John Wilson, John Schneider, Karl Giberson, the Bible

From WSJ, by John Wilson, weighing in on the Calvin College/John Schneider issue:

But what about Prof. Schneider? There is a salient difference between Genesis and the gospels. For all their disagreement over the details, orthodox Christians broadly agree about how to read the gospels. But there is no such consensus about how to read Genesis. The range of sharply differing views was outlined in the cover story of the June 2011 issue of Christianity Today, “The Search for the Historical Adam.”

What is at stake in these disputes is not a choice between following biblical authority on the one hand or science on the other, as the matter is often misleadingly framed. Rather, we see rival theological commitments, rival understandings of how to read Genesis.

Undergirding Young Earth Creationism—the belief that the Earth was created only a few thousand years ago—is an unswerving commitment to a certain way of reading scripture, not a disdain for science. A different approach (for example, John Walton’s “The Lost World of Genesis One”) seeks to recover the ancient worldview implicit in the Genesis account of creation, a perspective from which the measurable age of the Earth, however vast, is not relevant. Critical to debates over “the historical Adam” are theological motifs such as Christ as “the second Adam.” These lose their meaning, many evangelicals argue, if Genesis isn’t read literally.

But an alarm should sound whenever the word “literal” is used in this context, whether as a badge of pride (“I just believe in reading the Bible literally”) or as a hint that low-browed fundamentalists are lurking nearby. No one—no one—reads the Bible literally. But some readers are more attentive, more faithful, more imaginative and more persuasive than others.

Karl Giberson, on seeing the Bible as a library:

The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”

Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn’t do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Amos Paul

    First of all, I think we have a problem whenever we identify fiction or the language of myth as non-factual. Fiction, after all, is based on facts of real life. Otherwise, it would be completely incomprehensible to our minds.

    However, there is more than this. J.R.R. Tolkien challenged the silly notion that fiction and myth is merely a lie told in a fanciful and fun way in a conversation he once recorded with C.S. Lewis. From a biography –

    “His great friend C. S. Lewis once objected to Tolkien that, ‘…myths are lies, though lies breathed through silver.’ ‘No,’ said Tolkien, ‘They are not.’

    There are truths, Tolkien said, that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen – they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths. We have come from God, Tolkien said, and only through myth, through story telling, can we aspire to the life we were made for with God. To write and/or read myth, Tolkien believed, was to meditate on the most important truths of life.”

    But, rather than impose this ‘merely’ mythical description upon Scripture to explain its factuality, I also agree with Tolkien in that Scripture is true in a way more than other ‘myths’, setting it apart.

    “All the other myths of the world, Tolkien said, are a mixture of truth and error – truth because they are written by those made by and for God – error because written by those alienated by God. But the Bible is the one true myth. It is a true accounting of truth, while everything else we do is mimicking. This perspective was decisive in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity. ”

    I think that what we often disagree about is how and in what ways things in Scripture are ‘true’, although perhaps at times not ‘literal’. There probably aren’t any easy formulas.

  • Andre

    Is this about the age of the earth or the coherence of how Paul in Romans 5 interprets first Adam and Christ as last Adam? I know many who would hold to an old earth but would hold to God creating an historical person named Adam.

    Also, the Bible does have many genres and recognizing genres can be very helpful. Another aspect involved here is intertextuality (or in Fishbane’s terms from a Hebrew Scriptures slant, inner-biblical exegesis). If Paul interprets Genesis and Paul’s interpretation is God-breathed, what does that mean?

  • Andrew Wilson

    Giberson, of course, is right to use the library illustration – but his treatment of the clearly historical narrative sections of the Pentateuch (as expressed on Biologos recently, in dialogue with Jerry Coyne) make me nervous that his overriding concern is not just the genres of the ancient texts, but avoiding bits of the scriptures that are unpopular to a modem audience ( But I hope I’m wrong (and I agree with him on lots of what he says about science and faith!) Thanks for the links, as ever, Scot.

  • John Wilson

    Excellent comment, Amos.

