L’affaire Waltke

L’affaire Waltke April 13, 2010

This is a story about control. It is about, in the unintentionally candid terms of one of the main actors, “absolute authority” and the desire to wield that authority over a text so that the text, in turn, may be used to wield absolute authority over others.

It is a story, in other words, about mortals who covet the authority of God and the lies they tell themselves and others when trying to usurp that authority.

Our story takes place at an institution calling itself “Reformed Theological Seminary.”

This name is dishonest, or at best inaccurate, on at least two counts. The school in question is not a seminary, but a Bible college — the sort of institution founded to train pastors without ever exposing them to the danger of reading an untamed, undomesticated Bible. And the school seems to have little to do with Reformed theology. The name “Reformed Theological Seminary” conjures up an image of studious scholarship, a place where students read the Institutes and The City of God and argue into the night over Dooyeweerd and Barth. A place where science would be regarded with the respect shown to it by Newton, Pascal or Mendel.

This is not such a place. This school, despite appropriating the terms “Reformed” and “seminary” for its name, is the sort of place where one reads the following, from the upcoming events page on its Web site:

Word Weavers will host “An Afternoon with Jerry B. Jenkins” on Sunday, March 7, at 3:30 p.m. at RTS Orlando. The author will talk about the craft of writing. Due to overwhelming demand, they ask that you RSVP …

Capisce? This is utterly incompatible, on multiple levels, with the Reformed tradition. The Darbyite invention of premillennial dispensationalism is utterly rejected by every credible Reformed theologian and institution as an unbiblical and — even worse — un-Calvinist heresy. If any of the words in the name “Reformed Theological Seminary” were accurate or true, then Jerry Jenkins would have no business visiting there. (I doubt Tim
LaHaye would have survived a visit to Calvin’s Geneva.)

Jenkins was invited, of course, because he’s a famous evangelical and because he typed the best-selling evangelical novels of all time. And that’s what matters at RTS, which is not really “Reformed Theological Seminary” so much as it is an evangelical Bible college, where fame and sales denote influence and authority and therefore carry more weight than what Calvin thought or what the Bible actually says.

But all of this is just background for our story, which begins with our hero, Old Testament Studies professor Bruce Waltke attending a BioLogos Foundation workshop. BioLogos is the group founded by Francis Collins to “explore, promote and celebrate the integration of science and Christian faith.”

A video shot at that workshop and later posted online included Waltke making the following unremarkable statements:

If the data is overwhelmingly in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us [American evangelical Christians] a cult — some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.

… to deny the reality would be to deny the truth of God in the world and would be to deny truth. So I think it would be our spiritual death if we stopped loving God with all of our minds and thinking about it, I think it’s our spiritual death.

Note that nothing Waltke said is controversial, or inaccurate, or hateful. Nor is anything he said unbiblical, un-Reformed or un-Christian.

Yet this video was later seen by the administrators of RTS — an odd group that is not really interacting with the world. They were mortified, indignant, offended and stricken with the vapors. You know how that goes — they’re evangelicals and it was a day ending in “-y.” These are people who regard umbrage as one of the fruits of the spirit and here was an excuse for it.

And so Bruce Waltke was fired from RTS.

Here’s an account of the story from USA Today’s Scott Jaschik: “Evangelical scholar forced out after endorsing evolution.” And we’ll find some
additional details from Jeremy Weber the Christianity Today blog, which awkwardly accepts the disingenuous notion that Waltke “resigned.”

From Jaschik:

Waltke is a big enough name in evangelical theology that the incident is prompting considerable soul-searching. On the one hand, his public endorsement of the view that believing in evolution and being a person of faith are not incompatible was significant for those who, like the BioLogos Foundation, support such a view. Waltke’s scholarly and religious credentials in Christian theology were too strong for him to be dismissed easily.

