Theology: June 2007 Archives

I received a very interesting question via email from Patrick Chan:

According to the theory of evolution, why couldn't future man be materially different from present day or modern man, such that he is no longer distinguishable from modern man (by "materially," I include genetic and biochemical differences which may or may not manifest themselves physically)?  As far as I can tell, it's possible according to evolution.

And perhaps as a result of such differences, why couldn't future man differ markedly from modern man in other ways?  Maybe future man will have a different psychological makeup and emotional life, for instance, and thus be subject to and experience different temptations, sufferings, etc. than what modern man experiences.

What I'm getting at is that it's possible Christ himself might not share with future man what he shares with modern man.  It's possible Christ would no longer be "one of us" in the sense that he would no longer be able to share in future man's "humanity," assuming future man can at least still be considered part of the mammalian species homo sapien.  (Of course, if future man is so different that he can no longer be classified as a homo sapien, then that raises other questions.)  This would undercut Scripture (e.g. Heb. 2:14-18; 4:15-16).

In other words, if it's possible for man to evolve into something different than he is today -- whether it's only a slight difference or whether it's as jarringly dissimilar as depicted in a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which man is a different species) -- then what would that make Christ in his incarnation as a man?  On the evolutionary tree of life, modern man, and therefore Christ himself since he came as a modern man, could very well be to future man what an ape-man might be to us.  Evolutionarily speaking, Christ in his incarnation would be a different being than future man.  I'll not mince words: as far as I can tell, it's possible that the evolutionary equivalent of an ape-man might have died for your sins.

My response (addressed to him, since I first wrote it in an email response to him):

Trinitarian Survey

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I know someone who is doing some work on the Trinity from a philosophical point of view, and he's currently running a survey about Trinitarian belief. You do have to register, but it's a fun quiz for those who like theology, and you get the results of everyone who's taken it at the end. He's trying to learn what Christians think about the Trinity, so it's primarily for those who do consider themselves Christians. He's particularly interested in targeting seminary students or others who study theology of some sort. If you can help spread the word to seminarians or other students of theology, he would greatly appreciate it.

Michael Bird has a nice post about inerrancy, most of which I'd agree with. I don't have anything further to say about his post itself, at least nothing I want to take up now, but a discussion in the comments reminded me that I've twice now set out to write a post on infallibility and inerrancy and not gotten around to it. I'm remedying that now.

In the comments at Michael's post, Danny Zacharias says he's confused at the use of the word 'infallible' in Michael's favorite expression of inerrancy. His confusion is because he thinks the word 'infallible' means something weaker than inerrancy. Inerrancy, on this view, means the whole Bible is without error, including in historical details and matters of science. Infallibility means the whole Bible is without error in matters of faith and practice but not necessarily when it comes to matters of science and history.

Under the influence of George Marsden, several faculty at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a number of other scholars who began to write about this issue around the late 70s and early 80s, it has become somewhat standard in some circles of theologians to use the terms this way. I will call this approach the Fuller view for lack of a better term. I want to show that this way of using the terms involves a basic confusion about two completely different issues. One issue is what scope of inspiration, i.e. what aspects of scripture are inspired (matters of faith and practice, matters of history and science, and so on). The other issue is whether scripture is merely correct about those things (i.e. inerrant or without error) or whether the inspiration is such that it couldn't be wrong about them (i.e. infallible or unable to err).

The issue the Fuller view deals with is not whether scripture is inspired in an infallible or inerrant way. It's merely about the scope of inspiration. Around the time of this controversy, Fuller Seminary removed its inerrancy language from its statement of faith, no longer requiring its faculty to hold that scripture is inspired in all of the details of history and science. What's strange about calling this a move from inerrancy to infallibility it that such a view is consistent with both inerrancy and infallibility about matters of faith and practice, as long as it isn't inerrant or infallible about matters of science and history. The view in question is completely independent of the inerrancy or infallibility issue. It's about the scope of inerrancy or infallibility, whichever they might choose to go with, not about whether the inspiration is an inerrant or infallible sort of inspiration.

Inerrancy itself is a fairly weak concept in comparison to infallibility. Something is inerrant if it happens not to have any errors. A newspaper article can be inerrant. I'm sure many articles are. Infallibility, on the other hand, is true only if the thing is incapable of having errors. Scripture, according to the historic teaching of the church, does not just merely happen to have no errors. It is infallible. It is impossible for it to have errors. Given that it is a revelation from God, inspired in a way that God ensures its correctness, it cannot be wrong.

