Lecture Review: “Reflections on the Bible, Evolution, and the Journey of Faith” by Peter Enns

This is a response I wrote to a lecture given by Enns on October 9, 2013 in the Northwest Auditorium at Trinity Western University. I originally wrote this as an assignment for Ministry of Scholarship 803, but, in an effort to blog more, I am reproducing it here, with expanded commentary and greater interaction. It should go without saying that all of my views are my own, and that none of my views necessarily reflects the positions of TWU, ACTS Seminaries, my church, Enns, or anyone else one way or the other — that goes for all my blogs.

Summary

Peter Enns is adamant that the issue of evolution and Christianity is “challenging, vital, and not going away anytime soon.” In response, he urges us to “accept the challenge of evolution and embark on a journey of faith.”

There is a “non-negotiable need” to account for two things:

  1. the current evolutionary model of origins
  2. modern biblical scholarship

Enns calls these “two destabilizing factors” — they do not challenge Christianity, but only our current understanding/interpretation of Christianity. (All quotations are from Enns’s powerpoint.)

For Enns, a literalist approach to Scripture “assumes that the mark of divine inspiration is to isolate itself from cultural context” — Enns doesn’t agree; therefore, we cannot simply “graft” evolution onto evangelicalism — by suggesting that Adam and Eve could have been some early hominid couple chosen by God, etc. The first gene pool was no less than about 10,000 humans, and this must be accounted for (see, for example, Dennis Venema’s article, “Genesis and the Genome.”). But Enns is quick to point out that even on biblical grounds, assuming that Adam and Eve were literal people raises the following “three red flags”:

  • “Even without evolution, biblical scholarship is enough to do away with a naïve literalism.”
  • “We should not superimpose some kind of hominid over Adam” — this is equally unfaithful to Scripture.
  • “The ad hoc ‘it’s possible’ argument” is weak: the fact that it’s possible that God could have picked a pair does not by itself make it true that he has done so.

At the same time, Enns doesn’t see this as “putting science ‘over’ the Bible”: “none of us comes to the Bible with a blank slate […] Outside information can ‘Calibrate’ our expectations for Scripture” — specifically, “Science shows us that science/history cannot be our expectation for the Bible.” Rather than stick to the “theological non-starter” of biblical inerrancy — which requires an ad hoc “constant vigilance” to maintain, Enns recommends an “incarnational model”:  “Just as Jesus bears the full marks of humanity, specifically that of ancient first-century Palestine, the Bible fully bears the mark of the historical trappings in which it was written.”

He quotes C. S. Lewis here:

“[There] is one argument which we should beware of using…: God must have done what is best, [I feel] this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done — especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it” (Reflections on the Psalms, 111-112).

So we must pay attention to historical context, canonical context, and Christian tradition, and remember that “We see things provisionally, not as they really are… History is important — even when it challenges our theology.”

Evaluation/Reflection

Enns makes a compelling case for why evangelicals should be engaged in the discussion about evolution — whatever we are going to do about all this, sticking our heads in the sand is not an option. My only critique is that Enns seemed to just “talk about evolution and Christianity for an hour”; he didn’t clearly delineate a thesis for his talk (I had to decide on one for my assignment). Also, I think he ought to have actually dug into the meat of the issue a little more: it’s one thing to say that we need to revaluate our interpretation, but it’s quite another to actually show what that might mean. I was hoping to actually get into the issues of how we might understand Jesus and Paul’s references to Adam and Eve in the NT. Also, I don’t see why Enns has to set his view up in opposition to biblical inerrancy. For myself, I believe that the Bible is infallible and inerrant in what it intends to teach — it simply doesn’t intend to teach science.

In the Q & A, I asked, “Did Jesus and Paul understand — together with their audiences — (unlike us) that Adam was not historical when they talked about him? Did they know that Adam and Eve were not historical; is it only we moderns who misread Genesis 1-11 as history?”

