Are the Bible’s theological claims invalidated if they rest on literary rather than historical grounds?

This is another question that has been posed by a reader. Dr. Smith is answering it because it has to do with biblical interpretation.

Q. To what degree do claims involving spiritual matters depend on the correctness of the physical understanding that prompted them? Clearly, as with Jesus’ parables, you can have spiritual truth communicated through events that never happened. However, for those, the literary genre  precludes the historicity of the events described. Would you say that there are other categories of truth such as literary truth that might be somewhere in between physical and spiritual truth?

To take a different example, whatever view one takes of Jesus’ omniscience while he was a man on earth, one can always extricate him from any factual errors by arguing that, as God did throughout the Bible, Jesus was simply accommodating the knowledge of his audience to communicate spiritual and theological truths (e.g. with his statement about the mustard seed). When it comes to the apostles, though, they seemingly believed in a historical Adam and Eve, but one can’t really argue that in fact, they knew better but were simply accommodating the knowledge of their audience.

So if an argument that has spiritual ramifications is based on a reading of nature or history that is potentially flawed, how does one responsibly handle the spiritual points being made? Another example might be points made by the author of Hebrews based on Old Testament events that may or may not have happened quite as described in the Bible. Should one just abstract or extract inerrant theological truth based on the author’s likely understanding?

A. For one thing, many of these problems go away when we have a better understanding of the biblical culture and language. For example, Jesus’ statement that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” is often cited (sometimes gleefully) as proof that he wasn’t omniscient, because there are all kinds of seeds that are actually smaller. However, this is the kind of statement that’s made in Hebrew all the time to express extreme rather than superlative meaning. It’s like when a person says, “That was the best party ever!” While that’s a superlative statement, we shouldn’t take it literally and undercut it by saying, “I don’t know, back in ’02 we had a party that I think was probably better.” The person is actually saying, “That was a very good party!” And Jesus, for his part, is really saying, “The mustard seed is a very small seed, but it grows into a large plant.” An additional shade of meaning may be, “The mustard seed is the smallest seed you’re familiar with,” i.e. “I bet you can’t think of a smaller seed than the mustard seed, but what a large plant grows from it!” We are taking our modern, rational mindset and trying to impose it on statements that are hyperbolic and poetic, and that’s where the trouble often comes from.

On the other hand, I don’t see any need to defend the idea that Jesus was omniscient on earth. I believe he actually could have had a limited knowledge of world-wide botany, among other things, because the Bible itself says very clearly that he “emptied himself” when he came to earth. Most interpreters understand this to mean that he emptied himself of the so-called “non-communicable” divine attributes, i.e. those that God doesn’t share with humans, such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. But Jesus retained the “communicable” divine attributes such as holiness, wisdom, etc. In that way he’s an example for us, showing us that we can share those attributes as well. So I would not argue that Jesus knew better but was simply accommodating the limitations of his audience when he made statements such as that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good.” We know that the sun doesn’t actually rise; the earth rotates. But Jesus, when on earth, may well have believed in a stationary earth around which the sun revolved. No biggie.

The book of Hebrews is a very interesting case not because it appeals to  events that may not actually have happened in history (I’m not aware of any cases of that), but because it relies on the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Scriptures and so makes some linguistic moves that would not be possible from the Hebrew text. For example, it quotes the phrase “a body you prepared for me” from Psalm 40 in the Septuagint as support for the idea of Christ’s incarnation and the efficacy of his sacrificial offering of his “body.” The Hebrew text, however, actually reads “my ears you have opened.” I’ve addressed this issue of quotations that seem inexact in a post on my other blog Good Question (where there’s a link to my study guide to Hebrews, where I discuss the issue even further). The author of Hebrews is always very careful with the text; he “sees Christ as culmination of the story of God’s covenant dealings with humanity, and so earlier figures, events, institutions, and objects are seen as prefiguring his life and work. There is always a close and appropriate thematic connection between the earlier context in the First Testament and the situation in the life of Christ.”

