Schaeffer Plays the Village Atheist

The second good post comes from Frank Schaeffer, making an argument that usually gets you dismissed as a village atheist. Here’s the set-up:

There is a verse in Timothy that says that all Scripture is for our edification. This verse, not the many Bible stories of the many killings “ordained by God,” is the scariest verse in the Bible.

In Timothy (3:16) we read; “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”

The “all Scripture” being spoken of is the Old Testament. The New Testament was just being written at the time. And these days, of course, for conservative Christians, the word “Scripture” covers “their” part of the Bible too.

How scary is this verse? Well, take every vile verse reeking of barbarity in the Bible and append the “All scripture is…” ending to it.

In this unsettling thought experiment for instance take St. Paul’s New Testament “advice” to women: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12) Then add, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” End of discussion! Be Silent!


Well said! Schaeffer goes on to give several other examples along these lines.

The usual reply to this sort of thing is to exhort people to a more “sophisticated” reading of the Bible. We can acknowledge that the Bible contains much that is nasty, or scientifically inaccurate, or things that are holdovers from the times in which its various pieces were composed, but that does not detract from its status as the Word of God. Peter Enns expresses the basic idea:

For the Bible to be the “actual Word of God,” that means that “not everything is to be taken literally” and that it is “written by men.” These are not separate options. All three belong in one positive statement of what the Bible is. Coming to grips with this historic Christian conviction about the Bible will not end the debate, but it will surely help insure that the discussion won’t be hijacked by extreme voices on either side.

I have no idea what this means. I would have thought that describing something as the Word of God flatly implies that it was not written by men, except in the trivial sense that men wrote down the actual words. And while I recognize God’s right to communicate through symbolism and metaphor, I would expect it to be clear from the text which parts are to be taken literally and which parts are poetic. That is manifestly not the case with the Biblical texts.

Once we abandon the delusions of inerrancy and acknowledge that the Bible contains much that is best ignored by anyone interested in morality or science, what is the reason for describing it as “the Word of God?” Why discard the obvious conclusion that the Bible is an anthology of ancient documents, written entirely by non-divinely-inspired people, largely reflecting the political concerns of the time?

Comments

  1. #1 perpetualstudent
    August 4, 2010

    Of course as a friend of mine, who knows Greek, Hebrew, Akkadian, etc, loved to point out. The text in Timothy is just as logically translated as “Everything that is written is inspired…” So we could limit it to works that existed at the time like Plato, Homer, the various Hindu texts, and so on. I would prefer to extend it to everything that has been written and just assume that I God is speaking to me through the backside of a cereal box.

  2. #2 tweedleDeeDumb
    August 4, 2010

    God has providentially preserved His word perfect in the Bible via HIS promises. It is thus sacred, infallible, and final authority.

    God used HIS servants in HIS times and ways.

    Frank’s implied doubts, and scientific Bible-critical opinion about the Bible, is ultimately N/A. It’s all worthless.

    Never doubt the infallible Bible.
    Doubt finds its moorings in Hell.

    Scientists want REAL answers on their death beds. They know that “fun with science” times are over.

    “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (Jas 1:25) :-)

  3. #3 Zach Voch
    August 5, 2010

    Ah, tweedleDeeDumb, you almost Poe’d me… :D

    Jason,

    I’ll repost a comment I made on this post (the author is excellent, by the way) about the relevance of Biblical doctrine and ethics to modern day readers in the context of blood sacrifice:

    [Blood sacrifice/similar notions of transaction] and atonement generally are both examples of primitive ideas derived from extending the concept of `payment’ to elusive substances like sin-responsibility. For blood as [currency of life], we have the more specific superstition of vitalism at work. Blood is to the ancients as the pineal gland is to Descartes.

    To the modern mind, these concepts are largely incoherent. Even if we assume coherence, they are difficult, if not impossible, to support rationally as a serious possibility, much less as evidentially supported.

    Thanks for the link to Hector Avalos. I followed a link to another work of his, the premise of which resonates in this post as well: the Bible is not relevant to the modern world from a secular perspective.

    I need to get that Avalos book, methinks :D. Point being, the need to understand scripture is a historical and humanistic one for understanding our past, culture, and other people, not an especially ethical or (much less) scientific endeavor. The basic concepts and ideas are irrelevant to a modern, secular mind, even if we grant coherence. Avalos’s book criticizes his own profession of Biblical Studies for pretensions to the overwhelming and relevant secular value of understanding scripture.

    We would do far better to have similar attention payed to Russell, Moore, or some other philosopher. Ah… if only the amount of serious effort spent on holy books was to be distributed to ethics and science broadly…

    *Strays off into fantasy*

    It wouldn’t be Utopian, but it would be a serious improvement.

  4. #4 H.H.
    August 5, 2010

    I have no idea what this means. I would have thought that describing something as the Word of God flatly implies that it was not written by men, except in the trivial sense that men wrote down the actual words.

    Allow me to explain how to think like a Christian.

    Growing up in Catholic school we were taught something almost exactly like this. The bible is both absolutely perfect and at the same time imperfect. True, god is the spiritual author of the bible, but he used fallible men as his instruments, whom he could only control through inspiration. (God couldn’t just possess their bodies like a demon and use them like a puppet since that would infringe on free will.) What this basically meant was that everything in the bible was the absolute inspired word of god and therefore the absolute truth unless it was later found out to be untrue, in which case the error was somehow man’s fault. It didn’t even really matter how. Since God can do no wrong, it had to be man’s fault in some way. Usually the fault lay in how we fallible faithful were interpreting the bible. Sometimes the church misinterprets the meaning of scripture for centuries. It happens. “Days meant ages, not literal days! Bah, it’s so obvious now! Could kick ourselves for that one.”

    But Catholic apologetics is stuffed with that sort of doublethink. It’s both X and not X. Just look at the trinity: It’s both 3 and 1. That doublethink allows them to cling to traditions that even the “crazy” sects have abandoned. For instance, only the Catholics maintain that the Eucharist is literally the body of Christ, and the reason they can do that is because by “literally” they mean “not literally.” The Eucharist becomes the body of Christ in essence, not in the crude material world but in the magic place of “true being.” It’s the lamest parlor trick in the world. “Tada! The rabbit has turned into a dove, even though it still looks like a rabbit under any experiment you can design!” Even as a kid I could see the con.

    So make no bones about it, the Catholic Church is truly Orwellian in their abuse of the meanings of words. Up can mean down if you just spin the book around. Trying to make sense of any of it feels like getting into a discussion with a group of insane lawyers working for a bureaucracy.

  5. #5 Zach Voch
    August 5, 2010

    Jason,

    One of my comments disappeared (former #3). Did I break a rule or is there a bug that needs to be worked out? Either these (in which case I’d like to know, especially in the former case) or my memory is worsening.

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 5, 2010

    Zach –

    I’m not sure what happened, but you’re not the first to tell me about such a thing. I’ll look into it.

  7. #7 Zach Voch
    August 5, 2010

    Thanks, Jason. I saw similar comments at other threads, so I thought that it was worth checking out.

    Back to the topic:

    Once we abandon the delusions of inerrancy and acknowledge that the Bible contains much that is best ignored by anyone interested in morality or science, what is the reason for describing it as “the Word of God?” Why discard the obvious conclusion that the Bible is an anthology of ancient documents, written entirely by non-divinely-inspired people, largely reflecting the political concerns of the time?

    Easy. Desire for the truth of one’s notion of scripture, however derived, is a motive frequently separate from scripture itself. Having a naively or selectively treated `fallback’ point, treated as inerrant even when not `understood’ serves as a comfortable or otherwise deeply ingrained position for some.

    When somebody claims the `doctrine of inerrancy,’ they are really claiming the doctrine of inerrancy. It is an assumption or else a proposition to be maintained, not a to-be-expected outcome for one approaching Christianity through secular Biblical criticism. If there is an apparent error or item of disagreement, the apparent error is often consigned to some vacuous, all-encompassing realm.

    This verse is only intended for the immediate audience. That verse is cultural. But here is a timeless verse. To properly understand these verses and their `proper’ intent, one must be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit has inspired the belief in inerrancy in me.”

    If one does not seriously consider errancy as an option, then of course one will not weigh and consider the relevant evidence for errancy and inerrancy and make a conclusion on a secular or critical basis. To a secular mind, `apparent error in scripture’ might be considered evidence for errancy or further restriction on the possible meaning of inerrancy. To a believer, `apparent error in scripture’ means that our reasoning or feeling is somehow at fault. The restriction applies to us, not to scripture.