So what the Fuller view has done is co-opt a term about the nature of inspiration, a term used for describing the impossibility of God's word containing errors, to use it to apply to a view about the scope of inerrancy or infallibility, i.e. the view that scripture can or does have errors about some matters while not having, or being unable to have, other kinds of errors. A more accurate description of their view, then, would be that the Bible is infallible or inerrant about matters of faith and practice but not infallible or inerrant about matters of history and science. Calling that infallibility as opposed to inerrancy is wildly confused.

Jonathan Adler is belittling Sam Brownback's relatively nuanced (for a politician) position on evolution. The comment thread is getting pretty heated, almost entirely in a direction that seems to me to miss the most important factor in interpreting his position. I would go so far as to say that most of the commenters are immorally taking Brownback's position in the least charitable way possible.

Roughly speaking, the problem seems to be that Senator Brownback is using language that leaves the issue wide open, where what he says is consistent with anything from theistic evolution to six-day creationism. The charge is that he is using coded language that's supposed to tell six-day creationists he's with them, while also using coded language to tell theistic evolutionists that he's with them, or something like that anyway. The assumption is that he couldn't be genuinely conflicted on this issue in a way that's consistent with rationality. I want to suggest that the most plausible interpretation of his comments is not the political coded language one but that he really is conflicted in such a way and that it even results from rational conflictedness.

Given that many people do think the most reasonable interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis is that the world was really created in six days 10,000 years ago (note: I don't think this is the most reasonable interpretation of Genesis 1:1-2:3, given its poetic elements, but I can understand how an intelligent, rational person might think it is), I can understand why he might genuinely feel conflicted, resulting in the following views:

1. Whatever the Bible teaches is true.
2. The Bible's teaching can be interpreted in a way that's consistent with the consensus among contemporary scientists, but some interpretations are more reasonable than others.
3. Science isn't infallible and has often been very wrong, even when scientists are correct at the time to think their best information leads them to that view. Most of the time these are minor variations, but sometimes they are major overthrows.
4. The most plausible interpretation of the Bible conflicts with the contemporary consensus.

I can easily see why an intelligent, informed person who knows all the science and understands why the consensus holds what it does might still refrain from holding any belief whatsoever on whether speciation occurred in the way the consensus says it did. The key is to insist both that (a) our interpretation of the scripture might be wrong and (b) our science has at least some chance of being wrong, while insisting that (c) whatever the Bible does say is true (whether our interpretation is correct or not) and (d) whatever a perfect scientific study would result it will almost certainly be correct.

Only if you assume from the outset that divine revelation about such matters is impossible could you end up concluding that such a person is irrational.

Mark Goodacre points to the attention Deirdre Good's new book Jesus' Family Values is getting. Her argument is basically that Jesus had no family values, on the following ground:

1. Jesus challenged some of the societal expectations people in his cultural context had about families.
2. Jesus doesn't spend a lot of time on some of the moral perspectives assumed by all first-century Jews because of the background of the Hebrew scriptures, i.e. he focuses on where the people of his time were misinterpreting or violating the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures.
3. Jesus predicts that families will divide over him, without ever saying that those who reject his followers in this way and put them to death are right to cause such division.
4. We see no sign of Jesus calling his foster father Joseph by the name he reserved for his heavenly Father.

She also says (falsely) that the word 'family' never appears in the New Testament. Now the English word never appears in the Greek, but a simple online search would have shown her that many English translations use the word regularly (see the ESV, NIV, HCSB, TNIV, NLT). Maybe she got some not quite true information about the KJV not having the word in the NT (it does have it once), but that has nothing to do with the content of the Greek NT itself but more to do with the English language at the time the KJV was translated (or rather the English language of a couple centuries earlier, which is what the KJV translators were translating the Bible into). [Update: see the comments for a more careful presentation of her view, why it's a little better than this, and why I still disagree with it.]

Now maybe the bulk of her argumentation is good, and maybe her conclusions aren't as radical as this presentation makes it look, but the impression of what I'm getting is that she's trying to send a message that pretty much everything those who speak of "family values" consider to fall under that would have been foreign to Jesus, and he'd in fact take the opposite views on many of those issues. The implicature is that those who say they derive their moral and political views from the Bible on these issues are in fact making them up whole cloth.

As I said in the comments on Mark's post, this is a very strange argument. For one thing, Jesus did speak about family values. He lambasted the Pharisees for taking the money they should have been using to care for their parents and dedicating it to God with a vow so they could use it now and not have to support their parents. He gives his mother to John to take care of her. He treats the love of the father for the prodigal son as an image of perfect, divine love, which affirms such love for wayward children.

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