Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

Renewing the Evangelical mind: an interview with Peter Enns

 

In what follows, I had the immense privilege to interview Peter Enns (links), who is undoubtedly the leading progressive Evangelical theologian in the whole world.

Here are the topics we touched upon, albeit not necessarily in a chronological order.

 

1) Where Peter Enns comes from and how his thoughts evolved with time

2) How is evolution currently perceived among American Evangelicals?

a) Young Earth Creationism

b) Old Earth Creationism and Concordism

c) His own approach

3) What were likely the intentions of the original authors as they wrote the text?

4) One of the very foundation of Evangelicalism is the idea that God cursed us with a sinful nature, making misdeeds deserving an eternal punishment inevitable.
Can we find this concept in the very text of Genesis?

5) If Paul thought it was the case but the authors of Genesis 2 and 3 didn’t hold this view, what should we believe as modern Christians?

6) What is inerrancy and why is it viewed as the very foundation of Christianity by so many people?

7) What about God inerrantly gathering errant texts for His own purposes, as Professor Randal Rauser thinks it’s the case?

8) Many people say that if there is only a small mistake in one obscure book of the Old Testament, we can no longer trust the resurrection. What’s Peter’s response to this?

9) Problem of divine hideness:

Why would God not have given us an inerrant text rather than leaving us stabbing in the dark?

Why did He allow so many people to mistakenly assume its inerrancy?

10) What did God REALLY do during the history of Israel? Did He reveal Himself to a real Abraham and a real Mose?

11) Given the results of modern critical scholarship, what makes the Protestant Canon so special?
What does it mean to say that the imprecatory psalms were more inspired than books of C.S. Lewis on pain and love, and writings of Martin Luther King on non-violence?

12) Currently, there is a massive exodus from young people out of Conservative Christianity?
What are the causes of this?

 

https://i0.wp.com/randalrauser.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Peter-Enns.jpg

 

For those interested by our conversation, I recommend the following resources:

 

Peter’s blog containing many insightful posts and Peter’s website full of great academic writings.

The following books are also worth looking:

The Evolution of Adam : What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins.
Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology).
Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.
Telling God’s Story: A Parents’ Guide to Teaching the Bible (Telling God’s Story).
Ecclesiastes (Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary).

UPCOMING: The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

 

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Remythologizing Genesis

A review of Genesis and the Rise of Civilization, by J. Snodgrass.

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There can be little doubt that the first book of our Bibles plays a major role in the North-American culture war and the countless bloody battles raging between fundamentalists and secularists.

 

Both camps keep proclaiming ad nausea that the truth of the Christian faith stands and falls with the scientific accuracy of the Biblical text and as a consequence many American young people see themselves confronted with the choice between embracing a pseudo-science made out of thin air and rejecting their faith in Christ altogether.

creationism-4

This confrontation is gravely compounded by the very entrenched habit of viewing the Bible as an unified whole, which entails that errors in some parts imply errors everywhere.

 

In such a context, this book of J. Snodgrass, a liberal Biblical scholar, preacher and teacher came out as truly refreshing.

Many decades ago, the late German Protestant scholar Rudolf Bultmann set out to “demythologize” the Bible by exposing elements in the New Testament he viewed as utterly at odds with our modern scientific knowledge and replacing them by existential readings.

bultmann2

I think it is fair to say that Snodgrass’ agenda in this outstanding groundwork is not to demythologize the text of Genesis but rather to remythologize it, which basically means two things:
– overcoming the Conservative Christian tendency to misinterpret the text for making it look more rational, more scientific or more consistent with other parts of the Bible- surmounting the pervasive disdain of our Western culture against myths and their equation with worthless untruths.

 

In what follows, I want to explain why I think that this book is an extremely useful resource without betraying too much of its content and without concealing my own areas of disagreement.

 

Old Hebrew tales as parables and allegories

 

According to Snodgrass, many of the elements which have always been historically interpreted as supernatural events (such as the devil masquerading as a snake, God driving out two real persons from a wonderful garden, waters covering the whole world…) might very well have been intended to illustrate quite earthly things.

 

He begins by reminding us that unlike what many of my readers were taught in Sunday Schools, the book of Genesis is NOT a coherent document composed by a unique author (usually seen as Moses) but a mosaic work by different writers separated by large time spans and not sharing the same agendas.

He did a nice job explicating the scholarly consensus as to why the flood narrative (which leads a great part of the American population to reject significant portions of our scientific knowledge) is actually made up of two different tales clumsily woven together, as can be well visualized on the following page.

He also pointed out that the differences between Genesis 1 and 2 are best interpreted by conceptions of God at odds with each others.

Genesis 1 was all about affirming Israelite religious identity during the Babylonian exile and challenging the surrounding polytheistic creation myths.

cain-and-abel

Genesis 2 and 3 were written much earlier and are generally seen as early Israel’s explanation for its own origin, those of the people around Her and the problem of evil. Many critical scholars think it was written at the time of king Solomon, but Snodgrass call this into question, humorously  writing:

“The question of when and how the Eden stories were formed has been a puzzling one in Biblical scholarship. They are usually said to have
been assembled in the age of Solomon, a thousand years before the common era. But Solomon was a king who valued knowledge, enforced labor, and collected women – why would a story from his court have been so pessimistic about domination? If Solomon had supervised the writing, it would have gone something like this: ‘God made Adam and a thousand Eves, and commanded Adam to enslave the whole world, and kill anyone or anything who got in his way. Which he happily did. The End.”

This is but one of the numerous examples where the author conveys his scholarly thoughts in a remarkably witty way.

 

His intriguing idea is that Genesis 2-3 relates to the emergence of civilization (hence the title of the book) out of a populations of hunters and gatherers, who are themselves the ultimate source of the sacred writing and considered the rise of agriculture as a curse being far worse than only an unwelcome evolution.

He shows how this makes sense of many elements of the text, such as Cain and Abel symbolizing human populations rather than individuals, agriculture going hand in hand with environmental problems and related societal issues, such as a greater subjugation of women which was seen as a curse in Genesis 3, and so on and so forth.

3825_hunt

He then went on offering other interesting historical and natural explanations for the rest of the book of Genesis and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, spending a large amount of time analyzing the stories recounting the life of Abraham as well as those of his children and descendants.

Like the great liberal scholar and movie maker Thom Stark did in his book The Human Faces of God, Snodgrass made it clear that there are different portraits of God found in the Hebrew Bible, and that besides the genocidal imperialistic god of the first part of Joshua, one can also find a God of liberation and revolution at other places.

 

Viewing the Bible as an ancient book among others

 

It is extremely welcome that Snodgrass made an abundant use of the rabbinic Midrash and of Ancient Near Eastern myths throughout the whole book, showing how using the same analysis illuminates many aspects of the Biblical texts.

As I myself argued at other places, I fail to see why books contained within the Protestant Canon have necessarily to be more inspired than books located outside of it, and I am open about God’s actions (including miraculous ones) in extra-Biblical stories as well.

 

The impenetrable shroud of history and speculative assumptions

 

That said, there are some points about which I part company with the author. While I find most of his interpretations quite fascinating, I think they often remain nothing more than speculations: owing to the very few data we dispose about the precise identity of the authors and their motives, there are considerable degrees of uncertainty in any reconstruction one tries to reach.

And it is often possible to interpret the same textual situations in many different ways. While Snodgrass is obviously right that the Biblical writers (like almost everyone at that time) had a much lower of women that modern Westerners, it is debatable whether or not they always likened them to material goods or cattle.
As far as I’m concerned, I find that the Sara of Genesis acted as a pretty emancipated woman, leading several times his husband to comply to her will rather than submitting to him, as (ironically enough) she is described to have done by the authors of Hebrews in the New Testament.

