According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Foundations for a Radical Christianity, Part 6 - Theology, Philosophy, & Science



Even as we explore postmodern science and philosophy here at Relevancy22 we must be reminded that science and philosophy has its place within theology even as theology must learn to converse with the same. That is to say, science and philosophy are useful as external critiques to the Christian lexicon of understanding biblical truth. That without this societal context theology is imperiled by its own version of revelation creating an incubus that would isolate its traditions and dogmas from introspection.

However, this does not mean that theology becomes subservient to science and philosophy but that it learns to relate as equals in unparalleled relationship with postmodern science and philosophy to that of an orthodox system inhabiting special revelation as its basis of truth. And yet, this theistic foundation is not a protection from the fallibility of imperfect human interpretation. That the Christian reading of the Bible cannot be immune to what the world discovers and continues to discover about ourselves and God's creation. But that Christian theology must utilize outside commentaries, ideas, and discoveries to continually improve its reading of the Bible so that its continually reflects the Redeeming God who is at all times at work within humanity and His creation.

To be aware that our own cocoons of "wisdom and thought" may mislead when designed to protect its faithful. And to know that "looking without to look within" is at all times more helpful than sealing the doors, throwing up ecclesiastical boundaries, and forestaying the "wolf outside" our communal structures. These actions are not helpful but harmful to the church's study of God's Word. Did not Jesus come to teach and disturb His people? And if the church does not do the same is it not doing a disservice to its peoples?

Even as theology is about God so science and philosophy are about how we perceive ourselves with one another and are connected to our world. These latter do not necessarily deny God so much as to rigorously study the world of objects that can be tested and verified through experiments and studies. Even as the Platonist believes he knows all by knowing the One, so the Aristotelian pupil believes nothing can be known without first studying the particular in order to create a more holistic philosophy. Each system is in antagonism to the another but only if the philosopher allows them to be. And yet, in another light, each system can be a help to the other with wisdom and discernment.

So too with Christianity. We come as theists to any human discipline. But this does not mean that we may throw out those academics that dispute our beliefs. It would be to our peril and poorer understanding of God's universe and even ourselves within His greater plan. A Radical Christianity would willingly converse with the world while at all times inspecting itself within the light of that conversation. In some points there will be agreement. In others not at all. And in many a correlation can be found that may be enlightening to a Christian culture at an impasse with its understanding of God's Word.

So we have found in the science of evolution that has shown quite plainly that the popular Christian reading of the Genesis 1-11 is in serious conflict with what we know both scientifically and from historical-source criticism. Hence, somewhere within this reading we must adapt our biblical interpretations (or hermeneutics) to allow for these truths without losing sight of the theology behind the ancient symbolic or historical mythological texts of Genesis 1-11. As example, God is our Creator, sin is a present reality that has somehow entered the world (this author claims through the sublime act of God granting freedom to His creation), and redemption must now ensue.

We also better understand postmodernism's rejection of modernity's secularism that has been embraced by the (evangelical / denominational) 19th-20th century church. That it's formalistic or syllogistic reduction of theology into its separate systematic theologies does not better explain God to us except from a Greek (Hellenistic) and Medieval / Enlightened mindset. That those theologies must now learn how to absorb the newer philosophies out there lest the Christian church no longer  be progressive in its witness but regressive, sectarian, if not possibly cultic (as can be readily seen in the various pockets of the church's culture).

For example, the church does no longer crusade against other nations even as medieval churches once did. But what about our nation's one-time policies of colonialism affected by the church, or now, in its national policies in a post-colonial world? Or, as another example, should the church associate Jesus' love and openness with militaristic images of sword and shield as some Americans would think of their church's patriotism? It would be in err to think of the Gospel of Jesus as a "truth-and-justice" weapon to the world.

As such, God is not in need of being defended. But He is in need of our willingness to see new truths where we believed none existed. To grow beyond our "enslavement" ages of the church, and its "discriminatory" phases now being bashed about as "Christian" when it is neither Jesus-ordained nor rightful on the human plane of civil equalities and rights. In all instances God has not changed in His love to mankind but His fallible church does harm to the gospel of Jesus when bantering cultural prerogatives about in the name of Christ.

