Hermeneutics and Awkward Science

Six-day theologians and scientists whom I know engage carefully and thoughtfully with the varied hermeneutical and exegetical arguments…We were not actually won over by Answers in Genesis comic strips or a simplistic fundamentalism, we are not ahistorical modernists, but are driven by careful, prayerful exegetical work…

Recently at the Aquila Report, my friend Bill Evans continued the lively discussion on Genesis and hermeneutics, noting a variety of thoughtful concerns. Yet, while doing so, he seems to indicate that proponents of the literal six day view, whether historic Southern Presbyterian, or other, fail to either grasp or fully engage with more sophisticated hermeneutic approaches such as the twentieth century framework theory as propounded by Kline, the day age, or the gap theory.

In his article Evans states, “he [VanDoodewaard] also asserts that the controversial work of Peter Enns represents a “consistent” application of a hermeneutic that finds a place for extra-biblical data in the interpretive process, and that this provides compelling reasons to eschew such a hermeneutic.”

My issue is not with having “a place” for extra-biblical data in the interpretive process. I, and the many capable theologians who hold to a literal six day view, believe that there is a place. To frame the argument in this manner tends to caricature, instead of providing clarity. The issue at heart is not whether there is “a place”, which most would certainly agree with, but rather what that place is in each instance, how it is discerned, defined, and delineated.

I would argue that in the specific case of the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, including the account of the origins of Adam and Eve, the issue encountered in alternative readings is a hermeneutically unwarranted accommodation of the text to the priority and primacy of extra-biblical data, rather than simply giving “a place”.

This of course is rooted in the fact that I believe the text of Genesis 1 and 2 has a greater extent of descriptive clarity than the non-six-day theologian does. He believes it is somewhat more poetically general, thematic, or elastic, and not intended for the interpretive gleaning of detail I believe is plainly expressed.

I believe that the reason for this divergence in hermeneutic is rooted in the pressures of a popular, but poorly constructed and defended, scientific hypothesis which stands contrary to the text. The non-six-day theologian believes the reason for the difference is that I fail to engage, fail to harmonize the text, with a popular, articulate, and compellingly defended scientific reality which explains this world as it is.

Six-day theologians and scientists whom I know engage carefully and thoughtfully with the varied hermeneutical and exegetical arguments, the interpretations of evidence provided by contemporary science, and the interpretations of ancient near eastern history and literature.

We were not actually won over by Answers in Genesis comic strips or a simplistic fundamentalism, we are not ahistorical modernists, but are driven by careful, prayerful exegetical work, the assessment of evolutionary theory on the basis of scientific method, study of hermeneutics, historical theology, etc.

We’ve read Kline, read the latest journals, and are just as happy engaging in discussions with post-Christian thinkers on post-structuralist linguistic theory as we are on hermeneutics and Genesis. We’ve read Warfield. We understand the history Evans recounts, and the way he recounts it.

As theologians we can cite numerous examples of friends and acquaintances in the academy and professional science who are physicists, biologists, chemists, geologists, and even paleontologists, who did not always, but now do believe that a six-day literal view coheres best with both Scripture and science. At the same time many of us trace a steady ecclesiastical lineage of a six-day literal interpretation back through the 19th century, prior to the days of Hodge, Darwin, Lyell, to the times in the life of the church when it was not a matter of significant debate.

We agree that fellow believers who we love, admire in many respects, and are thankful for, differ on this, yet duly note that in the Reformed churches we have historically barred men from ordained service in the church over things like baptism, views of worship, views of charismatic gifts, and views of church government, believing that this is indeed for the good of the church.

The Synod of Dordt, with all its weaknesses, codified and enacted a theological rigor in response to a current dilemma, arguably ‘narrowing’ fellowship to exclude from ministry fathers and brothers in the faith who in a number of cases shared deeply in passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and shared some of the general contours of Reformed theology. It also gave occasion for the church to show needed leadership, her men to rethink significant issues of theology, and in good conscience to change, acquiesce, or depart honorably in conviction.

Certainly where, and if, our current issues are taken up by church assemblies, we trust that wise, gracious, and faithful solutions can be achieved, when they are prayerfully pursued in love for Christ, His Word, His church, and each other.

That noted, it is true enough, that it makes for an awkward moment to assert the primacy of a six-day literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 over evolutionary theory at an office cocktail party. But the same is true for explaining the reality of sin before the One True Holy God, penal substitutionary atonement, or declaring that a literal point in time is coming when Christ will return and the day of judgement is inaugurated. Yet we are not the only ones who have our awkward moments.

