Dr. Peter Enns, an Evangelical blogger and Affiliate Processor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University, has started an interesting conversation on the appropriate way to analyze and understand Genesis 1-3 specifically, and the Bible more generally. I wanted to wade into this controversy, because I think Enns shows us the need for solid Biblical hermeneutics, and in turn, the need for the Church.
Many Young Earth Creationists characterize the debate over Genesis ought to be a debate over the authority of the Bible. Dr. Enns has described this idea as a “recurring mistake,” adding:
I can understand why this claim might have rhetorical effect, but this issue is not about biblical authority. It’s about how the Bible is to be interpreted. It’s about hermeneutics.
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, woodcut for The Bible in Pictures (1860)
It’s always about hermeneutics.
I know that in some circles “hermeneutics” is code for “let’s find a way to get out of the plain meaning of the text.” But even a so-called “plain” or “literal” reading of the Bible is a hermeneutic—an approach to interpretation.Literalism is a hermeneutical decision (even if implicit) as much as any other approach, and so needs to be defended as much as any other. Literalism is not the default godly way to read the Bible that preserves biblical authority. It is not the “normal” way of reading the Bible that gets a free pass while all others must face the bar of judgment.So, when someone says, “I don’t read Genesis 1-3 as historical events, and here are the reasons why,” that person is not “denying biblical authority.” That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than the ultimate literalist conversation-stopper, “You’re denying biblical authority.”The Bible is not just “there.” It has to be interpreted. The issue is which interpretations are more defensible than others.
(h/t One Eternal Day)
|Guercino, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1655)|
I agree with Enns here, but wish that he’d shown from the Bible why this is true (although I understand the space restraints of a blog post). It’s not a hard case to make. When Psalm 98:8 says to let “the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy,” I don’t think anyone assumes that this is supposed to be taken literally. It’s self-evident that this is metaphoric language. Likewise, when Jesus begins the parable of the prodigal son by saying, “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11), we don’t understand Him to be speaking literally. Rather, it’s a parable. The truth of the matter isn’t in the historic events, but the message behind the story. That’s what a parable is.
So clearly, literalism isn’t always the right lens. But I suspect that many Young Earth Creationists would object at this point. After all, Luke 15:11 and (particularly) Psalm 98:8 are unlikely to be mistaken for history. In response to this, I would point out that, while the examples above are self-evident, this isn’t always the case. Look at John 2:19-21, in which we see literalism go disastrously awry:
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.
|El Greco, Mount Sinai (1565)|
But having said all of that, isn’t history different? After all, we expect prophesy to be colorful and cryptic. We expect history to be straightforward, even a bit dull. The short answer is that the Bible isn’t bound by modern Western notions of what history should look and sound like. There’s a great example of this in Exodus 19:3-4, where God is recounting what He’s just done for the Israelites:
Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’”
Louis Finson, Resurrection of Christ
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
So everything in Scripture is inspired, and everything in Scripture is to be taken seriously. But not everything in Scripture is meant literally. The idea that the only things that are true are things that are literal is an odd, seemingly indefensible, assumption for a Christian to make. But having said that, some things in Scripture need to be taken literally. How do we know which things are which? This is why hermeneutics are so important: we need to know the lens through which to understand Scripture.
Of course, once you understand the importance of hermeneutics, the need for a Church with teaching authority becomes evident. Otherwise, you will inevitably get different camps of people who interpret the Scriptures in different ways: even among those with a sincere love for God’s word, and a desire to obey it. It’s precisely because Scripture isn’t all completely self-evident, that the Church isn’t optional. We see this illustrated beautifully in Acts 8:26-31, in the account of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch:
Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)
Then the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, “Get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” So he got up and set out. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join up with that chariot.” Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.
This was the scripture passage he was reading:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
In (his) humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.”
Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply, “I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.
That is, Scripture wasn’t intended to be read in isolation. It was intended to be read with the Apostolic Church. We should invite the Church to sit with us, and like the eunuch, be ready and willing to ask questions (Acts 8:34).
Reading Scripture with the Church doesn’t mean that we suddenly come into possession of a special Bible-reading cipher that automatically draws out the meaning of every ambiguous, cryptic passage. But the Church does let us sit with the Fathers, just as the eunuch sat with Phillip. And in this way, we’re exposed to two thousand years worth of exegesis we wouldn’t have figured out on our own.
|Philippe de Champaigne,
Good Shepherd (17th c.)
That’s amazing, but that’s not all. There are things that the Church has infallibly declared: that is, the flock is given plenty of room to graze, but there are certain areas that are marked off where we may not go. Why is this important? Because every Christian recognizes that there are certain ways of interpreting Scripture that are just unacceptable. Nobody, not even the most anti-authority Fundamentalist, buys that. In fact, Fundamentalists get their name from The Fundamentals, a book that sought to lay out what the fundamental tenets of Christianity were that no one could disagree with.
So Christianity needs boundaries, or it becomes a formless and meaningless void. And we need boundaries, so we don’t wander into heresy. That’s why, if we don’t have the Church to set those boundaries, we end up making up those boundaries ourselves, and we often screw it up. G.K. Chesterton captured this well in his 1908 book Orthodoxy, with this image:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
I believe that this is what’s at the heart of much of the hand-wringing about Young Earth Creationism. Evangelicals acting like their own Magisterium have declared that Christians can’t question whether Genesis 1-3 is a literal or metaphoric history, because they’re afraid to leave the center of the island, because there are no firm walls in Evangelicalism, other than the ones individuals (seemingly arbitrarily) create.
The Church gives Her children freedom to understand the Creation account in Genesis in a variety of ways (St. Augustine, back in the fourth century, listed reasonable several ways it could be understood). Understanding it as a literal history is one legitimate way of approaching the text. But who (if not the Church) gets to decide that this is the only hermeneutic through which to view the passage?