Monday, 9 March 2015

Critiquing Bruce Gurd's attack on Evolutionary Creationism - 4

This is Part 4 of my critique of Bruce Gurd's recent lecture on evolutionary creationism. Part 3 can be found here.

Given that the world of first century Christianity was a multilingual, multicultural one, we would expect to see evidence of such cultural accommodation in apostolic preaching. Finding such evidence is hardly difficult, with Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 9:19-29 anything but ambiguous:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.  
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
If Paul had to accommodate his message to the cultural norms of his target audience, then one would be hardly surprised to see in the preserved letters of Paul things which become far more clear when we take the time to understand the cultural background with which both Paul and his target audience were familiar, but which are completely alien to us.

The need to understand the sociocultural context against which the Bible was written is hardly controversial in modern Biblical scholarship, which makes Gurd’s dismissal of it a telling indication of how poorly informed his argument is. The respected New Testament scholar David de Silva is hardly advancing a heterodox or discredited view when he states:
Biblical scholars have grown increasingly aware of the importance of looking at texts not only in their historical or literary or social contexts but also in their cultural contexts. “Culture” includes those values, ways of relating and ways of looking at the world that its members share and that provide the framework for all communication.  
The readers of the New Testament shared certain values, such as honor, and codes of forming and maintaining relationships, such as patronage and kinship, and ways of ordering the world, expressed frequently in terms of purity. If we are to hear the texts correctly, we must apply ourselves to understand the culture out of which and to which they spoke. We need to recognize the cultural cues the authors have woven into their strategies and instructions. This enterprise prevents potential misreading of the texts. Modern readers, too, are fully enculturated into a set of values, ways of relating and so forth.  
Without taking some care to recover the culture of the first-century Greco-Roman writers and addressees, we will simply read the texts from the perspective of our cultural norms and codes. Negatively, then, this task is essential as a check against our impositions of our own cultural, theological and social contexts onto the text.[1]
Classicist Russ Dudrey[2] makes the point even more emphatically:
“Unless we understand New Testament social history sympathetically within its cultural settings—which are ancient and alien to ours—we are predisposed to misinterpret the social realities reflected there. The result is that we will superimpose our modern questions and social agendas onto the ancient texts in order to receive the answers we expect back again clothed in biblical authority”[3]
Even these brief excerpts are more than enough to expose Gurd’s lack of familiarity with current studies in this field when he dismisses the need to understand the sociocultural background against which the Bible was written.

The weakness of Gurd’s position is highlighted as he further continues his attempted dismissal of the need to factor culture into exegesis:

I’ve noticed some of the brethren from this ecclesia claiming they are reading these sorts of books, the one of the left, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Which says that the fact that we are westerners means we don't understand the bible clearly, because we have got our imposed culture. We should also have a book called miss-reading the scriptures with eastern eyes because whatever culture you come from it affects you.
Gurd’s facetious claim that one needs a book called Misreading The Scriptures with Eastern Eyes is risible, given that we are the ones who are separated from the world of the Bible by time, language, and culture. As the gospel message was given to the target audience in a way that accommodated their culture, as 1 Cor 9 reminds us, shows that any ‘misreading scripture through eastern eyes’ would not have been an issue.

More importantly, Gurd’s focus on the 2012 book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Richards and O’Brien[4] reflects his superficial assumptions about the subject, as this is a book aimed at a popular audience, in which the authors draw on both their experiences in other cultures, and modern scholarship:
Besides scholarship, we draw on our own crosscultural experiences. Many of my (Randy’s) illustrations come from my time as a missionary in Indonesia. I (Brandon) speak more often of time spent in Europe and of insight gleaned from historical study. Anecdotes aren’t hard science, but we hope that these stories will help you see that many of the things that went without being said for the Bible’s original audience still go without being said in much of the non-Western world.[5]
Speaking for myself, while aware of the existence of the Richards and O’Brien book since it was published in 2012, my understanding of the subject has drawn extensively on the relevant primary and secondary academic literature on subjects ranging from the honour-shame society of the ancient world [6] to ancient Near Eastern background of Genesis [7]

One cannot help but suspect that Gurd is projecting his lack of understanding of this subject onto those he condemns. Given that Gurd’s background is in an entirely unrelated area (management science) his dismissal of this area of scholarship comes not from an informed position but from fundamentalist prejudice, and can be safely rejected.

