Evolutionary Creation 6 (RJS)

We’ve been working through Denis O. Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution – a book that describes a way to move beyond the creation and evolutions debates. Chapter 4 of this book describes the role that ancient science plays in the text of scripture. The post on Tuesday looked at the general topic and specifically at the presence of an ancient view of astronomy, geology, and cosmology in the text. The ancient understanding of biology and reproduction is also embedded in the text. In the post today I would like to outline some aspects of the ancient Near East (ANE) view of biology, its presence in the text of scripture, and finish up with a brief discussion of Dr. Lamoureux’s approach to the presence of ANE science in scripture.

The ancient understanding of biology is apparent in such well know texts as Lev. 11:5-6 where the coney or hyrax (right) and rabbit are classified as cud-chewing animals:

The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.

Or Lev. 11:13-19 where the bat is classified as a bird:

These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.

This is interesting – and leads to some questions.

Does the presence of ANE biology in the text of scripture pose a more serious problem than ANE geography or astronomy?

How does the this impact our understanding of what it means for scripture to be the inspired word of God? How does it impact our understanding of the message of scripture?

The ANE view of reproduction, including human reproduction, was viewed as males as sowing seed into a receptacle – the womb of the female – where the seed then grew. Lineage passed through the male line because the essence of being came from the male, not the female. The idea of egg and sperm combining to produce a child with equal contributions from mother and father was not in the picture. Dr. Lamoureux quotes from Aeschylus (5th cent. BC):

“The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only the nurse of the new-planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts. She preserves a stranger’s seed if no God interferes.” The ancients believed that an entire miniature human being was tightly packed within a man’s “seed.” Historically, this notion persisted as late as the seventeenth century even after the invention of the first microscopes. (p. 139)

This image is found throughout scripture as well – most notably in the language that it used to refer to the problems of infertility. The language is the language of agriculture. Women are barren – as a field is barren – when it is not possible for seed to grow in the womb. This idea also relates, I expect, to the ethics and rationale behind practice of giving a handmaiden as a surrogate when a wife could not bear a child.

The image of a one-seed notion of reproduction is implicit in Hebrew 7:4-10

Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder! Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people—that is, from their fellow Israelites—even though they also are descended from Abraham. This man, however, did not trace his descent from Levi, yet he collected a tenth from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. And without doubt the lesser is blessed by the greater. In the one case, the tenth is collected by people who die; but in the other case, by him who is declared to be living. One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor.

The presence of ANE biology in the text of the bible provides another interesting place where it is likely that we often impose our understanding of science on the text and fail to read what is written as it would have been intended by the authors and understood by the original audience. The original meaning of the text blows past us and we assume, because of our context and current knowledge, that the terms are figurative and were also considered figurative 2000 or 3000 years ago.

Where do we go from here? If we expect scientific concordance between the text of scripture and our present understanding of cosmology, geography, biology, reproduction, and more we have two choices – we can search for reasons why the language doesn’t carry the apparent meaning, the meaning that fits in context with noncanonical texts and other sources, or we can dismiss scripture as an ancient, errant, and purely human document. Many, of course, take the first approach – looking at the language as phenomenological or as figurative and poetic.

Phenomenological Language: John Calvin took this approach in his Genesis commentary, noting that God accommodated himself to human perspective using phenomenological language. (Although Calvin was not willing to admit that Moses was also mistaken and left in his error.):

Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. … If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. (Commentary on Genesis Vol. 1)

The same reasoning can be used for cud chewing rabbits and that bird, the bat. However, it is important to note that the authors of the text, contra Calvin, did not realize that their “science” was mistaken. The  descriptions are phenomenological because the understanding in the ANE cultures was phenomenological.  To author and original audience the rising and setting sun was both phenomenological and true, while we use the phenomenological language knowing (at least most of us) that the earth moves around the sun giving rise to the appearance of rising and setting, they did not.  It seems obvious that God accommodated his message to human perspective on issues that were of no real significance to the overall message.

