how the Bible forces us to be unbiblical

Posted by PeteEnns on October 30, 2015 in Christianity and evolution The Evolution of Adam 17 Comments

TEASpeaking of evolution and Christian faith . . .

The question we need to ask ourselves is what we have the right to expect from the biblical origins texts—what I call “genre calibration” in The Evolution of Adam.

“Outside” information can “calibrate” the expectations we bring to the biblical texts in question.

So, things like genomic studies, the fossil record, and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths help us see that the genre of Genesis 1-11 is not science or history.

Seeking from these stories scientific and historical information is to misidentify the genre of literature we are reading—to expect something from these stories they are not prepared to deliver.

The findings of science and biblical scholarship are not the enemies of Christian faith. They are opportunities to be truly “biblical” because they are invitations to reconsider what it means to read the creation stories well—and that means turning down a different path than most Christians before us have taken.

Of course, this would not be the first time Christians have had to divert their path from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

We need only think of the ruckus caused by Copernicus and Galileo, telling us the earth whizzes around the sun, as do the other planets, when the Bible “clearly” says that the earth is fixed and stable (Ps 104:5) and the heavenly bodies do all the moving. Sometimes older views do give way to newer ones if the circumstances warrant.

In fact, shifts in thinking like this are a perfectly biblical notion. We find throughout the Bible older perspectives giving way to new ones.

The prophet Nahum rejoices at the destruction of the dreaded Assyrians and their capital Nineveh in 612 BCE, but the prophet Jonah, writing generations later after the return from exile, speaks of God’s desire that the Ninevites repent and be saved.

What happened? Travel broadens, and Israel’s experience of exile led them to think differently about who their God is and what this God is up to on the world stage.

In fact, Israel’s entire history is given a fresh coat of paint in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, which differs remarkably, and often flatly contradicts, the earlier history of Israel in the books of Samuel and Kings.

Why? Because Israel’s journey to exile and back home again led the Judahites to see God differently.

I could go on and talk about how the theology of the New Testament positively depends on fresh twists and turns to Israel’s story, such as a crucified messiah and rendering null and void the “eternal covenant” of circumcision as well as the presumably timeless dietary restrictions given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

What happened? Jesus forced a new path for Israel’s story that went well beyond what the Bible “says.”

Simply put, seeing the need to move beyond biblical categories is biblical—and as such poses a wonderful model, even divine permission—shall I say “mandate”—to move beyond the Bible when the need arises and reason dictates.

Being a “biblical” Christian today means accepting that challenge: a theology that genuinely grows out of the Bible but that is not confined to the Bible.

And so I see the matter of Christian faith and evolution not as a “debate” but as a discussion, not defending familiar orthodoxies as if in a fortress but accepting the challenge of a journey of theological exploration and discovery.

For me, that approach is much more than an intellectual exercise—though it is that—but a spiritual responsibility.

[This post is adapted from a recent lecture I gave at the annual meeting of the Institute for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Michigan State University on “Reconciling Human Origins and Religious Faith: Thoughts from a Christian Evolutionist.”]

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  • SC


    You don’t know me personally but you know my nephew (Art Boulet) and his dad, (Bill Boulet). You might also know my good friend, Michael Murray (Templeton Foundation). It seems to me that you’ve had (in many ways) a ministry of provocation and it’s never an easy path to walk. We could have some interesting conversations on a number of your themes. I am just sending this note to encourage you to persevere. Life is tough and ministry is often tougher. My prayers are lifted for you today!

    Steve Cornell
    senior pastor
    Millersville Bible Church

  • Tim


    “So, things like genomic studies, the fossil record, and ancient Mesopotamian creation myths help us see that the genre of Genesis 1-11 is not science or history.”

    It seems to me only the latter element is relevant to genre calibration for any ancient ANE text. Or am I missing something here?

    • AHH

      It seems like the first two would assist genre calibration if (and only if) the reader affirmed something along the spectrum of “inspiration” or “infallibility”. Given that presupposition, if the genre was “science”, one would expect the science to be correct. The fact that the text reflects incorrect scientific assumptions of its time would then suggest that the genre must be something other than that of a science text.

      • Tim


        I would agree that certainly a sort of “soft” or “limited” inerrantist hermeneutic such as John Walton now ascribes to would allow for this. But that is certainly not the hermeneutic Pete employs.

        For instance, when certain Old Testament authors present a polytheistic view wherein Yahweh/El is the chief diety next to other “gods,” we do not then say, “well since that’s not accurate the author clearly could not have intended us to take this literally, it must have some other meaning or intention then.” Now, I think Pete knows that many Old Testament authors did “intend” to portray a view as to the hiearchy of dieties. And to stay consistent with his internal logic it seems improper to suddenly shift gears in our creation narratives.

        What’s more, the more we delve into the world of the ancient near east and the Biblical text’s formation therein, the more absurd and futile it becomes to through special pleading “protect” the Biblical authors from conveying exactly what we would expect of an ANE author and to which we see for all intents and purposes on display within our Old Testament.

  • Irene McGuinness

    …”a discussion, not defending familiar orthodoxies as if in a fortress but accepting the challenge of a journey of theological exploration and discovery.” Thank you Peter… well said.

