, the leader said that the Hebrew word “yom,” meaning “day,” always means a 24-hour period. But when I got home and looked in my Strong’s Concordance, I found a discrepancy.

    The first use of yom is in Genesis 1:3-5.

    3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (NIV)

    In these verses, the first use of yom appears to mean a period of roughly 12 hours, or the daylight period. The dark period is called “night,” whatever the Hebrew word. So yom is more flexible than a rigid 24-hour period.

    While this does not mean necessarily that yom can mean a period of millions, or billions, of years it should at least make Sunday school teachers (and this one had an M.Div) think about being so darned literal.

    And then there’s the phrase that shows up in prophetic literature: “In that day…” or “In the great and terrible day of the Lord.” If it’s that terrible I think it may last longer than 24 hours.

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