December 13, 2017

A Truth so Deep that Only Story can Convey It

The Bible, through a Scientist’s Eyes, part three

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible
by John Polkinghorne

• • •

Any discussion on the relationship of science and Scripture must deal with the Bible’s first chapters and their accounts of origins. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest who is also a renowned physicist, gives his perspective in chapter 3 of Testing Scripture, “Creation and Fall.”

First, Polkinghorne accepts the “well-founded conclusions of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology” — the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, that nuclear processes in the early stages of its development enabled the eventual development of carbon-based life, and that this potentiality became reality on our planet, developing through evolutionary processes from single cell organisms to the variety of life forms that inhabit the planet today.

Second, he denies that the biblical stories of Genesis 1-2 are “divinely dictated accounts, given to save us the trouble of scientific investigation into terrestrial and cosmic history.” He makes the critical point that we must respect the genre of these texts, and when we do we find something quite different than a scientific explanation of how the universe and humankind came to be.

The Bible is not really a book but a library. It has within it a variety of different genres: poetry, prose, story, history, laws, letters, and so on. Part of a proper respect for Scripture is to be aware of this issue of genre. The sad irony of so-called ‘creationism’, based on a fundamentalist biblical literalism, is that in fact it abuses the very text that it seeks to respect, missing the point of what is written by mistaking its genre. For example, Genesis 1 does not give us a quasi-scientific account of a hectic six days of divine activity, but is something altogether deeper and more interesting than that. It is a theological text whose principal purpose is to assert that nothing exists except through the will of God.

John Polkinghorne adds several helpful paragraphs reminding us that Christian teachers from the earliest days of the church recognized that Genesis was presenting something other than a literal, journalistic account of creation. They noted the unusual order of certain elements, such as the placing of the “lights” in the sky on day four, while “light” itself appeared on day one. Some considered that the “days” were not literal 24-hour time periods but might indicate vast periods of time. They stressed the theological meaning of the text, and he highlights this by pointing out how their ancient neighbors worshiped heavenly bodies whereas Gen. 1 portrays God speaking them into existence; the text doesn’t even give them names as those who considered them deities did.

Likewise, Genesis 2 was written as “myth” — “meaning by ‘myth’ not a fairy story but a truth so deep that only story can convey it” — to communicate truths about humanity’s place within nature, before God, and with regard to the relationship between men and women.

In speaking of these creation stories as “myths,” the author does not want to imply that they are simply replicas of the myths of the nations around them, such as Babylon. He delineates some of the differences between them, noting the simplicity and sensibility of the Genesis accounts as compared to some of the wilder mythic elements in pagan stories. He also notes that Genesis exalts human beings, giving them a dignity and relationship to God that bears little relation to the Babylonian myths. In particular, the idea of humans created “in God’s image” makes Israel’s creation stories utterly distinctive among their neighbors.

Another good contribution John Polkinghorne makes in Testing Scripture is to remind us that biblical accounts and perspectives on creation are not limited to Genesis, but are found in other parts of Scripture. In particular, he points to the Wisdom Literature as a rich source for “natural theology,” an approach that is valuable, but which even the Wisdom Books themselves point out is limited because it is based on limited forms of observation and experience. The pinnacle of this perspective is found in the book of Job, where we are encouraged to view all creation “as a theophany, a revelation of the Creator.”

The Fall
Finally, in this chapter of Testing Scripture, the author has us consider Gen. 3, the story of Adam and Eve’s Fall in the Garden.

I do not believe that the chapter is the historical account of a single disastrous ancestral act, but it is a story conveying truth about the relationship between God and humanity. …Once the story’s mythic power is released from bondage to a fundamentalist reading, it becomes full of insight of a kind that can be seen as complementary to the insights afforded us by science.

Polkinghorne is certain that a “fall” occurred but in historical terms this was a process rather than a single event. With the dawning of human self-consciousness and the formation of the imago dei giving God-consciousness, “there was a turning of our ancestors away from the pole of God and into the pole of the human self.” The story of this reality is told via powerful imagery in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve are portrayed as seeking to live independently of God, of choosing human autonomy over the place of the creature in need of grace. This becomes the source of all subsequent human sins.

This did not bring biological death into the world, for that had been part of the creation from the beginning. Rather it brought what Polkinghorne calls “mortality” — human sadness and bitterness at the inevitability of death and decay. Humans alienated themselves from God, the only source of hope for a destiny beyond death. Along with this came the sense of transience that causes our race sorrow and despair. And this is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 5, when he uses the ancient myth of Adam and Eve to “illuminate the Christian experience of the saving power of Christ….”

One thing John Polkinghorne does not believe is that man’s sin introduced all the “imperfections” into the world that we experience. But he is saving his discussion of the problem of evil and suffering for another chapter.

The discussion of this chapter will serve, I hope, to illustrate how ancient religious wisdom and modern scientific knowledge can blend in a way that justice to the valid insights of both.