    Still, for many liberal Christians, the meaning of inerrancy has frequently been so constricted as to be separate from any usual sense of the word. They do not want to discard the term `inerrancy,’ just as many who do not believe in God by any usual definition still do not wish to abandon the term `God’. Too frequently, this is both linguistic carelessness and verbal sentimentalism, not a careful writing designed to succinctly achieve an accurate impression of the author’s stance.

    These are more accurate underlying stances for many who adhere to inerrancy:

    Biblical Fetishism – “The Bible is the most important book ever, whatever the truth value.” “The Bible has been eminently important for a long time. Therefore, it should be eminently important today.” “The Bible is sacred in-and-of-itself.” (Bleh, after looking around, I found that Andrew Sullivan has already called inerrancy `Biblical Fetishism’. I really wanted that term…)

    Biblical Moral Pragmatism – “The Bible is a solid source of moral instruction, except where it is not pleasant.”

    Biblical Cultural Inerrancy – “The Bible has heavily influenced culture. More strongly, it defines our culture. Since it defines our culture and I am a moral and factual relativist, the Bible is ethically and factually inerrant.”

    Biblical Inerrancy + Perspicuity (`naive’) – “The Bible contains no contradictory statements and no false factual claims. Further, those verses intended as factual or truth-valued can be clearly understood as such from the words of scripture itself without resort to potentially fallacious domains of reason, such as history, natural science, or cultural studies.”

    I think that something similar to this `naive’ inerrancy+perspicuity is required for any meaningful and accurately implied statement along the lines of “the Bible is a source of perfect morality.” If one is a moral realist, presumably this is required for inerrancy. Other stances called `inerrancy’ require a lot of digging, qualification, and other sources of information introducing potential error into the understanding of scripture which of course undermines many important or desirable implications of inerrancy. Any degree of uncertainty with regard to scripture has tremendous implications. Many Christians have failed to consider these implications or else have circumvented doing so via a resort to blind faith. The first is careless; the second is both careless and disheartening.

    Of course, my definition of inerrancy is naive for a reason… `Perspicuity’ is itself a subjective feature of scripture. And do we not introduce fallible elements in translation and understanding of languages such as Greek, even if we grant that the strictest literalism is correct? And from the ambiguities in interpretation follow the ambiguities in inerrancy… This problem can be circumvented by claiming divine inspiration in true believers, but it literally takes a miracle to believe it. And given this, divine inspiration is highly subjective or else the number of appropriately-inspired believers has been very small indeed, given their many differing takes.

  8. #8 eric
    August 5, 2010

    H.H. So make no bones about it, the Catholic Church is truly Orwellian in their abuse of the meanings of words. Up can mean down if you just spin the book around.

    Well, if you spin the book around the x or y axis (rather than z), the cover faces up, down, up, down…

    I figured I could get away with an OT geometry comment on a math site. :)

  9. #9 Reginald Selkirk
    August 5, 2010

    Allow me to explain how to think like a Christian.
    Growing up in Catholic school…

    Ho ho ho. Some Southern Baptists I know insist that Catholics are not Christians.

  10. #10 James Sweet
    August 5, 2010

    Oh come on Jason. When the Bible says that all of its contents should be taken literally, it is clearly just being metaphorical. See that’s a metaphor, for uh, ah, I dunno, something about redemption or the human condition or something. Totally.

  11. #11 Jud
    August 5, 2010

    Reginald Selkirk writes:

    Ho ho ho. Some Southern Baptists I know insist that Catholics are not Christians.

    I like to describe such folks as “Chevy Chase” (the person, not the city) theists. During the first year of Saturday Night Live, when Chase anchored the Weekend Update segment, he would always begin by saying, “Good evening. I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.”

    The “and you’re not” part is at least as important to many believers as the “I’m….”

  12. #12 AL
    August 5, 2010

    I agree with Peter Enns. If we tell people that the Bible was written by men as non-literally The Word of God, it will shut up all the extreme voices on all sides by confusing the crap out of them.

  13. #13 Aj
    August 5, 2010

    #4 The Eucharist becomes the body of Christ in essence, not in the crude material world but in the magic place of “true being.” It’s the lamest parlor trick in the world.

    I’m particularly impressed by the screeching contradiction that enters their argument once they’ve swallowed Jesus. Once the cracker no longer has the form of a cracker the essential nature of the cracker stops being Jesus.

    That essential nature, which was entirely independent of form before they ate him, becomes entirely dependent on it afterwards.

    Such cognitive dissonance, all so they don’t have to deal with the theological implications of people pooping Jesus.

  14. #14 gillt
    August 5, 2010

    Growing up Catholic as well, we were taught that God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired man to take pen to parchment.

    God wanted to share with his creation the path to salvation. So he used a part of himself termed Holy Spirit to inspire man to write this Good Word. Man being man, limited in both imagination and framing skill, came up with what we call Scripture. It’s still God’s word, and perfect in that way, but it’s filtered through fallible man–imperfections creep in.

    First you have to accept that Scripture is divine or at least divinely inspired and therefore infallible. Then you have to come up with reasons why it is still infallible but also obviously inaccurate. Look for meaning amongst the clutter.

    As an atheist that’s the best I can do.

  15. #15 Wowbagger
    August 5, 2010

    gillt wrote:

    First you have to accept that Scripture is divine or at least divinely inspired and therefore infallible. Then you have to come up with reasons why it is still infallible but also obviously inaccurate. Look for meaning amongst the clutter.

    I call this the ‘genre defence’ – whenever something doesn’t make sense, or is incompatible with modern science or contemporary sociocultural standards (bibilical endorsement of slavery and monarchy and misogyny and so forth) it’s obvious (to the ‘intelligent reader’, which basically means ‘one who agrees with the person making the claim’) that that part of the bible was written in a different genre and not meant to be taken literally. Even if it’s as much as one sentence of ‘metaphorical’ in a passage that otherwise entirely ‘literal’.

    Or, to use an analogy, it’s like picking your numbers after the lottery’s been drawn and demanding that you’re still entitled to the prize money.

  16. #16 gillt
    August 5, 2010

    And let’s not forget the Catholic church, like the Bible, is a Godly inspired human enterprise, and therefore fallible (minus certain special pontifications). Therefore we have two levels of fallibility at two different points in history to contend with when it comes to The Word of God: the actual writing in the books and the church-made choice of which books to include in the Bible.

  17. #17 Sheila
    August 6, 2010

    The newly developing ecological and global community needs a mystique of exaltation and finds it in the renewal of the great cosmic liturgy. We need to celebrate the new story of the universe and its emergence through evolutionary processes. Not to detract from the Bible or Genesis because for the day and age the Bible was written in and for it was indeed and inspiration following in the foot steps of Greek mythology and pagan stories of creation.

    Now, though, we need a new story of creation that combines the spiritual with the scientific. Thomas Berry said, ” The universe, the solar system, and the planet Earth, in themselves and in their evolutionary emergence, constitute for the human community the primary revelation of that ultimate mystery whence all things emerge into being.” This I believe to be true.

    For me, the story of the Universe creation beginning with the Big Bang and continuing with the evolutionary formation of stars with their sacrificial super nova flaming whence all of our periodic elements come from expands the creation story into an awe inspiring continuing exploration of mystery. Just considering the fact we, and everything, on earth were created from star dust particles weaves us all into a connected web of life and living.

    The ecological age: a new intimacy is sought with the integral functioning of the natural world; destructive anthropocentrism is replaced with eco-centrism; transition to the primacy of the integral Earth community.

    Because of the disconnect between the scientific- technological industrial world and the spirituality and the sacred a violent plundering of the Earth is taking place, The functioning of Earth is being profoundly altered in its chemical balance, its biological systems, and its geological structures. The atmosphere and water are extensively polluted, the soil eroded, and toxic waste accumulates. The mystique of the Earth vanishes from human consciousness. This last sentence is particularly important; when the interconnectivity and relationship to the Universe and nature is no longer remembered we see our selves as a part from instead of part of nature and the Universe.

    In conclusion, I agree with Thomas Berry when he said, “The universe is a unity, an interacting and genetically-related community of beings bound together in an inseparable relationship in space and time. The unity of planet Earth is especially clear: each being of the planet is profoundly implicated in the existence and functioning of every other being. The capacity for ordered self-development, for self-expression, and for intimate presence to other modes of being must be considered as a pervasive psychic dimension of the universe from the beginning.”

