Stop changing the question

A Daily Telegraph YouTube clip is entitled “Boris Johnson: Brexit is the biggest thing I’ve done professionally.” In fact, it is the interviewer who asks if it is the biggest thing he’s done professionally, and Boris hesitates a little bashfully before replying:

“I wouldn’t deny that – I think it’s a very big thing for our country.”

I’ve started with that story because it’s topical, and because it leads tenuously into my theme, which is about people defending the Bible on what it doesn’t claim.

I don’t know about you, but the headline looks like a pompous claim, whereas the actual response is (whatever Johnson’s private feelings of pride) a modest acceptance of the importance to others of the situation he finds himself in. The headline is putting words in his mouth – because after all, if he had denied the question, it would inevitably look as if he was saying,”No, this is easy – I do bigger professional things every week.”

A couple of Young Earth Creationists at Peaceful Science have been belligerently saying the usual things about there being no death before the fall and so on, and one of the regulars there gratifyingly cited my book God’s Good Earth to refute the claim.

The reply included questioning my walk as a Christian, which is about as unanswerable as the question Boris was asked, in that it’s scarcely Christian to start waving a bundle of spiritual credentials around in advance of the judgement (see 1 Corintinas 4:3). It’s slightly amusing for the book to be questioned on grounds of my heresy, when one of the other criticisms I received from a commenter on the Internet Monk review was that I couldn’t be trusted as I appear to be a heretic on the orthodox Green doctrine of anthropogenic climate change.

Be that as it may, it was great to see a number of people justifying my book’s position, partly because I guess that means a few people have bought it, but mainly because it means it’s doing its job. I have no need to comment there because all the real arguments are in the book, in the public domain. If it’s convincing, more people will use its arguments. Job done.

But I’ve been thinking more in the last months about how the whole pitting of the Bible against science, whether by Creationists or Anti-Christians, plays into a false idea of how and why the Bible was written. Because none of it was ever intended to create a unique version of history, but to place the salvific work of God in the context of generally accepted history. “Are you going to accept the Bible’s history, or the world’s?” is as misdirecting a question as the interviewer’s question to Boris Johnson.

Granted, the worldview offered by the Bible is deeply countercultural to all sinful cultures. When the Old Testament attributes political outcomes to Yahweh and his covenant-love, it necessarily runs across the narratives of the surrounding nations that attribute them to Bel or Baal. But the Bible is not seeking to create the events.

Granted, also, that sometimes the Bible opposes specific falsehoods, for example, the Jewish rumour that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. But it does so, at least in part, by appealing to public knowledge, not by re-writing events. As Paul says in Acts, “These things were not done in a corner.”

So it is really not in the least surprising to find archaeology confirming biblical events, because it would be totally counterproductive for the Bible writers to create fictional events, when their whole purpose is to extol Yahweh as the Lord of all events, either to confirm the covenant people in their faith, or to persuade the nations. In the Old Testament, that is to make God’s name great “amongst the nations,” and in the New, of course, to make disciples of those nations.

Now, I’m not talking about inerrancy, or even inspiration, here, but simply the literary and theological purpose of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It is quite different from, say, the Book of Mormon, which from the start was intended both to modify biblical history, and the ancient history of America, in order to establish Joseph Smith’s new belief system. The Bible, in contrast, interprets history through its belief system. If you want to argue, the argument ought to be against Yahweh’s involvement in events, not against the events themselves.

This was the error that was introduced with the Enlightenment biblical skepticism that began in the seventeenth century and blossomed in the destructive critical scholarship that still drops the last its rotting fruit today. Wishing to remove the Bible’s authority (yet sometimes to retain belief in its God) it said of the events described

“The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible: it ain’t necessarily so.”

In doing so, it treated its own lack of ancient historical knowledge as positive historical evidence, and its ignorance of nuanced biblical genres as proof of the Bible’s literalistic and supernaturalistic falsehood. But as Josh Swamidass’s forthcoming book The Genealogical Adam and Eve shows (and even more my forthcoming one on the same theme… one has to take every opportunity to plug “the biggest thing one has done professionally”…) – as that book shows, skeptical questions of historical fact in the Bible can suddenly become rather tendentious and irrelevant.

That polarising habit has gradually become the shibboleth of Young Earth Creationism: the test of saving faith becomes whether you believe the Bible’s version of history, or the world’s. The fallacy of that is not so much that it ignores the truth that salvation is by faith in Christ alone and not by history, but that the Bible never shows the slightest interest in pitting its version of history against the world’s. Instead, as I have already said, it places the story of God’s involvement with mankind within the shared history of mankind.

If those stories sometimes don’t mesh at the historical level, it is sometimes that the secular history we have constructed is mistaken, or more often that ancient events are simply no longer accessible to it. And it is sometimes because there is further work to do on what the Bible is actually saying, and how: for example, I have argued on The Hump and in The Generations of Heaven and Earth that the creation account is not unscientific because it is based on obsolete ancient science, but because it is, positively and accurately, a phenomenological account of the origin of the world conceived as God’s temple.

It is as foolish to try and force the Bible to defend claims it doesn’t make (“The history you learn from the world is wrong – believe my alternative version”) as it is to put boastful words into Boris Johnson’s mouth, when the Brexit situation is self-evidently about big things for the nation.

The Bible is not about choosing which version of history to accept, but is a matter of “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” As, indeed, is the Brexit decision perhaps to be taken in Parliament later today.

See what I did there?

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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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