 

Comments

  1. I need to re-read this and look at it closer. It’s late… But it is refreshing to know that there are alternatives to what some people wanted to force down another’s throat. It’s nice being in a Ken Hamm Free Zone!! 🙂

  2. Whatever, I don’t think too much about things like this One either belives that God sent His Son to die for us or not. The rest is details. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

    • But none of that really happened. The incarnation is only a story, like some Greek myth. God and Jesus are just two of the characters, along with Adam, Eve, and Satan. Does your salvation depend on Hamlet?

      • It is a story of a man who came and lived, and loved, and died on a cross for the sins of the world.

        It is a story of new life and resurrection.

        It is a story that has transfomed the lives of millions of people, for the better.

        It is a story that has gripped me, and changed me for forever, like no other story could ever do.

        • That’s very moving, but you know, a lot of people sleep during sermons (or want to). This turns the Bible into a matter of personal interest and taste. If you are referring to its historical importance, then I suppose it would be about equal to the Koran. (I can’t judge how many lives were changed “for the better,” that is too subjective.)

      • No, nor does it depend on “Quinn” and his/her misguided beliefs, luckily.

        I feel very sorry for you, friend. Really.

        • I am being facetious here–sorry, should have added an “ironical” smiley, if there is such a thing.

      • Quinn said, “The incarnation is only a story, like some Greek myth.”

        We need to keep reminding ourselves what myth is and is not. The word “myth” doesn’t necessarily mean “fiction” or “fantasy” or “just plain made up to entertain us” but instead can get to the truth even better than a list of data. For example, if I want a refresher on how things went wrong with Marxism and the Russian Revolution I read Animal Farm.

        Here’s what Chaplain Mike posted in the article:

        ‘Likewise, Genesis 2 was written as “myth” — “meaning by ‘myth’ not a fairy story but a truth so deep that only story can convey it” — to communicate truths about humanity’s place within nature, before God, and with regard to the relationship between men and women.’

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Myths are “The Old Stories” of a people.

          • “Because without the Old Stories of your people, you are not a People.”
            —Headless Unicorn Guy, 1/24/2012

          • I’m aware that “a myth” does not equal “A pack of lies,” but that still leaves us with a God and Jesus who may or may not have existed (it hardly matters anymore, since that’s not the point of a story), and a meaning which is really up to us to decide on.

          • Also the Bible is no longer “the” Old Stories of “a” People, but *some* old stories of *some* people. In other words, its not at the center of things anymore–our culture has made it quite optional.

      • My savation depends on Jesus Christ crucified and ressurected. His Grace saves me by faith. My faith may be weak, but His faith in me is strong.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Come all without,
        Come all within;
        You’ve not seen nuthin’
        Like the Mighty Quinn…”

  3. If you are a follower of Christ, you accept Christ and his Apostles’ interpretation of the Old Testament. That is fundamental.

    If you want to say humans evolved over a epochal “day”, and Adam and Eve were the first fully human beings, that’s one thing. It’s completely another thing to reject Genesis 2 and 3 as historical. Doing so contradicts Jesus and Paul and makes them fools.

    • If the fall is a story with mythic power, then why not also our redemption? Sort of like in Star Wars how Luke refuses to fight Darth Vader and saves him from the emperor. Jedi is way cooler than Christian. Lightsabers rock!

      • Right–if a story can save people, then all religions are equally true. Even the Jedi.

        • Stories don’t save anyone, but a Person can and does. Again, so sad for you that you haven’t met Him.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “Come all without,
          Come all within;
          You’ve not seen nothin’
          Like the mighty Quinn…”

          • You’re all skirting around the issue. Can’t you see that to call the gospel a “story” or a “myth” suggests that maybe it didn’t really happen? Or it doesn’t matter whether it really happened or not? Or that we know it didn’t happen, but still want to be able to affirm it somehow? True, stories can instruct or entertain, and be very great, but that’s not the same as saying that Jesus really existed. Star Wars isa story too, and maybe even part of a monomyth, but does salvation come from Luke Skywalker? Is the Bible any “truer” than Star Wars? Come on, this is facile. It’s a way for polite people to avoid saying they are atheists.

          • Quinn i don’t recall anybody referring to the gospel as a “story” or “myth”.. Genesis 1-2 are not written the same way the gospels are written..different genres. different audience , setting & purpose.

          • Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. The genres are different but the dillemma is similar. On one hand we are invited to abandon (or at least bracket as questionable) traditional religious dogma; on the other, we are asked to disbelieve in (or at least ignore) whole fields of scholarship calling this dogma into question.

          • “sauce for the goose , sauce for the gander”…..don’t care. I’m a wildabeast who likes gravy.