    Credit to Thomas Berry for the quotes and formation of ideas.

  18. #18 Zach Voch
    August 6, 2010

    Sheila,

    While I think we would agree that in some sense the Universe is unified, I think we would disagree over the term unity as descriptive. One can relate objects within the universe in terms of the universe, but a relation x~y need not imply a common ontological status x=y.

    The newly developing ecological and global community needs a mystique of exaltation and finds it in the renewal of the great cosmic liturgy.

    I agree. An absence of wonder and amazement would leave me loathe to persevere. However, I do not feel that mystique, if interpreted to imply mystery, is necessary for a liturgy of nature. This is quibbling, but the emphasis is important given common sentiment to the contrary. A rainbow might be reduced to atmosphere and photons and the consequent refraction, but the reduction does not diminish the beauty. You may have intended that such reduction of mystery into knowledge fails to diminish the poetry of nature, in which case we agree, but again, I feel the emphasis important.

    We need to celebrate the new story of the universe and its emergence through evolutionary processes. Not to detract from the Bible or Genesis because for the day and age the Bible was written in and for it was indeed and inspiration following in the foot steps of Greek mythology and pagan stories of creation.

    Again, I think we agree apart from emphasis. For creation myths such as Genesis, there are some grounds on some levels for detraction. Up to understanding prior beliefs for humanistic and historical purposes, no devaluing is in order, depending of course on how much importance is claimed. However, for detraction as to the factual or else inspired value of Genesis in some way transcendent of other claims, there is a need both social and intellectual for putting such a story in proper place. I think that we are on the same page as you use the term `mythology’, but for adherents, this will be taken as detraction, and given their beliefs, it would indeed be a fundamental concern, even a threat. As it is taken as such, it is important to be forthright and careful in our language when discussing such myths, and the importance of devaluation is made clear. For the connotations of `detraction’, I want to qualify that love of truth and a humanistic concern for others, as opposed to spite or envy, should be the motives. This appears to be true in your case. However, these do not imply a need to tip-toe cautiously around emotionally-supported beliefs by assigning special value. As it can detract from accuracy, this caution can be problematic.

    For me, the story of the Universe creation beginning with the Big Bang and continuing with the evolutionary formation of stars with their sacrificial super nova flaming whence all of our periodic elements come from expands the creation story into an awe inspiring continuing exploration of mystery. Just considering the fact we, and everything, on earth were created from star dust particles weaves us all into a connected web of life and living.

    It really is beautiful. Lawrence Krauss often uses the phrase `we are stardust’, though I forget who first coined it. That said, I reject some of the teleological and anthropocentric connotations of your language. The stars were not “sacrificing for us,” even if their destruction is necessary for our existence. Again, I think we should emphasis the beauty of the supernova despite its unconscious nature. Up to naturalism, life is incidental, not a purposeful outcome. To me, this is even better. Else, we would be an undeserving triviality. Again, please forgive my quibbling, but pervasive feeling to the contrary of this view necessitates qualification.

    Because of the disconnect between the scientific- technological industrial world and the spirituality and the sacred a violent plundering of the Earth is taking place, The functioning of Earth is being profoundly altered in its chemical balance, its biological systems, and its geological structures. The atmosphere and water are extensively polluted, the soil eroded, and toxic waste accumulates. The mystique of the Earth vanishes from human consciousness. This last sentence is particularly important; when the interconnectivity and relationship to the Universe and nature is no longer remembered we see our selves as a part from instead of part of nature and the Universe.

    Here we arrive at another issue entirely: deriving `ought’ from `is’. Pollution, toxic waste, and erosion might all be labeled a natural `correct’ part of the Universe as easily one would label an absence of waste, pollution, and human-induced erosion a natural and `correct’ part of the Universe. If we are part of the Universe in unity, then our eroding a riverbank is not fundamentally distinct from a river eroding its riverbank. Non-pollution can not be preferred over pollution on the basis of `this is what it would be like without us’ within this model, regardless of whether or not it would be. Due to this, your stance actually implies “our selves as a part from instead of part of nature and the Universe”.

    Now of course I do not wish the Earth polluted nor desire that toxic waste be pumped into the water supply. However, I can not claim to justify this stance or its implications based on my place within the natural world. If we wish to persuade others to not pollute, we have to do so by addressing those factors involved, self-interest in particular. We can justify passing a related law based on the undesirability of the consequences of pollution, for example, but undesirability is not a unified state of mankind. The industrialist might well desire to pollute, indirectly or not, while a local resident might desire the industrialist to not pollute. However, desirability is not an objective property in nature in some degree separate from the human mind in the way that a riverbed is. A sensible defense of norms and values – such as the normative preservation of nature derived from the desirability of natural wonders apart from human interference – requires at a fundamental level something beyond a description of ourselves and nature. This is where the entire field of ethics begins.

    `Unity of nature with ourselves’ might be a poetic defense of environmentalism, but it is not a successful justification; it would not be persuasive to another whose values and desires conflict with environmentalism nor would it provide any rational ground for condemnation. It might be useful as a tactic to achieve some desirable end (for me, of course) by persuading others, but I am loathe to resort to what are – at least for me – `lies in service of the truth’.

  19. #19 gillt
    August 6, 2010

    @17
    “Now, though, we need a new story of creation that combines the spiritual with the scientific.”

    What does “spiritual” mean here?

  20. #20 H.H.
    August 6, 2010

    No, turning science into a wishy-washy newage spiritualism is about the last thing we need right now. Less magical thinking, not more. It’s okay to find reality emotionally thrilling. But call it emotion. The word “spiritual” needs to be purged from our lexicon.

  21. #21 Anton Mates
    August 7, 2010

    I would have thought that describing something as the Word of God flatly implies that it was not written by men, except in the trivial sense that men wrote down the actual words.

    Not sure why that would be the case. If God arranged for the words to be written down by human hands, why couldn’t it arrange for them to be thought up by human brains? The latter feat isn’t particularly more difficult or uncertain than the former, if you’re an omni- sort of deity.

    And while I recognize God’s right to communicate through symbolism and metaphor, I would expect it to be clear from the text which parts are to be taken literally and which parts are poetic.

    Would you? I wouldn’t–I don’t really have expectations about the literary style of a hypothetical deity. A God who writes like William S. Burroughs makes as much sense as one who writes like Stephen Hawking. Possibly even more sense, given the universe it created; the world is often confusing and unpleasant, and God’s apparently happy with that, so why shouldn’t its scriptures have the same properties?

    Of course, by the same argument God might have written down its most sacred text on the Time Cube site, or in every third word on the back of Cheerios boxes. Hurray for untestables!

  22. #22 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 7, 2010

    Anton –

    If God caused human brains to think up His words, then God is still the writer and the humans are mere transcribers. I suppose God could have planted images in the heads of the human writers, and then allowed the humans to devise the words for describing those images. That would allow humans a creative role in the process. But then I would no longer say the text is the “actual Word of God.”

    As for God’s choice of literary style, I am assuming that His intention was to communicate in a manner that would be understood by humans.

  23. #23 Anton Mates
    August 7, 2010

    Jason,

    If God caused human brains to think up His words, then God is still the writer and the humans are mere transcribers.

    I don’t think your first conclusion implies the second. The laws of physics presumably cause my brain to think up the words I’m typing now, so you could say that they are the writer(s)–but I am also the writer, because I went through the mental process of composing this text. Assigning creative credit isn’t a zero-sum game.

    In a universe created by an omnipotent and omniscient God, anything humans write is also written by God, in the sense that he’s always known exactly what we were going to write and created a universe where we wrote it. That doesn’t make us “mere transcribers,” though, because we still had to do the composing ourselves; God didn’t hand us original texts that we could simply copy.

    I suppose God could have planted images in the heads of the human writers, and then allowed the humans to devise the words for describing those images. That would allow humans a creative role in the process. But then I would no longer say the text is the “actual Word of God.”

    But if God, in his omniscience, predicted that the text composed by the humans would be exactly what he intended, why isn’t that text still the “Word of God?”

    As for God’s choice of literary style, I am assuming that His intention was to communicate in a manner that would be understood by humans.

    Why do you assume that? If the Word of God is the Bible, then he must not have intended it to be understood by illiterate humans, or by past humans who couldn’t read any language into which the Bible had yet been translated, or for that matter by all of the nonhuman organisms on the planet. If his goal was universal comprehension, he could have downloaded his message directly into the mind of every sentient creature; evidently he chose not to.

