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Vibrant Dance 2: Blaising: What Is At Stake: A Call For Gracious Discourse

{RJW Note:  This is the text of the first plenary session at this weekend’s Vibrant Dance conference. In an effort to accurately relate the views of the speakers, I tried to obtain their notes and permission to share them directly whenever possible. Every speaker I approached was more than gracious, even giving me from their hands their notes with handwritten modifications. I am most grateful to these gentlemen.

This talk is from Dr. Craig Blaising, the Provost and Executive Vice President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX. He has very graciously updated and emailed his 45 minute talk to me to share with you. I have only made the most minor of edits to be consistent with the format generally used here, issues of spacing and paragraphs mostly. Below is his text and work, so this amounts to a guest post. Again, I am grateful for his willingness to share it so generously.

Dr. Blaising also served as the moderator for the talks and panel discussion, so this talk served as an introduction and setting of format for the entire conference, so having it verbatim is particularly important.}

The biblical doctrine of creation teaches that God, acting alone, freely, by His own will and power created all things—the entire universe, the heavens, the earth and all that is in them. He brought all of it into being out of nothing—no preexistent material, no prior stuff, matter or energy. And, what he brought into being out of nothing, he has shaped and formed, preserved, ordered and upheld as the world and universe in which we live, inclusive of our very own selves.
            God acted alone in creation
                        I am the Lord, who made all things,
                        Who alone stretched out the heavens,
                        Who spread out the earth by myself.

Neither is the universe or anything in it including ourselves or anything about ourselves an extension or division from, or portion of, God's own being, which is simply to say that there is nothing in and nothing about the universe that is in itself eternal or ontologically necessary—none of its powers, processes, or component parts. No part or aspect of the universe functions as or constitutes its ontological ground. All of it exists by a will and wisdom that is ontologically separate from it.

                        it is he who made the earth by his power
                        who established the world by his wisdom
                        and by his understanding stretched out the heavens (Jer 10:12).

                        He calls into existence things that do not exist (Rom 4:17).

                        By Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,
                                    visible and invisible (Col 1:15)

This has several implications. It means that divine power is essentially inscrutable. It cannot be identified with any power, energy, or process that can be observed, measured, or harnessed. We can see the universe as the effect of divine power. But that power is not of the order of being as all created powers. It also means that even the sum of all created power cannot be compared with divine power. It can neither withstand it nor is it measurably comparable with it.

The radical contingency of all things is expressed in Scripture by their perishability. God, by comparison, endures. He is the everlasting God (Isa 40:27), from everlasting to everlasting (Ps 90:2). His "life" is ontologically distinct.
                        Of old you founded the earth,
                        and the heavens are the work of your hands.
                        They will perish but you remain,
                        They will all wear out like a garment,
                        You will change them like a robe,
                        and they will pass away.
                        But you remain the same,
                        and your years never end  (Ps 102:25-27).

The biblical doctrine of creation also tells us that God created all things by his Word and Spirit. In Genesis 1, the declaration that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth is explicated by a sequence of speech-acts in which the Spirit of God is present. Psalm 33:6, 8-9, puts it this way:
                                    By the Word of the Lord, the heavens were made,
                                    and by the breath of his mouth, all their host. . . .
                                    Let all the earth fear the Lord,
                                    let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him,
                                    for He spoke and it came to be,
                                    He commanded and it stood firm.

It is not, as Colin Gunton has reminded us, that he had the thought and it came to be. Rather, he spoke and it came to be. And the speaking is not some emotive expression, as if some disturbance in the divine being caused the exclamation. Rather, the biblical doctrine of creation presents this word of creation as intentional, purposeful. It is in fact, a command, commanding the being of things. He commanded, as the Psalm said, and it came to be. This is what calls for awe. As familiar as we are and as much as we have learned about our own being and about the universe in which we live, nevertheless, to contemplate that all of this was spoken into being by God, is truly awesome.
                        He calls into existence things that do not exist (Rom 4:17).

                        He upholds all things by his word of power (Heb 1:3)

                        When I call to them (He says in Isa 48 of Heaven and Earth), they stand forth
                                    together (Isa 48:12).

We will have more to say about the Word and Spirit in creation, but we should note at this point that Creation by Word and Spirit has not been as fully appreciated as it might be in Christian Theology. Many have been tempted to adapt this doctrine to Greek notions of eternal rational forms or principles which are either really or analogically present in creation – either platonic forms or Stoic spermatic logoi, for example.  We certainly do not dispute that creation is rational, that there is rational order or design in it. Rather, we strongly insist on that point. God has made it so. Nor would we dispute that notions of its rationality, even Greek notions, have encouraged scientific development. The rationality of the universe is an experienced fact by human minds, working independently or together. Forms of idealism are attempts to account for this fact. But they also carry baggage, which one might note, has historically presented problems for both the development of science and Christian theology.

The doctrine of creation which is presented to us in the opening pages of the Bible, and referenced throughout it, makes a point about the Word of God that is absolutely central to the entire biblical story. Life—from sheer existence to the flourishing of life—is absolutely dependent on the Word of God. And this is true in whatever form the Word comes. Genesis 1-2 makes the point that a positive response to the Word is good. In fact, an entire world/universe responding to and corresponding to the Word of God is very good!  Now, another word for positive response here is obedience. Genesis 3f makes the point that disobedience to the Word is not good!

The creation of man by God—by His Word and Spirit—is unique. It is not unique materially; man is made out of the dust of the earth, but in terms of the direct care, the making of this creature, the intentional purpose and design expressed—in relation to God, that he/they should image God, and in relation to the rest of creation, that he/they should rule over, tend and care for what God made. In relation to God, they are to receive the Word of God willfully as it comes to them as a promise to be believed, a command to be obeyed—the human reception of the Word in its moral form being meant to correspond to the ontological reception of the word in creation. Man is to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is only proper to one created by the word. Disobedience to the moral word brings death on the ontological level—man returns to the dust from which he was created by the Word and Spirit.

Creation by the Word carries over into the main biblical narrative as constitutive of God's relationship with Israel. Israel was once not a people. God spoke them into existence by means of His Word of promise to Abraham, and then to Isaac, and Jacob. God called Abraham to a land and revealed himself to him as God Almighty (Gen 17). The biblical narratives relate a process, a historical process, by which God populates the land with descendents of Abraham, parallel to his populating the heavens, the seas, and the land with creatures in Genesis 1. Throughout the process, the patterns and types of creation repeat themselves. The impotence of Abraham is countered by the creation power of God Almighty. The gaze of Abraham is directed to heaven and he is told thus shall be your descendents from your very own body. Centuries later, when Israel is facing a crisis of faith in the face of destruction and exile, Isaiah says,
                        Lift up your eyes and see, Who created these?
                        He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.
                        By the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power,
                        Not one of them is missing.
                        Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel,
                        My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.
                        Have you not known, have you not heard?
                        The Lord is the everlasting God,
                        the Creator of the ends of the earth (Isa 40:26-28).

Israel could trust in God's Word of power because He is the creator who brings into existence from nothing and makes and fashions all things.

Israel is repeatedly faced with impossibilities—national slavery, desolate wilderness, giants in the land. These are met by the power of God Almighty fulfilling his word of promise. When Israel is faced with death and re-enslavement by the Egyptian army in front of the Red Sea, it is God, the Creator, who causes dry land to appear in the midst of the sea for their deliverance. Likewise, it is God, the Judge, who re-floods that same "land" for the destruction of the Egyptians after Israel has been delivered.

In Hebrew poetry, the raging seas and their roaring waves are a metaphor for the nations. God, the Creator, calmed the "seas" and caused Israel to appear among the nations of the earth.

The pattern of the last becoming first is repeated from the creation account where man, the last created, is given dominion over the created order that preceded him. This pattern is repeated in the experience of Israel with respect to the ancient nations. And, it carries over to the typology of kingship in Israel and from there to messianic pattern.

The patterns of creation and the revelation of creation power converge in the person of Jesus presented to us in New Testament Scripture. His birth from Mary and his resurrection from the dead are both impossibilities brought about by divine power, mediated by the Spirit, in fulfillment of the Word of Promise. In his ministry, Jesus speaks the Word of power, pacifying the storm and raging waves, saving a boat of humans on the sea, healing, restoring, raising the dead, expelling demons, forgiving sins. He is the Word of God incarnate.

In the incarnation, two aspects of the creation account are brought together. The Word of God by which everything is created is united with man to whom everything created is given. In this is revealed the Son of God, through whom and for whom all things were created.
                        He [the beloved Son] is the image of the invisible God,
                        the firstborn of all creation,
                        for by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth,
                        visible and invisible, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or authorities,
                        all things were created through him and for him (Col 1:16).

                        In these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son,
                        Whom he appointed the heir of all things,
                        through whom he also created the world (Heb 1:2).

The Word of God incarnate fulfills the Word of Promise and Command. He heals the guilt and repairs the breach caused by the human rejection of the Word. People now receive the Word by receiving him, a reception mediated by the Spirit of God so that he dwells in, sanctifies, and gives life to those who receive him. They become new creatures, anticipating a new creation, into which they are and will be raised from sin and death. He, the last Adam, becomes the first, the one to whom all dominion is given. In him, the fulfillment of messianic kingdom prophecy, the promises concerning Israel, and all peoples, takes place in the fulfillment of the purpose and plan for all creation—a plan which, as Paul says, all things in heaven and on earth will be united in Christ (Eph 1).

But, let us look even further into the implication of the declaration that all things were created for him! A key theme running throughout biblical theology is the theme of the gift. In the first chapter of Genesis, God prepares a place of blessing and gives it to man as a place in which to live. Later, a promise is made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and repeated to Israel, of a land of blessings which God will give them. It is a gift and it comes promised in the covenant form of a grant. The grant form reappears in Scripture in the covenant given to David concerning a house and kingdom that God will give. This gift harkens back to the declaration in Genesis 1—Let them have dominion. That dominion is a gift which in its fulfillment is a world of lands, a kingdom of kingdoms, given to the Son of David. But when we come to understand that this Son of David is in fact the eternal Son of God, incarnate, the theme of creation as a gift rises to a higher level of significance.

Creation did not come about because of some necessity in itself or in God. It did not come about as a remedy to a divine deficit or defect, such as divine loneliness, or some such nonsense. Some have left themselves open to suggestions like this by failing to consider the full revelation of God in Scripture. It is only in light of the Trinitarian existence of God that the meaning and significance of creation is revealed. We come to understand the true significance of creation when we see that it is a gift from the Father to the Son, prepared by the Holy Spirit.

Creation is grounded in inter-trinitarian relationality. It is utterly contingent, but it is a special kind of contingency—it is gratuitous—a freely willed expression of love and honor from the Father to the Son. As such, it is both non-necessary, in its radical contingency, but stable and preserved in keeping with the intention of the gift, an intention grounded in the eternal love of the Father for the Son. Herein also lies the value of creation, for a gift cannot function as a gift except that it be valued by giver and receiver. And this is also why creation had to be redeemed!

Redemption secures the value of creation and allows the purpose of the gift to be accomplished. [Accordingly, the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world.]  The love and honor of the Father given to the Son is mutual. The gratitude of the Son to the Father is expressed eschatologically in reciprocal love and honor when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father so that God is all in all (1 Cor 15). The gift, then, is a mutual gift between Father and Son, sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. [The Son receives the gift incarnate, hypostatically united with creation.]

