Note from CM: We have asked Dr. Peter Enns before for permission to rerun his writing, and I’m tempted to do it a lot. Enns has received enormous attention from a wide audience for what he has to say about Biblical interpretation and the faith/science debate. That’s because he is courageous and clear-thinking, and frankly, what he says makes a lot of sense. But whether you agree or disagree with him, one undeniable contribution he has made has been to continue the conversation in a way that is thoughtful and civil.
This particular piece is a good follow-up to last Saturday’s “More Tired Rhetoric” post because it counters some of that pure rhetoric that keeps people from talking to rather than past each other.
The following post ran on Enns’ blog on November 10, 2011.
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Recurring Mistakes in the Adam/Evolution Discussion
by Dr. Peter Enns
Over the past two weeks or so, there has been quite a bit of blog discussion over the question of Adam in light of evolution. I have kept up with various websites and other postings—not to mention comments on my own website.
Opinions vary, of course, and the Internet can be a good place to air one’s views and have a rousing back and forth debate. Nothing at all wrong with that. But, as I began reading editorials and comments, I saw patterns of responses that served more to obscure the issues before us than enlighten.
I began jotting down these patterns, thinking that, perhaps, I’ll write a brief post about “problems to avoid if we want to get anywhere in this important discussion.” But my list of recurring mistakes grew to fifteen—well beyond one post.
So, we’ll begin today with the first three recurring mistakes —in no particular order whatsoever. The others will follow in the days to come.
1. It’s all about the authority of the Bible.
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.
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.
To put all this another way, appealing to biblical authority does not tell you how to interpret the Bible. That requires a lot more work. It always has. “Biblical authority” is a predisposition to the text. It is not a hermeneutic.
2. You’re giving science more authority than the Bible.
This, too, may have some rhetorical effect, but it is entirely misguided.
To say that science gives us a more accurate understanding of human origins than the Bible is not putting science “over” the Bible—unless we assume that the Bible is prepared to give us scientific information.
There are numerous compelling reasons to think that Genesis is not prepared to provide such information—namely the fact that Genesis was written at least 2500 years ago by and for people, who, to state the obvious, were not thinking in modern scientific terms.
One might respond, “But Genesis was inspired by God, and so needs to be true.”
That assertion assumes (1) that “truth” requires historical accuracy (which needs to be defended rather than asserted), and (2) that a text inspired by God in antiquity would, by virtue of its being the word of God, need to give scientific rather than ancient accounts of origins (which is also an assumption that would need to be vigorously defended, not merely asserted).
Put another way, lying behind this error in thinking is the unstated assumption that the Bible, as the word of God, must predetermine the conclusions that scientific investigations can arrive at on any subject matter the Bible addresses.
To make this assumption is to run roughshod over the very contextual and historically conditioned nature of Scripture.
If Scripture were truly given priority over science in matters open to scientific inquiry, the church would have never gotten past Galileo’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun.
3. But the church has never questioned the historicity of Adam.
This is largely true—though it obscures the symbolism especially early interpreters found in the Garden story, but I digress. On the whole, this statement is correct.
But this rather obvious observation is irrelevant to the issue at hand.
Knowing what the history of the church has thought about Adam is not an argument for Adam’s historicity, as some seem to think, since the history of the church did not have evolution to deal with until recently.
That’s the whole point of this debate—evolution is a new factor we have to address.
Appealing to a time in church history before evolution was a factor as an authoritative voice in the discussion over evolution simply makes no sense. What Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans assumed about human origins is not relevant. (And, no, I am not dismissing the study of church history, historical theology, etc., by saying this.)
Calling upon church history does not solve the problem; it simply restates it.
Appealing to church history does not end the discussion; it just reminds us why we need to have the discussion in the first place.
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Pete Enns followed up this post with three more. Here are the links: