Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Is it fair to portray Creationists as abusing the Bible?

Note: I am not writing this with an eye to the Creation / Evolution or Young Earth / Old Earth debates. My eye in this is towards the topic of whether we are treating our brothers and sisters in Christ fairly, regardless of our differences.
I recently came across this article by one John Polkinghorne (h/t: Chris, who I suspect really enjoyed the article) in which the sub-headline boldly states the article’s intention to explain “why literal creationists are abusing and misinterpreting scripture”. I’m not a young earth creationist; I have no quibbles with the current consensus that the earth is far older than that. But I think it is patently unjust to young earthers to accuse them of abusing the Bible merely for holding a view of the Biblical creation account that was, historically, the mainstream view of the Christian church for many centuries.

Polkinghorne draws from the stock argument against young earth creationists: their inability to recognize or interpret figures of speech and their inability to determine or take into account the genre of what they are reading. This supposedly accounts for their untenable, textually unsound reading of the opening chapters of Genesis. Odd thing is that the consensus of Christians who wrote on that subject came to the same conclusions as the young earth creationists until, say, the 1800's A.D. In church history, Eusebius and many of his contemporaries seemed to think the text could be read roughly the same way that modern young earthers read it. For centuries, careful Biblical students and respected scholars calculated the age of the earth based on various texts in the Bible and consistently found ages less than 10,000 years. Was there no skilled reader in the house? Does the mainstream of centuries of historical Christian interpretation “actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it”, as Polkinghorne says of the young earthers who are sticking to the same historical consensus?

This particular line of argument – that creationists are actually abusing the Bible or are even unskilled exegetes – seems at best an uninformed argument, one that turns a blind eye to the prevalence of the creationist view throughout church history. Unless we are willing to retroactively say that the majority of mainstream Christian scholars for many centuries were likewise unskilled readers and biased interpreters, it might do better to drop that charge against modern creationists. The theory of evolution was a shock to the church precisely because the consensus for many centuries had been roughly what the young earth creationists still believe. The difference in interpretation from the older traditional view does not come from the creationists’ lack of reading skills, but from the evolutionists’ acceptance of modern theories that invalidate the traditional reading and therefore require the evolutionist (not the creationist) to develop a new interpretation. I am not here arguing against developing a new interpretation; I am simply stating that it is unfair to pretend that the difference between the evolutionist view and the creationist view of Genesis is a result of the creationist "abusing" the book rather than the evolutionist reinterpreting it. It would be far more honest and charitable for old earthers to simply acknowledge that they have made a break with the historical interpretation – and what was, in its day, respected scholarship – in light of modern discoveries.


ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Your reasoning makes sense. I believe that our interpretations, any interpretation, is limited by our scholarship, our own context (place, culture, etc.), and so can never be completely, totally, accurate. "We" aren't abusing the scriptures, of course! Ha! Yet, in the future, there may be other insights that we don't currently know about that could change the view of some verses.

Look at the "historical" way scholars viewed a woman's place. Look at the whole-Bible way women are view these days, in some circles. Hope that link works.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

The link worked. :)

I just hope that we each give each other the benefit of the doubt and the kindest interpretation possible. I don't know about other groups, but for us (Lutherans) anyway, our catechism says that interpreting each others' actions but not in the kindest possible way is a sin and a breach of the commandments. I pray that I can live up to that, I know I'm often tempted by annoyance or anger at some provocation or other.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

That is really a good reminder about the commandments.

The current political ads are counter to that...Akkkkk.