Enns gave an interesting response to this: “Well, I don’t know what they were thinking” (the audience laughed at me here, and I deserved it). But essentially, Paul was an ancient man in an ancient context, and a historical Adam was part of the heritage he had received. (He was reluctant to speak about Jesus). It is “messy,” he said, but “an incarnational view of Scripture is unafraid to see the mess for what it is.” When God reveals infallible truth, he does so by “incarnating” his message in the thought patterns of the time; one author says that “God let his children tell the story.”

I think Enns makes a number of very important points, but “ground zero” for me is whether or not we should think of Jesus as being — ultimately — misinformed/wrong about the historicity of Adam. I would prefer to think that He was actually consciously accommodating His audience when He spoke of Adam. However, I talked with my Exposition of Genesis professor regarding all of this, and he says that he really has no problem with the idea that Jesus and Paul were men of their times, believing and using the categories of their times to express divine truth. He pointed out Philippians 2:3-11, where it says that Jesus “emptied himself” (the Greek word for this is kenosis); the idea is that in the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity gave up his omniscience  in becoming human. (J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig suggest that Christ possibly “subliminally” suppressed his omniscience into his subconsciousness. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 610-13.)

C. S. Lewis has no problem with this idea:

“it might be argued that when [Christ] emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient — if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (The Problem of Pain, chap. 9).

(Docetism was a Gnostic heresy, holding that Jesus only appeared to be a real human. Against this the Council of Chalcedon in 451 argued that Jesus had both a fully human nature and a fully divine nature: one person with two natures. It was held that in order to fully redeem humanity, Jesus had to be fully human, and I agree.)

Now, it might alarm us to think that there are scientific “errors” in the Bible, but ask yourself this: could God have ever written a book of science for all generations of humanity? It seems to me that it would either be hopelessly beyond their understanding, or it would eventually become obsolete. If he had written a book of science for Newton’s time, then Einstein would have made it obsolete; if he wrote it for our own time, no doubt it would be obsolete by the 2200s — if not well before! No book could satisfy all generations, because science progresses. It would be far better just to leave science aside and communicate divine, infallible, inerrant truth in categories that we could understand (and I think he did).

So Jesus thinks that the mustard seed is actually the smallest seed; so the Pentateuch reads as if rabbits chew the cud (they don’t); so Joshua has a geocentric solar system; so Paul thinks that there is an underworld (Denis Lamoureux points out that the Greek word Katachthonios literally refers to the Greco-Roman idea of the underworld. Evolutionary Creation, 106-11.); so what? It is no error at all if God never intended to make scientifically authoritative statements in the Bible; in fact, the error would be with those who assume that God was making statements about science.

We need to understand that even if God had been incarnated in the twenty-first century and spoke in terms of our current understanding of physics, chemistry, botany, astronomy, biology, etc. even that would still be an accommodation: science is never final; there is always more to learn.

I have read Enns’s 2012 book, The Evolution of Adam, and I am currently working through his commentary on Exodus (The NIV Application Commentary, 2000). I find that Enns does not at all compromise on a theologically conservative, Christ-centered, understanding of the Christian gospel. For those concerned that Enns’s evolutionary creationism is a “slippery slope,” I happily quote this bit from Enns’s commentary on Exodus:

“It is often simply stated that if what the Bible says happened did not happen, then the truth claims of the Bible are rendered suspect and we have little reason to trust it. Defense of the Bible’s historicity is, of course, important, but it is not the goal of biblical interpretation. To use an obviously relevant example, you have not understood the book of Exodus when you have successfully defended the historicity of the events of the Exodus. There is more to interpreting the book than demonstrating that this or that happened.
The Old Testament is not a journalistic, dispassionate, objective account of events. Its purpose is not just to tell us ‘what happened’ so that we can ‘look objectively at the data’ and arrive at the proper conclusions. The Old Testament is theological history. It has been written to teach lessons. The primary lesson I would argue is to teach us what God is like and what it means for his people to live with that knowledge” (p. 24).

