Monday, 6 October 2008

Creation or Evolution - What do we mean by creation?

(Continuing from here).

Chapter 1 is titled "What do we mean by creation?", and seeks to give us a very gentle general introduction to the question. First, DA makes the point that all Christians are in some sense of the word, "creationists" - we believe that everything that is is ultimately due to God. This is regardless of what we believe about how God created. Nevertheless, words are defined by their usage, and so DA accepts that the word "creationist" often means something more as commonly used - but the real thing is not to quibble over words. It is how we answer the key questions concerning how we interpret those early chapters of Genesis, and whether it is compatible with the theory of evolution, and so on. OK.

From there, DA goes on to explain that in interpreting the Bible, we have to use skill and caution. It is written in foreign languages, and comes from foreign eras and cultures. We must be sensitive to such things as genre, the expected audience, purpose, and any relevant extra-textual knowledge, and so on. The next few pages unpack these issues a little bit, and then we are given a brief word study of the Hebrew words which are usually translated in the semantic domain of create, creation, etc.

Frankly this first chapter is rather plodding and not very well structured; the themes don't develop naturally so much as suddenly shift. Still, that's by the by; it's DA's theology that worries me, not his literary skills (the rest of the book is much better in this regard). This chapter is preliminary and there's not much meat on the table yet. There are, though, two issues which did catch my eye. Both were issues of omission, and this became a common theme as I went through the book. I found DA to be a skillful writer, widely read and informed, but ultimately, a bad theologian.

How so? Because DA basically treats the Bible the way that children do the pick-and-mix counter at Woolworths. He has a blend he wants to create, and so he selects some from here, some from there, to get his final product. Something like brewing up a good coffee - half a handful of beans of this one, half of that one, so on and so forth and voila - here's your drink, I hope you like it.

When DA (a self-conscious evangelical) introduces the key questions as to the interpretation of the Bible, I found him in practice to be very much in the modernist camp. What are his key principles for Biblical interpretation? These:
  • What kind of language is being used?
  • What kind of literature is it?
  • What is the expected audience?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • What relevant extra-textual knowledge is there?
All fine and good, as far as it goes. The Bible is written in human language, and we must look to the ordinary meaning of the words in all their various contexts to understand what it means. DA emphasises that the Bible has dual authorship, and the authors use their own styles and right freely from their own minds. OK. But what's missing from this picture? It's the key principle that the Bible is, to use the title of a particular book on the subject, not like any other book. There are additional factors involved which have a significant impact on interpretation, and cannot be overlooked. Theological liberals treat the Bible as if it were any other ancient Eastern bit of literature, and stop with the list of questions above. Evangelical Christians, though, are meant to acknowledge that the above questions are important but well short of sufficiency, because we believe that the divine authorship of the Bible (which DA believes in) is primary, and that as a result it is indispensable in interpreting any one part of the Bible to compare it with the rest of the Bible. The Bible is our ultimate authority, and therefore takes the prime place in interpreting itself. It is not our job to take this interesting fact here, that fact there, and blend them together to give a plausible and defensible theory of what Genesis means. True Christian exegesis means to find out what the Bible itself actually teaches us what Genesis means. The freedom to brew up our own blend is not there for us - we've already been told how it should turn out.

For Genesis, that means that the correct interpretation of its early chapters is ultimately decided, not simply by how Genesis on its own would be read by a second-millennium-BC dweller of the East; but how Genesis is interpreted by the later authors of the Bible. This question is fundamental and primary, and it is not just a slip that DA misses it out. As I read through his book, I found that with the exception of a brief examination of Romans 5, there was no real effort to survey the question, "how does the Bible itself interpret Genesis? How did Christ use its teachings and what was his and the apostles' hermeneutic? What are the results if we apply the hermeneutic from those places that they do interpret it consistently across the whole book?" Ultimately we will as we read on find that DA interprets Genesis against the background of a reconstruction of the paganism of the early east, and that for him forms the primary context.

The other notable omission was whilst DA was giving us some warnings about mistakes we can make in reading our Bibles. They were good warnings. Westerners can be prone to treating the Bible as if it were written in our own culture, which has been conditioned by the intellectual movements of the past couple of centuries - and such readings will just be alien to the true meaning. So, DA warns us against the danger of reading passages with excessive literalism - reading passages as if they were written by modernists without sensitivity to how the original writer intended them.

Where, though, I wonder is the opposite warning? We live in times dominated by Enlightenment thought. We live in the unpleasant afterglow of over a century of unbelieving theological liberalism. We live in times when people think of the Bible in terms of myth, ancient religious stories to do with the inner, private world of personal opinion, not the real world of time and space. Literalism has slain its thousands, but liberalism its tens of thousands. It is not excessive literalism which has ruined the mainline denominations of the professing Christian church; it is liberalism. So where is DA's warning that we might be in danger of treating straightforward matters of history as if they weren't? Where are we alerted to the risks of facing the Bible's cold, hard assertions about real history, real space and time, and committing the sin of unbelief in their face? Like the Sadducees, missing the text's plain teachings about the real world and reducing it to an ethereal spiritual core of mere moral teaching?

It's not a coincedence that DA missed that aspect out. Because that's where his book's ultimately going to take us in its handling of Genesis...

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