  • JohnM

    Giberson’s comparison to a library seems faulty to me. The Bible is no more a library than the the Harry Potter books. The Harry Potter series, though made up of individual books, has a common theme and the same author. Christians believe the books of the Bible also have a common theme, and in a sense (please, no straw man comments about amanuensis)the same author. But then I thought the (valid) point was that a consistently literal reading of scripture is not possible or necessary. I’m not sure I see how the library comparison supports that point.

  • scotmcknight

    To me, the Calvin College fiasco is an embarrassment to its rich heritage. To reduce Genesis 1-3 to the scientifically demonstrable or to genetics is to colonize the text into modernity’s categories.

    What Kierkegaard meant by despair touches into what Genesis 1-3 probes: the earthling (landling?) usurps and gets displaced, the landling/earthling turns against itself and against its only true companion … and Paul’s appeal to Genesis 1-3 taps into the deeper truth of that text. Why Paul must be thought to be talking pure history eludes me.

    I can refer to Aslan in all sorts of contexts and no one seems to think I’m horsing around with truth or with reality. And I can say the stone table cracks and folks seem to think this means the deep truth of resurrection.

    Nor do we have to believe there is genetic transmission of sin to believe all humans sin, are sinners, and are accountable to God.

  • rjs


    Your comment that Christians believe the books of the Bible also have a common theme, and in a sense the same author with comparison to the Harry Potter books misses the point I think.

    The Harry Potter series is one genre written in one decade (or so) by one woman.

    The Bible is nothing like this even though inspired by God. It was written over a time spanning centuries if not millenia, it was written in very different cultural contexts, with different books written in different genre’s for different purposes. There is poetry, history, literature, proverbs, parables, apocalypse, … probably more. If we smash it into one form as one book we blow it. Everyone agrees with this to a certain extent – but we have to wrestle with the text we have in the form we have it.

    The Bible isn’t a random mish-mash repository type library. It is a library with a theme and a purpose, but a library nonetheless.

  • rjs

    I commented on the Calvin case involving Schneider a bit in my post last week (A Search for Acceptance?) but didn’t get into it too much because I don’t really know the details.

    But I am sick of institutional Christianity – whether the institution is an academic institution (college or seminary), a magazine, a church, or a denomination. Whenever there is an institution it seems inevitable that there will be a fight for control – and a fight for control cannot help but hurt people … many people … in the name of purity and “truth” and God.

  • Nancy Janisch

    John Wilson, hits the nail on the head. The ‘science and religion’ controversy over Genesis is really a disagreement over how to read (and thus) interpret the text. We can talk about evolutionary biology all day and never get to the heart of the problem.
    And to echo what Amos Paul wrote earlier, our discussion needs to begin with thinking seriously about what “truth” is. Is truth nothing but fact (either scientific or historical) or is truth more, much more?
    For Christians, truth is more than assent to some facts, for Christians truth is a person.
    I wonder how our discussion would change if we started with the idea that truth is Jesus?

  • Amos Paul


    I think what JohnM was getting at, for instance, could be exemplefied by a Christocentric reading of Scripture. If we see Jesus as the glue which holds the whole thing together and inside all of it–then the analogy of a library full of disparate and distinct books doesn’t quite do the Biblical Compendium justice.

    Also, as a complete aside, I empathize yet disagree with you upon ‘institutionalized’ Christianity. Mainly because God calls people to act as a body, and practically speaking that means developing forms of working together–or insitutionalization (to some extent).

    While some more radical Protstant segments might also argue that this shouldn’t stretch beyond the local church, I personally believe that communities should also find ways to formally hold each other accountable as we see happening in the Epistles and as we have exemplified in the conduct of holding each other individually accountable. I’m also a fan of the diverse denominations we have exploring how to approach Jesus from various perspectives and exploring that within communities and organizationlly–although I think they should also still strive to maintain meta-level community with the church universal.

    This is, of course, spirallng away into non-topical discussion. Heh.

  • DRT

    How about dustling.

