C. John Collins Replies to Richard Belcher, Jr.
February 28, 2012
Editors' Note: Dr. C. John Collins has offered this response to Dr. Richard Belcher, Jr.'s article recently published on reformation21. Click here to read that article.
C. JOHN COLLINS
Reply to Richard Belcher, "Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? A review":
Reformation21 article, February 2012
Let me begin by thanking those who manage this site for the opportunity to reply to Professor Belcher's review. Reviewers of my Adam and Eve book on the blogosphere -- people who do not know me -- have explained to me all manner of things about my beliefs and inner life, things I never knew before. Of course all I can do there is ignore such divinations; but I consider this site to be more responsible, and more worthy of attention.
I would like for the person reading my book to come away thinking that the Bible writers all wanted us to believe that --
The human kind is actually one family, with one set of ancestors for us all. God acted specially (or "supernaturally") to form our first parents, Adam and Eve. Our first ancestors, at the headwaters of the human race, brought sin and dysfunction into the world of human life.
I also hope that the reader who has worked through my apologetic, and my discussion of the sciences, would consider that this position actually does the best job of explaining our daily experience of living. Whether Professor Belcher saw this goal of mine I cannot be sure; he certainly found enough things he did not like that he didn't make much of this.
I had to wonder whether the problem was my own bad writing -- which is a shameful failing, though not one that undermines Biblical authority. However, I was emboldened by Fred Zaspel's review of my book in Credo (January 2012), 76-79. He managed to see pretty well what I was trying to do, and where the various parts of my argument fit in; so the "bad writing" explanation can't be all there is.
I will aim to be relatively brief in this reply, not because I have only a little to say, but rather because I have to focus on key questions as concisely as I can. If I leave any point in Professor Belcher's review unremarked, that does not mean I let it stand, only that I have aimed to be concise. My theme here is that Professor Belcher's review of my book misrepresents my actual arguments, comes very close to circular argument in his own assertions about Genesis 2:7, and fails to engage what I have said about the nature of history writing. I don't think he really attended to my own explicit statements about what I was trying to do in the book. In the end, he contends for a notion of Biblical authority that is out of step with, say, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and he even raises the specter of my discussion providing cover for a candidate for the ministry denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
More a "Word of Warning" than a "Review"
First, it's important to see that Professor Belcher's post isn't properly in the genre "Review" at all. Instead, its genre is "Word of Warning," and its logic and rhetoric are along the lines of, "This is a big step onto an irretrievably slippery slope." Consider, for example, his short description of my themes, and his lack of attention to the goals I explicitly state, before his leap into what's wrong with the book.
The Obligation to Represent Accurately
But even a word of warning is obligated to represent accurately and fairly the person warned against; and Professor Belcher has not met that obligation. For example, he says of me, "he actually says that the Bible should be understood as non-literal, pictorial, and symbolic (pp. 17, 20, 31)." I say no such thing, as any reader who checks his page references and reads them in context will discover. I do say -- and I know of no evangelical who disagrees with this -- that biblical writers can make use of pictorial and symbolic language to communicate historical truth. And I also say -- and here there is debate among evangelicals -- that this is the case in Gen 1-11 (which I address in great detail in the book). My emphasis throughout, however, is that the use of such language does not take away from the historicity of the events described (see especially my discussion on pages 16-19). Let me take one of his cited instances to show what I actually do say. On page 31, I commented on Richard Purtill's distinction between "gospel" and "myth" (and, by the way, reject "myth" as a proper characterization for Genesis 1-11):
I think I would restate the point Purtill makes about "gospel" being "literally and historically true in all its important elements (and perhaps even in its details)": I do not know what "literally" means here. I prefer to say that it is possible for "gospel" to come to us in different kinds of literary form, each having its own set of literary and rhetorical conventions, which we should not prejudge. I am sure, for example, that the four Gospels do fit reasonably well with his description, but am willing to allow that Genesis 1-11 uses a higher degree of pictorial language.
Let the reader judge whether my remark about the Gospels squares with Professor Belcher's assertion about what I said about the Bible in general.
Further, Professor Belcher describes my position as this: "special creation, which he understands to mean that God intervened to set apart the first couple as human beings." I don't know what he means by "set apart"; it is not an expression I use in this sense. Instead, on page 117-18 I quote with approval what John Bloom said:
At present either of these transitions [in the paleontological record] seems sharp enough that we can propose that the special creation of man occurred in one of these gaps and that it was not bridged by purely natural means.
In saying "what he calls special creation," Professor Belcher seems to imply that I have used the term improperly. But my terminology is entirely legitimate; if we like, we can use Benjamin Warfield's term "mediate creation," which denotes "God miraculously bringing about something new out of previously existing matter." (For more discussion, see Fred Zaspel, "B. B. Warfield on creation and evolution," Themelios 35:2 [July 2010]). I insist throughout on strong terms like this, not weak or ambiguous ones; and I have good company in using them.
Let me mention one further item: Professor Belcher describes my "acceptance of groups of humans from which Adam comes." I have no idea where he gets that, unless it is from my discussion of the views of Denis Alexander -- views that I reject (see my pages 125-28). If, on the other hand, he thinks that this is an accurate description of the suggestion from Derek Kidner (see my pages 124-25), then I would simply ask him to go back and read the discussion again.
Since so much of Professor Belcher's warning is taken up with remarks about Genesis 2:7--"then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature"
(ESV)--I will turn to that discussion.
He insists that only a "literal" reading of that text is true to the divine intent of Genesis, an intention that he takes to be clear. Since he acknowledges that my own picture from this text is a fairly straightforward one (God scooping up loose soil to form the first man), we are not discussing what I believe, but what the verse demands. According to Professor Belcher, "It almost seems like the term 'literal' is the major enemy and Collins does not nuance what he means by the term 'literal.'" However, I don't see that Professor Belcher has represented my argument properly: I don't use the term "literal" for these discussions, since as I said in the quotation above, I often don't know what it means. (See page 79 of my Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? for more on the difficulties.) The word I use is "literalistic," the meaning of which should be pretty clear from the context: taking someone's words in a stricter sense than the communication calls for. I do take to task some young-earth creationists and some evolutionary creationists for failure in this regard.
Professor Belcher inaccurately says that my book "bypasses an exegesis of Genesis 2:7." The longest discussion is on pages 152-54, in which I note, as many have, that the verb "form" is probably an image for the work of a potter. I find that this image appears elsewhere in ancient Near Eastern origins stories, and thus I want to be careful about what Genesis is saying; drawing on the work of Alan Millard, I wrote:
It also leaves us careful about applying too firm a literalism in relating the words of Genesis 2:7 to a physical and biological account of human origins, although it does insist that the process was not a purely natural one.
Since Professor Belcher refers (negatively) to these words on my page 154 (but he neglects the crucial "although" clause at the end!), I am surprised that he omits mention of the pages of argument that led up to them. He may dispute the argument if he wishes, but for me the argument and the conclusion go together.
Related to this, Professor Belcher is unhappy with my recourse to a literary approach. "Such views," he tells us, "seek to redefine the genre of Genesis 1-11 as something other than historical narrative." But this is another surprising mischaracterization of what I have done. Some may use "literary" approaches for this purpose, but I have not. The Chicago Statements on Inerrancy and Hermeneutics (CSBI and CSBH), though not confessional, nevertheless capture well what it should mean to affirm that the Bible is breathed out by God. (I hear from a friend involved in the production that certain young-earth creationists refused to sign on to the Statement on Inerrancy; but I will assume, unless corrected, that these provide common ground for us.) There we affirm that a good interpretation takes account of Scripture's literary forms and devices (CSBI, art. 18 affirm), and that "awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis" (CSBH, art. 13 affirm). Hence it follows that we do most honor to the Bible if we interpret its parts according to our best literary judgment. I have argued for the literary judgment that Genesis 1-11 is indeed "historical narrative," but a particular kind that is known from elsewhere in the ancient world, namely "prehistory" and "protohistory." Professor Belcher argues for the literary judgment that it is "historical narrative like the rest of Genesis." I would confidently defend my conclusion against his, but that is not the point. Neither of us is denying the chapters' historicity, only the best approach to interpretation. Surprisingly, he asks the question, "Who decides what is the historical core?": I actually address that on pages 16-19.
Now we come to some specifics of Genesis 2:7. I take Professor Belcher's chief complaint to be that, in order to be faithful to the Bible, we must read that verse as "literally" describing the event by which God formed the first man. I don't know where he gets his certainty that this alone honors the Bible. The verb "form," as J. Oliver Buswell observed, "gives no specifications as to the process by which the forming was accomplished. The result is all that is specified. Moses is here referring to the simple, obvious fact that the human body is made of the common elements of the soil" (Systematic Theology, I:159). To be sure, Buswell goes on to deny that God used a "genetic process" in the formation, though he does not slam those who hold some version of that.
But the words of Genesis 2:7 do not actually rule out every kind of "genetic process." After all, Psalm 103:14 sings, "for he [God] knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust" (using ESV margin). We too are "formed [ultimately] of dust," even if the dust has gone through a few intermediate (genetic) steps! (See further Psalm 90:3; 104:29; Eccl 3:20; 12:7; Job 10:8-9.) Hence if a person should want to suggest some level of intermediate process for Genesis 2:7, then rather than argue on that point I prefer to make sure that he can see the event as a special creation (in view of the parallel with Gen 1:27, and of the distinctness of the image of God).
This, by the way, is quite similar to the argument that Benjamin Warfield made, in his article, "The manner and time of man's origin," The Bible Student (November 1903), 241-52. Likewise, in his book No Final Conflict, Francis Schaeffer has a chapter on "freedoms and limitations" (ch. 3): there is a range of reasonable scenarios by which we may address the apparent conflicts between the Bible and the sciences, and yet there are limits to this range, limits set both by basic Biblical concepts and by good human judgment. He insisted that there was special creative activity, and thus discontinuity, at the origin of the universe, of life, and of humankind. Although his own view was probably more on the literalistic end, he did not require that literalism.
I really wish that Professor Belcher had attended to my explanation about the kind of book I set out to write. I said outright (pages 13-14) that I was working within "mere Christianity," and contending for "mere historical Adam-and-Eve-ism." I was not writing to replace any denominational confessions, but instead to help people who are confused by all the chatter to think clearly through the issues. In fact, Benjamin Warfield captures quite well my ideal conversation:
The difference between the modern [evolutionary] speculator and the biblicist cannot be conciliated at this point until and unless the speculator is willing to allow the intrusion into the course of evolution -- if it be deemed actual in this case -- of a purely supernatural act productive of something absolutely new which enters into the composite effect as a new feature. But there seems no reason why the speculator should not admit this, unless he occupies a position which is dogmatically antisupernaturalistic.
I have been having just such conversations with "speculators," and with young Christians who study with them, and see the wisdom in Warfield's proposal. Why contend over further details about the steps God took in forming, when we have bigger fish to fry? Indeed, Professor Belcher seems to portray "science" as in some sense a threat to faith; this is a much bigger topic, and I will defer that conversation to another occasion. At this point I will simply say that I refuse to abandon the sciences.
Finally, let me remark on this fearful question that he raises:
The problem is that not just the views which a person affirms are important, but also the views which a person is willing to accept are also very important. For example, what if a person affirms that he believes that Scripture teaches the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, but then he is also willing to receive as acceptable, or within the parameters of what Scripture teaches, the view that Christ only arose in a spiritual sense?
Now, it is Professor Belcher who, in his very next paragraph, brings up the debates about the days in Genesis 1, though he claims he "is not advocating for a new discussion of that question." Well, I take his word for it, but I nevertheless have to observe that this red herring comes up again and again in these conversations. Since I have said so much in my book about genre (and see the quotation about the Gospels above), and since I have given criteria for discerning historical truth claims (page 19), I don't really need to answer the question, only to note that Professor Belcher seems to imply that I have ignored it. Indeed, since I can say without hesitation that taking out the bodily resurrection of Jesus would -- quite aside from violating good genre-senstive exegesis of the relevant texts -- produce an entirely different story and is therefore bad, my narratival orientation has the resources to address these questions. Besides, I also spent pages 106-11 on the issue of relating the Bible to matters of science and history -- another discussion that Professor Belcher omitted to mention. He doesn't have to like what I say, but I do wish he would at least acknowledge that I have said something.
Professor Belcher is free to prefer a church setting in which people like Francis Schaeffer and Benjamin Warfield would be unwelcome to minister; but let him come out and say that this is his preference. I myself cannot imagine what good would come of such an arrangement.
A Better Way?
I wonder whether we can conduct such disagreements without insinuating that the other party has somehow undermined the authority of Scripture. Be that as it may, I do think that we owe it to one another, and to the Church, to give an accurate representation of the views we find displeasing. I find that Professor Belcher has done neither of these. Reviews, including severely negative ones, are of course part of a fair game. But I am left wondering why, if someone comes to suspect that a brother minister in the same denomination has articulated things that seem to have compromised his ordination vows, the first thought isn't, "That can't be right! Let me call that guy and see if I understood him correctly before I get us into the process of public warning which calls forth a public reply." It would sure save a lot of time.
Dr. C. John Collins is Professor of Old Testament at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, MO. His most recent book is Did Adam and Eve Really Exist? Who They Were and Why You Should Care (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).