Gurd’s ignorance of the subject he criticises is obvious when he makes the bizarre claim that evolutionary creationists rely on the work of the social psychologist Geert Hofstede, emeritus professor of Organisational Anthropology and International Management at Maastricht University (best known for his work in cultural dimensions theory, which has been used in the corporate world to aid international management, marketing, negotiation, and communications).
These brethren by the way use human studies like that of Geert Hofstede on individualism and collectivism. I’ve met Hofstede, he is a cantankerous old Dutchman and he is mainly discredited today and I don’t know why brethren keep quoting discredited scholars.
That Gurd would cite Hofstede is unsurprising given that his professional background is in management science. That he makes the mistake of thinking that evolutionary creationists would be making uncritical use of Hofstede shows that Gurd knows little if anything about the scholarship evolutionary creationists employ. They certainly do not draw on Hofstede for their arguments, whether directly or indirectly. Why should they, since Hofstede’s scholarship is primarily geared towards management studies, not the sociocultural background of the Bible? In any case, where is the proof that brethren are quoting Hofstede? As with so many of his assertions, Gurd presents no evidence for this claim.

Hofstede’s thesis has come under considerable fire[8] but even if we conclude that Hofstede’s thesis is no longer credible, none of means that the need to factor in the sociocultural background of the Bible in order to better understand it vanishes, any more than modern physics vanished when Newton was supplanted by Einstein.  

The burden of proof lies on Gurd to show how discrediting Hofstede simultaneously discredits not just Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, but the entire premise that understanding the sociocultural world of the New Testament is critical for a deeper understanding of the Bible.

While Gurd tried to rebut Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by attempting to link it with Hofstede, with “The Lost World of Scripture” by the Biblical scholars John Walton and D. Brent Sandy, he simply declares it a “more objectionable book” and flagrantly misrepresents its thesis.
The book on the right, the lost world of scripture written by Walton and Sandy is even a more objectionable book, and brothers are reading this sort of work and and this book says the scripture was just a creation of a group of people of the culture of the time.
None of this is even remotely correct. Gurd has accused Walton and Sandy of denying inspiration by believing that “scripture was just a creation of a group of people”. Again, Gurd has either not read the book, or has misrepresented what it says, a fact that can be clearly seen when we look at the basic theses presented by Sandy and Walton. Gurd’s claim that Walton and Sandy deny the inspiration of the Bible is baseless, as the authors believe in an inspired Bible:
We hold a very high view of Scripture. We confess that the Bible is God’s self-disclosure. The Old and New Testaments are the literary deposit of divine truth. The ultimate revelation is Jesus himself. The central message is creation, fall, redemption and restoration. We affirm inerrancy.  
We are in agreement with the definition suggested by David Dockery that the “Bible properly interpreted in light of [the] culture and communication developed by the time of its composition will be shown to be completely true (and therefore not false) in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters relating to God and his creation.”[9]
Gurd’s assertion not only is false, but a willful misrepresentation of Walton and Sandy. They could not be clearer in their belief in a divine origin of the Bible.

Walton and Sandy, in writing their book, seek to look at how the modes of textual communication and cultural background impact on the composition and transmission of the Bible:
The portion of Dockery’s statement about the “culture and communication developed by the time of its composition” is specifically where this book seeks to make its primary contribution. How did communication function in ancient Near Eastern and Greek and Roman worlds? How did God, speaking long ago in various ways (Heb 1:1), become men speaking from God (2 Pet 1:21), which in turn became “it is written” (Mt 4:4-10)? God spoke, people spoke on his behalf, and people wrote; what could be simpler? Well, as we will unfold in the chapters below, there is much to consider about the whole process.[10]
Exactly. Gurd, like too many fundamentalists, makes the profound mistake of reading 21st century views on historiography, authorship, and the primacy of textual over oral communication into the Bible, a mistake which too often creates crises of faith in those so indoctrinated who discover that the Bible cannot support these views.[11] 