    Given all that, perhaps he meant it to be understood only by a select group of Christians–Pete Enns and his comrades, maybe, or Bill Dembski and his comrades. Heddle would probably say that it’s meant to be understood only by the elect; the rest of us are too mentally depraved to get it.

  24. #24 Wowbagger
    August 8, 2010

    Anton Mates wrote:

    Heddle would probably say that it’s meant to be understood only by the elect; the rest of us are too mentally depraved to get it.

    Despite it being a far better way to explain why atheists are unable to see the value of (or even the inerrancy in) the bible, heddle wouldn’t agree to that; I’ve asked it of him before and his response was that the bible is perfectly understandable to everyone (at least to the ‘intelligent reader’) and being in the state of grace doesn’t make one more able to understand it.

  25. #25 Anton Mates
    August 8, 2010

    You’re right, now that I think about it; Heddle did say that he thinks Scripture’s understandable to a normal person. OTOH, he says in the same post that, “After all, Jesus spoke in parables—precisely, he teaches, so that unbelievers would not understand!” Which suggests that he still wouldn’t agree with Jason’s assumption about God’s intent.

  26. #26 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 8, 2010

    I am assuming God intended for the Bible to be understood, at least with regard to its major teachings, because that is a claim that is often made on the Bible’s behalf. It’s pretty much the foundation of Protestant theology. Obviously if you drop that assumption then it is not mysterious that no one seems able to agree on what the Bible means.

    I don’t know how David Heddle got dragged into this, but in a comment to an earlier post of mine he wrote, “I also agree with you regarding the perspicuity of scripture. The text of the bible, according to the bible, can be understood by the ordinary man with no special training.” Surely that’s the end of the discussion on that point at least.

    In a universe created by an omnipotent and omniscient God, anything humans write is also written by God, in the sense that he’s always known exactly what we were going to write and created a universe where we wrote it. That doesn’t make us “mere transcribers,” though, because we still had to do the composing ourselves; God didn’t hand us original texts that we could simply copy.

    But that is a very trivial sense of what it means to say something was “written by God.” By that logic everything that is written is written by God. For that matter, every human action is also an act of God. Presumably God’s omniscience and perfect foreknowledge is not a threat to our free will. When a person writes a novel we do not say that God arranged for that novel to be written, even if He knew ahead of time that it would, in fact be written.

    When people say the Bible is the Word of God they mean, among other things, that it is something very different from the sorts of things humans write all the time. Most Christians would deny that the Koran is the Word of God, even though presumably God knew that book would be written as well. Since some texts are plainly not the Word of God according to theologians, it is obvious they do not have your sense in mind in using that phrase to describe the Bible.

    It is at best an abuse of language, and at worst a flat out contradiction, to say that something is simultaneously the Word of God and written by men. If the particular words in the Bible are what they are because God took some particular action to make them so (a sort of action He presumably did not take with, say, Bleak House or any other human authored novel), then the role of humans in the process is that of transcribers, and it is a mistake to say that the Bible was written by men. If on the other hand humans had some creative control over the text of the Bible, in the same sense that Dickens had creative control over the text of Bleak House, then it is an error to describe the Bible as the Word of God.

  27. #27 Wowbagger
    August 8, 2010

    Jason wrote:

    I don’t know how David Heddle got dragged into this, but in a comment to an earlier post of mine he wrote, “I also agree with you regarding the perspicuity of scripture. The text of the bible, according to the bible, can be understood by the ordinary man with no special training.” Surely that’s the end of the discussion on that point at least.

    It is in terms of heddle at least; I have, however, encountered other Christians who’ve argued that the reason the bible doesn’t make sense to non-Christians is for the exact reasons that Anton Mates intimated, i.e. that it’s because being in a state of grace gives you the power to understand the ‘true’ meaning of the bible.

    Which I’d argue is a far better – and certainly consistent – explanation for why it’s so ambiguous to the non-believer, particularly with heddle’s notions of why one becomes a Christian, i.e. because his god turns you into one rather than because you chose to accept it because you read the bible and it makes sense to you.

  28. #28 Dave M
    August 8, 2010

    Lawrence Krauss often uses the phrase `we are stardust’, though I forget who first coined it.

    My guess would be Joni Mitchell.

  29. #29 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 9, 2010

    Wowbagger –

    I think there are two separate issues here. One is whether or not what the Bible says makes sense. A different issue is whether what it says seems plausible. It is possible that what seems like nonsense to a nonbeliever comes to seem reasonable after you are saved, but that is not what I was talking about in the opening post. My point there was that even believers do not agree on what the actual words are meant to convey. In fact, especially with respect to Genesis, they come to wildly different conclusions about what the Bible is telling us.

  30. #30 Anton Mates
    August 9, 2010

    I am assuming God intended for the Bible to be understood, at least with regard to its major teachings, because that is a claim that is often made on the Bible’s behalf. It’s pretty much the foundation of Protestant theology.

    Not quite, I don’t think. The Protestant axiom is that God intended for Scripture to be understandable…not necessarily that he meant it to be understood by all or even most humans. Most of the major Protestant figures believed that lots of people badly misunderstand the Bible. (They could hardly help believing that, since they considered all Catholic theologians and half their fellow Protestants to be heretics of one stripe or another.)

    But they maintained that this isn’t the fault of the Bible, but of the reader. Thus you have Martin Luther’s doctrine of “internal obscurity” and “external perspicuity;” Scripture is clear and understandable in itself, but the human reader is often clouded in his understanding, both from sinful thoughts and from ignorance of the languages and cultures of scriptural authors.

    Which is all just to say: if it’s not clear to you or me whether a given passage should be taken literally or figuratively, that’s not a problem for Protestants any more than it would be for Catholics. That just shows a defect in our powers of understanding, not a defect in Scripture itself. If we were smarter, better informed and more spiritually dedicated to truth, we’d get it.

    Also, “at least with regard to its major teachings” is an important caveat here. Protestants have traditionally claimed that different parts of Scripture vary in how easy they are to understand, and that the bits where understanding is most “guaranteed” are those which are critical for telling us how to be saved. If you don’t think that Genesis 1 & 2 are particularly critical to salvation–and I would suspect that Enns, as a liberal believer, thinks they’re much less important than bits like the Gospels–then it’s not a huge problem if they’re a challenging mix of fact and metaphor.

    I don’t know how David Heddle got dragged into this, but in a comment to an earlier post of mine he wrote, “I also agree with you regarding the perspicuity of scripture. The text of the bible, according to the bible, can be understood by the ordinary man with no special training.”

    I just mentioned Heddle as a convenient exemplar of Calvinism who’s got a lot of writing available on ScienceBlogs.

    And yes, he accepts the perspicuity of scripture. But he’s also written, “Second, it was written in a different language and in different culture. Things that appear difficult for us are not always difficult in the language and time in which they were written.” And, “Finally, the whole concept of inspiration must be addressed. It was thought by most not to have been divine dictation, but rather the Holy Spirit inclining the authors as to what to write and preventing error—but the styles remain distinctively that of the writer—and some were undoubtedly better writers than others.” And, “There is also the possibility that God wanted us to dig into it to understand. After all, Jesus spoke in parables—precisely, he teaches, so that unbelievers would not understand!”

    I’m not attacking or endorsing Heddle’s position here; I just think it’s a good example of the traditional Protestant point of view. Scripture is the inerrant Word of God and the product of human creativity; it is clear and understandable and can be difficult for many readers to grasp.

    But that is a very trivial sense of what it means to say something was “written by God.” By that logic everything that is written is written by God. For that matter, every human action is also an act of God.

    Yes, exactly. If we try to determine whether God gets credit by listing causal mechanisms, that’s basically where we end up.

    Presumably God’s omniscience and perfect foreknowledge is not a threat to our free will. When a person writes a novel we do not say that God arranged for that novel to be written, even if He knew ahead of time that it would, in fact be written.

    Actually, we often do say that if we really liked the novel (and are theists). More generally, Christians have no problem saying that a good deed is “doing God’s work,” or that someone who does a good deed is sent from God and empowered by his grace. And no, that’s apparently not a threat to our free will, but I think that says more about the haziness of the “free will” concept than anything. Humans can act as tools of God without sacrificing their free will, however that works.

    When people say the Bible is the Word of God they mean, among other things, that it is something very different from the sorts of things humans write all the time.