If this is not the Christianity we wish we must admit that it is not the Christianity of the God of the Bible whom we so highly elevate and value. In truth, it is we ourselves who must change along with the charters of our fearful churches confusing pride for penance. Sin is still sin but its form is in how we relate to one another, what we do towards one another, and what we deny to one another. Sin is not dismissed. Nor is it absent from the church itself. The Kingdom of God demands another ethic. A heavenly one. And not a human morality that would make us feel comfortable, assured, or at peace with ourselves while refusing the rights of other human beings these same affects and conditions.

The Kingdom of God is not of man but of God. It is of a God who rules and not us. And of His choice to rule through Jesus by the tools and tradecraft of love and peace. And if it were to be one of condemnation than let it be directed to His own people. And especially to those templed priests and theologians then, as now, who deny God by their words, and doctrines, and dogmas, and harden beliefs. For these so-called "believers" who claim they know God hell awaits. But for the penitent man and woman heaven's bounties are opened wide and deep both in this life by witness and life blood to the gospel of Jesus. So be it with the church in this world this day. Let us rethink what we think we know. Let us relearn what we must. And at all times let us serve others the gospel of love and peace by our hands and feet and tongues.

Peace,

[Below are two articles and how they each are dealing with the subjects of Christian theology in juxtaposition with philosophy and science. I deem each as useful as you will soon see.]

R.E. Slater
May 28, 2015









* * * * * * * * * * * *


Resisting De-Personalizing the Biblical God
into the Philosophical Category of "Being Itself"


Is God “A Being” Or “Being Itself?”

by Roger Olson
May 16, 2015

Introduction

I grew up thinking of God, the God of the Bible, the “Christian God,” as “a being”–at the top of a great chain of beings but with a clear gulf fixed between him and everything else down the chain. The gulf was crossable only from God’s side and had to do with the fact that only God is eternal and uncreated. Everything else in the chain was below God and created by God. The gulf was widened by the fall of angels and humans.

This picture of God and everything seemed self-evident in Scripture. I never thought to question it until I got well into my theological studies when I encountered Origen, Augustine, Dionysius (the Pseudo-Areopagite), Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and (skipping far ahead) Paul Tillich. Then I learned that, as a thinking Christian wishing to avoid idolatry, I was supposed to think of God not as “a being” but as Being Itself–not as one, even the supreme and self-existent one, among many but as the Power of Being, the One OF the many.  [RES - (sic, NOT "One of many" = polytheism NOR demiurges of God, that is, greater or lesser instances of God re Christian gnostic belief as versus the Trinity of God, one Being in three essences or Persons as established the Councils of Calcedon).]

If God is really God, so the argument goes, and not like us, limited, finite, conditioned, he must be Absolute. Anything less than “the Absolute,” the Unconditioned, cannot really be God. If the God of the Bible is a being and not Being Itself, the Absolute, the Unconditioned, the One behind the many, then, so the argument goes, then he does not really deserve to be thought of as God because, to borrow Anselm’s term, the mind can think of a great being than him.

Well, that’s obviously a whirlwind explanation that doesn’t come close to doing justice to the argument for God as Being Itself.

I have often felt pressured to rise above my “simple Biblicism” and primitive picture of God as a personal being, even if the greatest of all beings, transcendently surpassing in greatness and glory all creatures, and confess God as Being Itself–not the Supreme Being at the top of a great chain of being but something entirely different–perhaps more like the infrastructure of a city that makes it “work.” (All analogies become problematic, of course, when attempting to depict Being Itself.) I have even been told that my childhood picture of God borders on idolatry.

The assumption underlying much of that thinking (of God as Being Itself) was expressed by Alfred North Whitehead who said that while Buddhism is a metaphysic in search of a religion, Christianity is a religion in search of a metaphysic. That is, the underlying assumption is that the biblical narrative does not give us an adequate, or any, metaphysical world picture, account of reality-itself, but expresses especially transcendent reality in myths, symbols and images which must be interpreted through the lens of some ontology borrowed from outside the Bible. One obvious candidate in early church history was Middle or Neo-Platonism (see also Neo-Platonism, and Neo-Platonism and Christianity). Another, especially in the Middle Ages, was Aristotelianism. (cf. also Aristotle's teachings) Whitehead’s, of course, was his own organic philosophy of process (or, process thought).

What do all those attempts to bring Athens to Jerusalem have in common?

All assume that the biblical portrait of God cannot be taken seriously; it must be supplement if not replaced by a philosophical picture of God which is then interpreted as “what the Bible really means.” Practically speaking, then, all biblical references to God as personal are relegated to the realm of anthropomorphisms–figures of speech that depict God in human terms whereas God is not really much like humans at all.

