Authority is in the Intent

Communication is a deliberate action with a specific purpose or intent. Human communication generally uses words and sentences and it uses these to convey an idea and to elicit a response. John Walton and Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture, make the point that intent is part and parcel of the authority of a communication. It is the integral and essential carrier of authority.

When we affirm the authority (or inerrancy or infallibility) of Scripture we are (or should be) focused on the intent of the communication. It is the intended message that is inspired and carries the authority of God. We read and study Scripture to understand the intended message. We are not being faithful to Scripture by forcing it to fit into a mold of our modern expectations.

When we neglect the goals of ancient literature and instead use the literature to accomplish our own goals, we engage in a cultural imposition that subordinates what the ancients considered the reality and values of their literature … to what we moderns consider to be a higher pursuit. We will never achieve a sound understanding of the literature, let alone a legitimate understanding of biblical authority, if we are always judging its suitability for reaching our modern objectives. We need to start approaching the literature as their literature rather than simply transforming it into our literature from which we draw theological inferences. (p. 201)

What does this mean for the narrative literature in the Old Testament? The stories are generally event oriented and the authors intend to convey both the events and the meaning of the events in God’s relationship with his people. This is theological history not “straight” history. The ancient Israelite authors had nothing like our modern discipline of history. “The authors and compilers do not edit events with the same goals or methods that we use.” (p. 211) Abraham, Moses and David are not merely literary figures in a historical novel of some sort … but neither are the reports of the events surrounding their lives modern historical transcripts. These are stories in community memory, told and retold and recorded, for a purpose. They are told and recorded according to perfectly appropriate conventions of the ancient world.

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Adam and the Blue Parakeet

The second edition of Scot McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet is now available. The book is one of his best, a book that helps the reader think through the nature of the Bible as inspired and authoritative. From the back cover: “The second edition also includes new sections on race and slavery, the atonement, Genesis and science, and kingdom and justice issues.” While the first edition is outstanding, it did have some shortcomings. The most significant was the application of reading the Bible as story to only one issue – Women in Church Ministries Today. While this is a significant issue, and one that needs attention, it is far from the only issue raised by some approaches to Scripture. The revised version of The Blue Parakeet corrects this shortcoming by inserting a new section – Part 4 – with chapters Slaves/Atonement/Justice in the King and his Kingdom Redemption Story. Women in Church Ministries becomes Part 5. In addition there is an new appendix on Genesis and Science. This appendix is the subject of today’s post.

In some ways the appendix on Genesis and Science is a brief summary of Scot’s chapters in Adam and the Genome, but it makes an excellent addition to The Blue Parakeet. Many concerns that Christians have about evolution have nothing at all to do with scientific questions or evidence. The concerns are biblical and theological. The evidence for a long history and common descent appear to contradict the Bible and challenge our understanding of human vocation, human nature and original sin. Some will go so far as to claim that without a traditional understanding of original sin (i.e. Adam’s Fall in the garden) atonement is unnecessary and meaningless. No Adam, no need for a savior.

Scot outlines what he calls the “historical Adam” view (p. 314): Two actual persons existed suddenly as the result of God’s creation. They have a biological and genetic relationship to all humans alive today. Adam and Eve sinned, died, and brought death into the world and passed on their newly acquired sin natures to all their descendants – i.e. all humans. It is this string of connections that results in a universal need for salvation. No human being is exempt.

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Spirit and Scripture

Perhaps the most neglected and disputed aspect of Christian faith is the person and role of the Holy Spirit. We (most of us anyway) will recite the Apostle’s Creed with sincerity and affirm a Trinitarian doctrine of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit;

the holy catholic Church;

the communion of saints;

the forgiveness of sins;

the resurrection of the body;

and the life everlasting. AMEN.

God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth is rather clear. Jesus Christ is the center of Christian faith. Yet the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit remain somewhat enigmatic, poorly understood, and controversial. This is almost an after thought in some areas of Protestantism. Of course charismatic Christianity is growing, both here and in the broader world, yet some see this as a problem rather than a cause for rejoicing. The emphasis on the Spirit is misplaced. The gifts of the Spirit served a specific and limited role in the early church but have ceased. Now we have Scripture as our guide. Perhaps the primary (although not sole) role of the Holy Spirit in the early church was to inspire Scripture. The gifts of the Spirit served to authenticated apostleship. Continue reading

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The Unfolding Pattern

We’ve been working through The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology and the Deluge Debate by Tremper Longman III and John Walton. They summarize:

Our view has been laid out: a real flood of universal impact was the impetus for the story found in Genesis 6-9, which depicts this flood, using hyperbole, as a worldwide event for theological reasons. Since the interpretation of the event given in Genesis is what carries authority, we must understand how the biblical narrator has shaped Genesis 1-11. (p. 101)

There is a pattern to the narrative. Human disobedience, divine judgment, and mercy (grace). Genesis 1 describes God’s creative action in worshipful elevated prose. Genesis 2 establishes the partnership between man and woman before God. Then we get to Genesis 3.

Fall #1. Placed in the Garden to care for it in relationship with God, the woman and the man disobey God’s command. Judgment and mercy follow. There are consequences for disobedience. The man and woman are expelled from the Garden of God. Life becomes hard, enmity between them takes root, the tree of life is off limits. Yet God clothes them and continues to care for them. The retain the vocation as the image of God to subdue and fill the earth.