    • Mark K

      the first time I heard Pete use this metaphor it forever changed the way I view the faith.

  • Paul

    Pete, your statement that the Bible gives us, “divine permission—shall I say ‘mandate’—to move beyond the Bible when the need arises and reason dictates,” is so important. The God-given “better Angels of our nature” as Lincoln described them can help guide us to extend the teachings of Jesus to the issues we face in our local communities, our Nation, and the World. When Jesus said love your neighbor, was he only speaking of Samaritans and Jews? How does the Parable apply to loving and serving, instead of demonizing, others in our communities? Thanks for another thoughtful essay!

  • Bryant Russ

    So good (and your talk at MSU was great, also!). I’ve always loved how the book of Job challenges the theology of the day–even the “biblical” theology of the day–by telling the story of a righteous man…who is cursed! (In stark contrast to Deuteronomistic theology that says: “Do good, you’ll be blessed. Do evil, you’ll be cursed. Period.”) It shows how the Scriptures operate almost conversationally with one another–challenging, and stretching, and pushing, and reimagining. Not exactly a timeless, cemented theological encyclopedia like we often pretend. Thanks for your work, Pete!!

  • Ross

    I found a very interesting metaphor in the “Tablet” online magazine today. It described G-d’s relationship with us like a game of hide and seek with our parents. The idea was that looking for someone and then finding them was joyous. I suppose the obvious point was that if we think we know where the other is we are wrong and it is through the seeking that we find them. And the finding is joyous.

    My current thoughts have been around the idea that when people have found G-d , joyously, say at various “revival” points in history, the continuation of that point has become stale and lost the meeting with G-d. He has gone and hid and we need to search again. This is the major problem with conservative anything. If we think that we can find something that happened in the past, where it was then, then we will never find it, we need to search again anew. The thing we sought has not necessarily changed but where it is has. G-d is dynamic not static.

    Makes sense to me, but there again it’s Friday night and the vino tinto has been opened!

  • charlesburchfield

    It’s taken a fair amt of time for me to get there (40+ years) but the ways in which God speaks to my heart that has any effect on my behavior is thru keeping & having a good conscience & loving others wisely & with empathy that came to me working through my own suffering and being connected to a source outside myself that loves me, responded and encourages me. I find that God is still speaking to me directly, revealing himself personally via the Holy Spirit. he did not leave me comfortless but came to me as a friend that a book in my hand, neither the Bible nor the science textbook, can ever be.

  • Derek

    Thanks for your engaging thoughts, Peter. A few thoughts of my own came to mind that I would like to share:

    1) I think phenomenological language can be utilized to explain passages that seem to hint toward a stationary earth and so forth. However, I do hold that the biblical authors held to a primitive three-tiered view of the cosmos – Although 2Cor. 12:2. is interesting here.

    2) Accepting evolution doesn’t seem to be overtly paradigm-shifting for many theistic evolutionists. Many folks at biologos, for example, accept science across the board, yet still hold to the fundamentals without issue.

    3) A central issue seems to be: Has God disclosed Himself in words, or only in mystical, subjective experiences? Is God a talking-God? Did He speak to us in Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek – the language of the biblical periods…and if we can answer in the affirmative, can we also acknowledge that His words are reliable – when He speaks, does He speak the truth?

    4) You stated: “rendering null and void the “eternal covenant” of circumcision as well as the presumably timeless dietary restrictions given by God”. Can you please provide a citation for those references?

    Thanks again!

    • Pete E.

      Hi Derek,

      1. I’ve seen “phenomenological language” used in ways that distort the issue at hand. How do you mean it?

      2. I worked for BioLogos. They know that evolution is paradigm-shifting, at least enough to start an organization discussing it. My contention with the BioLogos, though, has been the notion that one can accept evolution and “the fundamentals” (not sure what you mean by that) “without issue.” There are indeed significant issues.

      3. You are presuming a notion/mode of inspiration/inerrancy that in my opinion does not help the conversation because it is simplistic. But more importantly, answering “yes” to these questions is the very thing that runs into trouble when engaging evolution; the next step is usually, “Since we have established that God speaks and when he speaks he speaks reliably, scientific evidence that seems to counter that premise must be tabled or reinterpreted.”

      #s 2 and 3 I addressed specifically in the lecture I gave.

      4. Acts, Galatians, Romans.

      • Derek

        Oh, I was requesting scriptural references in regards to OT citations declaring that God intended circumcision and dietary laws to be part of an “eternal covenant”.

        • Pete E.

          See Gen 17:9-14 re: circumcision. The dietary laws in Lev 11 were given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. There is no “expiration date” on the Siniatic law. Both of these were still fully in force in the NT period.

          • Derek

            Great thanks! The NT’s use of the OT is a fascinating topic and I would like to get around to reading more in depth on it in the near future. I like to aim for a balanced perspective so I’ll try and get my hands on Zondervan’s Three Views on the NT Use of the OT with yourself Bock and Kaiser. In a nutshell (if that’s possible) can you tell me how conservative evangelical scholars handle this issue?

          • Pete E.

            Yes: poorly :-) The focus is typically on establishing how what the NT authors said about the OT was somehow already in the mind of the OT writer.

  • Pete E.