      • Joseph (the original) says:

        boaz: does the ‘story’ of the Fall need to hinge on a literal 6-day, 24-hour cycle of very same passing time as we experience right now? and do all elements of the Genesis 1-3 have to be understood as literal to guarantee the story of Redemption/Salvation believable?

        is there any question about the role of the serpent? this has been brought up many times, but i have only recently wondered at its part in this consideration…

        i mean, really, a talking serpent? a ‘wild’ animal that was the most crafty of all the animals the Lord God had made? would you attribute this to a literal understanding or poetic license? wouldn’t it be hard to believe God gave a creature of the animal kingdom the higher order ability to reason & speak (communicate)?

        and was this serpent given passage aboard the Ark? is there any plausible explanation for this that explains it? and if so, why can’t there be plausible explanations for the creation cycle timeline also?

        and was the serpent the name Adam gave it? and did it have any reason to be the role of tempter? or is it a representation of something ‘grander’ in terms of what it lacks in specific details???

        just trying to engage in some theological ruminations here without any need to be disrespectful…

        • Maybe not, but then what about God and Jesus? They are characters in the story too! Where do you draw the line? And can we reinterpret the text to make it say whatever we want, like we do with Shakespeare?

    • Donalbain says:

      We believe in one God,
      the Father, the Almighty
      maker of heaven and earth,
      of all that is, seen and unseen.

      We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
      the only Son of God,
      eternally begotten of the Father,
      God from God, Light from Light,
      true God from true God,
      begotten, not made,
      of one Being with the Father.
      Through him all things were made.
      For us and for our salvation
      he came down from heaven:
      by the power of the Holy Spirit
      he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
      For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
      he suffered death and was buried.
      On the third day he rose again
      in accordance with the Scriptures;
      he ascended into heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
      He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
      and his kingdom will have no end.

      We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
      who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
      With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
      He has spoken through the Prophets.
      We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
      We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
      We look for the resurrection of the dead,
      and the life of the world to come. Amen.

      Strange how through the ages, none of the major creeds of Christianity mention whether the universe was made in a day, or over a series of millions of years.. but thankfully 19th and 20th Century Christians arrived to let everyone know what the REALLY important defining features of being a Christian really are!

      • Amen.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Strange how through the ages, none of the major creeds of Christianity mention whether the universe was made in a day, or over a series of millions of years.. but thankfully 19th and 20th Century Christians arrived to let everyone know what the REALLY important defining features of being a Christian really are!

        Not to mention how Revelation was entirely “history written in advance” of 20th Century Nuclear War and only Our End Time Generation was the FIRST to EVER REALLY understand it. (And WILL Happen Any minute now… Any minute now… Any minute now… “We might not have a 1978!!!! Or even a 1977!!!!!”)

        • Jack Heron says:

          It really was nice of all those first-millenium Greeks to thoughtfully preserve a document they couldn’t possibly guess the meaning of just so it would be useful to third-millenium Americans, wasn’t it?

      • Note: Nicene Creed translation before the changes in the new Roman Missal ; )

    • I didn’t think that anyone claimed that Paul was omniscient. Couldn’t he have just been wrong? Reflecting the viewpoint of his point in time? Speaking allegorically?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “Verbal Plenary Inspiration”, i.e. God dictating word-for-word (in Kynge Jaymes Englyshe instead of Meccan Arabic) and Paul just writing it down word-for-word. Automatic writing, just like Oasphe, Seth Speaks, and Spaceship Ruthie.

      • Paul being wrong? Possible. But the implications of accepting such position is that if some of scripture is questionable as to its accuracy (never mind the interpretative challenges), then all of it is subject to the critique of enlightened individuals who know better than the authors of Scripture. This quickly becomes cafeteria style religion, at which point scripture is entirely irrelevant if it doesn’t suit your fancy. Our own will is the only infallible determiner of truth in this situation, which is a scarier idea than biblical inerrancy any day of the week.

        Speaking allegorically? Certainly possible. This provides a way to still hold to scriptural accuracy and authority while seeking to understand it better. I have seen no compelling reason why Paul must NOT be takken allegorically on many counts.

        • But few would argue that Paul was right on the question of women’s dress and comportment in church. Few would argue that Paul should have known the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and therefore should have railed against slavery instead of telling slaves to be content with their lot. So seems that people have already decided that Paul was culturally limited (or indeed wrong) on occasion in his writing.

          • Actually, many would argue that Paul was exactly correct about what he said, but that it takes quite a generous hermeneutic to understand rightly any imperative statements found in a 2000 year old document. Yes, many have also considered that Paul was wrong because that’s easier that wrestling with a text, much less accepting it as authoritative, but the vast majority of Christianity that considers themselves to be Bible-believing is able to reconcile most of those passages with modernistic sensibilities, either that or just ignore those passages. For example, when Paul tells women to “keep silent” in church, many modern exegetes understand this not hyper-literrally, as in do not speak a word ever, but contextually as saying that they are not to be in the ordained teaching position. This is just a brief example and generalization of how ancient documents can be misunderstood when filtered through the lens of modern perspectives. I’m not going to play the what if game and defend every easily misunderstood imperative in Paul, but there is a ginormous percentage of global Christianity that both studies scripturally carefully, accepts it as authoritative, yet disagree on application to the extent of whether or not women are bound to wear hats in church. Some argue yes, others argue no, while both insisting the writing has authority to them, to the best they can understanding of it.

          • …and on second thought, I suppose the argument could be made that even among “Bible-believing” Christianity, there are those who pick and choose from the scripture while thinking that they do not. This is most certainly true (though not necessarily an absolute rule), but I think most evangelicals would be comfortable saying that accepting Paul as authoritative does not necessarily lead one to an endorsement of slavery in the Bible belt south. Scripture as authority, but also with tradition and reason to inform, understand, and interpret it.

  4. I’m halfway through a book by John Lennox ‘Seven Days that Divide the World’ (Zondervan 2011) about science and Genesis. Brilliant summary of various ways of looking at Genesis 1 -3. I highly recommend it.

  5. Donegal Misfortune says:

    I remember somewhere that we were told that what we believe would be foolishness to the Gentiles. Well, guess what? The Gentiles are racking their brains trying to figure out why we believe what we do and for some reason we think that we must put forth some sort of academic acumen, philosophical prestigious, or scientific showmanship, in order to make this foolishness more palatable. If Christ refers to Adam and if Paul compares Adam and Christ and what they have said and is written is Gospel, then let it remain foolishness and a stumbling block to those who cannot accept it. If Abel is set on par with Moses in Hebrews 11 as a man of faith, then as a man of faith myself I will accept his existence and the existence of his father and mother as well as the creation account of them.

    • Christ crucified is foolishness to the Gentiles. The passage is not talking about our beliefs about who Adam actually was.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Otherwise it becomes way too easy to slide into “Stupidity for Jesus”, where foolishiness is automatically Godly,and any reality check outside of your own tribe is disregarded as “Gentiles”. The guy over at Totem to Temple/Onward Toward Forward used to write about the results of that.

  6. Donegal Misfortune writes, “I remember somewhere that we were told that what we believe would be foolishness to the Gentiles.”

    I think we can believe that it really took more than 6 literal days for creation to become as we see it today, but what the “Gentiles” find unbelievable that we believe is that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected with a transformed immortal body and that he remains alive to all of us now although we don’t see his physical body. And that Jesus will return at the end of time to reign as King in the Kingdom of God.

  7. I think of “the fall” as similar in context to the story of The Prodigal Son. We began our spiritual life in Oneness with God. In this place of Oneness, all we knew was bliss. At some point, we decided that in order to grow we needed to experience ourselves as “other than One with God” and of our own free will, chose the the temporary perception of separation. God supported us in this, like the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son because 1) God gave us free will and 2) God knew we needed this in order to grow to a point where we could freely choose Oneness with God. So….God allowed us to feel the pain of perceived separation…..but in God’s compassion and love, planted within us the seed of remembering….that which ever calls us back to God. It was in that moment of the creation of perceived separation where the ego began and fear became the lens through which we experienced our existence. It is through the ego and through this fear that we experience suffering, pain, loss, despair. But that Divine spark of love within us always calls us home and we are restless until we once again rest in God (as said St. Augustine). The great news that Jesus taught us is that we have the opportunity to remember this Oneness….this peace, contentment and joy of remembering our true inheritance with God….in this life….right here and right now. And it is in our prayer, meditation, contemplation, even our life experiences where we can remember this Oneness with God, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

  8. I LOVE this article! Sums up what I beleive nicely….but then, belonging to a sacramental church with lots of history, the storytelling in the bible, in addition to the historical parts, does not mess with my world like it does for the YEC folks.

    My eyes were opened the first time I heard that the bible is like a newspaper (although library is also an excellent analogy). If someone could not tell the news from the editorials, advice column, letters to the editor, satire, advertising, comics, classified ads, and puzzles……they would have a very confused and error filled view of their city. Yet, that is what so many of our fundamental brothers and sisters try to do. It is sad and frustrating to see them turning the world upside down to “prove” the bible, instead of listening to what God is saying and meaning through scipture.

    • “If someone could not tell the news from the editorials, advice column, letters to the editor, satire, advertising, comics, classified ads, and puzzles……they would have a very confused and error filled view of their city.”

      I like that analogy, Pattie. Thanks!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yet, that is what so many of our fundamental brothers and sisters try to do. It is sad and frustrating to see them turning the world upside down to “prove” the bible…

        Chaplain Mike once used the analogy of “Bible as Step-by-Step Engineering Manual” and theorized this happened as cultural crossover from the Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution around the early 19th Century. (Apparently 1950s America wasn’t the only culture to hijack Godly and Biblical as referring to Just Like Us.)

