It’s in the Interpretation

RTB-BioLogosThe interpretation of Scripture is a key to Christian positions on Creation and science. In Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation: Discussing Origins with Reasons to Believe and BioLogos John Walton and Kenneth Samples present the different views on Biblical Interpretation. We looked at these in the previous two posts on the book (Don’t Underrate Scripture and What is Inerrant?). John’s view is representative of BioLogos, where a range of views are present – all of which view Scripture as the inspired word of God. Kenneth’s view is descriptive of Reasons to Believe, where acceptance of a statement on inerrancy is required.

On redirect, in the last part of the chapter Samples and Walton interact with each other’s views and with a question posed by the moderator Steve Lemke concerning the criticisms leveled against both groups by Young Earth Creationists (YEC) such as Ken Ham and others at Answers in Genesis. The key issue here is the proper interpretation of Scripture. How should we approach Scripture as the Word of God when it comes to interpreting Genesis 1-2?

The YEC view is that the ‘plain’ interpretation is the correct one. To accept anything other than a young earth (6 to 10 thousand years old), creation in six 24 hour days, and the de novo creation of kinds of animals is tantamount to denying the inspiration, authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

John Walton suggests that we have to look at the message intended by the original authors. There is no new science in the text, because this was not part of the intended message. A local understanding of nature and cosmology was used to convey the message.

I would insist that we cannot take a text more literally than by understanding as fully as possible what the original author intended to communicate. … A casual, superficial reading should not be mistaken for a literal one. Authority, inspiration, and inerrancy must be attached to the intended communication of the first human writer (as one invested with authority by God). (p. 42)

John finds the claim by Kenneth Samples and Reasons to Believe that we can find truths in the text unknown to the original author troubling. The only exception he allows is when the new meaning is explained elsewhere in Scripture, as when the Evangelists see Jesus as the Messiah in Isaiah and in the history of Israel. But this, in his view, is God speaking through the New Testament authors, not a result of their own reasoning. We are not inspired, and thus should never go beyond the intent of the original authors.

John finds concordance troubling (soft or hard) because it contradicts his understanding of the authority and divine inspiration of Scripture.

Kenneth Samples disagrees with John’s understanding here – but the primary motivation appears to be apologetic. It is reasonable that God concealed messages in Scripture to increase the faith and understanding of later generations. We should expect a level of soft concordance. A reliance on accommodation (the idea that God accommodated his message to the original audience) can undermine trust in Christian truths.

While premodern and modern cultures looked at many issues differently, Scripture is intended to speak truthfully to all people at all times. Spiritual and moral truths cannot be separated from truths about the natural world and about critical knowledge claims.

Therefore, accommodation theories of Scripture that separate spheres of truth strike many nonbelievers as convenient and ad hoc, thus lacking in any kind of powerful apologetic persuasion. If accommodation is taken too far, then skeptics may think there is no way to genuinely test Christianity and that it, like so many other religions, is simple unfalsifiable. Thus accommodation runs the risk of making Christianity at best not critically important and at worst irrelevant. (p. 45)

Regarding the YEC criticism, Samples points out that one need not appeal to science to criticize the YEC view. The text isn’t all that clear. Among other things, the parallel nature of the days in Genesis 1, morning and evening preceding creation of the sun, and the sheer number of activities for Adam in the sixth day argue against a superficial reading.

Some Thoughts. It is clear that both Kenneth Samples and John Walton take Scripture very seriously. The nature of their disagreements are all rooted in the proper understanding of Scripture as authoritative, inerrant and inspired. The irony here is that on overall principles I probably agree with Samples slightly more than Walton. I tend to think that Walton (who I count as a friend and from whom I have learned much) is too rigid in his restriction of inspiration to intent of the original author. I would suggest that the New Testament authors provide an example of the proper interpretation and use of Scripture as the Word of God, not an exception to general rules because they are divinely inspired. The Spirit is active today as we read and interpret Scripture.

However, I disagree with Samples and Reasons to Believe on concordance and accommodation. An apologetic that relies on concordance is troubling and doesn’t really provide the tools to deal with the complexity of Scripture. The Christian faith does not stand on Scripture as falsifiable (a kind of scientific proof), but on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and on the mission of God in this world. Scripture is reliable and there is a coherence between Scripture and our increasing knowledge of the world – but accommodation is probably the best way to understand some of the details we find in Scripture. This is entirely consistent with Scripture as inspired and does not undermine its authority or message. Unless we set up unreasonable expectations, it isn’t likely to trouble the nonbeliever at all. It does require that we avoid some apologetic tactics – but this is for the best.

Both the moderator, Steve Lemke, and John Walton note that within BioLogos there are a range of views on the nature of Scripture as inspired. While John is comfortable with the word inerrancy, I have found this word increasingly problematic and prefer to stick with inspiration. Inerrancy is encumbered by unnecessary baggage from the various arguments of the 20th century. It seems to me that inerrancy, as it has come to be defined, has to be imposed on the text to fence it in and control it, while inspiration is not something that has to be forced on the Bible. We find the concept throughout Scripture.

I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. But most of the subsequent refinements, that define exactly what is meant to some people by “inspiration” culminating in “inerrancy” or “unlimited inerrancy,” have to be forced on the text. These are not really something the Bible teaches of itself as a whole or conclusions that can be derived from the data contained in it. In fact they lead to a great deal of cognitive dissonance as many come to fear (or realize) that the text does not live up to the pronouncements.

Do you find yourself in agreement with John or Kenneth? Why?

What is the role of Scripture in our apologetics?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

You may also comment on It’s in the Interpretation at Jesus Creed.

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2 Responses to It’s in the Interpretation

  1. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    This shows how much of the discussions on creationism stem from forcing interpetrations onto the bible

  2. Many wrestle with whether the Bible is truth or fairy-tales or somewhere between. Others say that oral tradition of the oldest biblical stories had to have been distorted before they were written down or edited about 500 B.C. However there is one very old biblical story that has been proven true, in my opinion. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah took place about 3,700 years ago. The ruins of the city of Sodom have been dug up and the archeological story is remarkably consistent with many aspects of the Bible story. See the book by Steven Collins “Discovering the City of Sodom”, or a summary of the book in http://www.iandexterpalmer….
    At the very least this discovery (the story is way back in Genesis chapter 19) implies this particular oral carry-down was faithful for 500-1,000 years. We have to be very careful before we consign old and very old Bible stories to oral distortion (or editorial distortion by the later writers around 500 B.C.)

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