Over the years I’ve kept an eye open for (non-fundamentalist) theologians who pushed back speaking of God as Being Itself (as opposed to a personal being among others even if the “others” are created). I encountered especially, of course, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, but even they seemed to me inconsistent at times–wanting to affirm God’s “holy otherness” in ways that seemed to make God float off into inaccessible transcendence. I know that was not their intentions, but I came to believe they, like most serious, academic, “world class” theologians, were still infected with the idea that God’s transcendence must mean he is somehow absolute, unconditioned, etc. Brunner, in my opinion, came closest to taking the biblical portrayal of God seriously, resisting ontological ideas of God as Being Itself. Brunner sometimes spoke of God in brutally personal terms–pushing back against the whole Christian theological tradition of negative (apophatic) theology (e.g., attempts to explain what God is not as versus what God is.)

---

[r.e. slater (RES) - This line of thought is sometimes associated with mysticism and the desire of the personal to transcend to the spiritual beyond ordinary perception - Wikipedia. It has also been used somewhat helpfully in postmodern attempts to deconstruct religion of its anthropomorphic-centeredness. In sum, "While negative theology is used in Christianity as a means of dispelling misconceptions about God, and of approaching Him beyond the limits of human reasoning, most commonly Christian doctrine is taken to involve positive claims: "that God exists and has certain positive attributes, even if those attributes are only partially comprehensible to us." )]

---

Every once in a while throughout my theological career (and even as a student of theology) I have run across a theologian that really appealed to me but is not widely known, read or discussed. Recently I’ve been reading articles published in the 1950s in theological journals by an American Protestant theologian named Edmond La B. Cherbonnier (b. 1918). Cherbonnier, who taught at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, pushed back very hard against ontological ideas of God as Being Itself and insisted that there is a “biblical metaphysic” in which God is “a being,” neither unconditioned nor absolute (as in “The Absolute,” the Being Greater Than Which None Can Be Conceived drawing on Greek philosophical ideas of “greatness” as metaphysical perfection).

Cherbonnier attempted to work out what he called “the biblical metaphysic” as a “third way”–alternative to Platonism and Aristotelianism (and certainly also alternative to Whitehead’s ontology). According to Cherbonnier, this biblical metaphysic differs from others than have been imposed on Scripture, or through which Scripture has been interpreted, because it is embedded in, implied by, Scripture itself. According to him, the biblical narrative contains an implied metaphysic and all attempts to interpret Scripture through the “lens” of extra-biblical, philosophical metaphysics or ontologies end up failing to do justice to the biblical revelation of God and reality.

For those interested, I recommend these two articles by Cherbonnier (whose death year I cannot find so I’m hoping he’s still alive so I can correspond with him): “Biblical Metaphysic and Christian Philosophy” (Theology Today 9:3 [October, 1952]: 360-375) and “Is There A Biblical Metaphysic?” (Theology Today 15:4 [January, 1959]: 454-469).

One reason I resist thinking of God as Being Itself as opposed to a personal being is that it tends to undermine prayer except as meditation. It lends itself easily to the idea that “Prayer doesn’t change things; it [only can] change me.” That is, it undermines petitionary prayer which Schleiermacher, understandably [noted] because of his philosophical influences, called “immature prayer.” If God is Being Itself, the Absolute, the Unconditioned, then it would seem prayer cannot affect God. In fact, it would seem God cannot be affected by anything outside himself. My early Christian faith, which I have not entirely discarded (!), focused much on a “personal relationship with God.” God is someone, a being, who is other than I, and we stand vis-a-vis one another in what Buber and Brunner called an “I-Thou relationship.” Regarding God as Being Itself tends to lead away from relating to God as “Thou” with whom one can have a real, personal relationship.

Cherbonnier was on the right track, I believe; we need to retrieve from the biblical narrative its own metaphysic and not borrow ontology from elsewhere and interpret Scripture through that as a lens overlaying it. This would be an exercise in “the Bible absorbing the world” (Hans Frei) and therefore might be called a “narrative metaphysic”–an oxymoron to many philosophical theologians.