There is so much more that could be said—especially considering the metaphors of the robe and the house applied in Scripture to creation's relationship to God. All of this provides a framework for a theological consideration of the relation of God to time and space. But, perhaps enough has been said to make the point that the biblical doctrine of creation is not an isolatable, independent element of the theological loci, a mere preface to a story whose narrative is otherwise complete without it. Creation, from nothing, its being made and fashioned into an inhabited world, by Almighty God by means of His Word (His Son) and His Spirit, is absolutely integral to the whole of biblical theology. It is likewise absolutely integral to any "Christian" theology to the extent that such "Christian" theology is submitted to the authority of and draws its content from Scripture.

This recognizes, of course, that there are so-called Christian theologies that do not affirm the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. We, however, are not of their tribe. Paul's declaration in the second epistle to Timothy that all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and instruction is a key directive for us theologically. The word we translate by the phrase "inspired by God," literally means breathed out by God and is a word picture for speech. In other words, all Scripture is spoken by God, or simply, all Scripture is God's Word. Submission to and full reception of Scripture as God's Word is not only consistent with the very idea and implication of its being God's Word—rendering it authoritative and true since it is based in God's character and sovereignty—but it is completely consistent with the creation theology expressed by Scripture. Creation came into existence by the Word of God. It was made by the Word to be receptive to the Word. Our reception of the Word in the form of Scripture is appropriate both to our existence as creatures and to our redemption in Christ, the Incarnate Word, who has restored us to a proper relationship with God's Word through the Spirit. In other words, it is proper to our very identity as redeemed creatures doing theology.

In this conference, we are talking about differing interpretations of the creation narratives in Genesis 1-3. These texts are key in the biblical doctrine of creation, but, as I have hopefully shown, the doctrine is not confined to them. Yet, for the past 150 years, these texts have been at the center of much debate about creation vis-a-vis scientific theories of evolution. The question is how Genesis 1-3 is to be understood in relation to modern scientific claims about the early history of the cosmos, of the earth, and of life on it. Of course, the very fact that Genesis speaks of God as the creator is a problem for scientific naturalism. However, even granting the existence of a creator, many who embrace evolutionary accounts of origins have problems with the sequences, time periods, and processes set forth in the text. What exactly does first day, second day, etc., refer to?  What are we to make of the order in the account, in which light, for example, precedes the making of the sun and stars by three “days.” The earth itself and vegetation on it precedes the making of the sun and moon. There is also the more general question of how to understand the relation of divine action to “natural” physical processes—biological, chemical, physical, astrophysical. Of course, Christians have challenged the veracity of evolutionary theories. There have also been some major changes in the science of origins since the publication of Origin of the Species—the shift from a steady state to a Big Bang model of the universe, for example, and the abandonment of uniformitarianism. A number of Christian apologists have welcomed these changes, while others have expressed continuing reservations. The Intelligent Design movement has reasserted teleology against random chance and has challenged afresh the hypothetical mechanism of natural selection. Nevertheless, there continues to be a problem in relating observational science to the narrated sequence of creation in Genesis 1-3.

Now, there are those who say it is not necessary to try to harmonize an inductive scientific study of cosmic, earth, and life origination and development with the text of Scripture, Genesis 1-3 in particular. To be sure, naturalists would say this, simply dismissing Scripture as some sort of ancient myth. But there are also some who dismiss science as irrelevant to the interpretation of Scripture. Everything we need to understand the text is in the text. Nothing outside the text is needed, helpful, or desirable for understanding what it says. Is this a reasonable position to take?

Not really. The doctrine of creation teaches that all that we call natural reality came into existence and is held in being by the Word—from their sheer material existence to all of the “natural” processes designed into that natural reality. Theologically, all forms of the Word are related in that they are all the Word of God. Scripture itself gives a history in which the veracity of the verbal Word is defended by its observable correspondence to space time events. Isaiah 45:18-19 says:
                        For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!)
                        Who formed the earth and made it (he established it;
                                    He did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited)
                        I am the Lord, and there is no other
                        I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right.

The veracity of God’s Word is seen in the fulfillment of his prophetic word. Repeatedly in Ezekiel, the Lord speaks of a future recognition of the correspondence between the prophetic word and the space-time reality it predicts. He says, “Then you will know that I am the Lord.”  There is a revelation of the reality of God as God that takes place in the mind and heart of the one who sees the correspondence of Word and space-time reality. The God who gave the Word is the God who brought the reality into being. Such is the nature of God, the Word of God, and that which has come and will come to be.
            John says in the Gospel:
                        In the beginning was the Word . . .
                        And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,
                        And we have seen his glory.

            In the first epistle,
                        That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,
                        Which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and
                        Touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.

The word of God is true, and because it is true, we expect to see it correspond to the space-time reality it proclaims. So, yes, not only do we believe it is possible to draw connections between what Scripture says about the coming-into-being of creation and what we might see about that in disciplined observation of the creation, but we believe that God expects us to do that—an expectation that goes hand with our human privilege and responsibility to study, explore, investigate, and learn about God’ Works on the one hand, and to render worship to God in response on the other.

So, given that Scripture is true and a correspondence to physical reality exists, how are we to see this correspondence?  This comes down to the issue of correct interpretation of Scripture on the one hand and correct observation and legitimate theorizing about the natural world on the other. In this conference, we are focusing on the former—correctly interpreting the texts of Genesis 1-3. Although interpretation of these texts cannot and should not ignore what can be seen in the world itself, nevertheless, whatever interpretation we attribute to the texts needs to be legitimate hermeneutically—that is, it needs to be proper to the texts themselves within the context of canonical Scripture. Canonical Scripture presents us with a variety of literary genre—with all of their grammatical-syntactical-lexical features. Proper hermeneutics has to take all of this into account while seeking to clarify how the claims of the text correspond to what can be seen in the world.

It may be helpful for us to be reminded that this kind of problem is not uniquely modern. In both the patristic and medieval eras, Christian theologians, interpreting Genesis 1-3, also faced tensions with the science or natural philosophies of their day. They had the same concern for a proper reading of these texts—a reading proper to the texts themselves, acknowledging biblical authority, and one which was also consistent with an observational knowledge of the world. They believed that the natural philosophies of their day did possess some observational knowledge of the world that was practically useful and contributive to further knowledge development. However, they were critical of the theological and philosophical deficiencies of those natural philosophies, quick to point out their lack of agreement and liability to change, in contrast to Scripture which is unalterably true.

I want to give three examples of attempts to deal with this:  Augustine, Aquinas, and Galileo.

Augustine of Hippo, late 4th and early 5th century, freely engaged philosophers on a number of "scientific" issues, including the nature of time, light, the elements, and cosmology. However, Augustine cautioned against equating scientific opinion, even long held opinion with fixed truth. Theology does not take its content from science. He writes:
When it is asked what we ought to believe in matters of religion, the answer is not to be sought in the exploration of the nature of things, after the manner of those whom the Greeks called “physicists.”  Nor should we be dismayed if Christians are ignorant about the properties and the number of the basic elements of nature, or about the motion, order, and deviations of the stars, the map of the heavens, the kinds and nature of animals, plants, stones, springs, rivers, and mountains; about the divisions of space and time, about the signs of impending storms, and the myriad other things which these “physicists” have come to understand, or think they have. For even these men, gifted with such superior insight, with their ardor in study and their abundant leisure, exploring some of these matters by human conjecture and others through historical inquiry, have not yet learned everything there is to know. For that matter, many of the things they are so proud to have discovered are more often matters of opinion than of verified knowledge. For the Christian, it is enough to believe that the cause of all created things, whether in heaven or on earth, whether visible or invisible, is nothing other than the goodness of the Creator, who is the one and the true God.[1]

The Bible, in Augustine’s view, was unquestionably true, and wherever it spoke to matters in the natural order, it was to be believed. Nevertheless, he cautioned that one can be mistaken about the interpretation of Scripture. There are some things that "reason and experience" make certain and a Christian should not make the mistake of supposing that Scripture teaches the opposite of those things. He writes:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds as certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.[2]

Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century undertook a massive integration of Aristotelian philosophy (including Aristotelian Science) with Christian theology. This was not done uncritically, and there were several points at which Aristotelian ideas had to be modified at best or outright rejected. However, the integration also required some new ways of reading the biblical text. Were these new ways of understanding the text true?  One needs to be open to that possibility, Aquinas argued. He writes:
First, the truth of Scripture must be held inviolable. Secondly, when there are different ways of explaining a Scriptural text, no particular explanation should be held so rigidly that, if convincing arguments show it to be false, anyone dare to insist that it still is the definitive sense of the text. Otherwise unbelievers will scorn Sacred Scripture, and the way to faith will be closed to them.[3]

Aquinas wrote this while commenting on the creation of the firmament and the setting of lights there. He is concerned to find room in the text for Aristotle's celestial layers, which he believed to be a cosmological fact. The problem is that Scripture does not seem to be saying that. Nevertheless, Aquinas wanted to read Aristotle’s cosmology into the text. However, is it really the case that Aristotle's celestial order is in the meaning of the biblical text? Supposing Aristotle’s order was true, which it is not, is it legitimate to insist not just that that idea be harmonized into an overall world view but that the notion is present in the text! Aquinas was right to see that a tension existed in the different language about order and structure in the biblical text and in Aristotle. As it turns out, what he thought was a cosmological fact was false. One can only surmise that if the church and Christian intellectual culture had maintained reservations about Greek science—because of inconsistencies with the biblical text—perhaps it could have hastened the rise of modern science. Perhaps also, it could have encouraged closer more careful study of the biblical text. The meaning of the biblical text has to be established by hermeneutical arguments.

Centuries later, Western culture was forced to face the fact that Aristotelian science was wrong about many things and needed to be replaced. It was Galileo, of course, who inductively challenged the old order by looking through his telescope and observing "defects" in celestial objects that Aristotelian science had deduced could not be there. They asked him, how can you say these things?  He answered, I looked!  Well, they had not looked, and that was the problem. But there was more to it than the supposed perfection of the heavenlies. Galileo's experiments confirmed Copernicanism over older Ptolemaic cosmology. This brought a challenge not just to interpolated readings of Scripture, but to supposed simple, literal readings of biblical texts—texts that were thought to teach a geocentric universe.

Paolo Foscarini, an enthusiastic supporter of Galileo, categorized the biblical texts into five groups: (1) “passages that state that the earth is stationary and does not move” (eg. Ps. 93:1; Ps. 104:5; Eccl. 1:4); (2) “passages which say that the sun is moved and rotates around the earth” (eg. Ps. 19:4-6; Eccl. 1:5-6; Isa. 38:8; Ecclesiasticus 48:23,26; Josh. 10:12); (3) “passages which say that the heavens are at the top and the earth is at the bottom” (eg. Joel 3:3, cf. Acts 2:19); (4) “passages describing hell as in the center of the world”; (5) “passages which always contrast heaven to earth, and also earth to heaven, as having a relation like a circumference to its center and a center to its circumference” (eg. Gen. 1:1; Ps. 115:16; Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 15:47-48; Col. 1:16, 20; 3:2).[4]  The principle of interpretation here, Foscarini argued, should be “that in those places Scripture speaks according to our mode of understanding, and according to appearances, and in respect to us….For, from our point of view it does seem that the earth stands firmly in the center and that the sun revolves around it, rather than the contrary.”[5]

Foscarini’s hermeneutic was directly challenged by Cardinal Bellarmine, the chief defender of the council of Trent against the Protestants.[6]  Bellarmine had already laid out principles of interpretation in his Disputations Against Heretics where he argued that the Scriptures needed to be understood in the Spirit in which they were written, that is in the Holy Spirit, which was to be found in the Catholic Church as a whole rather than in individuals. The spirit of heresy, in Bellarmine’s view, was the spirit of individual interpretation over that of the church. In his letter to Foscarini, Bellarmine argued that to say that the sun is the center of the cosmos and that the earth rotates is dangerous because it makes the Scripture false. All the fathers and the commentators agree on the literal interpretation of the passages in Genesis, Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Joshua to the effect that the sun is in the heavens and the earth is in the center. It does not matter that the system of Copernicus “affirms the appearances”, the traditional interpretation must be accepted by faith because of the authority of the word of God.

Galileo’s views can be found in unpublished notes on Bellarmine’s letter as well as in an earlier letter to Benedetto Castelli.[7]  He is quite clear that he believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. He says that Scripture cannot err but interpreters and expositors can sometimes err and this can happen in the attempt to maintain a simple literal meaning in places where Scripture accommodates itself to our understanding or apprehension.[8]  One has to be alert to the literary possibilities of the text.

The Galileo controversy showed that the simple reading of Scripture is not always correct. Scientific observation can be a stimulus to hermeneutical reappraisal. But this is the point:  whatever interpretation is correct is justifiable on proper hermeneutical grounds. Eventually a harmony was reached between scientific thought on the cosmological relations of the earth, sun, moon, and stars and the way the Foscarini's list of biblical texts were read. The solution was so complete that today no one reads those texts in the "literal" manner defended by Bellarmine. In fact, the metaphorical, perspectival, poetical reading of those texts defended by Galileo is today considered a proper part of literal interpretation.

In 1978, the evangelicals who formed the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy approved the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy composed of a preamble, a short statement of 5 sections, 19 articles of affirmation and denial, and an accompanying exposition.[9]  The central definition appears as section 4 in the short statement:  “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creations, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.” Article 18 of the affirmations and denials offers a brief statement on hermeneutics:  “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.”

It was apparent to those who participated in the framing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy that more would need to be said about hermeneutics. After meeting in similar fashion in 1982, the ICBI produced The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. This statement was composed of 25 articles of affirmation and denial accompanied by a commentary on the statement by Norman Geisler. The statement and commentary were published as appendixes along with the various papers of the Summit.[10]  This volume included papers addressing the issue, “The Trustworthiness of Scripture in Areas Relating to Natural Science,” by Walter L. Bradley and Roger Olsen with responses by Gleason L. Archer and Henry M. Morris.[11] It is reasonable to conclude that the articles of affirmation and denial and the commentary were framed in response to these papers as well as the general issue at hand of the relation of Scripture and Science. In reading the affirmations and denials and the commentary, one is struck with a consistency in overall approach to the subject between these evangelicals and the Bible affirming church through its history. For the purposes of this paper in preparing our minds for further discussion, I will close by reading the relevant material:  articles 20-22 and excerpts from the commentary by Geisler:

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics

Article 14:  We affirm that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though presented in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact. We deny that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated.

Article 15:  We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that it, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. We deny the legitimacy of any approach to Scripture that attributes to it meaning which the literal sense does not support.

Article 20:  We affirm that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else. We further affirm that in some cases extrabiblical data have value for clarifying what Scripture teaches, and for prompting correction of faulty interpretations. We deny that extra biblical views ever disprove the teaching of Scripture or hold priority over it.

Article 21:  We affirm the harmony of special with general revelation and therefore of biblical teaching with the facts of nature. We deny that any genuine scientific facts are inconsistent with the true meaning of any passage of Scripture.

Article 22:  We affirm that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book. We deny that the teaching of Genesis 1-11 are mythical and that scientific hypothesis about earth history or the origin of humanity may be invoked to overthrow what Scripture teaches about creation.

A Commentary on The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics by Norman L. Geisler

Commentary on Article 20:  Although only the Bible is the normative and infallible rule for doctrine and practice, nevertheless what one learns from sources outside Scripture can occasion a reexamination and reinterpretation of Scripture. For example, some have taught the world to be square because the Bible refers to “the four corners of the earth” (Isa. 11:12). But scientific knowledge of the spherical nature of the globe leads to a correction of this faulty interpretation. Other clarifications of our understanding of the biblical texts are possible through the study of the social sciences. However, whatever prompting and clarifying of Scripture that extrabiblical studies may provide, the final authority for what the Bible teaches rests in the text of Scripture itself and not in anything outside it (except in God Himself). The Denial makes clear this priority of the teaching of God’s scriptural revelation over anything outside it.