As Walton and Sandy point out, the ancient world was an oral culture, which meant that much teaching was originally oral, transmitted for some time, then copied down. Furthermore, oral cultures tolerated some variation in wording, provided the essential message was preserved. Walton and Sandy make their argument quite clear with their 21 propositions, none of which even suggest they believe the Bible was simply a “creation of men.”
PART 1  The Old Testament World of Composition and Communication 
Proposition 1 Ancient Near Eastern Societies Were Hearing Dominant and Had Nothing Comparable to Authors and Books as We Know Them 
Proposition 2 Expansions and Revisions Were Possible as Documents Were Copied Generation After Generation and Eventually Compiled into Literary Works 
Proposition 3 Effective Communication Must Accommodate to the Culture and Nature of the Audience 
Proposition 4 The Bible Contains No New Revelation About the Workings and Understanding of the Material World 
Stepping Back and Summing Up How the Composition of the Old Testament May Be Understood Differently in Light of What Is Known of Ancient Literary Culture 
PART 2  The New Testament World of Composition and Communication 
Proposition 5 Much of the Literature of the Greco-Roman World Retained Elements of a Hearing-Dominant Culture 
Proposition 6 Oral and Written Approaches to Literature Entail Significant Differences 
Proposition 7 Greek Historians, Philosophers and Jewish Rabbis Offer Instructive Examples of Ancient Oral Culture 
Proposition 8 Jesus’ World Was Predominantly Non-Literate and Oral 
Proposition 9 Logos/Word Referred to Oral Communication, Not to Written Texts 
Proposition 10 Jesus Proclaimed Truth in Oral Forms and Commissioned His Followers to Do the Same 
Proposition 11 Variants Were Common in the Oral Texts of Jesus’ Words and Deeds 
Proposition 12 Throughout the New Testament, Spoken Words Rather Than Written Words Were the Primary Focus 
Proposition 13 Exact Wording Was Not Necessary to Preserve and Transmit Reliable Representations of Inspired Truth 
Stepping Back and Summing Up How the Composition of the New Testament May Be Understood Differently in Light of What Is Known of Ancient Literary Culture 
PART 3  The Biblical World of Literary Genres 
Proposition 14 The Authority of Old Testament Narrative Literature Is More Connected to Revelation Than to History 
Proposition 15 The Authority of Old Testament Legal Literature Is More Connected to Revelation Than to Law 
Proposition 16 The Authority of Old Testament Prophetic Literature Is More Connected to Revelation Than to Future-Telling 
Proposition 17 The Genres of the New Testament Are More Connected to Orality Than Textuality 
PART 4  Concluding Affirmations on the Origin and Authority of Scripture 
Proposition 18 Affirmations About the Origin of Scripture Confirm Its Fundamental Oral Nature 
Proposition 19 Affirmations About the Authority of Scripture Assert Its Divine Source and Illocution 
Proposition 20 Inerrancy Has Essential Roles and Limitations 
Proposition 21 Belief in Authority Not Only Involves What the Bible Is but Also What We Do with It [12]
Their concluding words are an excellent summary both of their high view of scripture, and their thesis.
  • We believe that a high view of Scripture is essential for the community of believers, and we must not allow that to be eroded.
  • At the same time, we dare not think that longstanding expressions of biblical authority had the advantage of all the evidence and are inviolable statements; we are all involved in an ongoing exercise to consider new evidence and insights and to refine theology and biblical hermeneutics accordingly.
  • We consider God’s empowerment of humans to be a remarkable testimony to how God acts in this world, especially when the accomplishment of much of his divine purposes depends on frail humans. We conclude that under God’s superintendence and through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, faithful believers accurately preserved and transmitted the truths that were divinely revealed, even if we cannot know what the exact words were as originally given. (This has been a longstanding conclusion regarding things Jesus said, as evident in the distinction between ipsissima verba and ipsissima vox.)
  • We contend that viewing the inspiration of Scripture solely from the cognitive environment of print culture opens the door to misunderstanding. Only when we enter into the oral culture of the biblical world can we properly understand the nature of biblical revelation. [13]
While Gurd may disagree with their thesis, by asserting that Walton and Sandy believe that the Bible is of human origin, he has blatantly misrepresented what they have said for polemical reasons.

In passing, it must be stressed that Walton and Sandy do not once mention Hofstede, which means that both books he disparaged never once mention Hofstede. Gurd is criticising books that he has not read, not understood, or is misrepresenting. All three options destroy the credibility of his argument, which means that when he asserts:
So when you are reading Deuteronomy you’re not actually reading what Moses wrote at all you know, there was a group of people who listen to Moses and they talked about it and they chatted around it and they absorbed it into their cultural experience and then sometime later it was written down and it’s really the view of a group not the words of Moses at all.
it is safe to conclude that Gurd is distorting what Walton and Sand are arguing simply to create fear and uncertainty in his audience.  

Certainly, his position does not comport with what an earlier generation of Christadelphians argued about the composition of the Pentateuch. Robert Roberts[14] in 1882 published a letter from bro. John Hawkins which cited with approval an Encyclopaedia Britannica article on its authorship:
‘Fully aware of the conclusions drawn by modern critics, I had introduced this sketch with the observation that it matters nothing whether the regulations respecting the land were written by Moses or compiled by a later author whether divinely inspired or the result of human sagacity.’[15]
Both Hawkins and Roberts agreed with this thesis, as did bro Welch, who argued:
What matters it whether Moses or Joshua or some other person wrote the Pentateuch, whether Daniel or some other person wrote Daniel, or whether Paul or some other person wrote Hebrews?  
If the Spirit of God is the main actor in the case, the authorship of the various books making up the Bible, so far as the human agents are concerned, has too long since been settled to be disturbed at this late day, especially when this disturbing influence cannot affect in the slightest degree the real authorship of the Bible, or overthrow the wonderful and beautiful unity of purpose and doctrine pervading each one of the books making up the complete Bible record.’[16]
That Gurd’s views are at variance with contemporary scholarship is a given. What is more damning is the fact that they are at variance with the approach taken by our early community, which means that assertions such as...
OK. So, simple message, back to the bible just read it in its simplicity, do not, we cannot afford to be distracted by highly complex intellectual understandings which really deny the authority of the inspired word of God.
...represent not the considered approach to contemporary scholarship taken by our pioneers, but the obscurantism of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity. Mutatis mutandis, evangelical historian Mark Noll’s observations in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind apply perfectly to our community:
Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichaean attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth, while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error. The Bible, however, shows the fallacy of such assumptions. The children of Israel readily put to use such human enterprises as music, husbandry, and the crafting of precious metals, even though Genesis 4 records that these enterprises were first developed by the descendants of Cain.  
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul showed the same willingness to employ the wisdom of the world when, as recorded in Acts 17, he quoted selectively from Greek philosophers in order to present Christianity to the Athenians. These biblical precedents suggest to modern evangelicals that heeding instruction from broader intellectual worlds would pay great rewards, as long as that attention is critical, selective, and discerning.[17]