 

Evil and divine hideness

 

One aspect I missed in the book is a wrestling with the problem of evil and divine hideness. Why did God create a world with so much pain, and why did he not inerrantly inspire chosen writers rather than letting them writing down their own fallible theological thoughts?

theologys-toughest-question

I certainly think there are tentative answers to these questions, but they remain the strongest arguments against Christianity, challenging both Conservative and progressive believers at the same time.

I found it great if liberal Christians were to take more time to defend their faith or hope in a good God against such objections, or perhaps honestly and pastorally struggle alongside their readers with these topics.

 

Another problem is that Snodgrass seems to explain human evil purely in terms of psychological and social factors and does not consider a genuinely indeterminate freedom.

 

A worthwhile theologically liberal book

 

These disagreements notwithstanding, I find that Genesis and the Rise of Civilization is really an outstanding scholarly book written for lay persons, and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in the historical-critical scholarship of the Bible without expecting a patch of easy answers to appease the anguish of his or her soul.

 

 Disclaimer: this book has been granted to me through SpeakEasy so that I might review it impartially. I hereby swear I have striven for objectivity in my entire review.

 

 

 

Creationism and Tim Chastain’s spiritual crisis

Tim Chastain is a great progressive Christian writer.

He told us his spiritual crisis which led him to reject fundamentalism and even losing his faith in God altogether before finding back his hope in Jesus.

His testimony is relatively long but it is truly worth being read.

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Sometimes a crisis moment occurs that changes something about us forever. Today, I will share such a moment from my life—how I experienced the loss of God.

I was a creationist. Growing up a fundamentalist, and later being an evangelical, I had no qualms about creationism and the global flood, and I accepted that the Bible taught both in Genesis. I also believed in ‘defending the faith’ and I was good at it. However, I did not like sloppy and inadequate materials that did not address the real issues of evolution, so when the creation-science movement came to prominence in the 1970s, I was ecstatic.

Creation-science teaches that God created separate species (kinds) that do not change except within their created limits; one species does not evolve into other species. All species were represented at the creation event. Therefore, man did not evolve from earlier species but was specially created by God, and man lived together with all species, including dinosaurs, in early earth.

The flood of Noah is understood to be a world-wide (global) flood in which all people and all non-aquatic animals were killed except for the representatives on the ark. This flood accounts for the geographical strata we find throughout the earth today.

I was excited by these new books, particularly The Genesis Flood by Henry M. Morris and John C. Whitcomb, and they inspired me to develop a novel about the global flood; I still think my story was quite creative! One thing that bothered me, though, was the insistence of these authors on a young earth—an earth created no earlier than about 10,000 years ago; I thought insistence on literal 24-hour days of creation was unnecessary since a ‘day’ might have represented any length of time.

Over the next many years, I consumed these books but began to have doubts. My doubt resulted not from evolutionary proofs but from the creation-science books, themselves. As I continued to read, I began to ask, ‘Is this all we have? Are these our best arguments?’

I also wondered how the Genesis writer knew such detail about what happened at the beginning of time. Could the stories have been passed down from Adam generation-by-generation? I spent many sleepless nights with this problem until I concluded it was impossible for such stories to remain intact for the time required between Adam and Moses, and I thought it unlikely that God would dictate the stories directly to Moses so he could include them in Genesis.

I still had no inclination to accept evolution, though it was a reasonable and consistent system, because there were gaps in the theory. But I began to wonder what the Genesis creation and flood stories could mean if they were not what I had understood them to be.

Then in 1993, I read a commentary that demonstrated that the stories were written to counter similar Mesopotamian stories in which, for example, warfare among the gods resulted in the earth being created from the corpse of the vanquished. The Genesis stories, instead, depicted the creator as an orderly and thoughtful God rather than a chaotic group of super-beings.

This seemed very reasonable to me: the Genesis stories should not be read as history but as a different genre—a corrective tract against crude Mesopotamian mythology. This change in my perspective was not difficult. Though I accepted the authority of ‘scripture’, I already understood the importance of reading texts in their proper genre; I had previously abandoned dispensationalism in part due to my respect for apocalyptic genre.

