From the Shepherd’s Nook: Guardian Explorers

Explorers and Guardians, by John Frye.

With about 300 others, I attended the “Creation in Scripture” seminar hosted by Cornerstone University: Talking Points featuring Dr. John Walton, Dr. David Turner, Dr. Michael Wittmer, and Dr. John Hilber. I applaud Dr. Joseph Stowell, Cornerstone University and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary for bringing this relevant and controversial topic out into open discussion in this area of the woods (West Michigan). The high caliber of presentations were matched by the irenic and respectful nature of these evangelical scholars on such a volatile subject. The evangelical tent is big enough to include honest disagreements in interpretations of the texts of Genesis 1 – 3 while at the same time affirming that commitment to Christ, deep reverence for the Bible, and the missional efforts of the church are not impeded by different views on creation (the how of it), and on Adam and Eve.

Dr. John Walton presented an abbreviated presentation of his thesis that Genesis 1-2 are the “inauguration of the cosmic temple” in which God will “rest” (7th day), that is, the temple in which and from which God will exercise dominion over His creation through his image-bearers (human beings). Walton’s emphasis on ANE cosmic geography was fascinating and he insisted that “the literal meaning” of the sacred text is what it meant to the original author and to the original audience (readers). While Dr. Walton affirms the existence of a specific Adam and Eve, he believes “the [with definite article] Adam” and Eve of Genesis 1-3 are archetypal of all humanity, a view which, he believes, is affirmed by the Apostle Paul (e.g. Romans 5). Dr. Walton suggests that since Adam was made from “dust” (not clay), “the Adam’s” mortality is declared (dust in Scripture is a metaphor for mortality). A corollary of the dust metaphor is that there could have been human death without the “Fall.” Mortality (dust) was part of the original creation equation. The story suggests that the Adam and Eve would have had to eat from “the tree of life” to become immortal, i.e., not die.

What do you think about the idea of explorer-theologians and guardian-theologians?

What I came away with from the seminar, upon reflection, is that there are at least two types of theologians within evangelicalism. (There may be more.) There are explorer-theologians and there are guardian-theologians. I think both are needed. For me, Dr. John H. Walton is an explorer. With all the resources at his disposal and all the skills that he possesses, he wants to explore the sacred text and let that text take him wherever “the text” wants to go. If it’s into new theological territory or thinking about what’s been “received” in new ways, Walton wants to be submissive to the text. Does that mean that everything new is theologically valid? That question came up in the Q and A time and Dr. Walton strongly said, “No.” Being theologically new does not necessarily mean being theologically true. Yet, explorers, it seems to me, recognize that all theology is a truly human enterprise. Theology will have all the fingerprints, frailty, limitations and lapses that are characteristic of being human. The only inerrant reality (posited as a valid issue) is the sacred text, the Scriptures. Theological conclusions of a brilliant committee of human interpreters are not inerrant. It seems that some in the evangelical camp presume to assign inerrancy to their interpretations of the text and not just to the text itself. As if, “All our theological interpretations are God-breathed and are profitable for…”

Hear me out: the guardian-theologians have a valid and necessary role as well. The guardians insist that explorers do not depart from “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.” We need wise scholars who keep watch. Yet (and this may just be me), I think the guardians get real jumpy when explorers offer something new. Explorers carry compasses; guardians carry Tums. All new stuff offered up theologically in the more conservative evangelical world is almost always viewed as a “slippery slope” into theological doom. What is the New Testament Greek word for slippery slope? The idea comes up so often that it must be biblical. It appears that anything that a particular theologian or group doesn’t like or espouse is assigned to the dreaded “slippery slope.” The sense communicated is that explorers are dangerous. It’s as if guardians take on the role of thinking for the rest of the church. To threaten is not valid. I heard that if we don’t get “creation” right (according to whose view?), then the Fall is questionable, redemption is wrecked, and the Bible overall becomes useless. That is nothing but a fear-driven declaration. As a pastor, my hope is that evangelical explorers and guardians will find more common ground in the decades before us. The Talking Points seminar was a great step in the right direction.

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  • RJS

    Great post John, and it sounds like a good day at Cornerstone. We need more irenic discussion and engagement.

    The mp3 audio of the session is available on line – as usual with the Talking Points events. I’ve learned from listening to several of them over the years. Perhaps some day I’ll make it over to that side of the state.

  • This made me think of the change management theory using Myers-Briggs.

    In any profession or group (church) there can be guardians, visionaries (explorers), relational, and activistic.

    In transitioning a few churches I’ve learned as a visionary to resist the temptation to fire up the activists which causes the guardians and relational folks to reach for the “tums”.

    Instead the visionaries stay connected to the guardians which comforts the relational and the activists have to practice patience. Never thought about applying this to theologians. Interesting. Thanks.

  • You’d be most welcome, RJS!

    Thanks for this, John. It was indeed a good day and a life-giving conversation in every sense.

  • The trouble with most explorers and guardians is the tendency to lump each other in categories based on single-issue ideas. What do you do with the young earth, biblical egalitarian? Explorers smirk knowingly as they send that person off to live with the guardians for the Gen 1-3 view. Guardians excommunicate while holding their ears and crying, Anathema! because of the egalitarianism. Ostracizing…I mean…categorizing rarely works out well because people then find it necessary to spend half their time explaining why they don’t belong in whatever pigeonhole into which they’ve been shoved.

  • brad

    I think Clark Pinnock used language of theological “explorers” and “settlers.” But “guardians” seems a bit more esteeming. In this framework, I find the Apostle Paul to be an interesting figure. In parts of the evangelical world, he’s viewed primarily as a guardian. But, the more I think on his engagement with the Gentile world, the more he seems like a pretty radical/bold explorer as well. For instance, his treatment of food sacrificed to idols (in Corinthians) seems to be quite a departure from what the Jerusalem council (the guardians?) asked of him.

  • Joe Don Ridgell

    I really appreciate this post. I have been reading your stuff for a long time and this post really spoke to the tension I have felt for about the past 5 years. My heart feels like an explorer but I am surrounded by guardians. It was very freeing to here a scholar say that “all new theology is not truth” but at the same time affirm the process. If we could all have this understanding I think our community of faith would be able to move much closer to unity. Thanks!

  • Clay Knick

    Wow, this was wonderful! Thanks for this and all of your posts, John.

  • AHH

    Good post, and sounds like a good conversation.

    Of course the same people can be explorers or guardians depending on the context. There are, for example, a lot of people who are willing to explore different readings of Genesis 1 to try and be more faithful to what Scripture said in its original context, but who turn into guardians once the “third rail” of inerrancy is questioned. Adam & Eve are another third rail for many.
    I believe Walton has to subscribe to “inerrancy” and a historical Adam & Eve in order to have his job at Wheaton, although he probably nuances both in ways that would be a stretch for much of conservative Evangelicalism.

  • Thanks, John. Amen to your post, and it was great to see you there.

    Yes, I too am tired of the seeming insistence that if we’re orthodox then we can’t be open. Loved John Walton’s presentation and his eloquent plea just before lunch. I wish there could have been more serious interaction between those two positions, but lack of time, and it didn’t help either, my guess, that Dr. Stowell wasn’t able to moderate the one session in the afternoon which likely would have lended itself (or even made it possible) for such a discussion between the explorer theologian and the guardian theologian. Just my thought.