Now, there is certainly a slippery slope of liberalism, which thinks that the whole Bible is only a human book. We must of course reject theological liberalism. My point is that there is another slippery slope: the slippery slope of thinking that everything in the Bible was written with modern, twenty-first century, Western, English-speaking people in mind and forgetting the central message. To expect that the biblical authors were concerned with our way of seeing the world — with our standards of science and history — is not only to misread the text, but it is just as absurd as if an ancient man were to travel forward through time to our century only to read all of our literature/media through his worldview. How would such a man interpret an episode of Star Trek? His interpretation would probably miss the point entirely. He would have to be educated in our culture before he would be able to understand the message of the show (which, although I enjoy the show, is basically optimistic secular humanism).

This hidden slippery slope of expecting the Bible to be a modern book has dire consequences:

  • Many young people, hearing that Genesis *must* be taken literally, will grow up, attend post secondary, and feel that they must choose between the Bible and honesty (this is a false choice). This is actually the same mistake that theological liberalism often makes: both (some forms of) liberalism and fundamentalism think that if the Bible does not teach science, then it is not from God. This is a false choice.
  • The church laity will believe that there is a world-wide conspiracy in science, and they will appear cultish and backward to the world. This keeps honest, thinking, seeking people from considering Christianity. We often look to them like we believe the earth is flat. (Of course there are necessary, offensive stumbling blocks — such as the Gospel itself — but is this one of them?)
  • Persons who have studied these things historically, theologically, scientifically, and philosophically, will be seen as “liberal” and “deceived,” even though their faith is truly evangelical and they believe in all of the central tenets of the historical Christian faith. They will be kept out of leadership, prevented from serving, and the Body of Christ will suffer that much for it. Enns himself was dismissed from Westminster Theological Seminary.
  • Evangelicals will continue to simply not understand science and nature and miss out on understanding God’s creation to that degree.
  • Even worse, we will read Genesis wrongly to a certain degree, and, to that degree, we will miss out on the gift of God’s self-revelation. Is anything worse?
  • Yes, one thing is worse: putting our faith in “Jesus + the-Bible-is-a-book-of-science” instead of putting our faith in Jesus alone.
    • The modern evangelical impulse to take everything in the Old Testament as absolutely literal “or else” is not the historical Christian position. Instead, it is a product of modern rationalism, which thinks that everything must be understood in modern categories of science and history or else it is not true. Rationalism is just as alien to Christianity as gnosticism or some other heresy. In a word, imposing Enlightenment Rationalism on the Bible is actually a form of worldliness.
    • For myself, I say that everything must be made obedient to Christ or it is not true. I believe that there is a way to have everything that true, historical, traditional Christianity has to offer without looking like we think that the earth is flat — thereby turning thinking people away from Christ. In fact, since both nature and Scripture are from God, they can never finally contradict (when they are each interpreted correctly).
    • If our faith is in Jesus *plus* a modern, scientific interpretation of Genesis (an interpretation that neither Moses nor the Israelites would have even imagined), then we are not just on a slippery slope, but we are building a house on the “sand” of modernity. But I say that faith should be Christ alone.
  • So, this is the slippery slope that the North American evangelical church has already been on for over 100 years, and we are now seeing the fruit of it: young people are leaving the church in droves, and atheists like Richard Dawkins also think that evolution makes the Bible false — we are giving Dawkins ammunition and helping to alienate our own young people when we insist that the Bible must be a book of science in order to be true.

I am not totally settled on how we should understand Adam and Eve. Is there any sense in which Genesis 1-11 is historical? Is it entirely an ancient origins account that God used to reveal himself? How do we understand the NT passages about Adam?

