uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Not Just a Rejection of Science

National Public Radio, which I generally like but which seems to be veering into the new "balanced" he-said, she-said form of journalism largely pioneered by Fox News, did a follow-up this week to a story a month ago about divisions among Christians over the science of human origins.

My first reaction was one of utter boredom, and I speculated aloud whether they would be talking about the invention of the steam-engine next, because the conflict over human origins is at least 150 years old. Of course, this was largely because of the story's bland, generalized headline, as though this were some sort of new phenomenon deserving of a fresh look. But the recent departure of a theology professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., gave NPR the news hook they needed for a 30-minute discussion, which included some call-in remarks and a debate of sorts between another of Calvin College's professors, Daniel Harlow, and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

The discussion went some very predictable ways. Harlow pointed out that the march of science over the past century, from the discovery of early hominid fossils to geological dating to the mapping of the human genome most recently, makes the literal story of two individuals siring the entire human race impossible; Mohler largely chose not to engage the science (big surprise). But of course the real disputes centered on what sorts of implications science has on the Bible. Harlow (like virtually all mainline Protestants, all Catholics, and an increasing number of evangelicals) argued that an historical Adam and Eve are not necessary for the theology of salvation -- for one to believe that humanity is inherently flawed and cannot overcome that flaw without Christ. Mohler disagreed because Paul, on two occasions, referred to Jesus as the "new Adam," who delivers humankind from sin just as the old Adam had stained him with sin.

Harlow chimed in and noted that Paul's theology here does not really hinge on an "historical Adam" but on the theological significance of Jesus. But Mohler would have none of it, and here we get to the crux of the matter:

"I just have to disagree and say that's arbitrary, and frankly quite insulting to the biblical fact and to the fact that no one... would have thought such a thing until someone says, oh, look, modern science has a contrary word. No one had suggested such a thing in terms of the lack of an historical Adam until, all of a sudden, a person said science has a privileged word to say."

This is one of two times that Mohler dismisses Harlow's views by suggesting he is being "arbitrary." To Mohler's it's "privileging" science to allow it to influence the way we read the Bible, and doing that is "insulting" to "biblical fact."

But in fact, Southern Baptists, their convention, and presumably their seminaries, do just this sort of thing all the time. As I have written about before here, the SBC takes a "Biblical" view of wives submitting to their husbands, but bends over backward to articulate that in a modern, nonsexist, virtually egalitarian way that would have been most foreign to the original, ancient audience of the Bible. But more to the point, the SBC was itself formed because of its defense of slavery, and it spent much of its early years pointing to the numerous parts of the Bible, from the Levitical material to Paul's short epistle to Philemon, which seem to implicitly or explicitly condone the institution of slavery. Indeed, slavery was in many ways a "common-sense" ideology in the ancient world, not one the original authors or readers of the Bible would have necessarily questioned (some admirable theology from Paul aside). So while Mohler objects to having a modern (and thus scientifically literate) mindset while reading and interpreting Genesis, he most assuredly adopts such a mindset when reading (and choosing to ignore) other parts of the Bible that are equally problematic to modern sensibilities.

But there is an even greater and more troubling aspect to Mohler's and the SBC's objections to what Harlow said -- and what he said reflects the ordinary, mainstream scholarship one will hear in virtually any secular university or even mainline seminary (and indeed, even some evangelical colleges like Calvin College). Harlow simply pointed out the creation accounts in Genesis are clearly part of a mythological literary genre. He pointed out that the two distinct accounts can be compared to contemporary, near eastern creation myths and striking similarities (as well as some key contrasts) can be found. This sort of investigation has been going on for over a century; it is nothing new. But also for over a century, folks like Mohler -- who wish to explain away some very pointed complications in the Bible and treat, as he did with Paul and Genesis, the Bible as some sort of universally consistent narrative rather than the disparate library of books that it is -- have been rejecting this sort of scholarship.

This didn't come up explicitly until the very last minutes of the program. Harlow pointed out that at Calvin College, scholars of religion "recognize what type of literature we're dealing with in early Genesis." Predictably (since he apparently did not want to grapple with the mountain of consensus scholarship on the issue), Mohler responded with, "I think that's entirely arbitrary." And in his best line of the whole discussion, Harlow responded with, "No, it's not arbitrary. It requires a lot of hard work."

Indeed. It has required a lot of hard work for centuries, from the zeal over discovering and investigating the textual tradition which began in the Renaissance, to the historical and textual criticism that began in the 19th century. It takes a lot of work to study the language and note the differences between what God is called in one set of verses and what he is called in another -- to recognize that we are probably dealing with multiple sources later combined into a single story. It takes a lot of work to study contemporary accounts of creation to see how they are similar and yet different -- how the authors of Genesis might well have been staking out a unique identity for their God different from that of the gods around them. It takes a lot of work to incorporate archaeology, linguistics and philology, history, literary criticism, and a host of other methodological approaches that have enriched our understanding of the Bible.

But to Mohler, that's all just "arbitrary," because Mohler and others like him seem to reject the very notion of Biblical criticism. To Mohler, Genesis must mean "what any straightforward honest reader would think that it means," as he remarked to Harlow. In other words, there is nothing to study here, because it's all right there, plain and simple. And when and if scripture contradicts modern sensibilities, modern science, archaeology, history, or even itself, we are to trust in the Bible and close our ears to those things -- or read one of the many "apologetic study Bibles" (a contradiction in terms if I've ever heard one), so that non sola scriptura, we can have someone explain away the ambiguities, complications, and inconsistencies that indeed greet any "straightforward honest reader."

We all know many religious people have beliefs that conflict with science. But that's old news, and just the beginning of the story. Increasingly, some religious people are in conflict with any number of academic disciplines, if they in any way contradict the selectively "straightforward reading" of the Bible to which they subscribe.

Biblical studies, a sister discipline to my own (classical studies), is where this is most chiefly felt, and perhaps that's why Harlow noted at one point in response to Mohler that "it's not science" alone that informs how we should accurately read Genesis: "The other thing they need to accept, though, is mainstream biblical theological scholarship of the last century."

Since he had no other argument other than calling it arbitrary, one can only assume Mohler and his seminary simply reject all mainstream Biblical scholarship of the last century. And that's why I remain skeptical of Biblical analysis that comes out of Southern Baptist seminaries like Mohler's. One wonders what is even taught there, if there is so little need for scholarship. After all, Mohler just told us that the expanse of its meaning is all right there in plain sight.

Except, of course, that it's not. And suggesting that it is, that there are no layers of meaning and understanding that have been developed over the past two hundred years thanks to the copious amounts of study by hundreds of scholars, is intellectually dishonest, academically bankrupt, and least of all "honest and straightforward."


  1. Brilliant. Thank you. As a recovering Fundamentalist Baptist woman, who would love to go to seminary, I have long been saying that the denomination of my youth left Biblical scholarship and reason on the doorstep of moral certainty much to their, and the world's, detriment. Sharing DNA with harder line Fundamentalists than Mohler, I have also come to accept as true the words of Gordon Livingston, M.D. "It is difficult to remove by logic an idea not placed there by logic in the first place." In conversations with my minister uncle, he too has a simplistic "plain reading," "common sense" approach to Biblical interpretation. What I know to be true, is ardent Fundamentalism is inherently, and self-admittedly, anti-intellectual. In these circles, all a man needs to preach the word is a calling by God and a well-read copy of the KJV.

    At a conference at our UCC church earlier this year, Marcus Borg admitted that this segment of Christendom is so deeply rooted in their convictions as to be, likely, immovable. It would be worth our efforts to abandon attempts at reasoning with them and focus, instead, on the next generation and more moderate groups.

    Though I am proof that the Divine does work in mysterious ways to have departed my Fundamentalist origins in pursuit of wisdom and understanding in order to discover the loving God I never knew, I see truth in what M. Scott Peck so insightfully wrote in The Road Less Traveled:

    "To develop a broader vision we must be willing to forsake....our narrower vision. In the short run it is more comfortable not to do this - to stay where we are, to keep using the same microcosmic map, to avoid suffering the death of cherished notions. The road to spiritual growth, however, lies in the opposite direction. We begin by distrusting what we already believe, by actively seeking the threatening and unfamiliar, by deliberately challenging the validity of what we have previously been taught and hold dear. The path to holiness lies through questioning everything."

    Blessings on your work and your journey.
    C. Caine

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Christy. I'm UCC as well! The book I'm reading by Marcus Borg also notes that, in light of that entrenched position and wholly different reading of scripture, the two sides of Protestantism have essentially become two different religions. I would say that's true.
    Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  3. Hi Don,

    I skimmed over some of your input on a recent discussion (re the fired pastor) on John Shore's blog and meant to return to it to read it more carefully. However, for now, it looks like some it's missing. In particular, I am interested in getting your take on how we should view/use the Bible. I'm thinking about things like inerrancy, context, selectiveness, etc. Concerned about pruning back the "non-essentials" so far that I damage the core. Easy to do when the non-essentials impact me directly. (Gay middle aged man.) I'm even inclined to chuck the whole thing (faith) entirely.

    Anyway, one can probably piece together your approach to the Bible by reading through this blog and others that you participate in but I was wondering if you have article (or blog entry) that puts it altogether.


  4. Whoops! Right under my nose...

  5. Hi Drew,
    I'm humbled by your question. I've been thinking about doing some survey entries of late, so I've written one that I'll post momentarily on how I view the Bible. As I say in the piece, it's my view, not The View, but I appreciate your interest in my take on it.
    On a personal note, I hope you don't chuck the whole thing solely because of some of the nonessentials, which some unfortunate people turn into essentials. There are increasing numbers of safe harbors in the Christian community for LGBT folks, if that's what you're getting at. My church runs this site:
    That said, I'm not proselytizing here. As a pluralist, I support people's decisions to belong where they see fit!
    Thank you for reading!