Postliberal Protestant theology has been mostly resistant to metaphysics, but if Cherbonnier is right, that could be because most Protestant theologians tend to think of “metaphysics” as synonymous with extra-biblical, rational ontologies that function as natural theologies. But if Cherbonnier is right, there is a biblical metaphysic that is embedded in biblical revelation itself. That is, the Bible itself strongly implies a reality picture that is deeper than doctrines but equally, if not more, important - it is an alternative to philosophical ontologies that usually conflict with God as person or as omnipotent power (as in process thought).

---

[RES - thus, some of my conflict with process thought even as other parts of it are embraced as capturing important salient images of God and the Bible. So too with Radical Theology's usage of postmodern philosophy to uncover what today's evangelical Christianity blatantly discards, discourages, or outright misses beginning with its (Reformed) hermeneutical interpretations which are self-fulfilling and circular in argument (the latest being its 1980's emphasis upon "the inerrancy of Scripture" disallowing for external criticism). These radical disciplines are meant to recover modernal Christianity back to its orthodox charters and teachings and not to dismiss Christianity out of hand by irrelevancy to humanity. By using epistemological frameworks outside of the evangelical frameworks we've become unquestioningly comfortable with it is possible to "negate" popular (but unbiblical) folklores and arguments by re-instating God's presence through Jesus within a postmodern framework making relevant revelation's truth and handiwork to the souls of men. It should also be noted here that throughout the body of Relevancy22 there as been a strong resistance to "disembodying God" as "mere Presence" and always a strong identity of God as a Redemptive Being in relationship to His creation.]

---

I have never been able to become comfortable with calling God “Being Itself” or thinking of God as “absolute” or “unconditioned.” These ideas of God seem to me unbiblical. In this case, as Pascal famously said, “The God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” But there is a philosophy of God revealed through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. It’s just not what most people think of as “philosophy.” To hint at it: It does reveal reality as a “great chain of beings” (plural) with God at its top as creator and governor of all below him with a fixed gulf between him and the rest marked by the difference between being uncreated, self-existent, and being created and dependent (to say nothing of fallen).


* * * * * * * * * * * *


This is Why We Need Christians Engaged in Science!
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/05/28/why-we-need-christians-engaged-in-science-rjs/

by RJS
May 28, 2015

Ed Stetzer had an interesting post on his blog last week -  3 reasons for Christians to Engage in Science. This post is a reprint of an essay he wrote for a small booklet recently released by the National Association of Evangelicals: When God and Science Meet and available for free download. The booklet includes essays by John Ortberg, Mark Noll, Christopher Wright and more.

Stetzer’s three reasons (read his essay on his blog or in the booklet for his elaboration of these points, bold added):

First, creation speaks to a creator. Because we know there is a creator, we should be the ones most concerned about his creation.…

In Romans 1; Paul points out that attributes of God are made clear in creation. We can know his eternal power and divine nature, because they have been clearly seen since the creation of the world.
If Scripture says creation, and therefore the sciences that explore it, point to God, why would we run away from that? We, above all others, should love, study, explore, examine and care for the creation that provides evidence of God and his character.

Second, dismissing science undermines our witness. But many evangelicals are backing away from science. In a society driven by scientific achievement, it is unwise and counterproductive to our mission for Christians to embrace an anti-science label.

Third, science can better society. … The fact is, as we find better ways to farm, powerful new medicines to heal and more effective ways to power our society, the poor benefit, societies are transformed for the better and the world looks and is more of what God intended it to be.

Christians are to champion the good of their city and society as a whole. Leveraging scientific study and achievement for the betterment of people is an entirely Christian thing to do.

All three of these are great reasons for Christians to engage in science. The pursuit of science brings a sense of wonder, beauty, and awe to many scientists, religious or not. For a Christian in the sciences there is an added wonder and beauty. When we, as scientists, study the “natural” phenomena of the universe, whether in physics, chemistry, paleontology, geology, biology or some other science, we are studying the nature of God’s creation. This can make the pursuit of scientific understanding a form of worship as Dorothy Chappell, Dean of Natural and Social Sciences at Wheaton College, says in her essay:

Scientists can discover, study and contemplate the complexities of the created order while apprehending God’s glory, which remains resplendent throughout the creation; in other words, they can worship and interact with God as they do their own professional work. This represents a profound discipline: doing good science and practicing vibrant faith. A natural outcome that results when scientists explore the mysteries of creation from a biblical worldview is a greater capacity for wonder, awe and humility. These, after all, are the traits of effective scientists and devout Christians. (p. 36, When God and Science Meet)

Stetzer’s third reason is also highlighted in a number of the essays in When God and Science Meet. The pursuit of science is transforming the world for the better. This isn’t to embrace the myth of human moral progress where human effort will produce a perfect society or bring the Kingdom of God. It is simply to state a fact – vaccinations, sanitation, clean water, efficient transportation, medicines, instrumentation for imaging and diagnosis, all of these and many more developments, have made life for many longer, healthier, and safer. “Leveraging scientific study and achievement for the betterment of people is an entirely Christian thing to do.”