  • DRT

    ..and to go totally totally Thesaurus on you:

    ashes, cinders, dirt, dust bunnies, earth, filth, flakes, fragments, gilings, granules, grime, grit, ground, lint, loess, powder, refuse, sand, smut, soil, soot

    Yes, we are dust bunnies.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    I believe a huge part of the problem is laid out by Michael Polanyi in his book “Personal Knowledge:”

    “The book of Genesis and its great pictorial illustrations, like the frescoes of Michelangelo, remain a far more intelligent account of the nature and origin of the universe than the representation of the world as a chance collocation of atoms. . . . The scientific picture denies any meaning to the world, and indeed ignores all our most vital experience of this world. The assumption that the world has some meaning which is linked to our own calling as the only morally responsible beings in the world is an important example of the supernatural aspect of experience which Christian interpretations of the universe explore and develop.”

    Evolutionary origins of the creature made in God’s image simply saps the meaning out of the beauty of the Genesis story–like pulling a beautiful flower all apart to find out what makes it beautiful. When you’re done, the flower is dead and the beauty is gone. George MacDonald says it far more eloquently:

    “The appearances of nature are the truths of nature, far deeper than any scientific discoveries in and concerning them. The show of things is that for which God cares most, for their show is the face of far deeper things than they; we see in them, in a distant way, as in a glass darkly, the face of the unseen. It is through their show, not through their analysis, that we enter into their deepest truths. What they say to the childlike soul is the truest thing to be gathered from them. To know a primrose is a higher thing than to know all the botany of it—just as to know Christ is an infinitely higher thing than to know all theology, all that is said about His person, or babbled about His work. . . .

    I would not be supposed to depreciate the labors of science, but I say its discoveries are unspeakably less precious than the merest gifts of nature, those which, from morning to night, we take unthinking from her hands. One day, I trust, we shall be able to enter into their secrets from within them—by natural contact between our heart and theirs. When we are one with God, we may well understand in an hour things that no man of science, prosecuting his investigations from the surface with all the aids that keenest human intellect can supply, would reach in the longest lifetime.

    There exists a mystery in the world, and in all the looks of it—a mystery because of a meaning. There is a jubilance in every sunrise, a sober sadness in every sunset. There is a whispering of strange secrets in the wind of twilight and an unknown bliss in the song of the lark.

    We cannot help but aware of something beyond it all, now and then filling our minds and hearts with wonder, and compelling us to ask, “What can it all mean?” The flowers live. They come from the same heart as man himself, and are sent to be his companions and ministers. There is something divinely magical, because profoundly human, in them. Our feeling for many of them doubtless comes from certain associations from childhood. But how did they get hold of us even in childhood? Why do they enter our souls at all? It is because the flowers are joyous, inarticulate children, come with vague messages from the Father of all. If I confess that what they say to me sometimes make me weep, how can I call my feeling for them anything but love?

  • DRT

    Amos#10, You are way off base in your interpretation of what the bible calls for. You have taken the call of our Lord to get along with each other and converted it into a call for conformity. And you take it a step further by endorsing the existing paradigm of multiple denominations (read separate churches) having separate belief structures.

    Amos, you have missed the boat and are lost at sea.

  • Derek


    The issue @ Calvin is much more complex and systemic than the manner in which you have sketched it out. As any other college, Calvin relies heavily on its generous donors. The endowment it enjoys (relative to its size) is impressive, and believe me: the largely Dutch American base of donors has interests it seeks represented @ Calvin.

    RJS uses a silly word “institutionalism” to describe this systemic issue. It is silly because, as a sophist play of signifiers, it presupposes its opposite, some kind of anarchist alternative which somehow an ideal, as if it is realistically possible to even have an operative college without some basic, coherent structure or organization.

  • albion

    #6 Scot: you sound a lot like Bultmann here. Yikes.

  • Dutch Rikkers

    I am not a scientist. I’m a writer. I’m 69. I’m a Christian. And I have to admit to being tired of attending to this controversy for some fifty years. What seems absolutely glaring to me is that in that time we have discovered that chimp and man are virtual genetic matches, but the vast differences between us are obvious even to a 2-year-old human. So maybe the answer is not in genetics at all. What genetic or other scientifically verifiable thing happened to make humans “the only morally responsible beings in the world” a la Polanyi?

