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Secularists and Conservative Theologians Agree on Genesis 1-3

Both secular professors and conservative theologians agree that Genesis 1 -3 was intended by the author to be understood literally. The only difference is that the secularists don’t believe it.  It is Theistic Creationists that bend normal hermeneutics to accommodate atheistic science. James Barr was no friend of conservative evangelicals but consider this:

To take a well known instance, most conservative evangelicals opinion today does not pursue a literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. A literal interpretation would hold that the world was created in six days, these days being the first of the series which we still experience as days and nights . . . so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer (s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:

  1. creation took pace in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
  2. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
  3. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark

The statements are in a context in which

. . . he [Barr] means to discredit the ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘evangelicals’ by showing that they profess to take Scripture at its literal word, but in this case clearly do not do so, since it is obvious (at any rate to those professors at world class universities) that the writer (s) of Genesis meant to assert the three things Barr mentions (Platinga in Intelligent Design, Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Robert T. Pennock (Cambridge: Bradford, MIT P, 2001, 197-235, p. 216-17. Quoted by Randall W. Younker in Consequences of Moving Away from a Recent Six-Day Creation, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, Volume 15, No. 2, 2004).

In plain English, James Barr is saying that evangelicals who claim to take the Bible literally everywhere except Genesis 1-3 are ignoring what secularist Hebrew scholars everywhere see as really obvious: whoever wrote Genesis 1-3 intended that section be interpreted literally as well. Younker explains:

For Barr, evangelicals who try to read Genesis in a non-literal fashion in order to conform to the claims of science are both inconsistent and demonstrating poor Biblical scholarship. Barr argues that there is no doubt that the author of Genesis intended to describe things in a historical-literal way, but he [Barr] doesn’t believe it because of modern science.  For Barr, this is the more honest and scholarly approach.

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8 Responses

  1. “Both secular professors and conservative theologians agree that Genesis 1 -3 was intended by the author to be understood literally.”

    All of them? Tim Keller isn’t so sure (http://www.biologos.org/uploads/projects/Keller_white_paper.pdf). St. Augustine wrestled with the issue as well (http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1988/PSCF3-88Young.html).

    But I guess there’s a lot contained in the word “conservative” there. If a conservative theologian is defined as one who takes all of the Bible physically literally, then it’s kind of circular.

  2. Obviously, not all, (secularists or conservative evangelicals) but I don’t think that has to be the necessary implication in my title. I am aware of Tim Keller’s perspective and though I wouldn’t call Augustine a conservative evangelical, I have read some (or about) of his wrestlings.

    My point is really just to say that Barr’s criticism stings. And Barr was no light-weight.

  3. I have tried to approach Genesis without presupposition a couple times. It always seems intended to be literal.

    Oddly, B.B. Warfield was ambivalent about that:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._B._Warfield#Evolution

  4. Interesting observation about Warfield. It seems that the Princetonians and also A. H. Strong made concessions to the evolutionary arguments of their day.

    In our day Millard Erickson does the same thing in his systematic, and William Dembski from Southwestern has just published a book through Broadman & Holman in which he takes the same position.

    These men have to put their faith in Scripture subservient to philosophy.

  5. I watched _Inherit the Wind_ last night and thought about this. I grew up staunchly creationist and have since moved to staunchly agnostic about it. I still haven’t settled in my mind how much it matters–I can still be orthodox no matter which side I take (or whether I take a side), right? I don’t like most of the big-name proponents of creationism–personally or intellectually. And I’m entirely unqualified to claim an authoritative opinion on anything under the “science” banner, so it would feel profoundly arrogant for me to denounce research supporting evolutionary theories. Most of the denunciation of evolutionism (and evolutionists) comes off as frantic conspiracy theory. It’s not very convincing.

  6. “so it would feel profoundly arrogant for me to denounce research supporting evolutionary theories.”

    Its not arrogant to put your faith in God’s revealed words over and above the words of atheistic scientists who have approached their scientific research with the presupposition that there is no God and the biblical account is false. When man and his “research” contradict the words of God, orthodox Christians should take God’s words by faith or they, in my opinion, cease to be orthodox.

  7. Not all scientists who accept evolution are atheists. Nor have all of them approached their research with presuppositions. Darwin, for example. I just don’t buy that there’s no middle ground in this debate. That someone might interpret Genesis 1-3 any other way than as a Ken Ham-style literal 7-day creation does not HAVE to mean that they are an atheist or that they don’t take the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. It could mean that. Or it could mean they have a different hermeneutical understanding of that passage. Or it could mean that they aren’t sure yet how to interpret data observed with human reason in its light. Demonizing them doesn’t really help. It just reminds one of the Church’s treatment of other scientists who turned out to be right (and completely harmonizable with Scripture).

  8. Becca,

    Where is the best data about Darwin’s presuppositions or non-presuppositions before he started his research? I’m not debating here; just asking because you mentioned that he didn’t have presuppositions going into the research.

    Having said that (and this could be debate-ish) it would be amazingly difficult to prove that a man who comes to atheistic conclusions did not have atheistic presuppositions, even if hidden in the sub-conscience. We have to take his word for it. There would be no scientific way to prove that he did not operate from a biased presupposition and therefore it makes any argument against creationists (and theistic evolutionists) on the grounds that they are operating on presuppositions moot. John Henry Newman, the Anglican-turned-Catholic theologian, and friendly toward theistic evolution, made some of the best arguments that everybody has intuitive beliefs (presuppositions) of which most of the time they have forgotten or don’t even care about the warrants for said beliefs. In other words, though Newman acknowledge (ahead of his day) the possibility of a theistic evolution, in most of his works it is clear he would have emphatically denied that someone could possibly enter the arena without presuppositions.

    Darwin had presuppositions. Do we know what they were? And, if we have his word on it, can we know he was being honest? Impossible to claim, I think. All scientists approach their work with presuppositions. That’s what many of the most brilliant philosopher/scientists like the agnostic Jastrow et. al. admit.

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