Saturday, 12 July 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 5

The fifth post in Peter Enns series comes from Charles Halton, a respected Old Testament scholar who apart from being an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University is the managing editor of the online review journal Marginalia as well as a writer and editor who has recently finished editing the forthcoming book Genesis: History, Fiction, or Neither?: Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters Unsurprisingly, Halton's 'aha' moment comes from the Old Testament, and in particular, the two creation narratives in Genesis.

Halton states that during hiss seminary days, he was quite happy to accept the view propagated at his seminary that "at no point should scientific discoveries change the way we understand the Bible’s clear, unified story concerning the origins of the world." This, he observed, made sense to him particularly given that he found the reasoning:
  • A1: God wrote the Bible
  • A2: God is always right
  • B: Therefore the Bible is always true in everything, including what it says on creation
What changed? Halton read the Bible: He notes:
What I found out, when I paid attention to the details, is that there is no one, singular teaching on creation in Scripture. There are several creation narratives and they conflict with one another. And they conflict on the most superficial level—the order of creation. 
For me—like so many others have done—all I needed to do was read the first two chapters of the Bible, the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. 
Genesis 1 presents the world as created in six days. If we take the sequence literally, things are created in this order: light, sky, earth, plants, stars and sun and moon, aquatic animals, birds, land animals, and, finally humans in large number. In other words, humans—and many of them—are created last. 
But when we come to Genesis 2, the one human (Adam) is created first, even before plants had grown (Gen 2:5). After the human is made, God sows a garden and plants begin to sprout. After this, God begins the process of identifying a suitable companion for the human. 
At this point, it gets a bit tricky if you are reading the Bible in translation. One of the difficulties in studying the Bible is that modern translations sometimes obscure what the Bible really says. 
In most cases, the translators have good motives for this and they believe they are doing their readers a favor—making the text more clear and steering them away from error. In many cases this is entirely appropriate and is beneficial. 
But then there’s Genesis 2:19. This is where God is trying to find a companion for the human, and so he forms the animals (maybe that will provide a suitable companion for the human?). 
Genesis 2:19 reads, “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky….” This conflicts with Genesis 1 where the animals were already created (days 5 and 6) before the humans were. 
Two of the most popular translations within the Evangelical world—the ESV and NIV—obscure the natural flow of the passage. The Hebrew verb is a “narrative preterite,” which indicates sequential action (e.g., “and then this happened”). But these translations say “had formed”—i.e., “had previously formed” back in Genesis 1. 
In other words, “had formed” is a translation aimed at harmonizing the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2, thus reconciling the contradiction between them. In doing so, these translations opt for a rather forced reading of the Hebrew. (For what it’s worth, ancient Greek versions render this verb with the construction kai + an aorist verb, which shows that they interpreted the verb as a narrative preterite andnot as a pluperfect. The KJV also translates it as “formed.”) 
Once I saw these conflicting accounts of creation I was fearful. The entire artifice I had learned, which asserted that the Bible alone has the true story of the scientific origins of the world collapsed. If the biblical authors couldn’t agree on the sequence of creation, how could I trust the rest of what they said? (Emphasis in the original)
Most fundamentalists at this point either crash into unbelief, or close their eyes and ears and retreat from the evidence. Halton however chose a different path:
But then, through the help of some very patient friends, I began to understand that God communicates to us in the forms that make up our contextual environment, such as language and culture. It could be no other way.
Exactly. Time, language, and culture separate the creation narratives from our era, and it is the height of arrogance and ignorance to forget that the creation narratives were not originally written to us, but to a pre-scientific community and impose a 21st century historiographical standard on it. Just the fact that Gen 1:6-8 refers to a solid firmament separating waters above from waters below alone should alert the intellectually honest YEC that they are on the wrong track in understanding the creation narratives, and need to have the humility to accept that they are wrong, and learn how to read the creation narrative as the ancient audience would have done. Halton continues:
And this applies to the biblical authors as well. They were people who lived in a pre-scientific age for which discussion of big bangs, the speed of light, and genetic codes would have made no sense. They explored the nature of the universe with the tools that were available to them—the literary forms and tropes of their day, their observations of nature, and their religious understandings. 
The authors of Scripture were not concerned, as many are today, about conflicting orders of creation—they put them side by side for goodness sake! This reveals, at least to me, that Scripture begins not with a scientific treatise but with two theological stories. And as we turn to Scripture’s pages we should separate the theological messages of its authors from the accouterments of their cultural context. The fact that the author of Genesis 1 had no knowledge of the human genome nor astrophysics does not diminish the worth of their theological vision. At the same time, we are not required to believe that the earth was created in six days when every single facet of the scientific study of nature tells us otherwise.
The tragedy here is that the YECs in our community who as a rule are theologically and scientifically uninformed [1] by insisting that their naive literal reading of Genesis is the only possible way to read the narratives are creating crises of faith for those who eagerly imbibe that flawed hermeneutic and then have a crisis of faith when they start reading the Bible and realise the truth of what scholars such as Halton and others recognised long ago. Unfortunately, when YECs convince the young and naive that it is either Bible or science, they should not be surprised if those young people learn the truth about the age of the Earth and the fact of evolution, and take the implications of the Bible or science false dilemma recklessly promoted by the YECs seriously by leaving Christianity. YEC is bad science and even worse theology. One can only pray that such views become marginal in our community before they infect it completely and send it crashing into extinction.


1. Our status as a lay community alas has produced a plethora of autodidacts of varying degrees of competence. Sadly there are too many who believe that with zero professional training in Hebrew, ANE culture, or the sciences, and armed only with the AV, Strong's concordance they can reliably produce far better exegesis of the Bible than those whose studies of the Bible are illuminated by the best of modern scholarship. There is no point avoiding this fact.