Now, whatever we end up saying, I think Ken Ham goes way too far in says that taking Genesis as anything less than entirely literal history “destroys the gospel” (speaking of even “old earth” creationism). There are options, here, if we are to “accept the challenge of evolution and embark on a journey of faith”:

  • We could say that the Fall in Genesis is a representation of something that really happened in ancient human history — that somehow, our ancestors (all 10,000 or however many) really did fall into sin. This would preserve the doctrine of original sin — everything would be the same; we still need Jesus.
  • We could get rid of original sin (it was Augustine’s invention in the late 300s/early 400s anyway — not explicitly in the Bible), and still be Christians who believe that Jesus saves us from the fact of *universal* sin. This is what the Eastern Orthodox believe, and while I might disagree with them on many things, they still affirm that Jesus’ sacrifice was absolutely necessary for salvation from sin.
  • And, of course, that fact that the Gospels are a totally different genre (Greco-Roman/theological biographies) from Genesis 1-11 (Theological ancient-near-eastern origins account) means that we are in no danger whatsoever of saying that Jesus’ miracles or resurrection did not happen. I believe Jesus really performed miracles, rose from the dead, is active in the church today via the Holy Spirit, and will return to judge the living and the dead.

Undoubtedly there are more options we could hold to and still be orthodox in our understanding of the gospel. For example, Justin Martyr — the second-century Christian apologist — thought that God had created the world using pre-existing matter. I disagree with Justin on that point, but he defended the true gospelThe point is that how we think of Genesis 1-11 does not need to undermine the gospel so long as we believe what Genesis 1-11 is actually teaching: God is the Creator, we are made in his image, we are made for relationship with him, and we are in rebellion against him. Certainly I have more reading and thinking to do, and I could be wrong about any of this; I am only married to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I see everything — including both the Bible and modern science — through that lens (anything less is not a Christian worldview).

I’ll leave you with this C. S. Lewis quote:

“When the author of Genesis says that God made man in His own image, he may have pictured a vaguely corporeal God making a man as a child makes a figure out of plasticine. A modern Christian philosopher may think of a process lasting form the first creation of matter to the final appearance of this planet of an organism fit to receive spiritual as well as biological life. But both mean essentially the same thing. Both are denying the same thing — the doctrine that matter by some blind power inherent in itself has produced spirituality” (“Dogma and the Universe,” God in the Dock).

Public Lecture Review: “How to Be a Universalist” and “The Best of All Possible Stories: Can It Be True?”

How Not to Argue for Universalism

Hi everyone, sorry for the lack of posts–I got married. I originally wrote this for the Trinity Western University newspaper, the Mars Hill, but they are unable to publish it this issue. They might still publish it in a future one, but I have permission to post it here.

Universalism holds that salvation through Christ will apply, ultimately, to all sentient beingfireflame(maybe even Satan and his demons): Hell will be empty—if it even exists.

In a public lecture on Universalism on February 13, both Trinity Western University’s Myron A. Penner (Ph.D. Philosophy) and celebrated documentary filmmaker Kevin Miller (Hellbound?) agreed that it is difficult to understand the traditional doctrine of Hell and damnation:

For a Calvinist, why wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-loving God elect everyone? For an Arminian, is it really loving to respect someone’s “freedom” to choose Hell? Shouldn’t a loving parent override the freedom of a child who disobeys a warning keep away from danger (how much more so with God)? Moreover, are those who “choose” Hell cognitively aware of it? Surely they would not oppose God if they understood the consequences. More generally, it just seems “out of proportion” for finite sin to merit infinite, conscious, eternal punishment.

In the end, Penner rejects Universalism because there is “no good way to tell what counts as sufficient information and rationality for a morally culpable free choice of this magnitude”; Universalists would need to prove that “perpetual, free rejection of God” is impossible; otherwise, “it is possible that hell is populated.” But Miller pushes back, seeing the full restoration of sinners as morally superior to eternal punishment—even worse, if God allows people to perpetually reject him in Hell, then he is allowing sin to persist for eternity!

So we have three sets of difficulties concerning Hell: emotional unease, philosophical difficulties, and theological misgivings.