Poetic or Figurative Language: At other times many will argue that the language was never intended to have a real referent, especially when the phenomenological explanation seems inappropriate. The vault of Genesis 1 was always intended as figurative; the pillars of the earth in was merely a poetic literary device for Job when he spoke of the power of God:

Then Job replied: “Indeed, I know that this is true.  But how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God? … He shakes the earth from its place and makes its pillars tremble. He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;

And the same in Psalm 75: 1-3

We praise you, God, we praise you, for your Name is near; people tell of your wonderful deeds. You say, “I choose the appointed time; it is I who judge with equity. When the earth and all its people quake, it is I who hold its pillars firm.

As we learn more of the ANE context and culture it is hard to hold this line however. It seems clear that scripture uses same understandings of cosmology and biology as the surrounding culture. The text reflects real assumptions about the world and the universe.

It is also apparent that this cultural context is not the same in all parts of scripture,  as it was not in every time and place where the various books and passages of the bible were composed, assembled, and edited. At times, for example, the earth is depicted as supported, not by pillars but by water. Dr. Lamoureux points us to Psalm 24:2 and 136:6

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;for he founded it on the seas and established it on the waters. (Psalm 24)

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever. to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever. who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever. who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever. who made the great lights—His love endures forever. (Psalm 136)

Again it appears that God accommodates his message to the local culture and context on issues that are of no importance to the theological point. Of course this isn’t entirely consistent throughout the text, because the text comes from different times and contexts.

Message-Incident Principle: Dr. Lamoureux introduces the message-incident principle to guide interpretation of passages that refer to the physical world and to help Christians think through the impact of ANE science in the text. This approach acknowledges ANE science and phenomenological language, yet suggests that it is the theological content, not the scientific content, that is the significant content of the text.

This approach contends that in order to reveal spiritual truths as effectively as possible to the ancient peoples, the Holy Spirit used their ancient phenomenological perspective of nature. That is, instead of confusing or distracting the biblical writers and their readers with modern scientific concepts, God descended to their level and employed the science-of-the-day. … According to this interpretative principle, biblical inerrancy and infallibility rest in the Divine Theology, and not in statements referring to nature.  Qualifying ancient science as “incidental” does not imply that it is unimportant. The science in Scripture is vital for transporting spiritual truths.  … In other words, the ancient science in Scripture is “alongside” the “more important” Message of Faith. (pp. 110-111)

What do you think?

Does the message-incident principle, the idea that the science is merely the incident, the vessel, carrying the message make sense?

Is this a reasonable approach to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture?

It you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

For those who find the full book (400+ pages) somewhat daunting Dr. Lamoureux has condensed the book into a more accessible version, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution. He also provides audio and slide summaries of each chapter of Evolutionary Creation online.

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  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    RJS, an excellent summary and explanation. It could be easy to miss the forest for the trees when reading all of the examples – some of them fairly inconsequential – of inaccuracies in scripture. Coneys don’t chew their cud, bats aren’t birds; they may be minor details, but what does it mean to us if the Bible isn’t literally true in every detail?

    Skeptics can jump all over these examples and ridicule Christians for believing that a book that contains so many errors is actually inerrant. And Christians for whom inerrancy is crucial may try to explain how these details are actually true (the authors were using phenomenological language or speaking figuratively).

    Both are giving too much weight to details that actually don’t matter that much. Lamoureux’s message-incident principle allows one to retain the essential aspects of God’s message while accepting that the less consequential details don’t need to be rigorously accurate.

    Because we consider the Holy Bible to be God’s word, we can easily focus too much on the value of each word to the point that the essential message becomes obscured. Young earth creationists insist that if you don’t believe that the earth is less than 10 thousand years old, you’re not really going to believe that Jesus was resurrected (so the senior pastor of my church has told me). And so by that reasoning, if I’m going to assert that the Bible is wrong in some details (or if I disagree with his overly-literal interpretation), I may as well just toss out the whole book and abandon my faith. Biblical literalists and atheists both believe in this all-or-nothing approach. 