But the fact that his seminary did dismiss him is viewed as a sign of just how difficult it may be for scholars at some institutions to raise issues involving science that are not 100-percent consistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Stop right there. The problem, RTS claims, is that Waldke’s statement was not “consistent with a literal interpretation of the Bible.” This is the fig-leaf for their primary claims, which we’ll get to in a moment, but what RTS is asserting here is that the book of Genesis demands a rejection of the evolution we see evidence for all around us. This Jenkins-loving pseudoseminary wants to argue that reality is incompatible with its preferred hermeneutic, and it therefore finds fault with reality:

Michael Milton, president of the seminary’s Charlotte campus and interim president of its Orlando campus, where Waltke taught … said that the seminary allows “views to vary” about creation. … He said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis [1] as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing “a framework” for some
period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for “a diversity” of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn’t arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life) are not allowed, he said.

This reminds me of the scene in The Blues Brothers, where the bar owner says they offer “both kinds” of music, “country and western.” Milton’s idea of a “diversity” of views spans the gamut from young-earth creationism to slightly less-young-earth creationism.

In other words, Milton and RTS can tolerate only views of creation that were concocted post-Darwin, in response to and in rejection of Darwin. And they cannot tolerate the views held by Reformed theologians in the centuries before or the more than a century since (Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield and Asa Gray would not have been allowed to teach at RTS either, apparently).

Appreciate that the person most responsible for these people’s interpretation of the book of Genesis is none other than Charles Darwin. This is not an honor the great scientist would have sought or accepted.

The larger problem for Milton and RTS is that they either don’t know what they mean by “literal interpretation” — or else they’re unwilling to say
explicitly what they mean by it. From Weber’s CT blog post, we learn that part of the contention over Waltke’s comments involved “belief in a
historical Adam and Eve.”

That’s an interesting idea — if horrifically anachronistic — but it’s not an idea that can be gotten from a literal reading of the book of Genesis.

A literal reading requires a literate reader. A literate reader is one who is able not only to discern what a text says, but what kind of text it is. A person might be able to pronounce and define every word they’re reading in the phone book, but if they are not able to discern the difference between that phone book and a collection of sonnets then we really cannot consider them literate. A reader who cannot tell the difference between such things or why it matters is a reader who will not be able to apprehend any text, literally or otherwise.

And the text of the early chapters of Genesis is not a text that requires or asks or even really allows for the reader to interpret it as speaking of a
“historical” Adam and Eve. Insisting on a belief in a “historical” Adam and Eve is like insisting on a historical rainbow crow or a historical

The latter is a precise analogy. “Dives” is the traditional name given to the rich man in the parable of the beggar Lazarus. It’s not much of a name, really, since Dives is just Latin for “rich.” This generic, typological name is a big clue as to what kind of story this parable is — a clue that what you’re hearing is, in fact, a parable and not a newspaper account or a “historical” record. Another big hint is the way Jesus starts this story, “There was this rich man …”

The beginnings of stories tell us a lot about the kinds of stories they’re going to be. “So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar …” indicates one kind of story. “Once upon a time …” indicates another. “In the year that King Uzziah died …” still another.

So let’s look at what we have in Genesis. “In the beginning …” our story starts. And the hero is a man named, “Mankind” married to a woman named “Woman.”

If this is meant to be a historical account, the author is doing a poor job of it — even by the historical standards of prehistory, before the idea of a “historical account” had yet been invented. There are also additional clues that this story cannot, should not and may not be read the way RTS insists on reading it — such as the way the very next story, beginning in Chapter 2, is an irreconcilably different retelling of the exact same event (one day vs. seven, etc.) — but I’m not trying to offer a seminar on the proper hermeneutical approach to the early chapters of Genesis. What I’m trying to explore here is why, if such a seminar were to be offered, the administrators of “Reformed Theological Seminary” would refuse to attend, plugging their ears and yelling “Lalala” until anyone who didn’t believe in young-earth creationism had stopped talking.

What is it they think they gain from insisting on this illiteralistic “historical” reading of Genesis? Why are they forced to retaliate against someone like Prof. Waltke with such vehemence?

Consider the question of point-of-view. Who, exactly, is narrating what they insist must be a “historical” account in the early chapters of Genesis? The story is not told first-person from the perspective of the actual first person. Adam doesn’t even show up until six days into it. Genesis is regarded as one of the “books of Moses,” but of course he wasn’t there either. This is a story with no eyewitnesses.