Nevertheless, the bottom line is that all of us read and understand the Bible within a culture-bound tradition of interpretation. Another example of this is how Paul, speaking of the Israelites in the wilderness, refers to “the rock that followed them.” He’s adhering to a rabbinic interpretation that grew up in response to the question, “How could the rock that Moses struck in one place in the desert have provided water for the Israelites all throughout their journey?” The rabbinic answer was, “The rock must have followed them around, all the way to Canaan.” Now the Bible says nothing of the kind, and we can be pretty sure that this didn’t happen historically. But Paul is assuming this as a fact because he’s operating within a particular tradition of biblical interpretation.

This kind of thing is simply inevitable, because we are time-bound, history-bound, culture-bound humans. We can see it more clearly in the case of the biblical authors because we’re looking in from outside their framework. It’s harder for us to see in our own case because we’re within our own framework and so we don’t recognize what comes from it and what comes from the timeless redemptive work of God that the Bible captures. Perhaps it does not capture it completely, any more than a painting can capture an scene, but it does so at least as accurately as a painting captures a scene. (Though one limitation we experience because we are operating within a particular tradition of interpretation is a difficulty with statements that don’t make sense within our rational-scientific framework, e.g. that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. These difficulties should not cause us problems with our faith; they should make us recognize and contextualize our framework.)

However, I think that the issue of the New Testament epistle writers not only believing in Adam and Eve as historical individuals, but basing significant theological doctrines on this belief, is something different that goes beyond anything I’ve addressed so far. Still, many of their statements are actually not as problematic as some might feel. For example, consider Paul’s statement, “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” This is a warning against false teachers and an expression of Paul’s concern for his spiritual flock in Corinth. It would not be invalidated if the episode of Eve and the serpent were literary but not historical.

We also hear many appeals, especially by “complementarians,” to Paul’s supposed argument that women should not be in authority over men because Eve was created second and was deceived, while Adam wasn’t. But as I understand it, this is actually a refutation of a proto-gnostic myth that the creator God was not the true God and that Eve (or Zoe) brought the knowledge of that fact to earth. (I discuss this in another post on my blog Good Question.) In other words, the problem here goes away when we understand the true message of the passage.

Probably the most serious issue arises from Paul’s depiction of Christ as the “second Adam.” However, even in this case we need to realize that Paul sees Adam essentially as a representative human (the “federal head” of the human race, as some theologians would put it), not primarily as a historical individual. And this is in keeping with the portrayal in Genesis itself, where the term ‘adam refers sometimes to an individual, sometimes to the first couple, sometimes to the human race, and sometimes to the entire created order. I’m confident arguing that Paul, a rabbi steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, would have had this notion essentially in mind, rather than the modern individualistic notion of Adam being important and significant primarily as a single historical person. This is another case where the theological argument is not invalidated if Adam is a literary figure rather than a historical one, particularly when when we realize that in the original literary presentation itself (in Genesis), he’s not just a historical person.

Still, I may not yet have given a definitive answer to the question of whether a theological claim apparently built on a historical figure or occurrence is invalidated if that figure or occurrence turns out to be  literary instead. This is because example after example turns out to be not quite a case of that. But let me say generally that the real issue here is probably, “Where does the inspiration and authority of the Bible lie?” Some would say that it’s in the actual words of Scripture themselves (“verbal plenary inspiration”); others would say that it’s in the biblical authors’ intended meanings (many inerrantists argue this). But I believe that the authority of the Bible lies in its testimony to the redemptive works of God in history—in other words, it’s the divine acts that are authoritative and revelatory of God’s character and purposes. However, we don’t actually have those acts themselves. We have the story of those acts. So effectively, all we really have as an authority is the story. In that sense, maybe trying to draw too strict a distinction between what is “literary” and what is “historical” is not a meaningful exercise. God has given us access to his character and purposes through his acts in history, but he has given us access to those acts through the biblical story.

This is not all tied up in a neat bundle, I realize, but I don’t think it can be. In one sense, trying to use the discipline of history to validate the biblical account of God’s redemptive activity (or else to create a counter-story or meta-story to which the biblical story needs to conform if we are to respect and believe it) is a lot like trying to use natural-scientific disciplines to confirm the biblical account of God’s creative activity. We should recognize that we are dealing with different disciplines that answer different kinds of questions by following different “rules of the game.”

A question from a reader about methodological naturalism

The following question was submitted by a reader. The response is from Dr. Smith, since the question arises from his part of the story.