    Of course. But different how? Is it without error on all topics? Without error, but only on spiritual matters? A critical guide to spiritual salvation? Was its creation actively desired by God, whereas other books were merely permitted to exist by God because some human chose to write them? Any of these properties would make it the Bible very different from other human writings. But none of them are incompatible with the proposition that the Bible was composed and written by humans.

    It is at best an abuse of language, and at worst a flat out contradiction, to say that something is simultaneously the Word of God and written by men. If the particular words in the Bible are what they are because God took some particular action to make them so (a sort of action He presumably did not take with, say, Bleak House or any other human authored novel), then the role of humans in the process is that of transcribers, and it is a mistake to say that the Bible was written by men.

    Not so; this is an abuse of the word “transcribe.” To transcribe is to make a copy of dictated or prerecorded material. If God acted through divine inspiration rather than divine dictation–which, as Heddle says, is what Protestants have generally believed–then it is simply wrong to say that the human authors of Scripture were taking the role of transcribers.

    If on the other hand humans had some creative control over the text of the Bible, in the same sense that Dickens had creative control over the text of Bleak House, then it is an error to describe the Bible as the Word of God.

    No, it’s not, no more than it would be an error to describe Blue Poles as the work of Jackson Pollock. Gravity, air currents and Van der Waals forces all had some control over the form of the painting, but it’s still Pollock’s painting.

    If God is omni-, then humans and their creative abilities are simply additional tools at his disposal when he wants to create a text. He doesn’t have to compete with them for creative credit, any more than than a human painter has to compete with his brushes and pigments.

  31. #31 Anton Mates
    August 9, 2010

    It is possible that what seems like nonsense to a nonbeliever comes to seem reasonable after you are saved, but that is not what I was talking about in the opening post. My point there was that even believers do not agree on what the actual words are meant to convey.

    Sure. But, again, the doctrines of divine inspiration and inerrancy and/or infallibility do not preclude disagreement among believers. Any passage in Scripture that seems nonsensical will come to seem reasonable when (if?) you gain sufficient clarity of thought and the necessary background information to read it properly…but these mental upgrades aren’t automatically bestowed upon anyone who becomes a Christian. Even believers have to work to attain them.

    …sometimes for a really, really, really long time.

  32. #32 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 9, 2010

    Not quite, I don’t think. The Protestant axiom is that God intended for Scripture to be understandable…not necessarily that he meant it to be understood by all or even most humans. Most of the major Protestant figures believed that lots of people badly misunderstand the Bible. (They could hardly help believing that, since they considered all Catholic theologians and half their fellow Protestants to be heretics of one stripe or another.)

    You’re splitting hairs. The doctrine of perspicuity is what I said it was, that a person of normal intelligence should be able to understand the teachings of scripture on all issues related to salvation when reading the Bible in his native language. God did, indeed, intend for the Bible to be understood by anyone making a sincere attempt to understand it. However, that does not mean that everyone will, in fact, understand it. People bring baggage to their interpretation of scripture that can interfere with their understanding.

    Massive disagreements of interpretation have to be explained away, and you are right that the fault is never placed at the Bible’s doorstep (though I would argue that it should be). According to the reformers the Catholic Church had become so corrupt and ossified that they no longer cared about interpreting the Bible correctly. The Bible was a just a tool of power for them. For Protestants, people like Luther chalked it up to man’s judgment being clouded by sin.

    Which is all just to say: if it’s not clear to you or me whether a given passage should be taken literally or figuratively, that’s not a problem for Protestants any more than it would be for Catholics. That just shows a defect in our powers of understanding, not a defect in Scripture itself. If we were smarter, better informed and more spiritually dedicated to truth, we’d get it.

    But this issue doesn’t arise for Catholics, because perspicuity is not part of their theology. The traditional Catholic view is that the Pope is in a privileged position to interpret scripture and that the body of scholarly Catholic teaching is another source of wisdom equal to the Bible. That is, they reject sola scriptura.

    Also, “at least with regard to its major teachings” is an important caveat here. Protestants have traditionally claimed that different parts of Scripture vary in how easy they are to understand, and that the bits where understanding is most “guaranteed” are those which are critical for telling us how to be saved. If you don’t think that Genesis 1 & 2 are particularly critical to salvation–and I would suspect that Enns, as a liberal believer, thinks they’re much less important than bits like the Gospels–then it’s not a huge problem if they’re a challenging mix of fact and metaphor.

    You are probably right about what Enns would say, but that is a crazy position to hold. Of course Genesis 1 & 2 are essential to the story of salvation, since they establish why we need a savior in the first place. The Gospel accounts make frequent references to those chapters. You lose something central to the story by treating them as purely allegorical.

    We should also note that prior to the nineteenth century there was, indeed, broad agreement on what the early chapters of Genesis meant. There were disagreements over minutiae, such as Calvin questioning aspects of the flood story or Augustine interpreting the days nonliterally. But the fact remains that the dominant views were that the Earth was very young, that Adam and Eve were real people who really sinned, that the chronologies were real chronologies, and that the flood and the tower of Babel were historical events. There were very few, if any, people arguing that the first eleven chapters were entirely allegorical with no literal historical content at all.

    No, it’s not, no more than it would be an error to describe Blue Poles as the work of Jackson Pollock. Gravity, air currents and Van der Waals forces all had some control over the form of the painting, but it’s still Pollock’s painting.

    If God is omni-, then humans and their creative abilities are simply additional tools at his disposal when he wants to create a text. He doesn’t have to compete with them for creative credit, any more than than a human painter has to compete with his brushes and pigments.

    This seems like a poor analogy. If God is using human authors to convey his words in the same way that Jackson Pollack is using his brushes and pigments then the Bible was written by men only in the trivial sense. The brushes and pigments can do only those things that Pollack willed them to do. Your analogy makes it sound like humans really were just transcribing the words.

    If God was inclining the human authors to write certain things and was making sure that errors would not creep in, then I would still say the Bible was written by men in only the trivial sense. I recently read an English translation of Les Miserables, but it would only be a very small abuse of language to say I read the words of Victor Hugo. I don’t think anyone would say the book I read was “written by” the translator, even though the translator had considerable leeway in the precise choice of words to use in rendering Hugo’s intent into English. We might even say the translator was inspired by Hugo. The translator was playing essentially the same role with respect to Les Mis as the Bible’s authors were playing with respect to the text. The human authors were not literally transcribing God’s words in your model, but they were so constrained in what they could write that the difference is hardly relevant.

    Bringing this back to where we started, the simple fact of the matter is that an awful lot of very sharp people throughout history (not just modern YEC’s), people whose sincerest desire in life was to understand scripture, were led wildly and screamingly astray by the text of the Bible. They believed sincerely that it was teaching things that science can now show were utterly false, to the point in some cases of making them central to Christian theology (such as with the notion of original sin being understood in the context of an actual sin committed by actual people. I think that is a strong argument against the idea that the Bible is the Word of God, or inspired by God, or that God had any role at all to play in the composition of the text. I do not think it is asking too much for something called the Word of God to have a certain minimal level of clarity. I am well aware of the creative excuses that get made to explain this fact away. I just find them very unpersuasive.

  33. #33 Zach Voch
    August 9, 2010

    @32:

    I think it might be worth laying out in more technical detail what implications of Word of God are being taken as so important as to restrict the definition.

    For now, set the definition of “Word of God” as a variable X.

    1) X must imply impersonal knowledge. This may be of historical, doctrinal, or ethical form. Restrictively, there is some set A of essential truths contained in X.
    2) X must imply perspicuity. A can be readily understood through its study. More specifically, given any Biblical proposition x, x not perspicuous implies x is not in A.
    3) X must imply inerrancy. That is, all apparent contradictions and/or factually incorrect statements are resolvable in such a way that A is left intact.

    Support for (1): Else, the Word of God is a work of poetry or otherwise meaningless. I take this requirement as uncontroversial for the current audience.

    Support for (2): Else, the Word of God is by definition misleading and confusing, or else, it can not be intended as something designed to be considered objectively true, contradicting (1).

    Support for (3): Else, the same undesirable implications from (1) and (2) follow. One might also note that (3) is required for (2), assuming that one agrees that our minds employ reasoning as a vital part of understanding.

    “X = words of men relating divinely-inspired feelings thoughts” would satisfy 1-3 so long as we restrict possible elements of A. For any definition satisfying this standard, the key variable at work is in determining the possible elements of A. For most definitions, I do not think that one could include trinitarianism in A. One also has to do away with some of the specific details surrounding the resurrection as a vital part of our Word of God. I think we have to toss out Revelations entirely. Further, there are problems with determining what can be counted as sin within A. “Thou shalt not kill” requires a lot of qualifications, as well as benevolence as descriptive of God in any normal sense of the term.