  9. The argument that therefore if we ‘dismiss’ Genesis as a myth therefore we can dismiss the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as a myth is missing the point of what John Polkinghorne is saying. Polkinghorne is arguing that based upon the genre and style of Genesis and church history there is reason to believe that it is not intended to be taken at face value as ‘creation happened in six days.’ The gospels are clearly written in a a Rey different style and in Mark and Uke set themselves up as bibliographies. It doesn’t make them true but we must read them as they were intended to be read and then critique them. Polkinghorne is not reading Genesis as he does just because it doesn’t fit with current scientific models. He rejects a literal reading based upon other criteria as did some of the early Christians who questioned how it should be read.

    • That should read ‘the gospels are clearly written in a very different style and Mark and Luke set themselves up as biographies.’

      • Well good, because I was starting to wonder who this Uke person is.

        • hey! who is this other “Joseph” suddenly posting here @ iMonk??? i was about to post something & i discovered someone had already done it for me, or i fear the other alternative scary: my memory is not as reliable as i had once believed…

          well, i would like to think i am the original Joseph as least, or maybe more like the OT Joseph & this other newbie the NT version…

          man…i need another cup of ‘Joe’…

          Lord, have mercy… 🙂

          {smilie indicating intended levity…}

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Well good, because I was starting to wonder who this Uke person is.

          If you were in California’s Anderson Valley around 100 years ago, “Uke” meant anyone from Ukiah.

          • Joseph (the original) says:

            ah yes, the Anderson Valley…

            some stellar Pinot Noir there, especially Jim Ball Vineyards (my fav)…Bahl Hornin’

            a very beautiful section of country up there. and ‘Uke’ is Boontling for a local resident from Ukiah or the town itself…

            i have been up there a few times & each time a different season. i would live there if i could make a living doing so… 🙂

  10. Randy Windborne says:

    Quinn makes an excellent point. If the Genesis/Beresheet account of Adam & Chavah (Eve) is a myth, then what else in scripture is myth?

    John Polkinghorne wrote, ‘They noted the unusual order of certain elements, such as the placing of the “lights” in the sky on day four, while “light” itself appeared on day one.’

    Whoever “they” were, “they” were wrong. The creation of light on day one via the first recorded words of God, “Y’hi orr,” is the key to understanding how our universe was created less than 6000 years ago but is 13.7 billion (give or take a billion) years old.

    This is an example of why consulting the archives of “The Wise” will not generally yield proper understanding of scripture. Scripture was not inspired by The Wise, and thus they are incapable of accurately interpreting it – which explains why we have so many contradictory interpretations available in the archives.

  11. It’s so frustrating that people don’t get genre. This whole “if Adam and Eve are a myth, then the whole Bible is a myth” thing is ridiculous and ignorant.

    If the Psalms are poetry, then the whole Bible must be poetry.
    If Jesus spoke in Parables, then everything he said must be a parable.
    If the Proverbs aren’t promises, then nothing in the Bible is reliable.
    etc. etc.
    (Even John Piper said the proverbs aren’t promises. http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/parents-beware-proverbs-are-not-promises )

    • Bible reading is not just a matter of literary interpretation, but of theological dogma. It is not stupid to ask, since belief in Adam and Eve is now passe in certain circles, whether belief in God and Jesus can be required anymore. Why or why not? What are our principles (if we even have principles anymore)? After all, there is just as much “myth” in the gospels as in Genesis.

      • Quinn, are you suggesting we’re on the slippery slope to atheism simply because we suggest that the genre of the stories in Genesis might be something other than historical reporting?

        • Well, you might conceivably be on the slippery slope to theological liberalism, if a viable Christianity could exist in that form.

          Maybe I am wrong to see doubt directed at the gospels as a more extreme version of doubt directed at Genesis. This ordering reflects Christian priorities, to be sure, but we are speaking of more or less the same kind and degree of doubt. (One does not lie “lower” on a “slope” than the other.)

  12. When did “myth” become such a contemptible term? Have people never read Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton? They wrote terms like “myth” and even “fairy tale” downright reverently. They would have viewed contempt for myths as the intellectual snobbery of materialists and scientism.

    • I guess I’d want to know what you mean by scientism. If by scientism you mean using science to explain the natural world, then I’d proudly wear the label. Science strives to explain everything in the natural world and frankly, it’s the only tool at hand to explain the natural world. As long as deities don’t encroach (in a supernatural way) on the natural world, they have nothing to fear from science.

      • Scientism often refers to dogmatic endorsement of the scientific methodology , and the reduction of all knowledge to that which is measurable. Its a common expression of logical positivism. I agree with you about the reliability of science when it comes to learning about the natural world which we live in. It certainly gets the job done.

        • i’m sure most people who post here , believe that science is the most reliable tool we have when it comes to understanding our physical world & how it works. I will also add onto that by saying that Philosophy and logic are useful in exploring the subjective. and understanding our human nature ( and theology , but i often put that in the same bracket as metaphysics.)