Finally his second reason, which is undervalued or misinterpreted by many:  Dismissing science, or worse yet distorting and misrepresenting science, undermines our witness as Christians in profound ways.  The church needs Christians engaged in science to hold fellow Christians to a high standard and to provide the needed expertise and review. John Ortberg notes in his essay:

I have seen too many young people in too many churches exposed to bad science in the misguided idea that someone was defending the Bible; then they go off to college and find out they were misinformed and they think they have to choose between the Bible and truth. (p. 28)

Bad science does no one any good.  Not Christians adults or youth, and certainly not non-Christians who find bad science a reason to dismiss any need to dig deeper and understand Christian faith. We need to pursue the truth.

Christian faith and the study of science are not mutually exclusive pursuits. Taking the Bible seriously does not mean holding to positions clearly contradicted by modern science. The Bible is not a science book.  Taking the Bible seriously does call us to stand against the metaphysical conclusions that some draw from science, just as it calls us to stand against the “wisdom of the world” driven by the pursuit of money, sex, and power.

The pursuit of scientific understanding has unearthed a wealth of new information. Information that our predecessors had no knowledge of and did not need to wrestle with … the vastness of the universe, the age of the earth, evolution. The church today does need to wrestle with this data.  In order to do this we need people who are conversant in science, who will take the time to explain the data and explore the relationship between the new insights from science and Christian theology. One of the reasons we need Christians to engage in science is to lead the church faithfully into the future.

Lucas Cranach Man and Woman and this leads to Adam. If that seems like a sharp left turn, changing the subject, it shouldn’t. Every discussion of science and Christian faith these days seems to return to the question of Adam, human evolution, and common descent. This is an overstatement, but not by much. Many of my posts over the last several years have turned around the discussion of Adam. In general I’ve focused on the biblical and theological issues because, quite frankly, I am convinced by the evidence of common descent. As a result I am deeply interested in the ramifications this has on our understanding of life from a Christian perspective.

Many readers, however, remain unconvinced that a unique couple is disproved by the scientific data. We need Christian scientists with the expertise and patience to explain the scientific data and consensus on a level accessible to non-scientists and to point out both the strengths and the weaknesses of the data and interpretation. I haven’t the patience (or the ready expertise in genetics) to offer a coherent and accessible explanation on common descent and human genetics. Fortunately Dennis Venema, professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, has the patience, expertise and ability. Dennis is in the middle of a long series of excellent posts at Biologos exploring Adam, Eve, and human population genetics.

The last few installments of Adam, Eve, and human population genetics have looked at the arguments Dr. Vern Poythress advanced in his recent short book Did Adam Exist?. Dr. Poythress’s scientific argument leaves much to be desired. He misinterprets the scientific papers he uses to defend his position that common descent is unsupported by the genetic data and that science cannot rule out a bottleneck consisting of one unique human couple as progenitor of the entire human race.  Dennis does an nice job of pointing out the problems with Dr. Poythress’s scientific argument.  Bad scientific arguments are far too common and do devastating damage to the faith of far too many. (See John Ortberg’s quote again.)

We need Christians like Dennis, engaged in science and with a heart for the church.


Book Review by Peter Enns - "Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither"



7 problems with a recent evangelical defense of the historicity of Genesis 1-11
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2015/05/7-problems-with-a-recent-evangelical-defense-of-the-historicity-of-genesis-1-11/

by Peter Enns

May 26, 2015

Zondervan’s latest volume in their popular “Counterpoints” series concerns the historicity of Genesis 1-11, Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters. The three well-known contributors are James Hoffmeier (Trinity International University), Kent Sparks (Eastern University), and Gordan Wenham (Trinity College and University of Gloucestershire).