    In my opinion, these requirements actually force A to be empty, particularly (2). This is part of why I do not consider the concept of a “Word of God” to be remotely useful, much less justifiable.

    But for those who wish to maintain that these are properties of scripture, I think you have to do so by showing that the essential features of Christianity, e.g. atonement/trinitarianism/whatever, satisfy all of these requirements, not that they inherit these properties from scripture automatically.

  34. #34 Anton Mates
    August 10, 2010

    Jason,

    You’re splitting hairs. The doctrine of perspicuity is what I said it was, that a person of normal intelligence should be able to understand the teachings of scripture on all issues related to salvation when reading the Bible in his native language. God did, indeed, intend for the Bible to be understood by anyone making a sincere attempt to understand it. However, that does not mean that everyone will, in fact, understand it. People bring baggage to their interpretation of scripture that can interfere with their understanding.

    Sooo…what’s the problem, then? If there are massive disagreements of interpretation, that just means that a lot of people have a lot of baggage messing up their understanding, and/or that the passage in question is not crucial to understanding how to attain salvation. Both of these possibilities are totally consistent with the Protestant doctrine of perspicuity.

    But this issue doesn’t arise for Catholics, because perspicuity is not part of their theology. The traditional Catholic view is that the Pope is in a privileged position to interpret scripture and that the body of scholarly Catholic teaching is another source of wisdom equal to the Bible.

    No, but parallel problems (or non-problems) arise for Catholics. Popes have often disagreed with Popes, and respected Catholic theologians have often disagreed with one another. Catholicism has a different set of infallible authorities than Protestantism does, but its set isn’t any more effective at producing doctrinal uniformity.

    You are probably right about what Enns would say, but that is a crazy position to hold. Of course Genesis 1 & 2 are essential to the story of salvation, since they establish why we need a savior in the first place. The Gospel accounts make frequent references to those chapters. You lose something central to the story by treating them as purely allegorical.

    I think most fundamentalists would agree with you, but most liberal believers would not, and I tend to agree with the latter group. The only facts which are essential to the story of salvation are: A) all humans are sinful, B) the wages of sin are death/damnation, and C) in Christ there is forgiveness of sins. And you don’t need Genesis for any of that. (Indeed, many Christians have pointed out that you can observe A) just from looking around you.)

    If you’re interested in why all humans are sinful, then both literal and allegorical readings of Genesis can provide you with various answers–but that’s not something you need to know to be led to salvation.

    And remember that the “story of salvation” to which you refer wasn’t even established as universal Christian dogma until a few centuries had passed. One of the major battles of Augustine’s time was against the extremely popular school of Pelagianism, which rejected the idea of hereditary Original Sin. As far as the Pelagians were concerned, all Adam did was set a bad example. Nonetheless, they still accepted that we are all sinners, as individuals, and do need a savior. (Mormons follow a broadly similar doctrine.)

    We should also note that prior to the nineteenth century there was, indeed, broad agreement on what the early chapters of Genesis meant. There were disagreements over minutiae, such as Calvin questioning aspects of the flood story or Augustine interpreting the days nonliterally.

    Minutiae? Even if we discount the Pelagians, Augustine thought God created everything instantaneously rather than over any period of time, which is a bit more drastic than just stretching the definition of “day.” He also thought that Adam and Eve were mortal by nature even before the Fall of man, and that natural evil is not due to the Fall. Clement also denied that the world was created over a stretch of time. Origen rejected the six-day period and the order of creation events in Genesis 1, denied the literal existence of the Garden of Eden and of the trees of life and knowledge, and denied that God ever manifested himself physically. Cyprian thought each day was a thousand years, and so on.

    It’s true that most of this diversity of thought was squelched as Western Christianity developed an orthodoxy, but that hardly means that the guys who won had the right interpretation. (Or that any of them did.)

    But the fact remains that the dominant views were that the Earth was very young, that Adam and Eve were real people who really sinned, that the chronologies were real chronologies, and that the flood and the tower of Babel were historical events. There were very few, if any, people arguing that the first eleven chapters were entirely allegorical with no literal historical content at all.

    Quite true, but so what? Those people were demonstrably less well-informed than us moderns on a host of subjects; perhaps that made them less competent readers of Genesis.

    This seems like a poor analogy. If God is using human authors to convey his words in the same way that Jackson Pollack is using his brushes and pigments then the Bible was written by men only in the trivial sense. The brushes and pigments can do only those things that Pollack willed them to do.

    No, not at all. Most of the details of the painting were not willed or desired by Pollock; it’s not as if he mentally controlled the trajectory of each falling drop of paint! He had an overall idea of what the painting should look like, and could set some general constraints to guide it in that direction (choosing a particular type of paint, or applying it with a particular tool and a particular hand motion), and could choose whether to accept or reject the results. That’s what makes it a Pollock painting, even though he left it up to gravity and intermolecular forces and air currents to produce the painting’s exact form.

    (Really, this is true of the details of any painting by any artist. Pollock’s drip style just makes it more obvious.)

    If God was inclining the human authors to write certain things and was making sure that errors would not creep in, then I would still say the Bible was written by men in only the trivial sense.

    Understood. For my part, I don’t consider that sense to be trivial, since it’s the only sense of “written by men” which is actually empirically testable. (If a text is written by human hands, and is consistent with the style and language and culture of the human author, then how does one determine whether it was also guided and error-checked by a supernatural being who moves in mysterious ways?)

    More importantly, I don’t think Enns considers it trivial either.

    I recently read an English translation of Les Miserables, but it would only be a very small abuse of language to say I read the words of Victor Hugo. I don’t think anyone would say the book I read was “written by” the translator, even though the translator had considerable leeway in the precise choice of words to use in rendering Hugo’s intent into English.

    That would depend on the amount of leeway, I think, and the translator’s interest in preserving Hugo’s own literary style. If the translator’s style shone through in the translation, to the same degree as it did in their “own” books, I think people would certainly say the book was “written by” the translator. For instance, Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the 1001 Nights could easily be called a Richard Burton book–it’s basically the book he would have written if you sat him down and told him to write a bunch of stories with the following plotlines.

    But, again, if you disagree that’s fine. My point is that, regardless of how you think authorship should be assigned, the way Enns assigns authorship does not make “the Bible was written by God” inconsistent with “the Bible was written by humans.”

    Bringing this back to where we started, the simple fact of the matter is that an awful lot of very sharp people throughout history (not just modern YEC’s), people whose sincerest desire in life was to understand scripture, were led wildly and screamingly astray by the text of the Bible. They believed sincerely that it was teaching things that science can now show were utterly false, to the point in some cases of making them central to Christian theology (such as with the notion of original sin being understood in the context of an actual sin committed by actual people.

    Yes, absolutely.

    I think that is a strong argument against the idea that the Bible is the Word of God, or inspired by God, or that God had any role at all to play in the composition of the text. I do not think it is asking too much for something called the Word of God to have a certain minimal level of clarity.

    I still don’t see it. Yes, if I were God, I’d make my text as obvious as possible–in fact, I’ d probably forgo text entirely, in favor of a telepathic transmission. But I’m not, and I have no problem with the idea that any God who’d make this universe (let alone this universe plus the weird supernatural add-ons Christianity posits) has very different goals for their Word than I do.

    The Protestant concept of God’s Word was designed, from the get-go, to account for the observable fact of massive confusion and disagreement among literate believers. You can object that they don’t define “God’s Word” as you would, or as a proper English-speaker should. But given their definition, that widespread confusion and disagreement is not a problem for their hypothesis.

  35. #35 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 10, 2010

    Okay, perhaps this is a good place to end the conversation. I’ll just make a few quick points and then call it a day from my side.

    Regarding Enns, remember that the way this all got started was that Enns excoriated a pollster for his theological ignorance in setting “Word of God” in opposition to “written by men.” It seems to me, though, that the distinction drawn by the pollster was both clear and natural, while Enns needs a whole lot more explanation for his view than he provided in his article. You protest that I am imposing my use of language on Protestant theology. But the pollster was using language in a perfectly reasonable way, whereas Enns is using language in a way that differs greatly from its everyday use.

