Thursday, July 15, 2010

God of History

I had the privilege of attending Westminster Theological Seminary, Pa. and while I was there I say under Dr. Peter Enns. I always appreciated Dr. Enns' classes and learned a lot from him. However, I find his recent essay in the Huffington Post somewhat lacking of the thoroughness and attention to detail that I was used to from Dr. Enns. Perhaps some of this is due to the medium and yet Enns seems reasonably in what he says. I also find the essay or blog post to be unhelpful in leaving out a major issue: God is a God of history.

The basic point of the essay is to suggest that God does not have a problem with fiction. This is certainly hardly a point of contention even among conservative circles. While the article is winsome and points to the issue that immediately raises ones' hackles when issues of science and faith comes, it's basic point is to lump New Atheists and Conservative Christians in the same boat. Instead of thinking in terms of both parties as those on opposite sides of the debate, Enns' point is that both fail to respect Scripture for what it is. Both read the Bible demanding a scientific literalism and then one side rejects it while the other side affirms it. They both have a "shared naivete about the Bible." The point is to say essentially we should respect the Bible for what it is rather than force our modern summation of what it must be upon it.  

One the one hand, Enns is right but on the other hand he goes to far. So for example:
What if God likes telling stories? Why assume that fiction is a problem? Why assume that for God to be God he needs to speak in modern ways of knowing?
The Bible may not be of any value as a scientific conversation partner, but that has nothing -- nothing -- to do with the character of God or the Bible. And it certainly does not devalue the science/faith discussion as a whole. Most Christians I know are far beyond fundamentalism and have thought long and hard about all of this. The New Atheist response to "faith" is a caricature.
Conservative Christians might respond, "The Bible can't deal in ancient stories. It is the Word of God. It is different. It has to be at least consistent with science." Not so fast. However different the Bible may be, intersecting with modern science is not the reason why. Many Christians understand that the Bible speaks in an ancient idiom and that we need to learn to ask its questions, not ours. False assumptions about the Bible erect a barrier to honest scientific investigation.
And yet this is somewhat unfair to the conservative who holds to a Biblical doctrine of inerrancy. The issue isn't does God like stories but when is God telling a stories. Throughout the Biblical text we see examples of parable, story and poetry. We see literary license, hyperbole, irony, parody, and the list goes on. It is reasonable to understand certain things a phenomonological in its description--describing what we see but not with post-Enlightenment scientific 'accuracy' or detail. It gives us a theological view of the universe. It can use round numbers and even stylized figures. The genres do indeed often fit the genre styles of the ancient world. With these things we must take the text as it is and not force it into our mold. Indeed, as Enns notes, we must be careful not force it into our mold and ask our questions--if we bring the wrong questions to the text we can indeed find the wrong answers. We can assume it must address the issues in ways amenable to our culture rather than the ancient culture.

All this is not in disagreement.

The issue really is: when is God telling stories and when is he telling history. Granted the ancient telling of history is not quite the same as the way moderns tell it. And yet, at the core, both ancients and moderns believe in something called history.

Geerhardus Vos was quite fond of describing the God who acts in history. That God's redemption is tied to a line of history. So at some point it matters that things are not just stories. Enns, unfortunately does not tell us where to draw that line. As an expert he is more aware than I of the various scholarly views of ancient Israelite history and the relationship between the Biblical text and archeology. There is a continuum of views from conservative to liberal. Of course, nothing in this essay suggests that we should have any problem if "historical evidence" should somehow conclusively prove Israelites were never in Egypt and their never was a crossing of the Red Sea. 

But for the Israelite, these things cannot be mere story. There are tied to God--a God who acts in history. And if there is no history, then in essence there is no God--at least the God as the Bible portrays it. 

It is the classic definition and contention of the liberal, something we say as a historic label and category not as some sort of conservative expletive, to reglect history to a secondary role. Modern criteria--whether naturalism, scientism, Enlightenment philosophy, or a whole host of current fads can become the new arbiters.  The events described can be real in a non-historical sense in that they portray a sort of theological truth. But this theology is not Biblical theology which is always, to the chagrin of many, tied to history. The prime witness of course is the resurrection.

Perhaps, one would say to play the resurrection card we have gone too far. Of course we would not deny that event. Fair enough. But is one's methodology consistent enough to explain why one does not play the "story" card here at the crux of redemptive history? Genre? Again fair enough. I will grant there are clues to genre that should guide us. We may for example and the sake of argument suggest given Job's genre, or maybe even the story of Jonah--the portrayals a not strictly prose or historical. Again like we recognize poetry and parable in books like Judges or 1,2 Samuel, or the Gospel narratives themselves, we should not dismiss God's use of story. Neither should we dismiss God's use of the history.

The reality is that Enns' essay is, like it or not, a product of a modern era. We would be, I think, hard pressed to find an ancient Israelite who would make a fine distinction between mythic-origin story and something that did not happen. Or distinguishing true the actual events from connected to a higher truth. Indeed: if there was no Adam to transgress, no Israel to get across the Red Sea, the whole thing is a moot point. If it didn't happen it hardly explains the "who" who allegedly brought us to be in a certain way. But as a product of the modern era, we now challenge the reading and telling of the story which anchored the faith. We want to make room for faith--and here maybe Kant is to blame although he can't bear the whole force of it. Relying on "story" as a catch all fall back is too much of wanting to have our cake and eat it too.

Ironically Enns remarks: "Conservative Christians might respond, "The Bible can't deal in ancient stories. It is the Word of God. It is different. It has to be at least consistent with science." Not so fast. However different the Bible may be, intersecting with modern science is not the reason why." While we will not deal in whole with the scientific side of this, we could ask then what distinguishes the Bible from ancient stories? Well the Bible is true. Indeed it is: but how. Again without denying the ancient context of the Bible: what makes it true in a way the ancient stories are not--assuming one would argue the Bel and Tiamat are not the true originators. Perhaps we might recourse to the fact the people still believe in YHWH and not the others: but why? At some point we must drive back to history--that YHWH is real and irrupts in action into history in ways that Bel, Tiamat, Baal, ____(insert pagan god here)___ did not and do not. History is a buggabo.

Of course, for the essay the big issue then is the genre specifically of Genesis (although modern scholarship will question the whole Torah and the Histories--theological products of a post-exilic context--non-hisotical to varying degrees). Give that Enns is now associated with the BioLogos Foundation, the big issues seems to be Adam and special creation. We read:
The special creation of humans is found in both parts of the Christian Bible, the Old Testament (Genesis 1 and 2) and New (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). That is why conservative Christians have a hard time yielding ground to evolution. In fact, many conservative Christians are warned to avoid the conversation altogether in order to keep (godless) science from damaging faith.
The problem is that God ties himself to history. If these things are relegated to "story" and "fiction" how do actually explain the "who" question. The whole point of the Genesis narrative is that the true God is one who set humanity up has his vice-regents. There was a representative of God--His image bearer to rule His creation. Stories can catch a lot of symbolism and they can instruct us in a whole lot of ways--God Himself does not have issues with stories. But if He is telling us 'who'--will a story suffice? If God didn't really start us off with inbreaking into history--how can we be so sure the climax of history, which Christians have always claimed the cross and resurrection is such, is really what it claims to be. Is not make something the climax really just creatively telling the story? Eschatology is more than just spinning the yarn of history different from everybody else. At this point, we are saying no more than theologians a generation ago when they argued, as Enns alludes, to Paul's usage of Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and 1 Cor. 15.

Returning a moment to Genesis, as much as the narrative is about the God who acts--it is equally about the vice regent who acts. Obviously then the problem that Christian have with evolution is that there is not only no God who acts (at least in the case of non-theistic view of evolution) there is not vice-regent who acts (at least in most varieties of theistic and non-theistic views of evolution). If there is no regent who acts: we may ask why and when did God act in curse things? Is death part of the process or an aberration?

These are no idle questions. We read:
Ancient peoples did not investigate how things came to be; they assumed that there was a "beginning" when the gods formed the earth, people, animals, trees, etc., as you see them now. You can hardly blame them for making this assumption. The "how" question of creation was settled. They were interested in the "who" question: which of the gods is responsible for all of this? Each society had its own answer to this question, which they told in story form. The biblical story cannot claim a scientific higher ground. It, too, works with ancient themes and categories to tell Israel's distinct story.
I agree with the last lines. We cannot dismiss the ancient world in interpreting Scripture. The whole story of Israel is predicated on the fact that she exists--she is being established as a new vice-regent. She is not a fantasy. It is more than just mythic because God is using her and the covenant He made in history with Abraham to rectify an ancient problem--a problem brought on by the original vice regent.

The issue is not merely that "both sides need to be clear on why it is a problem for God to tell stories." The issue is that today moderns have a problem with a God who irrupts into history. They have a problem with eschatology--redemptive history that climaxes. If you have a problem with eschatology, you will have a problem with typology--or at least connecting it to history. You will have a problem with the protological--the origins. But if eschatology is real as an apocalyptic inbreaking into real history--(redemptive history is real history... NT studies has long since largely settled that debate)--then the whole series of introductions have to equally be set up in real history.

The problem is not with stories. The problem is knowing when the stories are mere actors on a page or when the stories have been acted out in history.

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