To regard it as a “historical” account, then, one has to regard it as the work of an omniscient third-person narrator — or, in this case, the work of a literally omniscient three-personed narrator. What the folks at RTS are saying is that God wrote the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, dictating it verbatim to Moses the Scrivener.

This is not how Christians believe the Bible was written. “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” St. Peter said of the scriptures (almost certainly not realizing at the time that that statement, as well, would come to be regarded as inspired scripture). The idea of God dictating the scripture is closer to the story of the Book of Mormon than it is to the story of the Bible.

So again, why?

Because if God wrote it, personally, then its authority cannot be questioned. And wielding authority that cannot be questioned is what this story is all about.

This is a story about control. It is about, in the unintentionally candid terms of one of the main actors, “absolute authority” and the desire to wield that authority over a text so that the text, in turn, may be used to wield absolute authority over others.

The bizarre young-earth creationist reading of Genesis is not suggested by the text, it is a reading brought to and imposed upon that text — a reading predetermined by the use to which such readers seek to put scripture. They regard scripture as a weapon, as a tool to be used to prove others wrong, thereby forcing those others to submit.

They love to quote 2 Timothy 3:16 in defense of this use of scripture: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.” They’re not real big on “teaching” or on “training in righteousness” (and they never quote the end of the sentence in the following verse, “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”), but they’re really, really big on “reproof” and “correction.”

And when that’s what you’re looking for in the Bible — ammunition for the “reproof” of others — then stories aren’t going to be much help. What you need are tidy little domesticated propositions. You need statements you can control. If you can’t control the text, you won’t be able to use that text to control others. That means stories must be turned into facts, psalms into proverbs, prophecy into augury, parables into epigrams. Everything must be reduced to bullet points that will fit into your gun.

The “statement of faith” that Prof. Waltke was judged to have violated at RTS states: “The Bible is absolutely and finally authoritative as the inerrant Word of God.” We see, in practice, what they mean by this. They mean that the text says what they say it says. And their ruling on the meaning of the text is absolute, final, authoritative and inerrant.

What RTS is arguing about the Bible, ultimately, is that people were made for the Sabbath — that humans must conform to what they say the text says. And if some rebel comes along, healing on the Sabbath and insubordinately teaching that they’re reading it wrong, that “the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath”? Well, that sounds humanistic. And there’s nothing to do with insubordinate humanists like that except to hand them over to the Empire for punishment.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • If I ever discover an element, though – Timonium has a very nice ring to it.

    A joke for Amaryllis would understand – alternative names for that element would be Towsonium and Dundalkium.

  • Amaryllis

    Towsonium, maybe; Dundalkium is a whole other flavor.
    Socks of Sullenness was the B-Side to A Bride Over Treachly Walthers, right?
    Well, they are “exceeding sweet”!

  • Melanie Stephan

    After that Cain said to Abel his brother:

    [ “Let us go over into the field.” ]

    I don’t know about you but I found that verse a little funny because it sounds very much like: “Let’s go out side”. Example: If I am at the pub and I get into a quarrel with a troll at the other end of the bar I tell him “Do you want to go outside”. If he agrees we settle the quarrel in the parking lot. Now the reason why we take this outside is because we don’t want to get blood all over the pub. If we get blood all the place the owner is going to kick us out and I can’t come back to the pub any more and drink with my mates. So when Cain says: “Let us go over into the field.” God is giving you a huge clue as to what is really happening in the story he made up. It‘s a made up story, God is telling you two stories with the words of one. The story is symbolic.
    A field is also a “Battle Field“. A field is also the “Field of Honor“. Abel says nothing back to his brother. Able sees that Cain is hot and he knows what is going to happen out in the field. Out in the battle field Cain kills his brother Abel. But Abel manages to wound Cain. Abel isn’t the only Able man out in the field, there are other people in the world and in the field that day. Not all of the Able men lay dead on the field. Cain has been defeated. He has been wounded and now he has to leave the land.
    God is not pleased that Cain could not get the mastery of is anger. But God shows mercy on Cain.

