Ancient Texts and their Modern Appropriation

William B. Evans

There have been a number of responses to my recent Ref21 posts on creation and confessional hermeneutic.  Some have been little more than disappointing expressions of the old "slippery slope" and "camel's nose under the edge of the tent" argument, as if a non-literal reading of Genesis 1 may lead pretty directly to a non-literal reading of the resurrection.  More serious and substantial is the gracious post by Carlton Wynne here on Ref21 which deserves an equally serious, substantial, and gracious answer. 


Wynne takes issue with my assertions that the Genesis 1 narrative reflects an ancient cosmology that we do not share, and that this has implications for how literally we can interpret the narrative.  He goes so far as to suggest that I see the biblical writers as appropriating "ANE mythical features."  Well, I did not use the term "myth" and I've been critical of Peter Enns' use of the concept of myth, but I suppose that some additional explanation is in order. 


Briefly put, the term "myth" is not particularly helpful in this context.  We have known for quite some time how people in the ANE construed the structure of the cosmos.  They, and other primitive peoples more recently, thought that there were the "waters below" (after all, if you dig down into the earth or travel far enough in any direction you are likely to encounter water) and the "waters above" (after all, the sky is blue and rain comes down from the sky).  Restraining the "waters above" was a barrier known as the "expanse" (ESV) or "firmament" (KJV).  The Hebrew term translated here (raqia) has the sense of a hard vault or dome or canopy (see the massive body of ANE and anthropological data compiled in Paul H. Seely, "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part I: The Meaning of raqia in Genesis 1," Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 227-240; and "The Firmament and the Water Above. Part II: The Meaning of `The Water above the Firmament' in Gen. 1:6-8," Westminster Theological Journal 54 (1992): 31-46), and such usage meshes well with other ANE documents where the same conceptions are evident.   Other portions of the narrative, such as the creation of the sun, moon, and stars on Day 4 and their placement "in the expanse," fit well with this ancient phenomenological conventional cosmology, but severe aporias result when we try to pull this narrative without remainder into a post-Copernican scientific cosmology.  


As we probe the interpretive significance of this cosmology the key terms here are phenomenological and conventional.    This understanding of the world is phenomenological (the way the world appears to those unencumbered by knowledge of modern science) rather than mythical, which explains why similar notions occur in a wide variety of ancient and primitive cultures.  It is also conventional in that it was shared by people in that cultural context generally, and in that it was not a rigorously systematized understanding.  For example, sometimes rain is said to come when the "windows of heaven" in the expanse are opened (Genesis 7:11; 8:2; Isaiah 24:18; Malachi 3:10), while at other times rain is said to come from clouds (Judges 5:4; Proverbs 16:15).  For these reasons, the term "cosmology" is likely a bit pretentious for what we are talking about here.  This was simply the conceptual furniture of the ancient Israelites, the way the average person thought, and it likely did not occur to them that things might be otherwise. 


The fact that the narrative is framed in terms of this ancient phenomenological and conventional understanding of the cosmos places some limits on how literally we can interpret at least some of the details of Genesis 1.  But it is quite a leap to maintain that the recognition of this ancient cosmology somehow undermines the Evangelical and Reformed doctrine of Scripture.  That the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms that would be understandable to the original audience rather than in a modern scientific idiom hardly means that the text is teaching the truth of that ancient phenomenological and conventional cosmology (more about this below). 


Wynne's post raises two additional crucial questions, one having to do with the doctrine of inspiration and the second to do with interpretation.  Wynne argues, first of all, that the Reformed doctrine of inspiration requires that there be no hint of human limitation or error evident anywhere in the text of Scripture, and that this applies to underlying assumptions as well as to express teachings.  He puts it this way:


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 16:30), 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.


But this is precisely not what at least a good many conservative Reformed theologians have maintained.  Witness this excerpt from the influential 1881 article on "Inspiration" by A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield:


            It must be remembered that it is not claimed that the Scripture, any more than their authors, are omniscient.  The information they convey is in the form of human thought, and limited on all sides.  They were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or human history as such.  They were not designed to furnish an infallible system of speculative theology.  They are written in human languages, whose words, inflection, constructions, and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of human error.  The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.   Nevertheless, the historical faith of the church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds, whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained in their natural and intended sense.  There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed.


According to the Old Princeton theologians, Scripture is inerrant in all its "affirmations"; that is to say, in all that it teaches.  And this, in turn, raises the hermeneutical question of what is being taught or "affirmed."  We need to allow the inspired writers of Scripture to teach these infallible and inerrant truths in the way they deemed best.  Again, it continues to surprise me that anyone would seriously maintain that the fact that Genesis 1 is framed in terms of the conventional cosmological assumptions of the day means that it is necessarily teaching the literal truth of that ancient cosmology.  That is an interpretive question and it must not be begged in this discussion. 


Second, Wynne argues that the doctrines of Scriptural authority and sufficiency demand that the meaning of Scripture be ascertained without reference to "anything extra-biblical."  He puts it this way:


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 reference to anything extra-biblical, especially apparent similarities with ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary to Scripture's authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril.


Here Wynne puts his finger on the great divide between those who rightly recognize the relevance of our scientific and historical knowledge for the interpretation of Scripture (e.g., Old Princeton and most Evangelical scholars today) and those who deny that relevance.  On the face of it, the latter position is simply untenable.  The biblical authors wrote to an audience that knew what things like trees and clouds and the Euphrates River were, and they expected readers to use that background of knowledge in the interpretation of the biblical text.  In fact, we cannot begin to interpret any text, let alone the Scriptural text, apart from the matrix of knowledge and experience that we possess (most of which is not derived from Scripture).  Furthermore, the Scriptural writers themselves direct the reader to extra-biblical information (see, e.g., Proverbs 6:6; Matthew 16:3), and the wisdom literature is, in large measure, reflection on extra-biblical knowledge of the creation order.  


But there is a deeper danger here.  Implicit in Wynne's position is an antithetical dualism that unnecessarily pits Scripture against human knowledge.  As he puts it, "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."  This way of putting it, of course, begs the question of the correctness of Wynne's interpretation of that Genesis cosmology and its role in the narrative, and those are issues to which science may have something important to say.  Or, to put the matter more theologically, this disjunction of Scripture and science runs the risk of gutting our doctrine of common grace--the truth that God has graciously equipped us with minds to think and to explore his world.   When the antithesis effaces common grace we are, to modify William Butler Yeats' memorable phrase, "slouching toward Fundamentalism." 


A more balanced and productive approach to this larger issue is evident in a splendid recent volume by Vern S. Poythress entitled Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Crossway, 2006).   While I may not agree with Poythress on every detail, the book is a faithful attempt, informed by deep methodological and theological sophistication, to wrestle with the complex relationship of Scriptural teaching and science.  I wish that every Christian who ponders these matters would read it. 


But there is a more personal dimension here as well.  When we pit science and Scripture against each other as antithetical, we run great risks.  Often this antithetical impulse is borne of a desire to protect our covenant children from the corrosive effects of secular science.  But the data emerging on this are sobering--such efforts to shield our children appear to increase the chances that they will depart from the faith (here and here). 


I recently had an extended conversation with a young woman majoring in biology at an elite eastern liberal arts college.  I was deeply impressed by the seriousness with which she is seeking to integrate her Christian faith with her scientific studies, and I shared with her how I, as a theologian, have tried to navigate those issues in a faithful way that does justice to both God's special revelation and his common grace.  Tragically, the position that Wynne espouses gives me nothing to say to that young woman except "change your major."  Our covenant children deserve a theology that is deeper and better than that.