Gurd’s attack on evolutionary creationism is characterized by gross misrepresentation of both evolutionary creationists, and the views of scholars such as John Walton, D. Brent Sandy, Randolph Richards, and Brandon O’Brien. The fundamentalist views he advocates not only are flatly contradicted by contemporary reliable scholarship in areas ranging from the sciences to the humanities, but also represent a marked deviation from the original Christadelphian position which while never accepting evolution, nonetheless was willing to critically engage with scholarship, and flatly rejected recent creation in six literal days.

Fundamentalists in our community often declare that we must ‘go back to the pioneers’, but quite often what they mean by that is a slavish adherence to a subset of their works, rather than actually following their remarkably open approach to modern scholarship, and their willingness to admit that if physical evidence falsified their reading of the Bible, they would need to alter their reading to bring it in line with hard evidence.

While never accepting evolution, C.C. Walker recognised that the scientific evidence ruled out creation in six literal days. Crucially, when commenting on the discovery of giant extinct fossil birds, he acknowledged that if science showed that these were ancestral to modern species, the only honest option would be to change our understanding of the Genesis:
Supposing that it were ever established that they were the actual progenitors of our smaller forms (“There were giants in the earth in those days” might apply to birds and beasts), would the credibility of the Mosaic narrative suffer? Not at all, in our estimation. We should indeed have to revise somewhat our interpretation of the brief cosmogony of Gen. 1.; but should not waver as concerning its divinity, nor await with less faith and patience the reappearance of Moses in the land of the living.[18]
In the 105 years since Walker penned these words, common descent and large-scale evolutionary change have been demonstrated in fields as disparate as biogeography, palaeontology, and comparative genomics. [19] Denying it is no longer an intellectually credible position, and no amount of misrepresentation of the facts will change this.


[1] David Arthur deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 16–18.

[2] Cited by deSilva in ref 1.

[3] Dudrey R “ ‘Submit Yourselves to One Another’: A Socio-Historical Look at the Household Code of Ephesians 5:15–6:9,” RQ (1999) 41: 27

[4] Richards, E. Randolph, and Brandon J. O’Brien. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

[5] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 20.

[6] Matthews, Victor H., and Don C. Benjamin, eds. Semeia 68 “Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible” (1995).

[7] Walton, John H. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006.

[8] See for example Sweeny B “The Essentials of Scholarship: A reply to Geert Hofstede” Human Relation (2002) 55:1363-1372 which points out that “Hofstede’s writings and his antagonistic, partisan promotion of his work repeatedly fail these tests [of scholarship].

[9] J.H and Sandy Walton D.B, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (InterVarsity Press, 2013) p 12

[10] ibid, p 12-13

[11] If the Bible was dictated word for word, we would not expect to see textual variations between parallel accounts such as we see in the Synoptic gospels, or Samuel-Kings / Chronicles. Many fundamentalists have lost their faith when trying to reconcile these facts with a dictation view of verbal plenary inspiration.

[12] ibid, p 5-8

[13] ibid, p 309

[14] I am indebted to Jonathan Burke for alerting me to these quotes.

[15] Hawkins, ‘Superiority of the Mosaic Land Code’, The Christadelphian (1882) 19: 438.

[16] Welch, ‘The Fundamental Fallacy of “Higher Criticism”’, The Christadelphian (1895) 32: 292

[17] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 52.

[18] Walker C.C. “Genesis” The Christadelphian (1910) 47:501.

[19] The evangelical Christian and palaeontologist Keith Miller notes that “[t]ransitional forms between higher taxa are thus a common feature of the fossil record, although continuous fossil lineages are rarely if ever preserved. Evidence from the fossil record is consistent with a wide range of proposed evolutionary mechanisms.” Unlike Gurd, Miller speaks from a position of informed authority on the subject, being a respected palaeontologist. Furthermore, as a Christian, Miller cannot be dismissed as a ‘godless evolutionist’.