The framework man at the same cocktail party has some awkward explaining to do as well: exactly what does the historicity of Adam and Eve mean? What about macro-evolution? Does framework theory cohere with macro-evolution, with uniformitarian processes, or evolutionary bursts over eons of time? Were there pre-Adamic and co-Adamic hominids? Did they have souls, or not? Was there hominid death prior to the fall? Did God suddenly, actively, and supernaturally intervene in “the process” to create the first man (ever) from literal dirt, and the first woman (ever) from one of his actual ribs? Why not extend and apply the Klinean hermeneutic which loosens, frees up the text of Genesis 1 and 2 (from the literal or plain sense reading) via the triads and kingdoms to engage a further coherence with scientific thought?

Since there is the impetus to engage with scientific hypotheses, could one not legitimately argue, and quite consistently so, that the description of God taking the dust to create man in his own image is perhaps also somewhat poetically analogical, or structural? Why not extend the understanding of the beauty of the framing condescension of the Creator King, to what man would only millennia later by common grace discover: the evolutionary process of human development — God by process distinguishing man from the rest of the creative order gradually developing under his sovereignty? Certainly this would give a more consistent place to what is currently held by many as scientific reality. Of course it could leave Genesis 3 with the garden, serpent, sin and curse for future endeavors.

What about the above stands inconsistent with a potential further application of a framework hypothesis? Why not follow with Enns who states “To say that science gives us a more accurate understanding of human origins than the Bible is not putting science “over” the Bible—unless we assume that the Bible is prepared to give us scientific information?” Why make a hermeneutic transition at Genesis 1:26 or 2:7 to suddenly argue that we have here a scientific, modern, literal description?

Evans says that he has engaged Enns; I deeply appreciate his rebuttals of Enns’ “incarnational theology”, and his critiques of Enns’ systemic unwillingness to deal with difficulties raised, and use of “myth”. Yet I believe Evans’ words of appreciation for Enns’ handling of Genesis 1 and 2 are reflective of his present failure to engage with Enns on the current, legitimate (though at times confused and rather random) questions being raised. Or would Evans say that the transition at 1:26 or 2:7 is simply following “the plain sense of the text?”

It will be interesting to see how the current plural, somewhat agnostic stand on Genesis 1 and 2 in Presbyterianism deals with these very real, increasing challenges posited by Peter Enns, Francis Collins, Brian McLaren, and others. Over at Biologos Brian McLaren argues that “slippery slope” is inapplicable to these discussions (as Evans has). Ironically McLaren’s compatriots, Enns and Collins, are now “sledding” to assert that the new line for orthodoxy is the event of a historical and moral fall, whether by a pair, tribe, or race.

If Canadian church history provides any parallels, the realities of response to all this among Presbyterians will be complex, messy, and hesitantly executed where at all. Presently, aside from a few, it seems the general response is a deafening silence in the Presbyterian and Reformed community. The status quo is potentially fragile, and there are few who want to revisit it.

If this is the way things play out, in time the Kline-Enns-et al hermeneutic field on Genesis 1 and 2 will continue expand forward to other parts of Scripture, and in popular appeal. With this “fresh” understanding of Scripture there will come the need to add some further exceptions to confessional standards, or rewrite them. Or simply reinterpret them in harmony with their insights. And then in a generation or two there will be plenty of empty church buildings for purchase in America, just like there are up in Canada.

In reflecting on northern, southern, and even more northern, historical and present realities on Genesis interpretation, I believe Evan’s dire warning and link [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.] on the demise of a coming generation because of naïve modernity in the church (ie. six-day literalism) is misplaced. It is a grim reality, albeit predominantly in those denominations who have worked hard to accommodate faith to ‘science’ or culture.  Not to mention that the sobering stats given by Evans are malleable. They indicate that while 59% of young people are departing Christianity in America, 40% believe the church is outdated on sexuality standards. How much of the 29% leaving for reasons of ‘science’ overlaps with this group? How many of them also fall into the 20% category of ‘God is not present in church’? [Editor’s note: Original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]

In contrast to Evan’s warnings of the loss of a coming generation I would welcome those who fail to see Enns’ scheme of possibilities on Adam and Eve as potentially consistent with the hermeneutic approaches of framework, gap, day age theory to come up to post-Christian Canada not only to see the fruit of our now bygone encounters with hermeneutic failure – the empty churches that are now day care centers, art galleries, mosques and temples – but also to see that by grace there is a Christian remnant: the Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, and other churches, that have continued to exist, thrive, and grow — both by retaining their youth, and through evangelism. They are by a large majority convinced of a literal six day position — and continue to engage faith and science.

William VanDoodewaard serves as Associate Professor of Church History at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and is an ordained minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. This article is reprinted with permission from his blog The Christian Pundit.

For more on this discussion thread on creation, Adam and Eve, see William Evans’ “The Unhappy Politics of Creation”, and William VanDoodewaard’s final reply to this response by Evans in the article “Defining Adam and Eve”.