This week Al Mohler threw another stone in the direction of those who don’t read the early chapters of Genesis in literalistic fashion like he and other creationists do. In Mohler’s message, “The Challenges We Face: A New Generation of Gospel Ministers Looks to the Future,” the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary brings out the same tired rhetoric in order to sound the alarm that the heart of the Gospel is at stake if ministers don’t hold a strict “historical” position with regard to Genesis.
It’s starting to sound like the Republican primaries. Oh well, here’s what he said:
The current debates among evangelicals have reached a vital point – the intersection of Genesis and the gospel. We must affirm that the gospel requires a clear affirmation of the historicity of Adam and Eve and the historical reality of the Fall. The Bible’s metanarrative of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation requires the historical reality of God’s work in every movement of the story.
The Apostle Paul makes the historicity of Adam – and his federal headship – central to our understanding of the gospel. Those who insist that evangelicals must accommodate the gospel to the prevailing evolutionary dogma are actually insisting that the gospel be denied. If we get the story of the gospel wrong in the beginning, we will have what Paul condemned as another gospel in the end.
Let’s go over this again, shall we? We’ll take a look at the sentences I’ve underlined above.
First, “Those who insist that evangelicals must accommodate the gospel…” Stop right there for a dang minute and back up the produce truck. Who is doing that, Al? I’d like to know. I am not aware that any serious evangelical who takes a different view of Genesis is “accommodating the gospel” to anything, much less “evolutionary dogma.” If anything, the fresh perspectives on Genesis I’ve read are much more Gospel-oriented than the literal interpretations.
Who is altering or denying the creedal faith that acknowledges “God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”? Who is saying human beings aren’t fallen and sinful and that the world is not beset by evil powers and corruption? Who is denying that people need a Savior, or that Jesus is that Savior? Who is denying “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared” to reliable witnesses?
Mohler once again fails to recognize at least two fundamental points about this matter of “accommodation”.
(1) Everyone “accommodates” their reading of the Bible to their own philosophical presuppositions. The same modernist assumptions that spawned the scientific method and enterprise also inform those Bible students who practice “literal” interpretation, claim that Scripture is “inerrant,” and stress “historical accuracy” as the only legitimate form of writing or communicating “truth” about past events. The fact is that those who are reading Genesis in “new” ways, according to Mohler, are crafting their approaches from what we have learned in reading more ancient materials. These have enabled scholars to be truer to the stated goals of “historical, grammatical interpretation” than the “literal” readings many promote because we now know so much more about the ancient context of the Scriptures.
(2) Everyone “accommodates” their reading of the Bible to the state of learning in their day. Of course we adjust our understanding of Scripture to what we learn of the world through disciplines such as science! We always have. Let us take St. Augustine’s exhortation seriously:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [1 Timothy 1.7]
• St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis
Now, I came to my current conclusions about Genesis based on studying the Bible, not because I became convinced by the scientific evidence for evolution. However, if someone did become convinced that evolution is, at this point in our understanding, an accurate model for describing the development of life, and then felt he or she had to figure out how to adjust his or her reading of the Bible to allow for it, what’s wrong with that? Remember the days of Copernicus and Galileo, when the church’s view of the universe was set on its head. The fact is that we understand the world much differently than those who wrote the Bible. The best way of interpreting Scripture is not to try and make the Bible into something it’s not — a book that will always reflect the “correct” scientific perspective — but to read it as it is, an ancient book that reflects ancient perspectives on many of these matters. That does not make the Bible less “true.” Timeless truths are always conveyed in time-bound forms.
Second, “…to the prevailing evolutionary dogma…” I am in no position to defend the evolutionary theory and have no desire to do so. But Al, come on, this is a straw man and you know it. Al Mohler is no scientist and in no position to dismiss an entire area of scientific inquiry by calling it “dogma.” Of course, there are atheistic dogmatists who use scientific evidence such as evolution to argue a case against Christianity or theism. But what about all the fine Christians who think evolution is a reasonable way to explain life’s development? And do not find it at all incompatible with reasonable ways of interpreting the ancient Scriptures? Who’s the dogmatist here?
Third, “…are actually insisting that the gospel be denied. If we get the story of the gospel wrong in the beginning, we will have what Paul condemned as another gospel in the end.” Ah, we finally get to the gist of the argument: the slippery slope, the divine domino theory. If Mohler and others were really as committed to logic as they assume, they would know that the slippery slope argument is a logical fallacy. It assumes a sequence of events must occur if the first event takes place. It draws its strength from fear. People can imagine the sequence happening and are afraid of the ultimate consequences. But the person presenting the argument rarely proves the relationship between each downward step and simply presents the process as intuitive and inevitable. No middle ground is to be admitted, no other developments are presented as possible.
Oy, if I had hair, I’d be tearin’ it out.
• • •
For further reading, I recommend that iMonk readers consider Peter Enns’ post in which he answers Kevin DeYoung’s salvo, “10 Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.” In this piece, Enns effectively counters the same kind of rhetoric Mohler spouts in the post I’ve referenced above.
Note my substitutions in the following paragraph at the end of Enns’ comments, and you have a fitting closing thought to what I’ve tried to say today.
Posts like DeYoung’s [Mohler’s] do not defend the faith as much as they calcify particular doctrinal formulations in the face of very clear data to the contrary–to the harm of all concerned. What is needed in this discussion is not the airing of views by the young and the restless [or the older and dogmatic], but more efforts to “come and reason together” by the seasoned and centered.