    Next, if the story of salvation is as narrow as you construe it to be, then almost nothing in the Bible has any relevance to it. It would render the doctrine of perspicuity almost completely vacuous to view things in such a way. Moreover, I don’t think you can discard Genesis as casually as you might like, for two reasons. The first is that it lays out a clear story of how humans fell into their sinful state, and why the world manifests so many ills and cruelties. How can that not be relevant to the story of why it was necessary for Jesus to die for us on the cross? The second is that the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, routinely refer back to things in Genesis. They obviously thought those texts were relevant.

    Moving on, going all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity to find a few people who held outre views of Genesis is not very impressive. The fact is that the story solidified pretty quickly once Rome converted to Christianity, and people like Origen were dismissed as heretics. Moreover, many of the points you refer to really were issues of minutiae. For example, Augustine took a strongly non-literal view of Genesis One, but a mostly literal interpretation of Genesis Two. He applied a very clear principle for making this distinction. The first chapter described actions taken by God in a context where our normal concepts of time and space did not yet exist. For that reason, we should expect imperfect human language to only vaguely suggest what actually happened. But by chapter two we are discussing things that occurred within our familiar conceptions of time and space, and therefore should be treated as actual history.

    To Augustine, the time frame in which creation took place was genuinely irrelevant to the story of salvation. Whether the days were instants, 24 hour periods, or periods of indeterminate length is a trivial detail. But the events in Eden are directly relevant to the story of salvation, which is why he treated them as literal history.

    And you’re explanation for how to reconcile “Word of God” with “written by men” still makes no sense to me. When you read a translation of Dostoevsky, say, everyone says, “I read Dostoevsky’s novel.” A translator who inserted himself so greatly into the text as you suggest would be considered a bad translator, not someone who had written his own book. If God’s human pawns were so constrained in what they wrote as your model of inspiration suggests then it is just a ludicrous abuse of language to say the Bible was written by men. In saying that I am not imposing some weird new definitions of these words, I am simply applying them in the way they are used in any other context.

    And this leads to the problem you seek. It is whether the traditional Protestant view is remotely plausible. If the only reason we have for thinking that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are purely allegorical (a view held by almost nobody prior to the nineteenth century) is that we know from modern science that the events it describes never took place, then that entails that prior generations of Christians had little hope of understanding their scriptures, for reasons having nothing to do with their sinful state. Does it make sense that God would communicate in such a way? Does it make sense that our sinful state is so severe that we cannot even discern which parts of scripture are literal and which are figurative? What was the point of communicating at all if that was the best God could do?

    The problem is that people like Enns like to boast of their sophisticated and highbrow approach to the Bible, when really they are just playing asinine word games in an attempt to prop up ideas whose time has gone. They are doing the equivalent of redefining “phlogiston” to make it consistent with modern theories of combustion. Of course you can redefine inerrant to include lots of errors, or perspicuous to include the utter absence of clarity. But is that sophisticated or merely foolish?

    Okay, so not so brief. But that really is the end from my side.

  36. #36 Anton Mates
    August 11, 2010

    Okay, perhaps this is a good place to end the conversation. I’ll just make a few quick points and then call it a day from my side.

    No problem. I’ll try to return the favor on brevity, but…

    Regarding Enns, remember that the way this all got started was that Enns excoriated a pollster for his theological ignorance in setting “Word of God” in opposition to “written by men.”

    Actually, he objected to setting “Word of God,” “Written by men” and “Not everything to be taken literally” as mutually exclusive alternatives.

    It seems to me, though, that the distinction drawn by the pollster was both clear and natural, while Enns needs a whole lot more explanation for his view than he provided in his article. You protest that I am imposing my use of language on Protestant theology. But the pollster was using language in a perfectly reasonable way, whereas Enns is using language in a way that differs greatly from its everyday use.

    I disagree. Enns is using language in a way consistent with liberal Protestantism, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and for that matter Mormonism. To say that this differs from “everyday use” is to say that fundamentalist Protestants get to define the English language for everyone else, which I find absurd.

    Which is not to say that the poll should tailor its language to Enns’ particular position either. A question that asked “Is the Bible the Word of God, written by men, and not to be taken entirely literally, Y/N?” would be equally silly. But there’s no reason why the poll couldn’t ask about each of those three points independently…and if the pollsters were serious about mapping out the spectrum of American opinion on the topic, that’s what they would need to do.

    Next, if the story of salvation is as narrow as you construe it to be, then almost nothing in the Bible has any relevance to it. It would render the doctrine of perspicuity almost completely vacuous to view things in such a way.

    I don’t think that’s at all the case. Exodus through Leviticus, the latter Prophets, and the entirety of the New Testament are far more relevant to the practical issue of salvation than Genesis is. The former books tell us about the life, nature and teachings of Jesus, the proper behavior and character of the saved, how to help others attain salvation, and God’s future plan for the world.

    The first is that it lays out a clear story of how humans fell into their sinful state, and why the world manifests so many ills and cruelties.

    If you want to claim that this interpretation of Genesis is “clear,” I think you have to explain why the Jews–who wrote the darn thing–don’t agree with it. By and large, they have never held that Adam and Eve’s disobedience did consign all humanity to a sinful state, nor that God’s curse explains all natural evil. IMO, Christians had to do some heavy massaging of the “plain meaning” of Genesis to make it fit the salvation narrative.

    The second is that the New Testament writers, and Jesus himself, routinely refer back to things in Genesis.

    Sure, but the NT writers refer to almost all the books of the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, Jesus makes only a couple of Genesis references. The greater part of his references, both in the Gospels and in Revelation, are to the Psalms and the latter Prophets–the most poetic and (dare I say it) obscure books in the OT!

    Moving on, going all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity to find a few people who held outre views of Genesis is not very impressive. The fact is that the story solidified pretty quickly once Rome converted to Christianity, and people like Origen were dismissed as heretics.

    Actually, Origen wasn’t declared heretical until 150 years after the empire converted to Christianity (which was of course about 300 years after Christianity actually started, and Pelagianism remained common for a century or two more. )

    Regardless, yes, eventually an orthodoxy was hammered out and dissent was squelched. But how does that support your position? The story didn’t solidify thanks to all Christians coming together and agreeing on a clear reading of Genesis; it solidified thanks to centuries of politicking, censorship and forcible suppression by the nascent Catholic Church. That’s exactly the sort of Scriptural treatment that Protestants would later complain about!

    To Augustine, the time frame in which creation took place was genuinely irrelevant to the story of salvation. Whether the days were instants, 24 hour periods, or periods of indeterminate length is a trivial detail. But the events in Eden are directly relevant to the story of salvation, which is why he treated them as literal history.

    That’s not how I read him. So far as I can see, Augustine’s principle for choosing between literal and non-literal interpretation was not the passage’s relevance to salvation, but its concordance with logic and science. He thought it was quite important to establish that creation had been instantaneous.

    Moreover, even if Augustine did interpret Genesis 1 non-literally on the grounds of its irrelevance–and I don’t think he did–other Christians could do the exactly same thing for Genesis 2-3, if they disagreed with him about the relevance of the Eden narrative.

    And you’re explanation for how to reconcile “Word of God” with “written by men” still makes no sense to me. When you read a translation of Dostoevsky, say, everyone says, “I read Dostoevsky’s novel.”

    In the traditional Protestant view, the authors of Scripture were no more translators than they were transcribers, so I’m not sure how this is relevant. Again, even most fundamentalists reject the divine dictation viewpoint; there was no “original text” handed down from God for humans to transcribe or translate.

    If God’s human pawns were so constrained in what they wrote as your model of inspiration suggests then it is just a ludicrous abuse of language to say the Bible was written by men.

    I reply, again, that the constraints were practically nonexistent from an empirical perspective: the authors retained their voice, their language, their culture and their knowledge base. So the Bible was written by men in precisely the usual sense of the words. Not sure what else I can say on that.

    And this leads to the problem you seek. It is whether the traditional Protestant view is remotely plausible….Does it make sense that God would communicate in such a way? Does it make sense that our sinful state is so severe that we cannot even discern which parts of scripture are literal and which are figurative? What was the point of communicating at all if that was the best God could do?

    But this is not the problem I seek, if I’m surveying Americans on this particular topic. No, I don’t find Protestant theology plausible, nor any other sort. But the objective of the poll, presumably, was to find out what people think of the Bible–not to change what they think, even if it’s unjustified. Research and proselytism are two different things.

    Of course you can redefine inerrant to include lots of errors, or perspicuous to include the utter absence of clarity. But is that sophisticated or merely foolish?

    I tend toward the latter option. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the fact that, in many cases, Christians have done exactly that. (See also–defining the “benevolence” of God.)