Regarding the first, something is of course wrong if we hope that there will be people in Hell. After all, the Lord himself “take[s] no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez. 33:11). At the same time, I am wary of allowing emotions to influence my doctrine. For me, if theology is nutrition, then emotions are sugars and sin is trans-fat: Scripture teaches that that our hearts are “deceitful… [and] desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9); they are the source of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries…” (Matt. 15:19); “There is a way which seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). If emotions were crowned king, we would probably arrive at something like secular humanism: people are basically good; don’t harm or judge anybody; do what makes you happy; make the world a better place.

As a student of Apologetics, I was surprised that Molinism was ignored (named for the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina [1535-1600])—which is essentially a Calvinist-Arminian, middle-ground position that William Lane Craig uses to suggest that there simply might not be any “feasible, possible world” that God could sovereignly create, in which everybody freely chooses him (reasonablefaith.org). (Probably Penner finds this view unhelpful in resolving the issue.) Although I think Molinism can show that Christianity is not necessarily logically incoherent, I cannot sit through Dr. Archie Spencer’s classes without sensing the Reformed-Barthian critique that Molinism trades too much of God’s sovereign freedom away. Certainly we can use Molinism as an apologetic response to charges that divine sovereignty and human freedom are logically contradictory and therefore Christianity is incoherent. But for theology, it seems best to say that Scripture doesn’t teach precisely how divine freedom and human freedom interact—only that both are meaningful realities. If we were to make philosophy king of the discussion, then I think we might end up ruling out God’s transcendence, the Incarnation, the Atonement, any “objective” meaning of Scripture, and reality itself—depending on how far down the postmodern rabbit-hole we care to tumble.

This brings us to theology’s relationship with philosophy. Now, I appreciate Penner’s defense of the traditional doctrine (It’s great apologetics!), and I recognise that he spoke as a philosopher at a philosophically-themed event; yet, along with Karl Barth, I think that philosophical concepts/categories must be informed by Christian meaning before we can use them in theology (Church Dogmatics III.3.49.2). Donald Bloesch is also helpful here: “The question is whether philosophical concepts and images are baptized into the service of the gospel or whether they alter the apostolic interpretation of the gospel” (The Holy Spirit, 255. I recognize the irony in citing Barth when some think that he himself was a universalist; Spencer thinks that Barth’s universalism has been exaggerated by Donald Bloesch.). Otherwise, philosophy forgets its place. It’s one thing for philosophy (or science, linguistics, archaeology, etc.) to help us distill and understand Scripture’s teaching; it’s quite another for philosophy to “correct” that teaching once it is properly understood. The difference is subtle: science can help alert us to the possibility that Genesis 1-11 isn’t meant to be taken literally (there is evidence for an old earth, etc.), but science certainly cannot deny the Resurrection just because it cannot account for it (what possible scientific evidence could there ever be–apart from discovering the corpse of Christ–that the Resurrection has not happened?). Likewise, just because philosophy cannot account for divine/human freedom does not mean it can correct the doctrine of Hell; philosophy must not “paint its own problems onto the sky,” as it were. Properly informed, Holy Spirit-serving exegesis comes first. (I’ve no reason to think that Penner would disagree.)

(I do appreciate what philosophy can do; Penner’s argument is a great apologetic argument in defense of the traditional doctrine. I’m not trying to set up a theology-vs.-philosophy dichotomy here. I’m only saying that when we discuss doctrine, we are doing theology, and we need to use theology’s toolset– which includes theologically-informed philosophical reflection but primarily relies on sound exegesis as its bedrock. It must do so if we are to avoid simply relying on the “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 2).

I appreciate Miller for upholding the centrality of Christ, and I found his observation that “Chronological snobbery is a two-way street” to be particularly insightful and helpful: we should not evaluate any idea simply on the basis of how old or new it is. What I don’t appreciate is that (intentionally or not) he seems to subtly caricature people who believe in Hell as angry and unforgiving–I picked up on this in both his popular documentary Hellbound? and in his talk at this public lecture. (This is no better than if I were to caricature Miller as a bleeding-heart, liberal extremist who wants to throw away the Bible and Christian Tradition.) I don’t want there to be a Hell any more than I want there to be cancer, poverty and war, but I am convinced that the Bible teaches that there is such a place. Miller warns against following majority opinion, but, ironically, his own Universalism is much more palatable to popular culture (with its religious pluralism, humanism, etc.) than the traditional doctrine of Hell is.