    • Are you really willing to put the gospels on a level with Beowulf? Nothing wrong with Beowulf, but the world is full of stories like that, and they’re not as transformative as the Jungians would have us believe.

  13. When reading scripture, I think it’s important to keep in mind that that God is the creator of the physical universe and not a fully contained resident of it — that He exists in a reality that is completely outside or other than what we humans can directly access through our senses, intellect, or science. And I believe that the inspirational process of scripture primarily involved God influencing or impressing Himself on the minds and hearts of human beings, and eventually these impressions found their way onto parchment in a wide variety of literary forms and styles.
    One might say that scripture is kind of like a footprint made on our physical reality and on human history from a higher reality. The footprint and the Divine Foot that made it are not the same thing, but the footprint does serve as faithful evidence of the Footprint-Maker and tells us a lot about who He is.
    And I think Jesus represents a unique place in history where God’s reality and our reality intersected in the form of a divine human being.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      One might say that scripture is kind of like a footprint made on our physical reality and on human history from a higher reality.

      Like the thought experiments about four-dimensional objects (tesseracts). And how we could only perceive them as three-dimensional cross-sections or “unfolded” three-dimensional projections.

      • If God lives in the fourth dimension, this not much of an improvement over saying that God lives in the sky. Cthulhu fhtagn and all that.

        • Not the fourth dimension and not the sky — but a different reality or universe all together.
          Think of our reality, the physical universe, as an oil slick on the ocean. We are made of oil, we can only see, hear, and touch oil, and even when we look through super telescopes or electron microscopes, we still see only oil. And if we were to develop a warp drive and travel the length, breadth, and depth of the physical universe at faster-than-light speeds, we would never encounter anything other than oil.
          But, all the while, our oily reality would be moving and changing according to the movements of that other watery reality that lies beneath it.

          • I would say that God is not in “another universe” or “another reality”. Rather, being the infinite and Creator of all things, the Trinity is transcendent. God exists outside of time and space (having created them, He is not constrained by them) and yet, at the same time, does not exist in some “other” realm that is so far-removed from Creation that it constitutes its own reality in and of itself.

            It is difficult for us as humans to understand this fact, given that all we know is that which we can experience and, based off that experience, conceptualize. I would say that, as “silly” as we might think our ancestors for being overly superstitious about things being attributed to the supernatural and their fascinatingly complex cosmologies of the universe, they might have had a better idea of the nature of reality (concerning where the “natural” and “supernatural” intersect) than we do today.

  14. An addendum, Quinn, have you ever heard of Blaise Pascal’s wager? “God is or is not.Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate the two chances. If you gain you gain all; if you lose you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that He is.”

    • That’s a really lame reason for believing in a deity. And you’d better hope your deity is as lame and can’t read your thoughts if that’s the only reason you have to believe in him/her.

      • Randy Windborne says:

        Scripture indicates that even demons believe in God … not that it accrues any benefit.

    • Donalbain says:

      What if you wager that the Christian god is real, but it turns out that Harold The God is real. Harold hates Christians and sends them to hell, but likes atheists whom he rewards with eternal awesomeness. You lose, atheists win.

      Basically: false dichotomy.

      • Who cares? I will stand by my belief that Jesus is Lord and died for all.

        • Donalbain says:

          If you realise that the wager is something not worth caring about, why post it?

        • JohntheChristian says:

          Stand by your belief, I am a Christian, and I share your belief. But Pascal’s wager is still a terrible argument for the faith.

          A muslim could easily say ‘You have two options, believe the prophet and if wrong lose nothing, or disbelieve the prophet and if wrong lose everything”. Pascal’s wager ignores the fact that there are more than two philosophical ideals on the table. It is not Christianity and atheism. It is christianity and atheism and islam and deism and hinduism and judaism and buddhism and zoroastrianism and taoism and indiginous native american beliefs and paganism and etc. etc. etc.

          A person cannot be forced into belief with any argument, much less one as weak as Pascal’s wager. We are a people of faith, if we could reduce the faith to a simple irrefutable argument we would not have faith but rather knowledge, and Scripture speaks highly of faith.

    • Yes. Unfortunately, Pascal was too unimaginative to realize that there are more than two relevant religious possibilities. Setting aside the impossibility of assigning prior probabilities for them, let us expand the wager to include several representative religions:

      UNITARIANISM teaches that everyone goes to heaven.

      BAPTISTS teach that all Christians (or maybe only Baptists) go to heaven; all others go to hell.

      CATHOLICISM teaches that we cannot know who goes to heaven, hell, or purgatory (though limbo’s out now), or how long they will stay there. Presumably being a good Catholic would be of some advantage.

      HARE KRISHNA teach that Krishna devotees go to the land of bliss, Krishnaloka, while others are reincarnated.

      ATHEISM–this you know.