    I live ten minutes from Calvin College and I have a number of faculty friends there (mostly those involved in the creation care movement) and their entire worldview framework expressed in virtually all their promotional material is the simple creation, fall, redemption, and restoration model of human moral history. If their science faculty chops off the first two dispensations on the basis of raw genetics and geology, that is a total institutional crisis.

    I think it is time for Christian evolutionists to tell us what they do believe about Genesis.

  • rjs


    You can call it silly – but when there is an institution someone wants to control it. It is the control aspect that bothers me … who gets control, what do they control, and who loses.

    Clearly a college is an institution – but Christianity isn’t.

  • rjs


    I got an e-mail this week asking the same question. Perhaps I’ll post on this next week – both an excerpt from the e-mail and my comment on it.

  • Randy Gabrielse


    I agree with your concern about institutional Christianity. No matter the flavor or stripe of Christianity, when institutions experience crisis someone gains and someone loses measures of control, regardless of whether this is intended. I was a student at Calvin during the last big blow up like this over Howard Van Til. I see this current issue as a result of the administration” keeping a lid on” issues of theistic evolution (1980s meaning) since then.

    Randy G.

  • scotmcknight


    The professor’s views are within limits for orthodoxy, he affirms orthodoxy, and he should have been protected more. Calvin is a noble school, in my view, but this incident is not.

  • Amos Paul


    If your problem is authority, it sounds like it’s more of an accountability and control issue–rather than an institutional one. I also agree that institution might come pre-loaded with some unnecessary baggage. The word is, as far as I’m aware, a simple synonym for just ‘organization’.

  • JohnM

    RJS – Well, as long as I’m assured we do acknowledge divine inspiration, purpose, and theme we won’t make me too nervous with our language. ;)

  • AHH

    The library metaphor is good but not perfect. It gets messier since the writers of later books in the library were usually familiar with the earlier books and often quoted them or alluded to them as they were adding their own contribution to the wiki-story. And since the same Spirit inspired the different writers. But the metaphor points out the issue of different genres which is crucial here.

    Andre @2 asks:
    If Paul interprets Genesis and Paul’s interpretation is God-breathed, what does that mean?
    That’s potentially an important question, but I question the premise: Paul interprets Genesis. Was Paul really “interpreting” Genesis like a writer of a commentary? Or was Paul simply referring to the familiar story to help him make his (inspired) point about Jesus, which is after all the point of these passages? If it is the latter, then I think the problem implied in Andre’s question is illusory.
    If I say “we should love our neighbor like the Good Samaritan did” I am not making any interpretation about the historical nature of the inspired story, merely using the familiar story to help make my point.

  • rjs


    Good point – the library metaphor does have problems. But the right image isn’t of a series like Harry Potter either – where all of the books are increments in the story line from one perspective. One of the things we get in scripture is different perspectives – in the gospels, in the letters, in the Psalms, in Samuel/Kings and Chronicles. In this sense, even with a theme there are different angles and purposes.

  • Ben Wheaton


    If this professor denied an historical fall, than I would argue that he is not within orthodoxy (certainly not within Calvin’s particular confessional orthodoxy). Take away an historical fall, and I have a hard time seeing how you avoid Pelagianism.

  • Ben Wheaton

    This link is to an article that lays out the issues quite clearly.

  • normbv

    There is a common theme in OT and Second Temple Hebrew literature that binds it all together. It’s a messianic theme that is concerned with a coming time when things will be set right. During that time of the fulfillment the NT defines, illustrates and clarifies what has been pointed to all along. It includes a period of judgment and a new world order for God’s people.

    The actual written literature that was created spans perhaps 600-800 years of this ongoing thematic structure written from various perspectives and styles, yet holding true to the fundamental consistent colored threads that weave this unfolding fabric. Thus we have a consistent continual library that we might possibly call a long lasting trilogy of sorts that just kept turning out new authors for nearly a millennium.

    Act 26:19-22 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, … To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, SAYING NOTHING BUT WHAT THE PROPHETS AND MOSES SAID WOULD COME TO PASS:

  • scotmcknight
  • AHH

    People can also read directly the article that summarizes Schneider’s position and got him in trouble, along with the one by his Calvin College colleague who has also drawn fire: