Looking for autonomy in the Bible

I was gratified by the comment made by Jay Johnson recently, apparently concurring with me that some commonly voiced positions in “Evolutionary Creation” present a significantly different view of God from that historically associated with Christianity:

Many so-called Christian understandings of evolution are based more on philosophical reasoning than on anything resembling a biblical concept of God.

The key area in which this fundamental departure from historical doctrine occurs is in the broad idea of “autonomy”, as applied to the non-rational creation. For Jay, and other recent, forgetful or just masochistic readers, I’ll link to some previous posts, as this is an area on which I’ve expended much ink over the last few years. To scratch the surface, this piece examines how such “freedom” is defended by Karl Giberson and Darrel Falk, both former leaders of BioLogos (Giberson in a book co-written by Francis Collins, who founded the organisation). This article discusses the same doctrine in an analysis of the views of John Polkinghorne. And this, more philosophical, piece shows the theological necessity for a view of concurrence in which secondary causes operate within, not autonomous of, the determining creative will of God… this being thoroughly compatible with any particular permutation of evolutionary theory.

Today’s task is simpler. If the Christian God’s character really is the kind of self-emptying love that delights most to make his creation free to co-create itself, to be fully-gifted, to operate on a Robust Formational Economy Principle and so on, then that will be seen working itself out at all levels of Scripture, yes? So here is a Scriptural survey – or rather, the laying out of some categories by which you can conduct your own survey with whatever concordances you have to hand – of how created things relate to the active will of God. In other words, how highly does the Bible rate autonomy and “creaturely liberty”?

The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470But we’ll start at the top (and work down) from the Uncreated – the Lord Jesus, who is both the eternal Begotten of the Father, and our human model and Lord. If the conferring of autonomy is the Big Thing on God’s heart, then we ought to see it supremely exemplified in the Son, who is by nature equal to the Father. Instead, the very passage used to establish God’s propensity for self-emptying, Philippians 2, shows Jesus becoming “obedient to death”. And, as the Gethsemane discourse shows, that death was a cup prepared for him by the will of the Father, which Jesus willingly, if reluctantly, embraced. “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Neither was this submission to the Father’s will made merely on the part of the incarnate “human” Christ. Hebrews quotes Psalm 40 to explain what Reformed theology would call the eternal covenant between Father and Son:

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me…”

And so it is that in John 6.38, Christ says:

For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.

You may look for counter-examples affirming the autonomy of the Son from God the Father, but I’m confident you won’t find them in the Bible. In my view that ought to clinch it – if the supreme example of relationship to God is obedience to his will, then surely that would be the principle by which God creates all things.

angelBut perhaps what is true within the Godhead is not so of created beings? Well, if we’re going to speak of the most glorious of God’s creations, we should think first, perhaps, of angels: they are powerful spiritual beings – according to the scholastic philosophers pure intellect – who would surely be granted freedom above anything else in creation? But actually, their complete commitment to God’s purposes (if we discount the sin of fallen angels) is so pervasive in Scripture we scarcely notice it. We take it for granted that if an angel appears to Daniel or Mary, it has been sent on the errand by God. The Pentateuch’s tendency for God’s angel to speak as Yahweh in the first person doesn’t really surprise us. And when people are tempted to worship these glorious beings, as in Rev. 19.10 or 22.9, their reply is not only that only God should be worshipped, but that the angels are merely fellow-servants. In fact Hebrews 1.14 tells us that all angels are ministering (on God’s behalf) spirits who serve the saints.

mosesBelow angels are human beings – the one physical creature of whom we can unequivocally speak of “free will”, and from which the misleading analogies within “free process” evolution all arise. But, in God’s purposes, is that “freedom” to be seen as autonomy? “Simon Peter, a slave and apostle of Jesus Christ…” “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel…””James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…” “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James [and probably Jesus]”… you can, of course, trace that servant language through from Abraham, through Moses, David and the prophets, through to the servants of Christ for whom, John says, his revelation was given.

Of course, we have only to recall the Genesis creation account to remember that mankind was created to rule the earth on God’s behalf, and that Adam was created to work and tend God’s garden – and was held accountable for his disobedience in that role. Augustine wrote (and Cranmer carried the thought into the Anglican liturgy) that God’s service is perfect freedom – but that was before the Renaissance made made man the measure of all things.

elijah-icon_0The animals could scarcely, in principle, be supposed to be more autonomous than mankind. And indeed, we find in Scripture their utter dependance on God (eg Psalm 104), their obedience to him in their habitual natures (eg the animals described in Job 39-41) and even their use as agents of God’s governing will (such as the wild animals sent as punishments in Lev 26.22, the bears that killed the youths who accosted Elisha in 2 Kings 2, Balaam’s ass, Elijah’s ravens and so on.

The wildness of animals is sometimes represented in “chaos” contexts (for example the serpents of Genesis 3 or Acts 28.4-5), but not as automous “free” agents. Even the fish in Jonah – a leviathan of the primordial ocean, if you like – serves God’s salvific purpose for the prophet, and is, indeed “provided” by Yahweh for that very purpose.

plagueThe example of Jonah is a reminder that plants, too serve his will – the gourd that sheltered the prophet in the same book is just one instance. But right down the evolutionary scale living things serve God’s will – remember the insect plagues of Egypt (designed, in part, to show God’s sovereignty over the natural realms ruled by Egypt’s main deities). And there is scarcely a bacterial plague mentioned in the Bible that isn’t sent as a judgement of God.

Well, at this point we slip off the evolutionary scale to the inorganic world where, of all creation, “freedom” has least meaning (“Stone Free” and all that). Yet it is here where the “Robust Formational Economy Principle” (that’s Howard Van Till’s term, by the way) is most invoked with respect to evolution. For the scientific understanding informing it is, in effect, not the autonomy of living organisms to create themselves through evolution, but the autonomy of mere chemistry to produce the random mutations that organisms passively undergo, or even the autonomy of asteroids wandering in chaotic orbits to change, “freely”, the course of history. Such is the underbelly of “co-creation”.

Yet we have to look no further than Psalm 104 to learn that:

The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

And also, in that psalm alone, a whole lot more of God’s active management of nature.

stormNow, the citations I have made are not proof texts. You will find obedience to God’s will in virtually any passage that mentions Christ, or angels, or humans (even in many cases of sin, where Pharaoh or Judas fulfil his purposes even in their rebellion), or animals, or plants, or inanimate nature. This is simply the view of God, and his dealings with creation, taught by the entire Bible. If it is the foundation of creation doctrine, it is also the basis of salvation doctrine: for we are to be restored from disobedience to obedience through the blood of Christ.

The only possible exceptions – apart from sin, in which “autonomy” is, of course, not a blessing but an aberration – are those passages in which natural forces are represented in “chaos” terms – the tohu wabohu of Genesis 1.2. Examples might range from the “unclean” animals of the wilderness in the law, through to the storm that Jesus rebuked, or the one that shipwrecked Paul. In many cases these are only recorded in order to show God’s sovereignty over them, but that apart there is a fundamental conceptual difference between the “chaos” theme and “nature’s dignity through autonomy from God.”

And that is that, in Genesis, “chaos” does not represent the highest good of “freedom” built into creation, but the incompleteness of God’s creation (bara), creation being entirely to do with ordering things to his will and purpose. In Genesis 1 the wild deep is progressively pushed aside to make room for sky and earth: it represents what has not (yet) been ordered – perhaps with the implication that the completion of its submission to God might be part of the remit of man in “subduing and ruling” the earth.

For the upshot of all is that the final goal of creation is not emancipation from God, but that God should be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15.28). Whatever is represented by creation and its groaning in Romans 8 (and I make some suggestions here), what it is groaning for is “the glorious freedom of the children of God”, which if the examples of Jesus and the apostles are our model, is to be willing slaves to the perfect will of the Father. Autonomy it is not.

Let me put it as strongly as this: there is no principle of autonomy in Scripture, regarding any part of God’s creation, except for the usurped autonomy of sin. And even that is not, in the end, exempt from his providence that “works out everything in accordance with the purpose of his will.” And if such teaching is not to be found in Scripture, then as Jay observes, it’s based on philosophical reasoning, or perhaps rather:

…hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

Or to quote Jesus (citing the authority of the prophet Isaiah), its proponents are “teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.”

If that is not true, then someone will be able to assemble for me a body of teaching on “the full gifting of creation” from Scripture. If not, then the foundational doctrine of Christianity – the doctrine of God himself – is being widely misrepresented nowadays. The seriousness of that far, far outweighs whether those who propose it are right to believe in evolution or not.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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19 Responses to Looking for autonomy in the Bible

  1. Noah White says:

    Another great post, Jon.

    Your aside about the Renaissance ideas of man being the measure of all things reminded me of a thought I had this weekend in the deer blind while hunting:

    The Renaissance idea seemed to feed into the Enlightenment’s quest for all objective truth, as well as the view that man was the pinnacle of evolution. I find it interesting that we’ve gotten so far from that now. Sy’s post on his blog from a while back on the Theory of Human Mediocrity comes to mind. The further we investigate the universe, the more we seem to find that we’re tiny, insignificant, and, well, random (though I do concur with your thought that through the eyes of faith, “random chance” can be providence). I wondered why this might be, if indeed we’re supposed to be God’s image.

    Then the thought sprung up: perhaps this is another way of God “taking us down a notch” and beckoning us into relationship with him. He doesn’t want knowledge to come from cold, indifferent inquiry; He wants it to come from a relationship–revelation. We thought we were the bees’ knees up until about a hundred years ago, then the tools with which we were going to ascend showed us a different story. I haven’t fleshed the thought out too much, but I think it’s worth considering. It also feels like there’s a connection to Polkinghorne’s observation that a materialist worldview ultimately ends in futility (whether at one’s own death or that of the universe) but it is through faith in Christ we have hope.

    Also, I’ve been meaning to ask you your thoughts on the story of Jonah and its historicity.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      My feeling is that the Renaissance set the course for the whole of the West’s subsequent history – including its theological course – by elevating that one principle of autonomy.

      I guess even “man as a mediocrity” fits into that, in a couple of ways. First, there’s a kind of perverse pride in the claim to have discovered how insignificant we are (unlike those fools in the past who thought we were important!). But where that isn’t the case, by losing dependence on God we lose the only reason we have for significance once autonomy begins to look weak and futile… hence existentialist angst. How can life be “absurd” if God gives it significance?

      Then the thought sprung up: perhaps this is another way of God “taking us down a notch” and beckoning us into relationship with him. He doesn’t want knowledge to come from cold, indifferent inquiry; He wants it to come from a relationship–revelation.

      I think you’re absolutely right there, and it goes right back to the garden and the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”. It’s not that God wanted to keep wisdom from mankind, but that true knowledge and wisdom only come in relationship with him.

      Exactly how that ties into Sy’s obervations about the “ambiguity” of nature with regard to knowledge of God I’m uncertain. I think maybe it’s that the ambiguity is somehow the result of our fallen reason – our false “knowledge” stops us seeing the hand of God, leading us into all kinds of grief.

      That, in turn, is part of God’s judgement: I take it to be the message of Ecclesiastes that nothing in human affairs ever comes without that ambiguity or “vanity”. Angst is intended to bring us to repentance.

      As for Jonah, I’m not too bothered. The prophet existed, for sure, because he’s mentioned elsewhere with respect to another message. But it’s a genre question, I think. On the one hand, the book is clearly not just a prophetic oracle, but wisdom literature with a “moral”, rather like Job. With that parabolic purpose, its historicity is no more important than that of the good Samaritan.

      On the other hand there’s nothing in it that would be intrinsically impossible for God (I’ve been recently intrigued by the suggestion that the problem of how Jonah could survive in a fish is neatly solved by saying that he didn’t, and that the miracle was a resuscitation from death, a conclusion matching both the tenor of the prayer from inside the fish and Jesus’s use of the episode).

      That last point is significant, of course – Jesus speaks of the “sign of Jonah” being the only validating sign of his ministry, and clearly meaning his own death and resurrection as analogous to Jonah’s experience. I guess people would argue as to whether that works if Jonah’s experience was fictional – my own feeling is that its existence as a story in Holy Scripture is sufficient as a sign. At the same time, I see no reason to assert that the story was fictional, given what it was intended to teach.

      • Noah White says:

        I hadn’t even made the connection to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–I feel a tad dense!

        Your point (and Ron’s below) about Jonah dying in the belly of the fish is exactly what my old head of school pointed out to me this summer when we were discussing this matter. I quite like it, though I’ve heard some people contest that 3 days in stomach acid would be enough to totally deteriorate you–I guess that’s the point of a miracle but it still seems difficult for me to wrap my head around as it has the feeling of a story told in ignorance of how things like that work (I absolutely hate writing that sentence as it stenches of modern arrogance, but it’s my thought process right now).

        If I understand your last point correctly, you’re saying that you don’t really care if it was fictional, even in light of Jesus’ appeal to it (though of course you’re not deliberating one way or another)? I’ve been inclined to lean towards that view but often fear the good ol’ slippery slope.

        • Jay313 says:

          Speaking of Jonah and the tree of knowledge, I ran across the same thing in re-reading Hoekema’s Created in God’s Image. The book is fantastic, as usual of Hoekema, until he begins defending a literal reading of the story of Adam & Eve in the garden. Despite the fact that the genre, context, and language seem to require a non-literal interpretation, he still holds onto a literal reading. I was a little mystified until he finally admitted that the reason he holds to a literal reading is because he thinks certain NT passages, especially Rom. 5:12-21, require it. Now, if we force an interpretation onto an OT passage because our interpretation of a NT passage seems to require it, aren’t we working backwards? Slippery slope, indeed.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Jay – you and Noah are having a good conversation, and I don’t want to impose upon it, but just respond to points that seem to require it.

            If we accept the divine oversight of the New Testament, then if Paul does treat an OT text as historical, that’s data from, in some sense, the original author of Genesis. It may, of course, be data that Paul didn’t think in black and white categories, though I would say that it’s hard to interpret Romans 5 apart from some kind of historical Adam, and I’m not prepared to go the Enns route of saying that fallible apostles (and fallible Patriarchs) produce fallible Scripture that, somewhat magically, is true but wrong.

            That really is also my answer to Noah’s potential slippery slope too. If Jesus as either the Son, or the man inspired by (his own) Spirit, is indifferent to the factuality of Jonah’s adventure, it’s because the genre of the story, and the purpose of his using it, doesn’t require it. Not (in my view) because Jesus was simply a gullible Jew of his own time and we now have better literary techniques.

            You’re right, of course, to caution against our interpretation of NT dictating OT hermeneutics: in that case, we may for example think that Paul must, by assuming an actual Adam, be a modern YEC literalist.

  2. Ron S says:

    A question for you Jon,

    How do you find such explanations go over with people who think evolution=atheism or apes => people is unpalatable? I know some who claim it is merely baptizing evolution and bringing it into the Church (syncretism). Not wanting to chase that rabbit but it seems you are caught in the middle of conflicting groups.

    It is clear from Scripture that God is in control yet He uses “time” to achieve so many ends. Even the Scriptures themselves are revealed over time – progressive revelation. All this is so suspect to many people but we still live and move through “time”.

    I’d love to hear examples (knowing that this blog itself is one such example).

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ron

      The simple answer is that I don’t usually argue for deep time with Creationists, because that isn’t my constituency – though occasionally belligerent types have turned up here, and also more theologically-minded YECs who are happy just to differ.

      The particular arguments of ths post ought, I suppose, to find agreement – except that for many YECs, the world is affected by the Fall, so that to say that it obeys God offends them as much as it offends those TEs who, assuming the fallenness of Creation, re-package that in terms of a free-creation-gone-wrong.

      I certainly feel, often, that our position here is “neither fish nor fowl”, contradicting some major tenets of both Creationist and Evolutionist camps. But I’m comfortable with that because I believe they share errors of reasoning and theology). We’re not alone in attempting a genuinely orthodox rapprochement with science, though… just maybe more engaged day by day than many excellent theologians who just take it for granted.

      N T Wright, for example, has more theological questins on his plate than evolution, but he’s clearly comfortable with it whilst being thoroughly opposed to”Epicurean” understandings of it.

  3. Ron S says:

    And as for Jonah – he is about as “dead” as you could get as an ancient Israelite. On (in) the sea, swallowed by a chaos creature, in Sheol, sunk down deep to the roots of mountains with seaweed wrapped around his head like a burial cloth. I think finding ways to keep him ALIVE may be defeating the point – let Jonah DIE. There is a resurrection expectation in the text and I think Jesus points to it.

  4. Jay313 says:

    Nice, Jon. Took me a minute to reply, since I was masochistic enough to follow your links and read your previous posts on the subject. As you noted at the end of your reply to Van Till’s Robust Formational Economy Principle, when thinking about God, we have to begin with the only trustworthy data we have, which is his self-revelation in Scripture. It’s also important that we take the whole counsel of God into account. This is where those who wish to claim libertarian freedom for the creature (and sometimes the creation) fall down. The Scripture teaches both that man makes morally responsible (free) choices and that God sovereignly controls all things; therefore, we may try to reconcile those paradoxical concepts with the help of philosophy and logic, but we are not free (pun intended) to jettison one set of biblical data because it conflicts with our philosophical preconceptions of freedom, time, or randomness.

    I am also skeptical of theories like kenosis that build an entire system from one verse of Scripture. If we want to think about God’s relationship to time from the perspective of the Incarnation, I like John Frame’s approach in his short essay “God in Time”:

    God is still an actor in history, as well as transcending history. He is with me as I write, watching one moment pass into the next, responding appropriately to each event, bringing his sovereign Lordship to bear on every situation as it comes, hearing and responding to my prayers. But he is also looking down on the world from his transcendent, timelessly eternal viewpoint. He is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, he brings all things to pass according to his eternal plan. As immanent, he works in and with all things, moment by moment, to accomplish his sovereign will.

    So Immanuel, God’s Christmas name, is still appropriate. Jesus’ incarnation, unique as it is, is in some respects like the way God relates to his world at all times, in all generations (Psm. 90:1). God is still an actor in our history, acting, responding, grieving, rejoicing. But he acts in history as the sovereign Lord of history.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Nice quote from a nice essay. I’ve read less of Frame than I’d like – but then I’ve read less of most people than I’d like!

      I see both from the article and his WikiPedia entry that he’s not above critiquing both theological views he believes mistaken, and those who hold them. I guess that’s sometimes inevitable (and to be distinguished from the “Only you and me are sound – and I’m not so sure about you” phenomenon you’ve attacked over at BioLogos.)

  5. Jay313 says:

    Hi, Noah. Didn’t realize you were at HBU. Good baseball team, at least. (Spoken as a native Texan, haha.) When you said this, “The further we investigate the universe, the more we seem to find that we’re tiny, insignificant, and, well, random (though I do concur with your thought that through the eyes of faith, “random chance” can be providence). I wondered why this might be, if indeed we’re supposed to be God’s image.” It made me think immediately of Psalm 8:
    When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
    what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

    It, likewise, concludes with a meditation of the image of God. Perhaps you should take up psalm-writing? 🙂

    Jon’s mention of existential angst is an interesting tie-in, because it comes from Kierkegaard’s book, The Concept of Anxiety, which focuses on Adam’s choice and original sin. Not taking you to task, Jon, but Kierkegaard’s concept is a little different from the popular usage of existential angst. A good summary of the book is this:

    “First, notwithstanding the doctrine of original sin, Kierkegaard wishes to emphasize that man was free not to sin as well as to sin. The fall was not necessitated by creation, by mere existence. Second, freedom itself causes anxiety, but this anxiety, once again, does not necessarily lead to sin, nor indeed is it itself sin. Third, Kierkegaard wants to ground each individual’s sin in his own sinfulness. Just as Adam sinned which brought about sinfulness in him, so does each individual sin while in a state of freedom and sinlessness, and only then is sinfulness posited. Fourth, sin itself brings about anxiety, a compounding of the anxiety of freedom. This anxiety can lead the sinner back to the One who made him and gave him freedom, and thus anxiety can be saving through faith. Fifth, the first sin for Adam and for the individual is a qualitative leap. It is a leap out of freedom into sinfulness. It is not necessitated by existence (much less freedom) and so can only be explained by a leap. So too is the soul’s return to the One who created it—a leap back to God through faith.” http://sorenkierkegaard.org/concept-of-anxiety.html

    • Noah White says:

      Hi Jay,

      Responding to both your comments here to keep it from getting cluttered up!

      As to your comment about Jonah/the tree–I probably fall in line mostly with Jon’s thoughts here on Adam and Eve’s historicity, which seems to be an extrapolation of Walton and others (Jon, feel free to correct me here if I’m wrong). I think the best model is seeing them as later Mesopotamians who were the first people God directly revealed himself to, Adam being designated as a high priest in the temple of the cosmos. It fits quite nicely, I think, though it *does* require a bit more imagination than I’m comfortable with sometimes which is why I still struggle with it. Now whether it’s a literal garden (maybe) and literal snake and tree (these seem less likely), I don’t know. I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on the matter, because I’ve always wanted to treat the story seriously and I think there’s a sense in which something is lost if we totally do away with their historicity based on the NT–could you elaborate more on your disagreement with that notion?

      Yes, I now realize that I never specifically said I was at HBU–it’s honestly a great school as far as the faculty go. Some of my profs are downright brilliant and could be teaching at much more high profile schools. Our president is doing a bang-up job as well, though some are afraid he’s steering us the way of Baylor. The baseball team is quite good, which is exciting! Glad to find another Texan ’round these parts, I’m Houston born and raised.

      I fear poetry has never been my strong suit (I’ve always been better at academic essays than anything creative), but I have been wanting to write something long-form about my recent struggles with doubt and faith and Sy Garte asked me to write a guest post for his blog, so perhaps this is another sign I ought to get around to it.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


        Just a reply to your address to me: for various reasons I go along with Gordon Wenham’s concept of mythical history regarding the Eden account (though I think he uses some other term).

        Not only had history, as a genre, not been invented at the time Genesis was written, making a prosaic account anachronistic, but I suggest that such a foundationally important event was felt to be best expressed in the way it was in that culture.

        A crude parallel for spiritual truths being expressed physically: imagine a guy has a dramatic conversion experience that changes his life. He describes it in terms of seeing a glorious light, an electric current passing through him … or like Blaise Pascal “Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude, certitude, feeling, joy, peace. The God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. Forgetfulness of the world and everything except God.“. Should someone point out that they were in the same room, and there was no fire, and that Pascal was, in fact, not unaware of his physical surroundings, etc, and that the “facts” were that Pascal (or my guy) changed his mind about religious matters, I’d go with the “inner” account any day.

        I suppose the problem we have in “translating” the story back to a prosaic account (the snake was “really” an internal voice, or the skeptical next-door neighbour: the tree was “really” the presence of God etc) is the same problem I think we have with Genesis 1 when we try to understand its “science”. In other words, we’re taking our own worldview as normative, rather than trying to get inside the original to transform our own.

        We inevitably have to try to make a connection with ourselves, of course – and as you say, I take Adam and Eve in the way you suggest above, there being (I think) sufficient “historical” clues in the text and the surrounding culture to do so.

        But sometimes we maybe have to accept that the “reality” that God has given us is the text, to be accepted in its own terms in some way (thus stretching our imagination severely).

  6. Jay313 says:

    Jumping into deep waters, we are. (Sorry for the Yoda-speak.)

    The first thing I would mention is that we vastly underestimate the truth-value of stories. Jon rightly pointed out Jesus’ frequent use of parables to communicate truths about ourselves and about God. Would our understanding of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son change in the slightest if we believed these were literal, historical men instead of characters in a story? Would doctrine be affected? Christian living? No on all counts.

    Besides Jonah, Jon also mentioned Job. Both of these books are disputed as to their historicity. Let’s assume, for a minute, that they are simply stories. Since they are included in the Scripture, and since we accept their inspiration, don’t they still carry the same force as the rest of the Word of God, including other non-historical portions such as Proverbs and Psalms? Regardless of the actual existence of Jonah and Job, aren’t the books that bear their names still just as binding on faith, doctrine, and practice? Yes on all counts.

    Jon is right that Jesus is indifferent to the fact of Jonah’s literal existence. I think that the same reasoning applies to other NT mentions of Jonah or Job or even Adam. In most cases, the argument for their literal, historical existence comes down to the mere fact that they are mentioned by name in the NT, but does that alone entail that the named individual must be historical? I don’t think the conclusion logically follows the premise. For example, if I said, “You have heard of Forrest Gump’s perseverance…” (c.f. James 5:11), you would understand my point even though Forrest Gump is a fictional character, and you would not wonder whether I believed Forrest Gump was a real person just because I mentioned him in that way. Similarly, we do not need to impute any kind of ignorance to Jesus on the subject of Jonah. The same logic applies to his statement in the Sermon on the Mount comparing “the days of Noah” to the coming of the Son of Man. The Genesis story itself provides the details of the comparison that Jesus is making. We have no evidence one way or the other what Jesus thought about Noah, whether he was a historical person or not. Matthew was not concerned to provide that information, and neither was our Lord. Perhaps, then, the insistence on historicity is not so important as we make it, especially in the case of OT texts whose genre, style, and content invite us to interpret them as something other than historical: Jonah, Job, and Gen. 1-11, in particular.

    This doesn’t mean that we must take the Enns’ route of fallible apostles producing fallible Scripture that is somehow “true”, which Jon rightly poked fun at. We can and should insist on the historical integrity of those narratives, OT and NT, that demand to be interpreted as “history”. This was the slippery slope that felled Licona. When he questioned the historicity of Matt. 27:52-53, it caused some to think that the historicity of the resurrection narrative was therefore in question, and so he was thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or something like that.

    Back to Adam and Eve. Paul’s discussion in Rom. 5 does seem to require a historical Adam. Frankly, I’m still thinking about these things, so take these as preliminary musings and feel free to poke holes. What comes to mind first is the use of the OT in the NT. The writers of the NT were much more flexible than most people realize. For instance, Matthew (2:15) cites Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”) as being fulfilled when Joseph (and baby Jesus) returned to Nazareth from Egypt. Seeing this as a “literal” fulfillment is a stretch, at best. Similarly, Jesus in Luke 24:46 says that the Scriptures foretold his death and resurrection on the third day. Good luck to those who search for a literal prophetic fulfillment to that statement. Jude even cites the apocryphal book of Enoch to make a point. My point, and there is one, is that if the NT authors (and the Lord himself) were flexible in their use of the OT, perhaps Paul is exhibiting that same trait in Romans 5. Paul is interpreting Adam as a type of Christ, and if he uses the Genesis text in a literal way to make his point, we should allow him that literary license in the same way that we do for Matthew and Hosea 11:1. In the case of the Hosea passage, Matthew’s use does not guide our interpretation of Hos. 11:1 in its OT context. In the same way, Paul’s use need not guide our interpretation of Genesis.

    Enough for now. Thanks for the stimulating thoughts!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      “Eat whatever you buy in the meat market without passing judgement” – sorry, that just popped into my head, to remind me that being agnostic about historicity must mean just that, ie not saying that X probably isn’t historical… unless and until we know enough about genre to say.

      In the case of Job, we can be sure that a bunch of friends did not speak in poetic parallels in consoling a sufferer. New Testament quotes will come from the poem, not from the lips of the protagonists. And if the poem was constructed on the experience of a real saint, that doesn’t affect the message, nor probably (and here’s where we must do work) the use James makes of it.

      However, there are other uses of OT examples which fall flat if they do not provide true examples of God’s faithfulness or man’s folly; just as those theologies fail that say the historicity of the Exodus doesn’t matter because the message is simply that God is faithful to Israel. In that case the foundation for God’s care is fiction, and so logically so is his care for us.

      Peter makes use of Noah in a different way from Jesus, in order to warn people not to assume that God won’t act to judge the world, because he has already. “Don’t you remember that Russell Crowe film” really wouldn’t convince anyone to repent. Likewise, my own feeling is that Paul’s argument about sin from Adam falls flat if real events are not assumed – so, presumably, does Enns because Paul ends up in well-meaning error, rather than telling truth from false assumptions.

      The Licona issue – disregarding the question of slippery slopes and political pressures – has, hermeneutically, to do with whether the genres and customs of first century apocalypticism allow a symbolic episode into what is otherwise a biography. He argued (I understand) that it was – I would say that is unlikely, and that the episode is strange because it was strange, yet somehow consistent with the idea of Jesus as the firstfruits of the general resurrection that was the hope of Israel .

      Again, the devil’s in the detail (and how one approaches the detail depends on ones assumptions about the “truth” (generically speaking) of Scripture. So Matthew’s use of Hosea is dismissed as dredging up any conceivably possible text by liberal scholars, whereas N T Wright’s close examination (if memory serves, in Jesus and the Victory of God) shows that it makes perfect sense in Jewish expectations of Messiah, their use of Scripture and the manner of Jesus’s self-revelation as the sacrificial representative of his nation.

      As you say, though, it’s all far from the idea that “true” always means historically verbatim and that “fulfilment” always means literal coming true.

  7. Avatar photo GD says:

    It is extremely difficult to determine the historical factuality of events that have occurred thousands of years ago – and we should note that such events were considered worth preserving because of the value to a particular nation of community. The manner of preservation of such events was not as historical facts, but to signify the historical value. My view is that events such as Jonah, were significant to Israel, and these were preserved in the genre and manner that maintained the particular outlook and faith of Israel. The historical significance is found in the story and the meaning it conveys – I think the “lesson” in each case is stated clearly and this is the point of discussing and recording such an event.

    • Noah White says:


      A succinct appraisal, as usual; thanks for this. It also reminded me of how often people are quick to dismiss the Torah as mostly, if not entirely, fiction. But I just can’t see how one can come to that conclusion given the intense national identity of the Israelites; I feel like *something* significant had to have happened for a nation to be so specific in basing their identity around the Torah.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        Many years ago when I was a student and interested in the factuality of the past, I took a few classes in ancient history. It was fashionable during those days (and perhaps nowadays?) to regard almost anything historic as “made up” – unless an archeologist and/or historian had uncovered “the fact”. I also had the opportunity to visit some areas (including Palestine, England and parts of Europe) and view some historic sites. These experiences persuaded me that much of the hoopla about history and fiction was in the mind of current people wanting to make a name for themselves (and/or money). So the irony was that the critics more often made up history to meet their own expectations.

        At a deeper level however, it became evident to me that we tend to expect history to be recorded on videos and TV programs, to feel as if we must be witnesses now and judge the facts. This too is a fault – history is only recorded and discussed for generations if actual events took place that left a great mark on a nation. It is the impact that is remembered and the events are buried in the memory of the lasting impact.

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