    At this God said to him: “For that reason anyone killing Cain must suffer vengeance seven times.” And so God set up a sign for Cain in order that no one finding him should strike him.

    So what is the mark of Cain? A Cane is the mark of the disabled. A wheel chair sign is also the mark of the handicapped. God says if your hurt the disabled, he is going to hurt you 7 times more. We don’t hurt the handicapped any more than they have already been hurt. We show mercy to the disabled. The disabled have been given less favor. The Able have been given more favor in the eyes of men.
    The reason why some people are disabled is not because of the Sin of Cain, any more than Jesus having to suffer on the cross because of the ‘Original Sin of Adam“. They are disabled because that is the hand they were dealt in life. What you are handed in life is random, just like a poker game. Some people are dealt a good hand and others are dealt a not so good hand. We all play the hand we are given. We can’t get all HOT over being dealt a bad hand.

  • Tonio

    So what is the mark of Cain? A Cane is the mark of the disabled.

    The words in Hebrew were Qayin and qaneh, and my suspicion is those don’t sound enough like homonyms. But rather than dwell on that, I would postulate that only wicked perverts use sin-onyms and homo-nyms.

  • hapax

    Able sees that Cain is hot and he knows what is going to happen out in the field.
    /blink, blink/
    I definitely read too much slashfic.

  • @hapax-
    Not to mention this-
    Abel isn’t the only Able man out in the field, there are other people in the world and in the field that day.
    I’m just glad she didn’t talk about anyone “coming” somewhere or “rising to the occasion”.

  • esmerelda ogg

    Okay, “Melanie”, you’ve outed yourself. And not in the slashfic sense. No good fundamentalist girl would set foot in a pub – and if she did, she’d call it a bar, considering that fundamentalism is generally a US quirk – but in any case, NOBODY named Melanie is going to invite an opponent to take it out in the parking lot for a fistfight.
    ‘Nuff said, Poe.

  • hapax

    Esmerelda O, what on earth makes you think Melanie is a Fundamentalist? As near as I can figure, she thinks the New Testament is a deception of Satan’s.
    But I agree that she’s probably a Poe. And a funny one.

  • esmerelda ogg

    Eh, good point, hapax. I suppose it was the swaths of the Bible “Melanie” was quoting. But unless Melanie is A Boy Named Sue’s little brother, she isn’t in the habit of drinking with her mates and taking it out to the parking lot.

  • Melanie Stephan

    I would postulate that only wicked perverts use sin-onyms and homo-nyms.
    After that Mel said to Tonio his brother:

    [ “Let us go over into the field.” ]

  • Mel

    Synonym sounds like Sin-onym! So who is calling the kettle a black pervert?
    And yes I have set foot in the pub. I never said I was a fundamentalist, What ever that is? My mate at the bar, said “Shooo”, it’s not cool to talk about Jesus in the Pub. So I shut up. He was right, talking about the Bible in the pub is not cool. Later in a whisper he told me that he went to Church on Sundays. Well, I’ll be damned, I would never have quessed that my drunken friend went to Church.

  • Launcifer

    Taking the whole semiotic wordplay into account, I’ve decided that Melanie must be the lovechild of George Carlin and Umberto Eco. Nothing else makes sense. Well, nothing quite so nonsensical, anyway.

  • Melanie Stephan

    Cain bears the “Mark of the Disabled”.

  • Tonio

    So who is calling the kettle a black pervert?

    No one was calling anyone a pervert – I was satirizing the semiotic wordplay by taking it to a ridiculous extreme. I’ve heard of a few people objecting to out-of-context quotes from the Monty Python “Mollusks” sketch and assuming that the quoter was endorsing the intolerant attitudes that the sketch satirized.

  • Tonio wrote:
    > Longtime Slacktivites may know that I’m a fan of James Loewen’s books that “unretcon” American history.
    That reminds me — did I mention here that “Lies My Teacher Told Me” was a required text for the Early American Lit class I took last fall? After the quarter was over, I read the whole thing. Fascinating!
    (I’m still reading some of the other books the teacher recommended, such as “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, “A Different Mirror”, “1491”, and “Crossing the Continent 1527-1540”.)