    The insistence on believing that every word of the Bible is literally true results in idolatry. We end up worshipping the book itself. But the Bible is a tool, a guide, that directs us to Jesus. The opening words of the gospel of John beatifully echo the opening words of Genesis. Jesus is the Word.  

  • Rick

    The more I think about this the more I like it.

    “Does the message-incident principle, the idea that the science is merely the incident, the vessel, carrying the message make sense?”

    Yes. If God uses Scripture to communicate certain truths, to people in various contexts over thousands of years, the use of vessels would vary.

    “Is this a reasonable approach to the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture?”

    I don’t know if it helps the inerrancy issue since “inerrancy” can mean various things. It does seem reasonable on the inspiration, or even infallible, descriptions.

    “How does it impact our understanding of the message of scripture?”

    I think this is gets a real boost from this approach, since the message becomes emphasized over the minute details. Sometimes the message might incorporate minute details, but if it does not, the message God is communicating is still the main focus.

  • Tim

    Um, I don’t see everything loading neatly into categories of ancient science and divine theology. Take for example the concept of ‘herem’ evident in the conquest narratives. ‘Herem’ is a theological/sacrificial concept prevalent in Canaan and appropriated by the Hebrews and expressed in their claims of earlier acts of slaughter/destruction of several Canaanite cities in Joshua. How does this load onto the Message-Incident Principle above?

  • Travis Greene

    I don’t know. This seems like one more effort to extract the seed from the kernel. I don’t think we need to spend a whole lot of time dividing what is the High Holy Inerrant special Word of God from the dumb ol’ ancient science. There’s a danger in trying to find the “real” (systematized?) meaning behind the text. We didn’t receive that theoretical meaning, we received the canon, warts and all.

    As far as biology, they weren’t wrong, they just had a different, if less useful, way of categorizing the world. If “birds” simply means “non-insects that fly”, then of course bats are birds. I don’t know if this is the same sort of difference between ancient and current science as flatly wrong cosmologies that out the earth in pillars or a giant turtle or what-have-you.

  • pds

    I think the proposed message-incident principle is too rigid.

    “According to this interpretative principle, biblical inerrancy and infallibility rest in the Divine Theology, and not in statements referring to nature.”

    So when the Bible says,

    “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

    Is this not reliable since it is about the origin of matter and “nature”?

    Rigid dichotomies are not the best approach. I prefer a more flexible approach that takes into account the passage, the writer, context, style, form of literature and every other interpretive resource.

    “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

    Again, unreliable because it is about “nature”?

    Also, we should not make a rigid “science v. non-science” distinction that the writers would not have made. Not all statements about nature are “science.”

  • Tim


    I’m with you on the animal classification thing, I think. But I can’t see how anyone could make the case that the 3-tiered flat earth cosmology wasn’t wrong. I mean, if that wasn’t wrong, what is? You’d think at that point even the word/concept of “wrong” would be discarded as meaningless. I think according to the vast majority of people’s definition, ancient cosmology as expressed in scripture was wrong.

  • dopderbeck

    These are good examples of why we need a hermeneutical principle that is sensitive to ancient context. Travis — yeah, but you can use this “linguistic range” idea to the point of absurdity. Rabbits don’t chew cud, unless “rabbits” doesn’t mean “rabbits” or “cud” doesn’t mean “cud,” in which case what’s the point of the language?

    However, I do not like the “message-incident principle” formualtion. It isn’t really a “principle” and it isn’t workable.

    First, most of the examples described above aren’t “incidents.” They’re statements about general phenomena.

    More importantly, quite often in scripture the incident is the message. Exhibit A of course is the entirety of the Rule of Faith: the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Here, these “incidents” do not merely support the message, they are truly the message itself.

    Ancient interpreters recognized this and organized the entire canon as well as their entire hermeneutical method around the Rule of Faith. Recovering this ancient method, IMHO, is the key to our present interpretive difficulties concerning science. Perhaps it is really more like an “incident-message” principle, which is that the incident of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ is the message that shapes all our interpretation of sacred scripture.

    Thus if we are looking to the Levitical law for modern scientific information about the digestive processes of rabbits, we are misusing scripture. But if we look to the Levitical law for insight into God’s desire to call apart a redeemed community, ultimately a community under Christ, then we are probably on the right track.

  • dopderbeck

    pds (#5) — I think your comment about classifying things as “science” in the Bible is helpful. I don’t like this trend of saying the Bible contains “ancient science.” The fact is that there was simply nothing at all like what we now call “science” in the ANE. To call anything they were doing “ancient science” is anachronistic, and it’s much more helpful hermeneutically to understand that the Bible is not concerned at all with what we call “science.”

  • Sean LeRoy

    @dopderbeck – “But if we look to the Levitical law for insight into God’s desire to call apart a redeemed community, ultimately a community under Christ, then we are probably on the right track.” ~ well said…thank you.

  • pds

    dop #7,

    Good thoughts on reading Scripture the way the church has throughout history. It is humbling and mind-broadening.

  • Yet another great post.

    I appreciate Dr. Lamoureux’s ideas surrounding his Message-Incident principle for reading and interpreting scripture. The whole idea of divine condescension makes logical sense, especially when we read it in light of Christ’s incarnation (especially relevant this time of year). In order to communicate divine and infinite ideas, God had to accommodate to our level, otherwise we would never be able to grasp and understand anything about God. What a beautiful picture of love and grace.

    His ideas are similar to those from Karen Winslow’s essay in the book “Creation Made Free,” edited by Thomas Jay Oord. At the conclusion of her piece, she makes this statement:

    “God did not violate the writers’ understandings of their environs to disclose the details of the sort of universe that we know by means of telescopes on satellites and instruments that measure radio waves. If God had revealed such matters to prophets or storytellers, it would have been irrelevant and confusing for centuries. Such information would likely have been discarded as absurd. Scientists are discovering all sorts of things every day about the nature of the universe and the composition of planets. To include even a fraction of such information in Israel’s story of beginnings would have been meaningless for centuries of Scripture readers” (pg. 27).

    This makes sense to me 🙂

  • normbv

    Let me illustrate that the earliest Christians were not as much concerned with understanding the science perfectly but were interested in application to their lives from the everyday world. The Epistle of Barnabas written somewhere in the middle of the first century provides instructions on how to interpret the use of animal imagery. They needed instruction themselves as the writer states that not everyone grasped the nuance and purpose of the language. Just like today and surely the Jews themselves didn’t. It’s not the science that we need to grasp but the nuance of the symbolism. That was almost entirely the purpose of the Barnabas Epistle to these earliest of Christians so that even they could grasp the main points being presented. Jesus spoke in parables and expected those with spiritual insight to grasp the message. Those not inclined didn’t see the picture.

    Barn 10: “Now, wherefore did Moses say, “Thou shalt not eat the swine, nor the eagle, nor the hawk, nor the raven, nor any fish which is not possessed of scales?” He embraced three doctrines in his mind [in doing so]. Moreover, the Lord saith to them in Deuteronomy, “And I will establish my ordinances among this people.” Is there then not a command of God they should not eat [these things]? There is, >b BUT MOSES SPOKE WITH A SPIRITUAL REFERENCE bWhat does he mean?bBehold how well Moses legislated. But how was it possible for them to understand or comprehend these things? We then, rightly understanding his commandments, explain them as the Lord intended. For this purpose He circumcised our ears and our hearts, that we might understand these things.”<b

  • normbv

    Oh well so much for me trying to use bolding to highlight as I just deleted half my posting. Which may have been a blessing anyway. 😉

  • rjs

    Tim and Travis,

    I don’t see this as a rigid rule, but rather a guideline and a mind-broadening exercise. If we don’t start thinking about pulling apart pieces in understanding scripture we will go wrong, sometimes quite seriously.

    While cud-chewing rabbits may be observational classification, human reproduction is a more significant issue. The understanding of reproduction appears not simply phenomenological, but fundamentally wrong.

    We are not separating God’s inerrant from the “dumb ol’ ancient science.” Rather we are trying to understand the text in context and to look at what the text is teaching.

  • rjs

    dopderbeck #7,

    I think you are over-dissecting the word “incident” in the context of this discussion, at least in the way I look at the idea. I wouldn’t classify the resurrection as an “incident” – because it is the root purpose of the gospel texts. It is not incidental (i.e. minor, accompanying, secondary, subsidiary, supplementary) to the text. On the other hand pillars, cud-chewing rabbits (not emphasizing that they only appear to be cud-chewing), and bats as birds are incidental to the content of the text.

    Beyond that – great comment.

  • AHH

    I think the message/incident framework can be a helpful way to look at things, provided we don’t pretend it is an absolute dichotomy without overlap and gray areas where we may not be sure if something is incidental or not.
    [And I agree with RJS that “incidental” must be the referent here, not “incident” in the sense of “event”]

    But this sounds similar to the message/vehicle distinction that people have talked about for years. Where one distinguishes the message of Scripture from the vehicle (figurative story/polemic with ANE cosmology as background, for example) used to deliver the message. I think that is also a helpful way to look at things.
    Unfortunately, the message/vehicle distinction has been vehemently opposed as a “low view of Scripture”, both by the original fundamentalists 100 years ago and by their successors today. So I don’t have much hope that the message/incident phrasing will be any more acceptable in the eyes of most conservative Evangelicals.

  • Nancy Rosenzweig

    pds # 5:

    The flexibility of Lamoureux’s approach in Evolutionary Creation is one of its great strengths. It’s a rejection of “rigid dichotomies.”

    As to:

    “So when the Bible says,
    ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’
    Is this not reliable since it is about the origin of matter and ‘nature’?”

    have a look at the home page of Lamoureux’s web page: in bold face, at the bottom:

    The purpose of the Bible is to teach us that God is the Creator, and not how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created.

    So, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is indeed a completely reliable statement, according to Lamoureux’s approach.

    My book budget is limited as well. Public libraries are a wonderful thing. My local library didn’t have a copy of Evolutionary Creation, but they were able to order it from another library instate. Did it all online, almost as easy as and way cheaper than Amazon.com.

  • Jeff

    There is no doubt, it seems to me, that a case can be made that the Scriptures reflect not only an ANE cosmology but also an ANE biology that does not fit in with modern biological science (and, from a scientific standpoint, may, in fact, be in error). I have no problem with this from an inspiration standpoint as it is God accommodating himself. In fact, were God to have accommodated his revelation to this era of science today, then 500 years from now it would likely be erroneous!

    And, I think the argument about “seed” and human reproduction is very intriguing (though one has to delve deeper).

    All that said, there are shallow arguments above. The word “bird” is an ancient Hebrew word that simply referred to “flying creatures” (it also was used in reference to the Seraphim & Cherubim).

    This is a problem I find with several of Dr. Enns’ arguments, and on this blog (though I am most certainly in general agreement with their position): the forcing of the Biblical text to say something it may not really be saying, in order to support a position (in this case that the Scriptures reflected an ANE biology, not a modern one). The position may be just and right, but if the argument is this flawed (using just an English text) it simply undermines the argument.

    The LXX also uses a term (peteinos) that means, “able to fly, winged” – which would include more than just birds. Birds is the usual translation of the term but it does (in both Heb & Gr) have a broader concept.

    It is also natural to classify all flying creatures together. That classification is not just ANE – but a phenomenological classification that one might use today.

  • pds

    RJS #14,

    “The understanding of reproduction appears not simply phenomenological, but fundamentally wrong.”

    I find it fascinating that you feel the need to label the writer of Hebrews as “fundamentally wrong” about human reproduction. I don’t see this passage as affirming anything about reproductive science. Seems like you are playing a game of “gotcha” with the writer. There are plenty of other ways to understand the text.

    Do you think scientists are more likely to “see” science in the Bible than the rest of us?

  • John I.

    I’m not at all convinced by Lamoureux’s approach, but rather see it as a version of Daniel Dennet’s “universal acid”. That is, evolution eventually dissolves all non-naturalistic explanations.

    What is the message and the incidental? For Lamoureux the incidental is not derived from anything in the text itself, or in the overall message of God. Lamoureux derives the incidental in the text by comparing it to current knowledge of our own current (and still primitive) phenomenological descriptions of the universe. Anything that does not fit with current science is dispensed with as “incidental”. Consequently, he dispenses with Adam and Eve and with the orthodox and universal understanding of sin and the relationship between Adam and Christ, and death, etc. Adam doesn’t fit with science, so Adam goes, and with him the theology that’s been constant for 2,000 years.

    This acid keeps eating away at anything in the Bible that doesn’t fit with (ever changing) science. It allows Lamoureux to holus bolus dispense with theologies that were (and are) considered essential, and to then engage in theological speculation of his own making. This is a very Bultmannian approach: modern humankind cannot believe in these ancient tales in the face of modern knowledge, and so we must dispense with them and existentially meet a risen Christ (who did not factually rise).

    Lamoureux does not (yet) go as far as dismissing the resurrection of Christ, but Van Till eventually made that move. Indeed, if we apply Lamoureux’s principles of science to history, we should logically dispense with a real risen Christ. We have filled in gaps in history over time and shown that all sorts of formerly believed historical tales were never true. We will also eventually explain the stories of Christ’s alleged death and resurrection. Such a story is unlike anything that ever happened and is unlike current historical an biological processes, hence it did not occur. It is merely a story that plays a role in our evolving spiritual understanding and directs us to the real message behind that incident.

    John I.

  • Tim

    RJS (14),

    As a mind-broadening exercise, I think the approach is fine and useful. I really would like to see how the trickier theological stuff is handled, particularly herem. I recall we had an earlier conversation of scapegoating a while ago, which would also deal with appropriation of theological/sacrificial notions from the Israelite’s ANE neighbors/shared cultural heritage. Recognizing scientific accommodation is easy and small potatoes compared to recognizing theological accommodation. If you have any thoughts on handling the latter, or perhaps an elaboration on your hermeneutic/view with respect to theological accommodation, I’d be interested. Thanks RJS.

  • John I.

    Cud chewing

    I think it was Tim above who posted on bats and birds, a solution that makes sense. We have to examine the purpose of the ancients methods of classification and the use to which they were put. In a similar way we can look at the cud chewing of rabbits: we should not read into the text our modern technical definition of cud chewing. Rabbits move their mouth like a cud chewer, and they do rechew their food in that the re-eat their droppings.

    However, that solution is of a different kind than that needed for the cosmology. The cud chewing and winged animal classifications are based on observation. The cosmologies (pillars, water, etc.) are not based on observation but on the basis of accepting an (originally) speculative description.

  • rjs

    pds #19,

    I agree that the writer of Hebrews isn’t affirming anything about reproductive science and as such I don’t feel any need at all to label the text of Hebrews as error. The message is clear even if he makes a comment at the end that implies an errant view of reproduction.

    This isn’t a game of gotcha with the writer – it is a point for the modern reader. It is a point to help us understand what it means for scripture to be inspired based on the evidence found in scripture itself.

    I have found that it is not the scientists who see ancient views of the world and ancient understandings of biology in the text – it is the specialists in OT and ANE studies who see the connections. I have learned more from them than from my personal reading of scripture.

  • dopderbeck

    John I. (#22) — we’ve been through this before, but that solution to the cud chewing rabbits just doesn’t work. The text says rabbits chew the cud, not that they eat their droppings. If you want to say the purpose isn’t to communicate about cud-chewing but is a phenomonological reference that communicates a different sort of truth, fine — and that is exactly what Lamoureaux says.

    And I don’t think Lamoureaux is engaged in a “Bultmanian” approach at all — his hermeneutic has nothing at all to do with explaining away miracles or demythologizing the supernatural. Rather, he’s trying to correct the positivistic mistake made by B.B. Warfield and repeated in the Chicago Statements: that the Bible must be completely accurate and consistent in all matters it “touches upon,” even matters ancillary to the central point of the text, and even matters that we today would call “science.” Is the Bible completely accurate in every matter it “touches upon” including modern categories such as “science,” or is the Bible’s trustworthiness centered elsewhere? That is the heart of the issue for us. Bultmann’s demythologizing project is in another category altogether.

    AHH’s reference to the “message / vehicle” distinction IMHO (#16) is on point. My concern isn’t just that some people won’t accept it, but that it’s ultimately too restrictive as as general principle.

    In fact, I think quite a few conservative evangelicals today do accept this distinction in practice, particularly those whose hermeneutic centers on speech-act theory. They might say that while the locutionary act of the Levitical reference to cud-chewing rabbits includes cud-chewing rabbits, the illocutionary act is the command not to eat unclean animals, and the perlocutionary act is to live as a people specially devoted to God. The locutionary act may not comprise the Divine communication that in virtue of being divine must not err. Indeed. This seems to me like a fancy way of getting around the “touches upon” language in the Chicago Statement, though I think many advocates of this approach wouldn’t like my characterization of it.

    In any event, speech-act theory, canonical criticism, genre criticism, narrative hermeneutics, and other approaches, I think, have gotten well beyond the constricted categories of “inerrant in all it touches upon” vs. “inerrant in message but not in vehicle.”

    Thus I would not call the “message-incident” distinction a “principle” of general application. In my view it’s preferable to have a toolbox of different hermeneutical approaches, all of which might give some insight, with an overrarching narrative hermeneutic centered in the Rule of Faith and the nature of scripture as a text for the Church.

  • dopderbeck

    And… I think what I’m describing is the preferable approach because it has been the mainstream approach of Christian theology since the early Fathers.

  • #3 Tim writes:
    “Um, I don’t see everything loading neatly into categories of ancient science and divine theology. Take for example the concept of ‘herem’ evident in the conquest narratives. ‘Herem’ is a theological/sacrificial concept prevalent in Canaan and appropriated by the Hebrews and expressed in their claims of earlier acts of slaughter/destruction of several Canaanite cities in Joshua. How does this load onto the Message-Incident Principle above?”

    Answer: It doesn’t.


  • AHH

    John I @20 wrote Lamoureux does not (yet) go as far as dismissing the resurrection of Christ, but Van Till eventually made that move.
    I’ll let Denis or others speak to the larger issue of this projected trajectory for his faith, but I have to correct the misleading impression this gives of my old (Internet) acquaintance Howard Van Till.

    Van Till was a longtime professor of Physics & Astronomy at Calvin College, retiring about 10 years ago. He wrote some science/faith books in the 1980s, notably The Fourth Day which IMO is still very helpful. I remember he made use there of the “message/vehicle” distinction we have discussed in this thread.

    Indeed Howard has, in the past 10 years or so, moved away from orthodox Christianity. Last I knew he was a “process theist”. But, this was not connected to his science/faith positions. Howard was forthcoming about his reasons, and he consistently said it was primarily consideration of the “problem of pain” that led him to process theology. Secondarily, he has said that the harsh treatment he received from his fellow Evangelicals (including a campaign to have him fired from Calvin) made it easier for him to leave that behind.

    So, if one wishes to argue that taking the position that God created via evolution puts one on a trajectory to apostasy, I would vigorously deny that for myself but would also point out that it is misleading to cite Van Till as an example.

  • “Message-Incident Principle”

    Love it. I knew there had to be a nice label for the position I’ve come to hold. 😉

    I agree with others above about “ancient science.” It confuses what science at makes the conversation more muddled.

  • John I.

    Re #22 & 24 about cud chewing

    The Hebrews’ category of “cud chewing” was defined or bounded by characteristics that allowed them to place both rabbits and cattle in that same category. It’s their category, not ours, and their language, not ours, though in our translations we use an English gloss for their word. The Hebrews are dead, and so is their language (as I pointed out), so we can’t ask them how that word labelled a category that included rabbits and cows. The proposal that refection was seen as similar to cud chewing, at least for the purposes of their category, is therefore somewhat speculative but it does have some legs and so cannot be easily dismissed. It would be absurd to speculate that the Hebrews had the same limited concept and restricted category of “cud chewing” that we do, and thus knew that rabbits didn’t chew the cud, but still wrote down that they chewed the cud. What was God’s revelation? “Yeah, Moses, I know they don’t chew the cud but I want you to write that down anyway.”?