    —-

    Zach @33, I like your analysis. Apologies if I don’t respond to it in-depth; like Jason, I’m running out of free time!

  37. #37 Anton Mates
    August 11, 2010

    Ugh…multiple blockquote fails in my last @36.

    The first is that it lays out a clear story of how humans fell into their sinful state, and why the world manifests so many ills and cruelties.

    and

    If God’s human pawns were so constrained in what they wrote as your model of inspiration suggests then it is just a ludicrous abuse of language to say the Bible was written by men.

    should be in blockquotes. That’s what I get for writing at 4 in the morning.

  38. #38 Jason Rosenhouse
    August 11, 2010

    Sorry, I can’t resist.

    Here’s Edmund Hill, describing Augustine’s view, from his introduction to The Literal Interpretation of Genesis:

    But the act of creation is a completely unique and incomparable event that does not take place within history but instead is the basis of time and history. For this reason, the act of creation and the coming into existence of the universe can be described only inadequately in human language. Augustine stressed the analogical and metaphysical character of biblical language. “The transference …of words from human matters to express things divine is common form with divine scriptures.” In order to express what took place outside of space and time God used language adapted to the capacity of the human understanding and this necessarily meant using the categories of space and time.

    Elsewhere Hill writes, again describing Augustine’s view:

    If there are scientific positions justified by sure arguments, the exegete has the task of showing these that these positions do not in any way contradict the sacred scriptures. If, on the contrary there are unambiguous truths of faith that contradict the theses of science, the exegete must, as far as he can, show the falsity of such theses or at least be convinced of their falsity.

    Augustine is very clear that the events of Chapter Two describe unambiguous truths of faith.

    I don’t think Augustine considered instantaneous creation essential to the story. Throughout his analysis of chapter one he proceeds by asking questions, and emphasizes that he does not have any final answers. One of the main reasons he gives for being suspicious of the 24 hour days is simply that God would not need 24 hrs to do his work. He also frequently criticizes people for being overly concerned with factual minutiae about the structure of the Earth and the sky, arguing that the Bible is concerned with more important matters.

    So I think what I said about Augustine was correct. Potential conflicts with science were only one consideration that he brought to bear, hardly the only one. He was willing to hew to a largely figurative understanding of Genesis One not just to avoid conflicts with science, but because he had independent reasons for thinking the events of Chapter One were figurative.

    Moving on, the Christians didn’t have to massage anything to make Genesis fit the salvation story. Have you read Romans 5:12-20? (“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man…”) It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the relevance of Genesis to the story of salvation.

    Traditionally Jews have, indeed, thought that Adam and Eve were real people and that the events in the Garden really took place. Nowadays you have to go to the extreme right of Judaism to find anyone who still believes it (though they exist. You are familiar with Natan Slifkin I assume.) but that’s because modern Jews generally have little use for theology or doctrine. But Jews reject the New Testament and its claims for how those events fit into the broader story of mankind. What’s mysterious about that?

    As I noted before, there was, in fact, broad agreement about the interpretation of Genesis prior to the nineteenth century. Adam and Eve were real, the Earth was young, the fall really happened, the flood and the tower were real. I really don’t think this consensus was the result of an overly dogmatic Catholic Church, since most of the Protestant reformers hewed to it as well. There were disagreements, sure, but no one was arguing the whole thing was just an allegory. Not just from reading the early chapters of Genesis themselves, but from seeing how these events fit into the broader narrative. The text just isn’t that hard to understand. People today just have to pretend it is to justify its status as Word of God in the light of modern science.

    And I can only shake my head in disbelief at your assertion that I am allowing fundamentalists to define the phrases Word of God and written by men. I am simply using those phrases the way they are used in everyday language. If Enns wants to use them in some obscure theological sense he is welcome to do so, but that doesn’t change the fact that those phrases have everyday meanings. I don’t think anyone taking the poll was confused about the pollster’s intent in setting Word of God in opposition to written by men.

    There’s much more to say, of course, but I really am trying to wrap this up. So this really is it for me!

  39. #39 Anton Mates
    August 13, 2010

    Jason,

    You quote Edmund Hill:

    But the act of creation is a completely unique and incomparable event that does not take place within history but instead is the basis of time and history. For this reason, the act of creation and the coming into existence of the universe can be described only inadequately in human language. Augustine stressed the analogical and metaphysical character of biblical language. “The transference …of words from human matters to express things divine is common form with divine scriptures.” In order to express what took place outside of space and time God used language adapted to the capacity of the human understanding and this necessarily meant using the categories of space and time.

    And modern liberal Christians use very similar arguments to justify taking the whole Eden narrative non-literally: they say that it expresses spiritual or metaphysical truths which can only be described through myth and analogy. I don’t buy that, but I don’t buy Augustine’s argument either.

    So I think what I said about Augustine was correct. Potential conflicts with science were only one consideration that he brought to bear, hardly the only one. He was willing to hew to a largely figurative understanding of Genesis One not just to avoid conflicts with science, but because he had independent reasons for thinking the events of Chapter One were figurative.

    Okay, but neither of those justifications is the same as saying that Genesis 1 is figurative only if it’s irrelevant to the salvation story, which is how (as I understood you, anyway) you characterized Augustine earlier.

    Moving on, the Christians didn’t have to massage anything to make Genesis fit the salvation story. Have you read Romans 5:12-20? (“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man…”) It is hard to imagine a clearer statement of the relevance of Genesis to the story of salvation.

    Except that there’s nothing in Genesis that says that Adam’s sin spiritually tainted all the rest of us, and the Jews (like the Pelagian Christians) never believed that it did. That idea was peculiar to certain Christian groups, and developed several centuries after Genesis was written. So yes, the story had to be massaged to fit the salvation narrative; you can’t say it’s clearly relevant to that narrative via the doctrine of original sin, when the people who wrote it didn’t believe in original sin.

    As I noted before, there was, in fact, broad agreement about the interpretation of Genesis prior to the nineteenth century. Adam and Eve were real, the Earth was young, the fall really happened, the flood and the tower were real.

    Quite true. But Protestants have never felt themselves bound to follow historical consensus…if they had, there wouldn’t have been a Reformation in the first place.

    The text just isn’t that hard to understand.

    Again, I agree. But the question re: the poll is not how the text should be understood, but how Christians do understand the text and whether the poll was written in a way compatible with that understanding.

    And I can only shake my head in disbelief at your assertion that I am allowing fundamentalists to define the phrases Word of God and written by men. I am simply using those phrases the way they are used in everyday language. If Enns wants to use them in some obscure theological sense he is welcome to do so, but that doesn’t change the fact that those phrases have everyday meanings.

    Er, when do people talk about the Word of God in a non-theological sense? I mean, if there’s one phrase that religious people have a right to define, it’s that one!

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the human authors of Scripture, and describes Scripture as the word of God. At the other end of the Christian spectrum, so does the conservative Evangelical Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Likewise, Wikipedia, the Catholic Encyclopedia, and (the conservative Evangelical/Calvinist) Theopedia all explicitly say that John of Patmos wrote Revelation and Paul of Tarsus wrote (some of ) the Epistles. John and Paul were human, not divine. Yet the latter two sources also agree that Revelation and the Epistles are part of God’s Word, and Wikipedia (of course) takes no position on it.

    So we have Catholics and conservative Protestants, both clergy and laity, and the Wikipedian collective intelligence, all agreeing with liberal Protestants like Peter Enns that “Word of God” and “written by men” are not mutually exclusive. IMO this is strong evidence that the “everyday meanings” of those two phrases are perfectly *cough* compatible.

    …unless, again, your everyday conversations are with the archest of arch-fundamentalists.

    I don’t think anyone taking the poll was confused about the pollster’s intent in setting Word of God in opposition to written by men.

    Whether or not they were confused about the pollster’s intent is hardly the issue; the question is whether the people taking the poll were able to accurately express their own opinions, using the answers provided.
    Again, a poll is generally supposed to measure the beliefs of the respondents, not to market the beliefs of the pollsters.

  40. #40 JimC
    August 13, 2010

    IMO this is strong evidence that the “everyday meanings” of those two phrases are perfectly *cough* compatible.

    Only in the sense of a form of compartmentalization that would quickly fall apart under the looking glass.

  41. #41 Anton Mates
    August 13, 2010

    Only in the sense of a form of compartmentalization that would quickly fall apart under the looking glass.

    I assume you mean “under the magnifying glass.” :-) And what’s the evidence that compartmentalization is necessary here?

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