Q. In your book, following the Alters, you describe and define methodological naturalism over against metaphysical naturalism. These terms have become fairly mainstream in the science-faith discussion, as they potentially divide what theistic evolutionists consider valid science and what other groups like the Intelligent Design community consider scientific (e.g. scientific evidence of an intelligent designer in nature). Intelligent Design advocates are very critical of methodological naturalism and prefer the term methodological neutralism, or simply reject the distinction altogether. Some have defined methodological naturalism as either hard or soft (or strong/weak), where soft methodological naturalism simply excludes supernatural intelligence from consideration in science, and hard methodological naturalism excludes all intelligence from consideration in science. How would you potentially view the term?

A. I hadn’t been aware before of the discussion between theistic evolutionists and Intelligent Design proponents about methodological naturalism versus methodological neutralism, so I appreciate you bringing this to my attention. It makes perfect sense to me that Intelligent Design advocates wouldn’t want to accept methodological naturalism as an intrinsic commitment of science, because they want science to be able to declare that it has found evidence of supernatural activity. So this is really a debate about what science is.

People might understand and define the term “science” in a variety of ways, of course. But my belief is that science is rightly a discipline that limits itself to what can be observed and measured, and to explanations that involve causes that can also be observed and measured, i.e. natural causes.

One key principle of science is that findings have to be able to be replicated. I think we have to accept at least that as one of the “rules of the game.” But the findings of faith cannot be replicated by people who don’t have faith. So you really can’t mix the two categories. That being the case, if you’re looking at something that can’t yet be explained naturalistically, it’s not consistent with science to say that this must be due to a supernatural agency.

I personally don’t find the distinction between supernatural intelligence vs. all intelligence very meaningful. If something isn’t simply a process of nature, then any intelligence at work has to be super-natural. I guess on the spectrum you describe, I’d be considered a “hard” methodological naturalist, in that I don’t think science has any business positing supernatural explanations. But I don’t think it has any business denying that the supernatural exists, either; questions like that are the purview of a different realm—religion. (But I imagine it’s already clear from our book that this is my position!)

Is Genesis describing the creation of photons before the sun?

A reader has shared this observation about one part of Dr. Smith’s story:

I have a comment that you may find useful regarding the concern you express about the creation of light before the sun.

In my more recent reading, or at least since I took an interest in cosmology, I’ve taken a decidedly universal view of the creation account. That is, I see it as an account that refers to the creation of the Universe and not merely the Earth. In this view, the most resoundingly impressive statement is God’s very first act of creation, in which he creates light. I don’t see this as the creation of the light that strikes Earth, but rather as the creation of light itself—that is, photons—as well as the electrodynamic laws underpinning it that allow for a self-propagating electromagnetic wave.

In this context, the formlessness and void of the Universe before God’s creative work takes on a whole new depth. God did not merely create the Sun and the Earth, but created also the “form” of the Universe—previously without form, in addition to being empty—that allowed the Sun to create light and allowed light to travel to the Earth, and which allowed the Sun to hold the Earth through the force of gravitation. This is also the glorious power that I see in Jesus’ statement in his teaching on the Sabbath in John 5, where he says that His Father is always at His work. Indeed He is, as he sustains the physical laws as part of His perfect lordship of the Universe.

Dr. Smith replies:

Thank you very much for sharing your perspective on this. I think your understanding and interpretation of the creation of light before the Sun is certainly one of the positions that can validly be held about the Genesis account. But it does assume that the writer was allowed at least to describe things that would have been beyond the view of an earthbound observer, not to mention far beyond anything he could have understood meaningfully a thousand years or more B.C. So we have to ask whether God was simply using the Genesis writer to record words that would only be meaningful later, which raises questions about the “fully human and fully divine” nature of the Bible, or whether the writer thought the words meant something else, and humanity has only been in a position to recognize their real meaning and import in recent decades, which would raise similar questions.

That’s why I consider the account to have been written instead from an observational perspective by an earthbound observer and to say things that would have been meaningful at that time. From such a perspective, there really is light in the sky before the sun becomes visible, and the conclusion can be drawn that light creates a realm—day—in which the sun is the most conspicuous resident.

Nevertheless, I appreciate you sharing your perspective on the Genesis creation account. I think it’s very valuable for each of us to put our understandings and interpretations in conversation with those of others. Thank you!

