Mere Science and Christian Faith: Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults, by Greg Cootsona: Chapter 4- On a Crash Course with Hermeneutics
We are reviewing the book, Mere Science and Christian Faith, by Greg Cootsona, subtitled Bridging the Divide with Emerging Adults. Today we look at Chapter 4- On a Crash Course with Hermeneutics. I am going to be relatively brief on this post, as we covered this subject extensively in the review of Walton and Longman’s book, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate, as well as this being the subject of Chaplain Mike’s recent posts on, Genesis: Where It All Begins.
Cootsona begins this chapter with the idea that if he were to coach antagonists on how to challenge Christian faith, he’d say:
Camp out on progress. And do so subtly. Sell the idea that science and technology look forward and continually improve. That today we know far more about the universe than in the first century. That the current iPhone is faster, smaller, more exciting, and therefore better than when it first appeared in 2007. On the other hand, present how religious knowledge always looks in the rearview mirror. Then find a way to phrase the question, ‘Which would you rather follow—what’s new and constantly updating, or what’s old and outdated?’
Cootsona has a great point. The law of modernity is—newer is always better. C. S. Lewis termed this “chronological snobbery”, “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited” (Surprised by Joy (chapter 13, p. 207–208). Lewis went on to say:
You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.
So Greg feels that to respond to the issue of ancient texts and their contemporary relevance, a great deal depends on how the Bible is viewed. What is the Bible? What kind of book is it, what is its nature? These questions are the field of hermeneutics; the philosophy and methodology of text interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts. There is no escaping this. The idea that “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just read it” is specious; superficially plausible, but actually wrong. The question is not whether you interpret the Bible, but whose interpretation you assume is authoritative. Many of us regular commenters on Internet Monk, have grown up in conservative evangelicalism. We have grown up assuming that conservative evangelical interpretation of the Bible was authoritative. To challenge or question that version of hermeneutics was to “lose our faith”, and many of us struggled with that loss of faith. As Chaplain Mike noted, here is how we practiced that hermeneutic:
- Identify the issue: isolate that issue to one or two words. For example the word “day”.
- Get out your Strong’s Concordance and look up every instance of the word “day” in the Bible.
- Do an in-depth word study on the word. When you are done, you will find out that in Hebrew and Greek, the word means day.
- From collating and analyzing the verses, come up with a systematic statement of what the Bible says about that word.
- Conclusion: this is the Bible’s teaching about it.
- Apply your “biblical” position to a contemporary question such as “Are the days in Genesis literal days or does the Bible teach long periods of time?”
This was taking the Bible seriously, as the Word of God. To come up with any other conclusion other than the Bible taught the world was created in six twenty-four-hour periods was to “take the word of fallible man over the infallible Word of God”.
But as many of us have since learned, that is not taking the Bible seriously at all. It is taking a collection of ancient manuscripts and treating them as a single post-Enlightenment dissertation. It is reading scripture with a modernist mind-set and insisting that is the only way that scripture can be read. That interpretation of scripture is actually disrespectful to both the ancient authors and their ancient audience. It is disrespectful because it presumes that an engineering-technical-manual mode of writing is the only way that truth could be conveyed, when, in fact, that mode of writing is the worst of all ways to impart eternal spiritual truths. It is also ironic, in that the very One to whom the Scriptures were supposed to point to spent most of his time teaching by telling stories.
Cootsona thinks that following 5 key hermeneutical principles, we’d be in a better place to engage with the sciences and to respond to the concerns of emerging adults. First, we should remember that whatever word we use to describe our commitment to the truth and power of Scripture, we’re committed to the ultimate authority or primacy of Scripture, not to our interpretation of it. The text is inspired, the interpretation is not. Second is John Walton’s point that the Bible may speak to us, but it wasn’t written for us. That is simply the historical fact at hand, if you can’t deal with it, it is your faith that is weak.
Third, as his New Testament professor Joel Green used to say, “a text without a context is a pretext”. There is no substitute for understanding the context in which God spoke through Scripture. It is not God-honoring to say God bypassed the ancient cultural context or is not limited by that cultural context, when God Himself chose to speak through those people in their language and idiom. That was God’s own self-limiting choice. We can’t simply hope to apply a passage directly to our context without taking in the original setting.
Fourth, the literal interpretation is not the only one. Genre’ matters. The Bible is literature. All the components of literature– analogy, allusion, hyperbole, metaphor, parallelism, simile, and understatement are present in scripture and must be recognized for an accurate interpretation rather than a misinterpretation. As I said in the review of Lost World, biblical authors are recounting history; all history is the author giving their perspective on the event. This is accomplished through selection—what is included as well as what’s left out—and what the author chooses to emphasize. In that sense all history is interpretation and all historical writing is rhetorically shaped. No author can be exhaustive in their telling of the event, so they are forced to choose what they think is important about the event. A moment’s reflection on this shows it cannot be any other way.
The fifth point for Cootsona is this:
One final sagacious piece of hermeneutical advice I treasure to this day came through the sermons I heard as an undergraduate at First Presbyterian in Berkeley. Earl Palmer taught us repeatedly that lean is better than luxurious. (This parallels the scientific principle of parsimony). Go for the leaner more humble interpretation. And when we don’t know, it’s okay to say that too.
In the case studies for this chapter, “Making Too Much of a Good Thing—Big Bang and Fine Tuning”, Greg makes the point that while the theory that the universe had a beginning at t=0, and the observation that life would not be possible anywhere in the universe if the values of various physical constants differed by small amounts (Anthropic Fine Tuning), is consistent with a theistic view, it is not proof of a theistic view. We shouldn’t over-sell them. He quotes Alister McGrath (Science and Religion, 155):
The cosmological factors highlighted by cosmic fine tuning don’t offer irrefutable evidence for the existence or character of a creator God. What would be affirmed… is that they are consistent with a theistic worldview; that they reinforce the plausibility with greatest ease with such a worldview; that they reinforce the plausibility of such a worldview for those who are already committed to them, and that they offer apologetic possibilities for those who do not yet hold a theistic position.