The editor, Charles Halton, summarizes the differences between them:

Professor Hoffmeier believes that theology begins from the foundational understanding that the events recorded in Gen 1-11 really happened and that the Israelite scribes did not borrow from the Mesopotamian or Egyptian myths but were writing in opposition to them. The Israelites corrected the misunderstandings and mythologies of their day with an authoritative and historically accurate portrait.

Professor Wenham believes that there is a core of historical reality in Gen 1-11 but that the telling we have is like an impressionist painting–we can only make out vague outlines of what really took place.

Professor Sparks thinks that the writers of the Bible employed standard forms of ancient historiography whose primary intent was not to precisely relay events that occurred in space and time. These scribes emplotted a theological story that reveals deep insights into the character and nature of God. (pp. 155-56, my emphasis and formatting)

I’m familiar with the unavoidable limitations of the “Counterpoints” format (I’ve worked on two of the volumes, here and here). Not every question can be addressed, nor is this the place for authors to say everything they want to say about their topic.

Nevertheless, I had the modest hope for this volume that James Hoffmeier–the pre-eminant evangelical scholarly defender of the historicity of the exodus–would put evangelicalism’s best foot forward, move beyond familiar apologetic rhetoric, and offer readers a best case for why the historical and comparative evidence point clearly toward Genesis 1-11 as history.

Instead, more often than not, I found Hoffmeier rehearsing frustratingly predictable apologetic tactics that are typically deployed whenever the historicity of a biblical episode is considered “under attack,” (tactics that Kent Sparks patiently laid out in his 2008 book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship).

Hoffmeier’s “here I stand” rhetoric is clear in his introductory section, which I reproduce below (pp. 23-24, my emphasis):

Genesis 1-1 begins the story of redemption–the loss of God’s presence, intimacy between God and humans, and access to the tree of life. The narrative commences with “Paradise Lost,” and culminates in the New Testament with “Paradise Regained,” to borrow from one of John Milton’s seventeenth-century classic poems. Because of this overarching theme connecting the early chapters of Genesis to the book of Revelation, Genesis 1-11 must be taken seriously. In recent centuries, especially because of the influence of Enlightenment rationalism on scriptural interpretation, readers of the Bible wonder whether Genesis can be read as it once was in pre-critical times. The dominant scientific worldview has understandably influenced the way Christians read the Bible in general and Genesis 1-11 in particular. A consequence of this hermeneutic has prompted the preoccupation of European biblical scholars to employ “scientific” (Wissenschaftlich) approach that has sought to isolate the sources that stood behind Genesis, thereby denying the Jewish-Christian tradition of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

The short essay cannot devote time to the history of speculation about sources and origins of the book of Genesis, the so-called “critical” study of the Pentateuch. Consider, however, that the four-source hypothesis of Wellhausen that dominated biblical schoalrship from the mid-nineteenth to the end of the twentieth century has been in “sharp decline,” as E. W. Nicholson has observed and he admits “some would say [it is] in a state of advanced rigor mortis.” Consequently, the “assured results” of critical scholarship are being rejected, ironically enough, by European Old Testament scholars!

This rhetoric of “faithful to the Bible” vs. “critical scholarship” is disappointing and sets the tone for Hoffmeier’s essay and his responses, particularly to Sparks.

---

Let me summarize and interpret Hoffmeier’s concerns by rephrasing his comments:

1. Genesis 1-11 sets the theological stage for the rest of the Bible, and so, if Genesis 1-11 cannot be trusted to deliver to us historical truth, the entire theological structure of the Bible falls apart. Hence, the historical nature of Genesis 1-11 must be protected at all costs.

2. Denial of the historical nature of Genesis 1-11 is simply the product of atheistic thinking–of Enlightenment rationalism, which is fundamentally in rebellion against God. Hence, biblical criticism is only “so-called ‘critical’” because it is rooted in the deep bias of anti-biblical thinking.

3. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Enlightenment thinking is the bewilderingly speculative preoccupation to distill sources behind Genesis. Since Wellhausen’s four-source theory (JEDP) has been rejected by even European scholars–and as such is DOA–we evangelicals who reject (and have always rejected) source criticism are not only vindicated but are actually show ourselves to be more rigorously academic than those who blindly hold to older critical “orthodoxies.”

4. Further, continuing to give quarter to the particularly odious, speculative theory of sources pits one against the entire Jewish and Christian pre-critical tradition that has accepted Moses as the fundamental author of the Pentateuch.