    It is important that we make distinctions between the different issues and problems that we face in reading a text across a great historical and cultural distance, so that we do not make category or other mistakes that then impede our reading of the text. This is why I made the point that issues of categorization of natural phenomena are different from ones like unobserved cosmological structure.

    John I.

  • John I.

    My point about “scare stories” regarding movement away from the faith is that such stories cut both ways because are (1) merely anecdotal, and (2) anecdotes representing all points of view can be found (i.e., my belief in compatible evolution eventually led me from my belief in God, or my belief that evolution and creation were incompatible eventually led me to give up my faith, etc.). There are no stats or studies indicating which is the greater danger: (a) belief that Christianity and evolution are not compatible, or (b) belief that they are compatible.

    Though its role was neither determinative nor the “last straw”, I understood that Van Till was influenced in his journey away from Christianity by his beliefs respecting evolution and the non-intervention of God in the evolutionary process.

    Whatever the case, it does seem that a belief in a front loaded evolutionary creationism cannot but help change one’s view of God. In a 2008 Christianity Today interview, Van Till said. “If you faith requires supernaturalism, or a God who wields overpowering control over nature, then yes, evolution will challenge that…The key is to correct your portrait of God.”

    I also note with interest this post by J. Loftus: “Howard Van Till’s Intellectual Journey By John W. Loftus at 2/12/2007 Howard Van Till wrote the book The Fourth Day, which was one of the books that put me on a course of study that eventually led me away from the Christian faith. On page 79 in a footnote he listed several works on Genesis 1-11 that I proceeded to read. These initial books led me to still others, and others. After reading them I came to deny Genesis 1-11 was historical. I concluded these chapters were mythical. Anyway, Van Till has now been led down the same path as I. He has moved away from his Calvinism, and taken a much more ambiguous position on religion. That too is where I was for a time in my intellectual journey. But it eventually led me to atheism. I wonder where he will eventually end up?

  • #31 John I.

    Dear John,
    A good post. As I mentioned earlier, Howard is a dear friend. And I was saddened by his rejection of Christianity.

    Regarding John Loftus, it is for those on his voyage that I hope to connect with. Just because Gen 1-11 is not historical does not mean that one needs to reject Gen 1-11 as the Word of God. The key is to understand the literary genre. Darwin made this fatal error, and many who get exposed to biblical criticism do as well. Now admittedly, the first exposure to biblical criticism can be quite challenging. But in the end, for me, it has made me appreciate even more the Holy Spirit’s revelatory process.

    And here is where I think there is a HUGE problem. Evangelicalism cowers from biblical criticism (just think of what happened to Pete Enns). Consequently, when an evangelical gets exposed to it (like Lotus) they simply don’t have the skill set to deal with it. Being conditioned in their Bible schools and churches with a simplistic concordist hermeneutic, these folks are trapped into a false dichotomy (concordism & faith vs. no concordism and no faith) and once they experience biblical criticism, they leave Christianity.

    Now if you want to talk about anecdotal stories, I wish I could send you the final exam essays of my students, especially the evangelicals. A large number of them are in science (many pre-meds) and they are seeing the evolutionary evidence every day at university, but at church anti-evolutionism still reigns. So many of them compartmentalize their science and their faith, but eventually the faith looses out. Can’t tell you how many times a student has said to me that their faith was on a thread entering my sci-rel class.

    But once I expose them to biblical criticism and explain why it does not undermine my faith, they “get it” immediately. Some also get very angry with their young pastor, senior pastor, and Christian school teachers. The line that repeats is: What other LIES did my young pastor tell me? And they all agree that everything I have taught them during the term could have been taught in high school.

    So the bottom line: evangelicalism is in sad shape. 50% of evangelical students entering public university lose their faith by their senior year. The kids just aren’t prepared. And if we keep on firing guys like Enns, this sad trend will continue.