      All of the above except atheism promise infinite bliss under certain conditions, however, there are hidden opportunity costs–and not only vis-a-vis the atheistic, “party ’til you die” option. Namely, if the Baptists are right, then the Hare Krishna are pretty definitely going to hell, and the Unitarians and Catholics are on pretty shaky ground too, On the other hand, if one of these religions is right, then the Baptists are better off than in the reverse situation. If prior probability is assumed to be equal, you will find that you are better off choosing the Baptists. Or to generalize across other religious possibilities, you should choose:

      (a) The most intolerant religion,
      (b) Which promises the best heaven and the worst hell.

      Interestingly, many of the most successful denominations and religions seem to teach this.

  15. I am in agreement that determining genre is necessary to correct interpretation. Comparing Genesis to Proverbs, or to the Epistles is not wise. But I do have a question about Genesis itself. If the creation account is not intended be historical, along with the account of Adam and Eve’s fall, are we to take the stories of the flood, the tower of Babel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph as “mythical” (in the good sense) or are these historical accounts?

    Did God make a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Did Abraham defeat the kings of Mesopotamia and meet with Melchizedek in the Valley of the Kings? Did God destroy Sodom and Gomorrah? Did Joseph rule over Egypt as Pharaoh’s “number one” and prepare the way for Israel to come into Egypt?

    Are all 50 chapters of Genesis “theological texts” designed to teach only through stories, or is any part of it truly historical. The same could be asked of the book of Exodus, which picks up the “story” where Genesis ended.

    I am no die-hard defender of YEC, and I truly do not have an ax to grind with anyone. But somewhere in the five books of Moses story must give way to history. With an open mind I ask, “When does the genre in Genesis change?”

    • cermak_rd says:

      Actually, that’s an interesting question and probably is going to involve comparative studies of ANE literature to determine what is original and unique and what is not.

      One of the things that I find very interesting is the story of Abraham. Not the specifics, but the fact that you have a deity who is heavily involved in Adam and Eve’s life (he walks with them); and then with Noah (he tells him to build an ark) but the founding of the religious worship of this deity is found in the Abraham narrative.

    • Many skeptical historians and archeologists doubt the historical existence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses, or of the events which the Bible has them participating in. Whether it is permissible for a Christian to accept such conclusions is a key question on which denominations differ.

      • cermak_rd says:

        Certainly there’s no archeological evidence of the Exodus or of general enslavement of the Jewish people by the Egyptians. And the battle of Jericho probably didn’t go as is indicated in the text. So the question begins to be one of figuring out why the stories were written and just what they mean.

  16. Jack Heron says:

    I find it interesting that people have been saying that doubting the truth of Genesis (whether we interpret that truth as literal, allegorical or whatever) naturally throws doubt on the Gospels. Why, necessarily? As Polkinghorne said in the article, the Bible is a library – it is only a single entity because we (that’s a ‘Christian tradition’ we) have decided that it is. The Gospels are part of the selection of early Christian literature made by the Church to edify Christians – they don’t come with a tag attached saying ‘The truth of these documents is indissolubly linked to the truth of the Hebrew Scriptures’ (which were also not in a settled form at the time of the Gospels’ composition).

    It also raises the question of *why* we believe in the divinity of Christ (before I’m misunderstood, I say this as someone who is firmly convinced that He was God). Do we believe in Christ because the Bible says so? Or do we believe in Christ for other reasons and then use the Bible to learn about Him and reflect on our faith? Because if we follow the former course, is it really Christ in which we trust?

    Miguel has made a good point above about ‘cafeteria Christianity’. He’s right in that we want to avoid going around saying ‘Like that; don’t like this; go easy on the original sin, it gives me indigestion’. But must we really say ‘All Or Nothing’? Isn’t there room for saying ‘I doubt this. I honestly doubt this’? Cafeteria Christianity to me implies picking and choosing based on what makes us feel good or what we might like to be true. Can’t we be intelligent doubters and pick and choose based on a combination of Scripture, Reason and Tradition? There’s surely nothing wrong in picking what seems to be convincing and leaving what seems doubtful.

    • Because they raise the same type of problem. In both cases, we find texts which are the basis of much religious tradition and dogma, made the subject of historical and textual criticism which calls into question this tradition and dogma. The reader naturally wonders how much of this critical tendency one is permitted to accept without endangering his religious identity–or his soul.

  17. Jack
    You have probably hit on the heart of the problem I have felt for years. I started my Christian journey as a fundamentalist.
    I was taught an all or nothing gospel. If the bible is wrong in one point, it is wrong in all. And of course, since it is all so simple that anyman can understand it therefore these things are plain. And if you don’t believe the bible in its plain meaning you are really lost, or just like the gentiles.
    So you can add the genealogies up as Bishop Ussher did and arrive at 4004BC as the creation date.

    No sense of nuance at all. And that outlook held me well for years until I hit reality. Then it crumbled

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I was taught an all or nothing gospel. If the bible is wrong in one point, it is wrong in all.