However, it is Miller’s subordination of theology and exegesis to philosophy and emotional unease that really strikes a chord with me. It may seem that restoration is morally superior to eternal punishment, but—despite Miller’s (correct!) warnings about how worldview lenses can distort our understanding—he seems to gloss over just how limited and contingent our misgivings really are. This was particular noticeable when he made the comment that we could “put on Augustine’s lens” in addition to our own, so that we have an advantage over the Fathers–What!? we can never put on Augustine’s lens or even each other’s lenses. We don’t have Augustine’s lens–only his books; we can’t breathe the fourth/fifth century air; we can’t visit ancient Hippo; we can’t talk about a gladiator fight as if we can seen one for ourselves; etc. (In fairness, I may be pressing Miller’s words too hard: he seems to be more balanced in his blog.) Take the postmodern critique regarding objective certainty and add to it the Bible’s scepticism about the human heart: we are both blind and biased, utterly impoverished apart from divine revelation; we are not in any position to correct special revelation (once it is properly understood)—if we were, it couldn’t really be divine revelation. Who are we, at all, to say what the “best” story is? Moreover, if we agree with the Reformed conviction that God’s being and his action are unified (cf. 2 Tim. 2:13), then to ask for a God who decrees different things is to ask for a God with a different nature.

Before Jesus, there was no clear articulation of the afterlife. If Universalism were true, wouldn’t Jesus be an exceptionally poor and misleading teacher, given that he basically introduced the idea of Hell? If an eternal punishment seems out of proportion, isn’t an eternal reward also so? If many early Christians were Universalists, as Miller holds, doesn’t that mostly just show that we are prone to downplay God’s judgment in any age?

During the Q & A, I asked Miller how we could make sense of the urgency in the New Testament if there weren’t anything ultimately at stake. His response (if I understood correctly) was that the gospel could do much-needed transformative good here and now. But can that fully explain why the apostles (and others) suffered disgrace, persecution, and martyrdom? Why would Paul warn against false teaching “with tears” (Acts 20:31) and wish to be accursed instead of his Jewish countrymen (Rom. 9:3)? Why should I suffer even one awkward moment for a gospel that doesn’t need to be believed? Why not pretend to be secular humanists (to avoid offense), do some social good while we can, and preach the gospel privately to those who need additional transformation? Do you see how the priority gets reversed? Traditionally, getting right with God was most important, and the results of being transformed–good deeds–were secondary. But if Miller is right, then our only urgency comes from a desire to make the world a better, more peaceful and loving place now–it’s a worthy goal, but is it more important than repentance and belief? Universalism subordinates the gospel to social concerns. Now, if Universalism is true, then, fine, it seems the gospel should be subordinated to social concerns–after all, everyone will be saved anyway, and there will even be situations where preaching the gospel will cause hate, division of families, social rejection of stubborn sinners, and invite persecution, so it is clearly better not to preach the gospel at all when it will cause these socially negative things–if Universalism is true.

People often ask, “How could a perfectly loving God send anyone to Hell?” They rarely ask, “How could a perfectly just and holy God allow anyone into Heaven?” Both questions are answered at the Cross: philosophy and emotions cannot answer them. The Greeks scoffed at Paul because the Resurrection offended their philosophy that matter and bodies were bad; the doctrine of Hell offends our own philosophy and culture—but neither of these is an appropriate starting point for formulating Christian doctrine. A good argument for Universalism must begin with Scripture, not only highlighting the verses that seem to support it (and there are some), but also dealing squarely with the many (I would say the overwhelming majority) that do not, as well as the entire missional, urgent tenor of the New Testament.