Paleontologist Peter Dodson on science and faith

These reflections on science and faith were offered by Dr. Peter Dodson, a vertebrate paleontologist who is one of the world’s leading experts on dinosaurs, at the June 2017 Cosmos and Creation conference at Loyola University Maryland. His comments are shared here with his permission and have been edited slightly for length. They include a brief description of how our book Paradigms on Pilgrimage has been an encouragement to him.

What most interests me is the intersection of science and faith. Faith was as natural to me as breathing. I grew up in a Catholic household, attended Catholic high school and Catholic university. At Yale during my Ph.D. program my friends were for the most part Catholic. To be candid, I led a sheltered existence and was never seriously challenged in my faith. I never went through a period of doubt.

My bubble was burst in 1988 when I attended a seminar at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The topic was “The Evolution of Human Morality” and the speaker was the late Wil Provine, an evolutionary biologist and evangelical atheist from Cornell University. His message was that we should face up to the consequences of what evolutionary biology teaches: “There is no God; there is no soul; there is no life after death; there is no such thing as free will. A scientist who professes to believe in God is a hypocrite. You MUST check your brains at the back of the church. Not more than a handful of evolutionary biologists believe in God.”

As I sensed the tacit or vocal approval of this message by the assembled scientists, I slouched deep into my seat, feeling most decidedly alone. I had never before heard such a crude expression of scientific naturalism, the gratuitous philosophy of materialism that science does not require. I of course knew that there are atheists in science but nobody before had tried to tell me I could not believe.

Father Hermann Behrens once said to me, “Peter, we should thank God for our enemies.” So true! Provine set me on a path that I am still following today, even this very morning. I became depressingly familiar with the village atheists—the Sagan, Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris, Coyne, etc. crowd. But who could speak for the scientist as believer? My first task was finding those role models. Initially it was an effort. But they were there—first I found Polkinghorne, then Ian Barbour, Owen Gingerich and above all Gerogetown theologian Jack Haught.

But happily the literature has blossomed since and there are many titles we can turn to. Two of the highest profile books are The Language of God by Francis Collins and Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion by Francisco Ayala. I am a huge admirer of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. To this list I may add paleontologist Stephen Godfrey’s Paradigms on Pilgrimage, which documents his personal journey from Fundamentalism to acceptance of evolution while retaining his Christian faith.

For a number of years I thought my mission was to combat the errors and calumnies perpetrated by Dawkins and his legions. I no longer think that. Rather I believe it is much more important to make the case for our views and not against his. And here is the important part. We discuss our beliefs in the compatibility of science and faith because of the faith that we hold dear and cherish. We must be firm and bold in this faith. We must be willing to confess our faith and trust in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Harvard astrochemist and Catholic convert Karin Oberg stated that she expected “a little martyrdom” when she arrived at Harvard. I find her courageous witness inspiring and worthy of emulation. Dare I say that we must be evangelical? By this I mean that we must encounter Jesus in the Scriptures and share what we learn.

St. Jerome states: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ, who is the living center of the Word of God.” Luther thought of the Gospel as sacrament—here we encounter Christ and his saving grace. We may read a familiar passage in Scripture 99 times, and the hundredth time it erupts “with an explosion of dazzling flashes” to use a Teilhardian phrase (via Tom King).

Such was my experience with Psalm 33, when I read in verse 4, “the works of the Lord are trustworthy”; and when I read this paraphrase of Romans 1: 20, “We shall know the Creator through the works of Creation.” Do these and a hundred other verses not give scientists like ourselves warrant to study the natural world as an act of praise to God? I do not regard the Bible as a scientific account of the natural world, but that in no way undermines my appreciation for the majestic words of Genesis 1 that we have just heard, concluding with its affirmation of the goodness of Creation.

I happily affirm that I am a Creationist—or more specifically a theistic evolutionist. The dialogue on science and faith that brings us together is enormously important, but it is not itself worship. It is incumbent on each of us to continue to grow in faith, in friendship with Jesus, and in knowledge of the Bible. As scientists we enjoy a certain status in society, and the more successful our science, the greater our potential for spreading the Good News—to our students, in our parishes, in our professional societies, on our web pages, in society at large. Be the best scientist you can be, and be the best Christian you can be. Who else is there to spread the message?