Fall #2. The story of Cain and Abel. God tells Cain “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (4 v. 7) Cain, however, gives in to temptation and kills his brother. Divine judgment, punishment and mercy follow. Cain is expelled, but in his fear that he will himself be murdered by others as he wanders the land the Lord assures him and gives him a mark as protection. “But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him.” (4 v. 15) The narrative goes on to describe the accomplishments of Cain’s descendants and their impact on future generations. It also describes another “fall” in the arrogance of Lamech. Another element of mercy comes in the birth of Seth to Adam and Eve, replacing their slain son.

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Errant or Inerrant … By What Standard?

The next chapter of The Lost World of Scripture by John Walton and Brent Sandy summarizes their main points thus far. The Bible as we have it emerged out of an oral culture and reflects the values and expectations of that culture. God revealed himself to his people in that culture and the stories and events were passed along through generations (Old Testament) or decades (New Testament) before being written down. There are some exceptions. The letters of Paul were written to churches. Revelation and a few books of the Old Testament (perhaps Ezekiel?) were produced in written form. And there are some written sources used in producing the books of the Bible – the annals of the Kings of Judah and Israel for example (see 1 and 2 Kings).

The Bible we have shows many remnants of the oral culture in which it originated.

Variations are inevitable and don’t raise eyebrows. Nor do the undermine the veracity of the message. We fret the details – but the original audience didn’t.

Speeches represent the intent of the speaker, but are not expected to be literal transcriptions. “Ancient historians recognized that variations were unavoidable when drawing from oral sources, and without scripts of speeches they reconstructed what speakers likely said, though the style of the author shows through in the speeches.” (p. 185) Consider the speeches of Moses in the Pentateuch (Exodus to Deuteronomy). “Summarizing briefly, some of the sermons and other oral pronouncements of Moses were likely written during his lifetime and under his supervision, though others may have been produced by later generations following various stages of oral transmission.” (p. 193) And all of these, from whatever source (oral or written) were collected and translated into the Hebrew text.

Jesus and his followers were completely comfortable with the oral culture. “Authority did not begin in written text.” (p. 186) Spoken words and messages passed along by Jesus and his followers carried the authority of God’s message.

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Talking Science as Christians

How to talk about science and faith … or perhaps, and more important, how not to talk about science and faith. Here are some thoughts from 50+ years as a Christian involved in a range of churches, and from 30+ years as an active scientist, 26 years as a professor.

1. Make Sure Your Facts are Straight.

Balance YECThere is no scientific controversy about the age of the earth. It is old, far older than 10,000 years. The few scientists who doubt this almost invariably do so for religious reasons, with Christianity being the most common. If you feel that the Bible teaches a young earth and thus hold this position, at least be honest in the way you approach it.

Ridiculous and easily falsified claims will undermine your credibility with anyone who happens to check, or who is exposed to science in more detail in the course of their education. Make sure you understand any science you use to support your position. Too often scientific results are twisted to support a young earth when, in fact, they say nothing about the age of the earth.

Don’t take quotes out of context, don’t misrepresent and misinterpret others to “proof-text” your position. More damage is done by the way the position is defended than by the position itself.

Don’t accuse those who are Christians and scientists and who hold to an old earth (the vast majority) of bowing to materialism or trying to curry favor with the establishment unless you truly understand the evidence and can offer a coherent explanation of why the evidence points in a different direction.

If you are getting your scientific facts from resources provided by a creationist organization, please double check them. Find out why those of us who are Christians and scientists find this information misleading, incoherent, wrong, and even occasionally deceitful. Joel Duff at Naturalis Historia explains much of this quite carefully from the perspective of a Christian and a biologist.

The only scientifically coherent approach to “Young Earth” is to postulate a mature creation with the appearance of age. Personally I think this position has theological problems and misinterprets the purpose and role of Scripture in Christian faith. I don’t think Scripture is intended to set us straight so that we know that the appearance of age in the world is an illusion, but others see things differently. We can have this discussion.

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Local Flood – Authoritative Cosmic Interpretation

The next proposition in The Lost World of the Flood by Tremper Longman III and John Walton puts it on the line. The flood was a real, devastating, event that lived in human memory in the ancient Near East. But it was a local flood not a global flood.

The author, narrator, of Genesis intentionally portrays the flood as a global flood making rhetorical use of hyperbole to convey an inspired and essential theological message.

The flood is used as a character in a story. As we read and study the story we are not called to consider the scientific feasibility of the flood, to search for geological evidence for the flood, to design a seaworthy boat capable of holding the necessary pairs of animals, or to identify the specific mountain on which the ark rests. This is colossal example of missing the point. Nor should we save the text by demonstrating that the author/narrator intended to describe a local flood. To do so diminishes the point the author was making through the intentional use of rhetorical hyperbole.

There are a number of significant elements to the story of the flood. One traditional interpretation of the flood story focuses on judgment, God’s judgment on sinful disobedience. This interpretation was developed in Jewish thinking and writing in the centuries leading up to the New Testament period. Echoes of this Jewish context and interpretation are found in New Testament references to the flood. An alternative interpretation focuses on the use of cosmic waters to obliterate disorder (evil and violence) and re-establish order in creation. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive and several ideas can be at play in the story. We should focus on the theological impact of the flood story and the way it is interpreted and used.

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