The age old question…

Al Mohler is the thinking evangelical’s favourite Southern Baptist, he’s reformed, he’s intelligent, he’s eloquent. He seems like a nice guy. But in a talk at the Ligonier Ministries conference in the US he basically did the anti-Wattke (Wattke was the OT scholar who moved institutions after publishing his views on the possibility that Genesis 1 might be compatible with evolutionary theory). Mohler (as reported at Challies.com) says it’s not. And furthermore, that not holding to a young earth, 6 day, 24 hour, view of creation leads to theological disaster.

If there’s one thing I dislike more than stupid theological debates that can’t be resolved, it’s people who make such debates the yardstick of theological orthodoxy. There are people I love, and respect, on both sides of this debate. And I’m pretty sick of posts like this that caricature opposing views in order to attack them. There’s a word for that logical fallacy. It’s a strawman.

Here’s the first “strawman” from Challies’ post – it’s a rebranding of the “literary theory” that is pretty narrow, and doesn’t look like the literary theory any reformed evangelical I know holds to while questioning the function of Genesis 1-11:

“The literary theory. Here we take the first eleven chapters of Genesis as literary, understanding that the Creation story is merely myth, a story as understood by ancient Hebrews.”

It’s almost never held to be “merely myth” – any literary theorists will affirm essentially the same theological truths as the six day young earth adherent. This is a nasty carricature that pays no heed to the complexities of the debate, and certainly rules out any knowledge that we may bring to the text based on ancient Hebrew literature…

Mohler’s (or Challies’) conclusion based on that first strawman is another fallacy:

“The literary theory has to be rejected out-of-hand since it otherwise contradicts inerrancy. We cannot hold to a robust theory of biblical inerrancy and interpret the chapters in this way.”

Why does reading the Bible as literature, or at the very least, pondering the genre of the received text, rule out a “robust theory of biblical inerrancy”? It seems that by including the qualifiers “robust” in this sentence, and “merely” in the first, Mohler can dismiss anybody who agrees with him 90% of the way by lumping them in with the people who disagree with him 100% of the way. This shouldn’t be a question of semantics – a “plain reading” of Mohler’s views is that unless you hold to a young earth six day creation you think the Bible is an errant myth. This just isn’t true of most of the reformed guys I’ve read this year (and in the past) when it comes to disagreements on Genesis 1. Every big name in American reformed circles seems to have a different view on the question – Piper, Driscoll, Mohler, Keller… the reason thoughtful people reach different conclusions is simple – we weren’t there at creation (and neither was Moses), we weren’t there when Genesis was written, and any postulation on the question of the mechanics of creation (past the “God did it by his word” idea) is purely speculative. It’s guesswork. Some guesses may be more educated than others. But to make this some sort of yardstick for theological orthodoxy is perilously stupid.

This is the kind of issue people lose their jobs over. Because of this ludicrous desire to see the issue at front and centre. The bit I think is the most frustrating is the clamouring over the “reformed” label for your view – as though disagreement on the issue is new. Here’s what Calvin said (in a commentary on Genesis 1:16), if you want to be reformed you at the very least want to be agreeing with Calvin. Right?

“I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.”

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

9 thoughts on “The age old question…”

  1. I am concerned that this push from Mohler et. al. is doing more harm than good. I believe we should not divide over things that matter (i.e. we should hold the same beliefs) and we should not divide over the things that don’t matter (i.e. we should be gracious to allow people the right to disagree without calling them apostate).

    6-day-creationism-or-else theology necessarily leads to division, for two reasons: (1) those who believe it will not accept the reasoning of anyone that disagrees, and (2) those who do not believe it need to use stronger language in order to defend their point of view than they probably should. The only reason this could possibly be necessary is if those who hold anything other that literal 6 day creationism are in fact anathema.

    Is this what Mohler believes? If so, he should state it explicitly so the majority of the pastors, laypeople and academics can refute him. If not, could he please tone down the rhetoric and stop threatening the academic community.

