When and Where We Can Be Wrong

In case you haven’t heard, Bruce Waltke, an eminent Old Testament scholar, has resigned from teaching at Reformed Theological Seminary because of some comments he made at a BioLogo conference. Waltke believes in theistic evolution and made some comments that were perhaps stronger than he’d intended. He also wasn’t clear that he was only speaking for himself and not representing RTS. He tendered his resignation and at first it was rejected but he and the school came to agree that his resignation was for the best. They didn’t fire him for holding to theistic evolution but that took a few days to come out. Waltke for his part has been an example of Christian care and protecting others. He refused an ABC interview because he was sure they’d edit his comments to make RTS look like a wigged out bunch of fundamentalists or something. What a gentleman!

What I want to comment on is not theistic evolution though. Instead I want to comment on the hermenutics that are at stake in this discussion. This morning I read these comments by Rick Phillips at the Reformation21 blog:

[O]ur supposedly eminent Bible scholars are now going on record to say that we must subordinate the authority of Scripture to the higher and more objective standard of secular science.

If Phillips is referring to Waltke, he couldn’t be more wrong. Waltke has publish a list of things he affirms and the authority and inerrancy of scriptures is part of that: “My first commitment is to the infallibility (as to its authority) and inerrancy (as to its Source) of Scripture.”

Phillips goes on:

Some will respond that the Bible does not make scientific claims and therefore we should not be biblically dogmatic when it comes to this topic.  But what about history?  Isn’t the creation account a record of history?  Is the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve a matter of science, but not of history?  Further, is it not true that evolution makes not merely scientific but also historical demands?  And can the Bible’s theology be true if the historical events on which the theology is based are false?

And here’s where the issue gets dicey. What is the relationship between general revelation (what God shows about himself in nature) and special revelation (the Bible)? Obviously the Bible has priority but in interpreting both humans can and have erred. Those errors don’t mean the Bible is/was wrong or that by recanting of those errors we are denying the Bible’s authority. It just means that we were wrong.

Sometimes we learn things from general revelation that correct our errors in interpreting special revelation. The prime example of this is Copernicus. Up till the 16th century the prevailing opinion among scientists and the Church was that the earth was at the center of the universe and everything swung around it. After all, the Bible speaks of the sun moving across the sky in Psalm 19 and the fact that the earth is unmovable in Psalm 104. The problem that bothered Copernicus was that Mercury seems to move backward across the sky. This illustration shows the problem with Mercury’s orbit and a geocentric universe:

The problem was that if Mercury was circling in its orbit they should have seen it retrograde more often then it did. Copernicus tried a heliocentric model and Mercury’s obit made a lot more sense:

But surely Copernicus was subordinating the authority of Scripture to more objective standard of secular science, right? Of course not. What he did do was allow general revelation to correct a mistaken understanding of the Bible.

If God created the universe and inspired the Bible (and He did) then creation and Scripture don’t disagree. We might make a mistake in interpreting one or both. Phillips is correct when he notes that Waltke isn’t a scientist and is relying on what scientists are telling him. He’s asking questions not about the authority of Scripture but about the correctness of our interpretation of it. To me, that’s a fair question.

What we have to do is make sure that we don’t equate our interpretation of the Bible with the Bible itself. We can and have made mistakes. We’re currently making mistakes.

Now let me be clear, I’m not advocating theistic evolution. However, I have to point out that some significant Protestant theologians held to it before Waltke did. The author of the Protestant articulation of the inerrancy of Scripture B.B Warfield advocated theistic evolution while blasting the idea of naturalistic evolution. This is well documented in Mark Noll’s book Evolution, Science, and Scripture: Selected Writings. In volume VI of The Fundamentals, books written at the turn of last century to defend Christianity against modernism (i.e. Liberalism) and where the term “Fundamentalist” came from, James Orr wrote on the book of Genesis:

I am convinced, and have elsewhere sought to show, that genuine science teaches no such doctrine. Evolution is not to be identified offhand with Darwinianism. Later evolutionary theory may rather be described as a revolt against Darwinianism, and leaves the story open to a conception of man quite in harmony with that of the Bible… Man’s origin can only be explained through an exercise of direct creative activity, whatever subordinate factors evolution may have contributed.

Conservative evangelical scholars embracing a form of evolution is nothing new and not necessarily to be feared. The debate should be about the genre of Genesis 1:1-2:4 and not whether acknowledging some form of evolution is automatically a denial of Biblical authority, or as Phillips put it, a Trojan horse. We should proceed with caution. We don’t want to let science, which these days is skewed with materialistic, atheistic thought run rough shod over the Bible and we don’t want to let our interpretation of the Bible lead us to reject accurate scientific investigation when it could help our interpretation improve otherwise we could be making the same pre-Copernican mistake the Church earlier made. If we equate our interpretation of the Bible with the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and our interpretation is proven wrong we are making a great mistake.

Having said all of this, I believe that there are some very important doctrines from the early chapters of Genesis that must be maintain however you understand them. Adam and Eve are historical figures or issues such as Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt 19:3-9) and Paul’s teaching on federal headship and the fall (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:42-49) and authority (1 Tim 2:11-15) are based on myth. If they’re based on myth then they are not reliable. Start tugging on that loose string and soon you’re no longer wearing a sweater.

It seems to me that the most natural reading of Genesis 1 and 2 is six literal days of creation and the spontaneous creation of man. I’m inclined in that direction but I have to admin that that is my interpretation and may be wrong. So I’m opened to the idea of an old universe and gradual creation because that’s what we appear to see in general revelation. I will not abandon the doctrine of Biblical authority and inerrancy so I have to be willing to hold my interpretation of some things carefully. I believe that’s all Dr. Waltke trying to do.

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  • For what it’s worth, Dr. Bob Junior believed in the gap theory. Death is clearly an affect of sin and that’s my biggest problem with the evolution theories. Also, if God used evolution, why would he hide it from us in the Bible? If He’s willing to go to the detail of telling us what kind of animals He made on what days, you think He’d be willing to tell us if He made animals that changed into other animals over long periods of time. What purpose does a fake account of creation serve?

  • Excellent points Sean! I think the gap theory has some value but am a bit uncomfortable with it.

    Death did come by sin. “Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) All Paul is addressing here is human death. It could mean that animals didn’t die before or maybe they did. It isn’t clear here because it isn’t what Paul is addressing.

    God didn’t “hide” evolution from the Bible any more than he “hid” heliocentricity. It doesn’t mean that Genesis 1 is false any more than saying that a Psalm that speaks of God’s wings is false.

    I think this may have spurred another post! Excellent questions my friend.

  • I came over here (indirectly) from the discussion surrounding Piper’s (and Sailhamer’s) view of creation. Frankly, I haven’t put much effort into understanding all of the issues, but what I know about Sailhamer’s view interests me. I’ve bookmarked this to read later. Thanks.

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