Perspicuity Again: A Surrejoinder

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My friend and ARP ministerial colleague, the Rev. Matt Miller, has responded over on the Aquilareport to my recent post here on "Perspicuity, Exegetical Populism, and Tolerance."  I have no particular interest in getting into a public debate about young-earth creationism per se, as the exegetical issues involved are both complex and outside my area of technical expertise.  I can, however, respond to some misunderstandings and misconceptions.

First, I did not argue, as Miller imagines, that "perspicuity only extends to the more prominent features of the text."  There are many matters mentioned but once in Scripture that are perfectly clear (e.g., the 153 large fish in John 21:11).  My point, in response to G. I. Williamson's contention that non-literal interpretations of the days of creation deny the perspicuity of Scripture, was that there is much in Genesis 1 that is quite clear regardless of one's interpretation of the days.  

Second, Miller appears to beg the key interpretive question in dispute.  For example, he assumes that the references to "evening and morning" are there just to "make it clear" that the passage is to be read literally.  Well, more needs to be said, especially since the notion of "evening and morning" occurring before the sun and moon were created on Day Four evokes at least a measure of perplexity.  After all, we are told that the sun and moon are created precisely in order to delineate "seasons and days and years" (Genesis 1:14 NIV).  There is no doubt that we have a narrative in Genesis 1 that includes details like repeated references to "evening and morning."  The question here is the narrative's referent.  Simply assuming that it ought to be read literally because it contains some details that can perhaps be read literally is not really an argument. 

Third, there is the character of the narrative in Genesis 1.  Miller asserts that the "literary and grammatical features of the text of Genesis 1--2 are classic examples of Hebrew historical narrative."  This statement is astonishing in that it not only misconstrues the character of Genesis 1, with its distinctive repetitive patterns and stately cadences, but it also flattens the transition from Genesis 1:1--2:3 to what follows in Genesis 2--3 (which is more straightforward prose).  While the reader needs to remember that I speak as an historical and systematic theologian and not as a credentialed Altestamentler, it seems to me that Jack Collins' identification of the genre of Genesis 1 as "exalted prose narrative" is right on the money. 

Fourth, like Williamson, Miller defends appeals to the interpretive predilections of the common person.  In this connection Miller provides the analogy of a young layperson reading what Scripture says about the role of women and concluding that her church was not following Scripture.  But how is this a parallel case?  The interpretive issues certainly are quite different.  Ultimately, matters such as this need to be settled by careful exegesis, not by analogies that break down almost immediately.  

But there is also a deeper issue lurking here in this hermeneutical apotheosis of the common man, and that is the role of ANE historical data to this discussion.  For example, would the average person in ancient Israel read the text in the same way that Matt Miller does?  Given that the cosmologies assumed are quite different, there are likely to be significant divergences as to details.  I dealt with this question in the article I cited in my first post on this topic.  In it I wrote: "In recent months, I have perused a number of Reformed defenses of literal 24-hour, six-day creationism.  Sadly, all of these works have failed to take any stock of the enormous amount of data from comparative studies of ancient Near Eastern literature suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of a cosmology quite coherent to the ancients, but which we ourselves do not share.  Now this is quite important, for none of us believes in a literal 'firmament,' or in 'pillars of heaven,' or in 'windows of heaven,' or in 'fountains of the deep,' at least as these biblical terms were apparently understood by the ancients.  In short, we must face the distinct possibility that none of us is truly a 'literalist.'" (William B. Evans, "The NAPARC Churches and the Peculiar Challenges of Our Time," Presbyterion: Covenant Seminary Review 27/1 (2001): 10-11). 

Fifth, Miller suggests that "scholars have their own particular cultural pressures in the academy" and that this accounts for their non-literal interpretations of Genesis 1.  But in point of fact, "cultural pressure" is a given for all of us.  We are all embedded in cultural contexts, and this sort of argument can cut both ways.  For example, it applies to the fundamentalist pastor catering to populist sensibilities as well as to the Ph.D. looking to get tenure.  Once again, such matters need to be decided on the basis of careful exegesis and theological reflection. 

Sixth, Miller questions the parallel I drew between protology and eschatology.  This is the most substantial and interesting portion of Miller's response, and, like the wedding at Cana, we have saved the best for last.  In short, Miller questions whether there is biblical support for this.  He points out that Scripture itself endorses a certain agnosticism with respect to the details of the last days, and he rightly notes that there are differences between the prophetic genres and Genesis 1.  Fair enough.  But my argument on this point was more from the nature of biblical language itself, from the way that that language seems to become more strange as we approach the margins of human experience, and from the history of interpretation.  While Genesis 1 is certainly not apocalyptic, it is nevertheless different from ordinary speech or narrative, and the persistent diversity of interpretation--diversity that goes back to the early church--bears this difference out. 

For a careful study of the history of interpretation of the days of creation, I can heartily commend my good friend Robert Letham's "'In the Space of Six Days': The Days of Creation from Origen to the Westminster Assembly," Westminster Theological Journal 61 (1999): 149-174.  One of his conclusions is especially worthy of note in this context: "Before the Westminster Assembly there were a variety of interpretations of Genesis 1 and its days.  If the text of Genesis is so clear-cut why did the church down the centuries not see it that way?  Does that not say something not only about the interpreters but also the text?  Claims that a literal reading of the days of Genesis 1 is obvious fall down when the history of interpretation is taken into consideration" (Letham, "In the Space of Six Days," p. 174). 

Posted September 29, 2011 @ 11:45 PM by William B. Evans

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