  2. Love the Calvin quote. I think what Mohler et al do (I remember hearing the same line from Ken Ham circa 1985 so nothing new here) is fall for a kind of modernist straw man which values “hard science” over literature, so that something that is “merely literary” can’t be “robustly inerrant”. Great literature is never “merely” anything. However it does highlight a problem with the concept of inerrancy. Once you accept that something is not meant to be a literal scientific account, it becomes hard to be clear exactly what the word “inerrant” means. We don’t think the creation of the world happened exactly the way it’s described in Genesis 1, but we still see Genesis as inerrant in some other mysterious way. It’s easy to see how this perplexes people with more “black and white” personalities. Perhaps the term “inspired” – preferred by most parts of the church at most times – is a better one to use. This text may not be 100% accurate, but it represents God communicating to us in the best way possible for our obviously errant understanding. Although of course that term is also the subject of a wide variety of interpretations…

  3. Nathan,
    I read Mohler’s words (reported by Challies) as having a bit more nuance and scholarly integrity than you seem to have, and that he is making a genuine effort to consider the matter holistically and consistently and not personalise it.
    This embraces systematic theology, which is currently out of favour in some circles, with narrative approaches being preferred.
    Mohler’s points, as I understand them, seem to be:
    What evidence from the text itself suggests that Genesis 1-11 be treated as myth?
    Without internal reason to consider those chapters myth, why shouldn’t that hermeneutic then be consistently applied to the rest of Scripture, where it describes events that cannot be reconciled with current scientific theory?
    Biblical figures apply significant weight to the historical reality of the events described in Genesis 1-11, how do we understand the work of redemption if that which is described by the new covenant writers cannot be understood in the way they understood it when making their arguments?

    I’m not certain that your quote from Calvin is directly relevant, either.
    All Calvin seems to be saying is that Moses (and the Holy Spirit) knew that the moon was not the second biggest object in the heavens when Genesis was written.
    When the weather forecaster tells me that the sun will rise tomorrow I don’t think they believe the earth is flat.

  4. Hey Nath,
    Is agreeing with Calvin really the test of Reformed Orthodoxy? Have you read his views on Jews and RCs? ;-)

    PS – liked the article.

    PPS – wait till you do Philosophy next year – it’ll help you understand this topic more I reckon.

  5. Gary,

    It is the end of the Calvin quote that I think is relevant:

    “Here lies the dif­fer­ence; Moses wrote in a pop­u­lar style things which with­out instruc­tion, all ordi­nary per­sons, endued with com­mon sense, are able to under­stand; but astronomers inves­ti­gate with great labor what­ever the sagac­ity of the human mind can comprehend”

    Calvin seems to be suggesting that Genesis 1 is literature, and that we shouldn’t hold it to be scientific truth.

    I agree that Mohler’s qualifications (merely and robust) are not the same extremes you might see espoused in this debate elsewhere, but I think they’re a little more hurtful because they come from a respectable theologian, not somebody on the fringe.

    This really is one of those divisive issues that should be left in the “agree to disagree” category. As far as I can tell, people taking similarly robust doctrines of scripture can approach the text without coming to the same conclusion. Lets just leave it at that, and not go about talking about the others as though they are theological dire straits.

  6. I’m a bit confused by the use of the term ‘literature’ to describe what I understand as ‘literary form’ or ‘genre’.
    The whole Bible is literature.
    The question is what genre is being used in Genesis 1-11, history or myth/fable.
    There are genres which are not meant to be considered literally, though they convey truth. One genre need not be considered more legitimate than another in this regard.
    Myth/fable is a valid form of literature which has been historically used as a teaching tool.
    The Bible writers make very little use of myth/fable.
    I can’t see anything in Calvin that suggests he considers Genesis 1-11 to be anything but history.
    He does this on the basis of taking the Scripture as its own commentator and treating that passage both for what it claims itself to be and also in the way that the biblical writers themselves treat it.

  7. As a literature scholar, it makes me sad that Mohler and Challies don’t seem to understand to what it is they refer, to call something “the literary theory” – man, could you be anymore obtuse.

    However, i digress. This concerns me pretty much in the same ways as it concerns you. Thanks for the post nathan.

  8. Hey, Nathan, Gary.

    Cards on the table: Don’t know how old the earth is… genealogies in Genesis make me think the earth is young.

    Respectfully, however, I’m not sure if the biblical genre “historical narrative” (or whatever) resolves the issue, because historical narrative is usually written to make a theological point, not leave an historical paper trail. That doesn’t call into question the accuracy or historicity of any given event, it simply calls for the consideration of the Holy Spirit’s intention when He moved the author to write.

    Genesis chapter 1 is more about God than physical science. God has brought all things into being by His Word and sustains them in the same manner. How else could vegetation (day 3) exist without sunlight (day 4)?

    The second unresolved problem if Gen 1 is a literal blow-by-blow commentary of the creation of the universe, is the length of the first 4 days. And how did the commentator miss the evening on the seventh day?

    Lastly, my serious consideration of the position of my de novo creation brothers, and my respect for them has not come from their skilful arguments and familiarity with science. Rather, almost to the man they demonstrate a greater degree of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness & self-control than my CMI & AiG brethren.

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