Modern Debate Over Ancient Texts

Posted by
[Editor's Note: This is the first post Rev. Wynne wrote in response to Dr. Evans, which was inadvertently removed last week. We repost it here in its entirety.]

Dr. Evans has recently graced this forum with some thought provoking comments on the Scriptural doctrine of perspicuity and the church's handling of her confessions, particularly as these areas might bear on readings of the Genesis creation account.  I appreciate many of his insights and have no desire at this point to send my dog into the fray of particular creation views. I do believe, however, that short of that larger issue, three (nearly identical) comments by Dr. Evans deserve comment. 
 
The first is the lament, cited from a previous Evans article, that some six-day creationists 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." None of us, after all, he adds, "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."
 
The second and more recent comment was, again, that literal six-day advocates have given too little attention "to how this material [i.e., Genesis 1] would have been read in its original ancient Near Eastern context and to the implications of that ANE data for how we should read the text today."  Third, he adds afresh in the same article that the "ANE comparative data suggest[s] that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of an ancient cosmology that we do not share" and that "the mass of scientific evidence suggest[s] that the cosmos is much older" than the Westminster Divines imagined.
 
By this drumbeat of assertion that Genesis 1 is "framed" by an ancient and now discredited cosmology, Dr. Evans clearly (to me at least) is assuming that the Old Testament writers espoused this invalid cosmology as a reliable description of the physical world--that their appropriation of ANE mythical features led them to believe in "a literal 'firmament,'" "pillars of heaven," and so on, cosmic elements we now know do not exist.
 
Unless I am missing something, the message conveyed in the three statements I quote is that Christians cannot rightly accept the biblical writers' cosmology in every detail since an "enormous amount" of relevant ancient Near Eastern data has revealed that they (unconsciously?) absorbed mythical cosmological elements from surrounding pagan cultures, erroneously believed them to be true, and then wrote their erroneous understanding into the pages of Scripture. 
 
At the point, I am compelled to ask: Is it really the case that the Bible presents "an ancient cosmology that we do not share", because it is erroneous? Doesn't the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God's omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth--indeed, could He do any other thing--barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers' biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.
 
So what are we to make of the parallels between Scripture's teaching and the ANE literature? Aside from the profound debate that still rages over the nature and extent of such parallels, Reformed and evangelical scholars have suggested that they reflect the Bible's (1) polemical treatments of false worldviews; (2) infallible interpretation of general revelation that was partially grasped by pagan writers; (3) infallible appropriations of an older tradition to which pagan writers fallibly bore witness; or (4) demythologized elements of ANE concepts incorporated into Scripture as poetic idiom (see G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 28-29). All of these options maintain the integrity of the Bible's inerrancy in that none suggests that the biblical writer unwittingly imbibed faulty elements from his pagan surroundings. Likewise, all of them appeal to the absolute wisdom of the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final authority on all matters, especially ANE myths. Readers may be surprised to know that even Meredith Kline, the functional patriarch of the controversial "framework hypothesis," called the pagan cosmogonic myth "a garbled, apostate version, a perversion, of pristine traditions of primordial historical realities" (Kingdom Prologue [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 28). The Bible, therefore, he said, "rejects the mythical cosmogony and cosmology root and branch" (ibid., 29).
 
The need of the hour, it seems to me, whether we are discussing the relative merits of competing creation views, confessional subscription and interpretation, or any other related issue, is to state as clearly and as boldly as we can that the authoritative nexus of meaning--the divinely sanctioned access point for the meaning of a biblical text--lies within the canon of Scripture itself and not in apparent similarities with extra-biblical ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary of Scripture's authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril. On a related note, however informative ANE literature may be for studying isolated texts, we cannot allow it to norm our readings of Scripture nor determine what Scripture, as a whole, is. The book of Hebrews alone, with the scant authorial and extra-biblical contextual evidence available to us today, ought to check our dependence on background studies for interpreting the Scriptures and exhort us to read it, and every other biblical text, ultimately in light of its canonical perspective and place in the unfolding organism of special revelation.
 
Again, my purpose here is not to challenge Dr. Evans' view of Genesis or to criticize his helpful comments on the role of confessions. It is simply to issue a call for us all to put on the spectacles of Scripture, as Calvin put it, whether we are reading Genesis or the Epic of Gilgamesh, studying the Westminster Confession or doing some digging in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Doing so just might bring some needed clarity to debates over what God has said is an essentially clear Scripture.

Posted October 17, 2011 @ 5:05 PM by Carlton Wynne


reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.
Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2011   |   Privacy Policy   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login