However, I soon experienced the greatest crisis of my spiritual life. Leaving creationism led to an unexpected development in which I underwent more than a year of deep depression and agony as I grieved the loss of God. It was my darkest period.

Noah’s ark, pseudoscience, Genesis flood

Discarding my belief in creationism led to more than a year (1994) of deep grief over the loss of God.

Authority of Scripture, Chicago statement of inerrancy

As an evangelical, I believed in the inerrancy of the Bible. My understanding was not as extreme as those who believe every passage should be read literally and is inerrant to each word and detail. I understood that not all passages are literal or historical writings. Some are poetry and should be read as such. Others are stories or parables to make a point. Apocalyptic passages, such as Revelation, are written to comfort those in crisis and are not intended to be prophecies of the future.

Perhaps some would say I was more committed to the authority of the Bible than to what some evangelicals consider inerrancy.

In 1993, I accepted that the early chapters of Genesis were not meant to be read historically, but rather as a corrective tract against crude Mesopotamian mythology. This re-opened for me the entire question of creationism and evolution. It did not cause me stress but simply meant that I needed to completely re-evaluate the issue in light of my new discovery about Genesis.

However, in the process of assimilating the new understanding of Genesis, a related issue surfaced that almost destroyed my faith entirely. It concerned Paul and the fifth chapter of Romans. Within a lengthy argument about Jesus’ work of justification, Paul stated:

Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.

As is clear from the preceding development of the argument, the trespass condemning all people was the trespass of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The problem to me was that Paul seems to understand Adam as an historical person and the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden as an historical description.

One might contend that Paul’s comment was simply referring to a familiar fictional story like ‘Just as Rip Van Winkle slept through the revolution, you are in danger of missing the significant event of our time!’ However, Paul seems to historicise Adam earlier in the chapter,

Death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam.

The fact seemed clear: Paul thought Adam and the Garden of Eden were historical. Paul was WRONG! He was NOT inerrant! And this did not concern a mere cultural opinion like long hair; this involved a major doctrinal issue.

Inerrancy, fundamentalism, Bible, Evangelical

While accepting that the Genesis creation and flood stories were not historical did not affect my faith at all, this revelation that Paul is not infallible and authoritative soon sent me into depths of despair. My faith in the authority of the Bible was shaken to its core. And if the Bible was not authoritative, then on what basis could I believe in God? How could I hold to any religious belief?

This spiritual crisis led to more than a year of despondency, depression, and a grieving over the loss of God. Toward the end, I read a book called God and the Philosophers that helped a little in accepting the possibility of God, but it did not really resolve anything. I had lost my confidence in the Bible and in the existence of God. My spiritual journey was over and my religious beliefs were in ashes.

And the ashes were cold.

Unexpectedly, I began to realize a different perspective. It restored my spiritual foundation in a way that inerrancy of the Bible never could. In fact, had my trust in inerrancy not collapsed into ashes, I probably would not have discovered this new perspective.

Against an increasingly solid scientific case for evolution, creationists defend an historical view of the story of Adam beyond all reasonability. This appears a bit odd since the Bible rarely refers to Adam after the first chapters of Genesis. He appears in a few genealogical lists, but the only other writer to mention Adam is Paul.

In 1 Timothy chapter two, Paul uses Adam and Eve as an argument against women having authority over men. Corinthians chapter 15 mentions the historical Adam in Paul’s argument for the resurrection of believers. The most crucial passage, though, is Romans chapter 5. Here Paul argues for faith in Jesus’ work of justification rather than trust in our own personal good works. Paul seems to consider Adam an historical figure.

While accepting that the Genesis stories are not meant as historical accounts is not necessarily a big issue, this conclusion leads directly to the inerrancy of Paul. Not only does Paul consider Adam as historical, but Adam figures significantly in Paul’s theology—especially in regard to his teaching of original sin in Romans chapter 5. The failure of this theological plank has a tremendous impact on the rest of evangelical theology. If Adam is not significant in himself, Paul makes him very significant. Paul’s fallibility on this important matter would lead many fundamentalists and evangelicals to the pit of confusion and despair.

It certainly had that effect on me, but out of the darkness of my despair came a glimmer of something new. As I read the stories of Jesus from the memories of his earliest followers, I found him to be compelling. I was drawn to him. Though I could no longer depend on the authority of an inerrant Bible to accept what his followers wrote to be true; yet I was drawn to him.

Now, I have been impressed by other people of whom I have read. Gandhi is an example. Others include Socrates, C. S. Lewis, and Gautama. But the Jesus I met in the writings of his followers was intensely compelling in a way different from the others. Here was a person I could trust. He is accepting, supportive, inviting. He is concerned with me and my welfare and he claims he can do something about it.

How people fare in their biographies has a lot to do with their biographers, but though I have only met Jesus through the memories of his earliest followers—I trust him. I trust him when he tells of the Father; I trust him when he offers peace, reconciliation, and rest; I trust him when he promises eternal life.

If I trust Jesus, the question arises, ‘On what basis do I trust him?’ Authority of the Bible is not the basis, because I have come to understand that this is an unrealistic approach to the Bible. The absolute reliability of his followers is an inadequate basis because they are human. Their memories could be faulty; they could have misinterpreted Jesus’ words and actions; and they certainly wrote in response to issues of their day, so their writings have a measure of agenda.

That being said, their writings do not seem to have the marks of invention, lies, or fraud. The person of Jesus stands out. The earliest followers were transformed by him and their reports about him transformed others. They transform me. But, in all of this, I know that they could be mistaken or that I am mistaken.

What other basis do I have to trust Jesus? The answer is—none. In the end, I accept the Jesus I find in the writings of his followers by faith. As it turns out, I trust Jesus by faith alone. This sounds very fundamentalist-evangelical, but it is not; often they do not really trust Jesus by faith alone—they trust the Bible by faith alone. I have no safety net, but, for me, trusting this Jesus without a safety net is more than satisfactory.

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He finally asked:

How does my journey compare to, or help with, your spiritual journey?

Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

 

 

Young Earth Presuppositionalism

Young Earth Presuppositionalism

Presuppositionalism is an apologetic method developed by reformed theologians and philosophers which consists of showing that all worldviews except Christianity (and by that they really mean Calvinism) are self-contradictory.

It is contrasted with evidentialism which accepts the reliability of logic and our sense perceptions as a common ground with the unbeliever and tries from there to provide evidence for the truth of the Christian faith.

There was recently a discussion about presuppositionalism involving young-earth creationists.

This discussion makes it clear that there are different degrees of fundamentalism.

Dr. Richard Howe is an evidential philosopher and he took Ken Ham to task for calling creationists taking into account data from the external world “compromisers”.
He rightly pointed out that before Galileo, almost everyone thought that the sun once literally stood still as described in the book of Joshua. Only after heliocentrism had been accepted was the current interpretation considered as valid.

Dr. Jason Lisle does not agree and believe that the text of Genesis is clear and that we are not allowed to depart from the most obvious meaning,. He wrote a book “The ultimate proof of creation” arguing that the Genesis account must be true because there is NO OTHER alternative.

Towards the end of the video there was an interesting discussion about the viability of proving the truth of the Protestant Canon using a presupositional approach.

Dr. Howe asked wittily: “Would the laws of logic still be valid if the third book of John were not included?”

In a way typical of Calvinist fundamentalists, Dr. Lisle answered that if we reject the slightest verse of the Bible, we would no longer have any grounds for believing anything else in the Bible and consequently would no longer have any way to ground rationality and knowledge because this wholly hangs on the truth of Scripture.

I think that these folks give Christianity a very bad name and are creating insurmountable obstacles for intellectual people. Actually, I am sure that Ken Ham and his minions have brought much more people away from God than Dawkins and his minions could ever hope for.

Finally, we would happen if presuppositional young earth creationist were to have full power in a state? I consider it very likely that they would not content themselves with “teaching the controversy” but would also banish all other views.