These opening paragraphs do not bode well for encouraging academic discourse. Hoffmeier revisits these themes in his essay and in his response to Sparks. To the 4 listed above, let me add 3 others that surface.

5. Since Genesis 1-11 refers to people with lineages and real geographic locations, it is clearly intended to be read as relaying historical space/time events, and so we must take this historical intention “seriously”–which means accept that this historical intention produced a historically accurate text.

6. Sparks puts science over the Bible, and which inexorably leads to a denial of the resurrection of Christ, which is also impossible on scientific grounds.

7. Genesis 1-11 cannot be influenced by Mesopotamian myth because it is a polemic against Mesopotamian myth.

Sparks addresses these 7 points and other concerns in his 10-page response, and regardless of where one’s sympathies lie, interested readers should avail themselves of both.

---

My own brief responses are as follows.

1. I agree that there is a theological “structure,” so to speak, for the Christian Bible, and that structure reflects the theological sensitivities of the biblical writers and of those who directed the process of canonization (first OT then NT). But the presence of this theological structure does not settle the vexing historical problems of Genesis 1-11, and to think that it does is a common evangelical and fundamentalist assertion.

Theological needs (i.e., better, perceived theological needs) does not determine historical truth. Evangelicals do not tolerate such self-referential logic from defenders of other faiths, and they should not tolerate it in themselves.

2. Claiming alleged Enlightenment influence on opponents is a well known conversation stopper among evangelical apologists, and I am particularly disappointed to see Hoffmeier resort to it. Evangelical defenses of historicity are often quickly propelled into the philosophical stratosphere of “presuppositions,” which has the unfortunate effect of reducing debates on concrete matters to claims of theological superiority.

As far as I am concerned, “you’re just beholden to Enlightenment rationalism” is on the same rhetorical level as “that sounds like Hitler (or Bultmann, or Barth),” or more economically, “you’re liberal.”

This sort of rhetoric is not designed to converse but to gain a theological upper hand by determining the playing field and rules of engagement. It has worn out its welcome and has no place in scholarly engagement.

3. Another common evangelical tactic repeated here by Hoffmeier is to equate Wellhausen’s 19th c. theory of Pentateuchal composition with source theories that have developed since Wellhausen. Sparks effectively addresses this in his response.

Let me simply say that source criticism is most certainly not dead, though most all have moved beyond Wellhausen, including neo-documentarians like Joel Baden and Jeffrey Stackert. (On this see Dozeman, Schmid, and Schwartz, The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research, 2011; especially Schwartz’s essay, “Does Recent Scholarship’s Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis Constitute Grounds for Its Rejection?)

And one would be hard-pressed indeed to find any biblical scholar outside of the inerrantist camp–whether Israeli, American, or European–who does not see the Pentateuch as having a rich and complex developmental pre-history spanning several hundred years and not coming to end until long after the return from exile.

P and D are not seriously questioned among biblical scholars. The origins of Israel’s ancient narratives– J and E–are. That is a great discussion to have. But the “we know Wellhausen was wrong so now we can retreat back to Mosaic authorship” rhetoric is at best misleading because it is grounded in a description of Pentateuchal scholarship that is absolutely wrong.

4. Following on #3, Hoffmeier seems to think that debunking Wellhausen not only neuters any source analysis of the Pentateuch but de facto puts Mosaic authorship back in its rightful place as the traditional, and problem-free explanation for Pentateuchal origins.

But Mosaic authorship, regardless of how the matter is framed, cannot be given a free pass. Its problems, which have been observed since long before the advent of “Enlightenment rationalism,” do not simply disappear.

Pre-critical misgivings about Mosaic authorship (albeit few and far-between) are not unknown (e.g., of Abraham Ibn-Ezra, 12th c. rabbi). Ironically, none other than conservative Calvinist E. J. Young lists in his Introduction to the Old Testament a long history of questions raised concerning Mosaic authorship stemming back at least to Jerome in the 4th c. (who queried whether Moses could have written the account of his own death in Deuteronomy 34 or whether perhaps Ezra is repsonsible).

Questioning Mosaic authorship is not recent invention. Where the modern period differs is in moving from canonical observation to historical explanation.

One should also note that source analyses do not necessarily stem from anti-religious bias. Jean Astruc (d. 1766) was the first to argue for different sources in Genesis based on the use on the divine name (Yahweh and Elohim, which become J and E, respectively), and did so in an effort to protect Mosaic authorship (by arguing that Moses was working with ancient sources).