      And when physical reality conflicts with some minor point (such as round earth or heliocentrism), all of it crumbles. “All or Nothing” cuts both ways.

      So you can add the genealogies up as Bishop Ussher did and arrive at 4004BC as the creation date.

      Actually, Bishop Ussher’s calculations were a bit more complex than that. Steven Jay Gould wrote an essay (it’s in one of his collections) about the REAL story behind setting that date. Like most stories, the reality is richer than the common knowledge. (Gould also taught “History of Science” at Harvard as well as paleontology.) It was part of an attempt to write a chronology/timeline of all human history, a common scientific project of the time. And Ussher didn’t just “add up the Biblical genealogies” (which are themselves inconsistent; some of them skip generations compared to others), he had to cross-check through other ancient culture’s calendars.

      The actual Month/Day/Hour was as much symbolic as anything else, as by now Ussher was really out on a limb without any hard or soft evidence. And up until the 20th Century, it was acceptable in history and soft sciences to use speculation to fill the gaps (Victorians were the all-time masters of this, especially when it comes to Medieval history; drives today’s historians crazy).

  18. Incidentally, on the subject of genre: today I was given a tract by theJehovah’s Witnesses. Was it historical and factual in nature? Well, there may have been some facts in it (such as the correct address of the JW’s), but in terms of genre, it falls rather comfortably within the category of “religious tract.” It would be foolish, of course, to trust material from such a tract as one would trust a work of secular history (while acknowledging the possibility of errors and hidden agendas in these as well).

    The gospels, needless to say, are the same sort of material. If we judge them by their genre, then we should throw them in the same pile as the JW tracts, the Book of Mormon, the Hare Krishna magazines, etc.

    • Quinn, I welcome push back here, but that’s one crazy comment.

    • The Gospels claim to be eyewitness testimony, which is something quite different than the early chapters of Genesis, or your JW tracts for that matter. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a wonderful contribution to understanding the background of the Gospel narratives, and gives good reasons why we should view them as more than “religious tracts.” Give us some credit here, Quinn. A little less snark and more positive contributions to the discussion might be helpful.

      • The synoptics resemble the early chapters of Genesis in being the products of a complex textual history involving multiple authors and strata, which tradition piously ascribes to some saintly figure (Moses, the evangelists). Both Genesis and the gospels tell stories, and it is hard to say which is the more improbable–both violate our ordinary (modernist) understandings of the world.

        To call the gospels “eyewitness accounts” is not supported by the texts themselves (their titles were added later), and flies in the face of their multiple authorship and folkloric character. Rather, they were produced in some sense by the entire early church–and yes, understood as true, at least in broad detail (notwithstanding occasional discepencies). I assume the same was true of Genesis, though I cannot imagine how its authors or editors would have reacted to the proposal that their cosmology was inadequate. Possibly it would not have mattered–in fact, we can read the creation story as an attempt to replace an earlier, more anthropomorphic Jewish / ANE creation myth with a more cosmic, Perso-Babylonian one. However, we can imagine very well how the early church would have reacted to proposals that Christ did not rise from the dead–we have this reaction in the form of various anathemas.

        Anyway, this is different from the issue of genre. For example, the Book of Mormon claims to be one thing (eyewitness history, dictated by some of its participants), but is in fact something else (it was designed as religious scripture from the very beginning). The gospels make no special claims about genre, but have some affinity with several.

        • Quinn, good comments. While I would agree that there are some similarities between Genesis and the Synoptics, I think the similarities are on the surface (both have a complex textual history, etc.). The final version of the Torah, as well as the entire Tanakh, was the result of a process that took more than a millennium to complete and involved generations of theological reflection and national history. The Synoptic Gospels were likely completed within a generation of the events. No one who knew Moses was around when the final editing of the text that bears his name took place. People whose names are written in the Gospels and who could therefore verify or dispute the accounts as written, were still alive when the Gospel stories were circulating (a main point made by Bauckham).

          You are technically correct in saying that the final products we call “the Gospels” are not made up of mere eyewitness testimony, however, such testimony lies at the heart of the message they convey. This is especially true of the resurrection accounts. Furthermore, Paul’s “Gospel” summary in 1Corinthians 15, which is among the earliest of the NT documents, emphasizes the importance of such testimony in terms which reflect the stories in the Gospels themselves, suggesting that these accounts were circulating and well-known.

          At any rate, the stories in Gen 1-11 reflect anything but eyewitness testimony. They are designed, to use HUG’s phrase, to be the “Old Stories” that ground the story of Israel in God’s creation and covenant choice. I actually think most of the current discussion on these chapters misses large swaths of meaning because it fails to see the Torah/Tanakh-context of these stories. For example, as Peter Enns argues, Adam is best understood as “Proto-Israel.” Adam is chosen by God, enters into covenant with him, is placed in a good land, and is given the choice of life or exile through trusting and obeying Yahweh. All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with how old the universe is or whether or not humans evolved.