Similar to response #1 above, disagreement with tradition does not make such disagreement wrong. “Who are you to go against tradition?” can be a valid question at times, but more often than not is a bullying tactic aimed at closing off discussion. Tradition can be wrong, as it was with a geocentric cosmos and “the Jews killed Jesus.”

5. Sparks addresses this point, when he states what appears to me to be obvious: intending to write history doesn’t mean you pulled it off, and biblical authors do not get a free pass on “historical accuracy,” especially without addressing the type of history writing we can expect from ancient Israelite/Jewish authors.

Addressing this key issue is what Sparks’s essay is all about. Hoffmeier, however, seems content to assume ancient and modern standards largely overlap.

Ancient genealogies and narratives set in real locations do not a historical narrative make, despite Hoffmeier’s strong contention to the contrary.

6. This same slippery-slope line recurs again and again and again and again whenever it is suggested that science or other scholarly disciplines affect how we think of the Bible (especially in the evolution debate), but this rhetoric is useless for reasoned and scholarly discussion.

I can say with full confidence that Sparks has not made some thoughtless presuppositional commitment to “Wissenschaft über alles (i.e. science triumphs over all!!), as Hoffmeier rather indelicately caricatures him (p. 142). To say that the study of human history–including ANE religious texts–renders suspect the historicity of Gen 1-11 is not to say that science triumphs over ALL but that science informs our thinking on issues that are actually open to scientific investigation.

Cosmic and human origins leave footprints that can be studied through scientific means (and is why Hoffmeier, I presume, does not think the world is 6000 years old). The resurrection of Christ doesn’t provide such footprints and therefore is not open to the same type of scientific investigation.

Of course, many do believe that science is the ultimate determiner of truth and so things outside of scientific investigation cannot have happened, but that is not at all where Sparks is coming from and to attempt to discredit Sparks by painting him as a science worshipper is somewhere between a gross misunderstanding and a low blow.

Allowing–even embracing–science to inform our reading of an Iron Age text does not mean one will also have to deny the resurrection. This line of defense needs to be put to rest.

7. I find it incredible that Hoffmeier contends that Genesis 1-11 is essentially independent of Mesopotamian origins stories. This is like suggesting that Roman theology and politics can be best understood apart from preceding Greek culture.

A key element in Hoffmeier’s argument is that Gensiss 1-11 is a polemic against Mesopotamian myth and therefore independent of it. But the fact that Genesis 1-11 is certainly polemical does not in any way suggest that far older Mesopotamian myth does not form the cultural back drop for Genesis 1-11. The polemic only works because it embraces ancient assumptions about the nature of the cosmos.

Genesis 1-11 cannot be isolated from its environment like this. To suggest that Genesis 1-11 alone escapes the many-layered interpenetration of ancient origins stories we find throughout the ANE is an essential rejection of any value for comparative study of the Bible.

To sum up, despite whatever positive evidence Hoffmeier feels he has adduced in his essay for the historicity of Gen 1-11, those points are only convincing if one is willing to:

  1. assert that theological need is the unimpeachable grounding for reading Genesis as history,
  2. characterize alternate view points as beholden to the philosophical biases of “Enlightenment rationalism,” and consequently
  3. keep at arm’s length two fundamental (and outside of inerrantist camps, universally accepted) elements of modern scholarship on Genesis: that Genesis (1) has a lengthy, complex pre-history that continues into the postexilic period, and (2) reflects far older Mesopotamian (and Canaanite and Egyptian) influence.

Let me stress this third point. We all know that historical criticism has its problems and excessive confidence in its alleged objectivity is to be roundly criticized–as it has been for generations. But the two elements of critical scholarship Hoffmeier rejects are not excessive or trendy but the very intellectual structure of the historical/academic study of the Pentateuch.

Hoffmeier is free to dismiss them, but let there be no mistake of the degree of distance Hoffmeier is willing to put between himself and basic, even elementary, conclusions of generations of modern scholarship on Genesis and the Pentateuch in order to maintain his position.

Hoffmeier is well within his right to make assertions and defend them. But as I said at the outset, I was hoping for something more than this. I’ve read much of what Hoffmeier has written. He is an educated man and capable of much more. But we don’t find it here.

If this type of rhetorical defense is the best that evangelical academia can muster to defend its theology, evangelicalism may have little left to contribute to the discussion.