Commentary on Article 21:  This article continues the discussion of the previous article by noting the harmony of God’s general revelation (outside Scripture) and His special revelation in Scripture. It is acknowledged by all that certain interpretations of Scripture and some opinions of scientists will contradict each other. However, it is insisted here that the truth of Scripture and the facts of Science never contradict each other. Genuine science will always be in accord with Scripture. Science, however, based on naturalistic presuppositions will inevitably come in conflict with supernatural truths of Scripture. Far from denying a healthy interchange between scientific theory and biblical interpretation, the framers of this statement, welcome such. Indeed, it is acknowledged (in article XX) that the exegete can learn from the scientist. What is denied is that we should accept scientific views that contradict Scripture or that they should be given an authority above Scripture.

Commentary on Article 22:  Since the historicity and the scientific accuracy of the early chapters of the Bible have come under severe attack it is important to apply the “literal” hermeneutic espoused (article 15) to this question. The result was a recognition of the factual nature of the account of the creation of the universe, all living things, the special creation of man, the Fall, and the Flood. These accounts are all factual, that is, they are about space-time events which actually happened as reported in the book of Genesis (see article 14). The article left open the question of the age of the earth on which there is no unanimity among evangelicals and which was beyond the purview of this conference. There was, however, complete agreement on denying that Genesis is mythological or unhistorical. Likewise, the use of the term “creation” was meant to exclude the belief in macro-evolution, whether of the atheistic or theistic varieties.

In conclusion, the following principles may be noted:

1. The Word of God is true. Scripture is true; the World is real.

2. It is proper to look for a harmony between what Scripture says and what can be observed in the world—between the interpretation of Scripture and Scientific observation.
3. Beware of theorizing that skews observation in hostility to God.
4. In application of the above, it is proper to bring real world observation into consideration when interpreting Genesis 1-3.
5. Interpretation must be justified hermeneutically—that is, within the field of proper, legitimate hermeneutics.
6. The Galileo factor—the simplest, most traditional reading is not always right. Failure to harmonize with observational truth is an indication that the reading may not be correct.
7. The Aquinas factor—Beware of interpolating a widely accepted scientific view into the text contrary to its textual features. [Again, interpretation must be justified by the principles of proper hermeneutics.]
8. The principle of truth and grace. We were created and redeemed by the Word to be receivers of the Word. John tells us that the Word became incarnate, full of grace and truth. Grace and truth are meant to go together. And, so it must be in the way we participate in a study like this. Ephesians 4 tells us to speak the truth in love. This applies to a Body that is growing in knowledge as it grows into maturity in Christ (Eph 4:15-16). Both apply—seeking and speaking the truth, and doing so in love. John tells us that in him is light and there is no darkness at all. This is a principle for our fellowship, which brings together love and truth (1 Jn 1:5-10). Again, Paul tells Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim. 2:24).
What is at stake?  Our Worship, our witness, our fellowship. What is at stake is our proper function as creatures made by and redeemed by God through His Word and by His Spirit.


[1]Idem, Enchiridion, trans. Albert C. Outler, Library of Christian Classics 7 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 341-42. The interesting about this comment is the warning of humility with regard to scientific claims either in support of or in opposition to prevailing opinion. The primary concern is the affirmation of the true Creator of all things.

[2]Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1.19.39, trans. John Hammond Taylor, in Ancient Christian Writers 41-42 (New York: Newman Press, 1982), 41:42-43. The section from which this citation is taken is quite interesting for the question of interpreting Scripture with respect to scientific observations. Augustine is addressing the interpretation of Genesis 1:3 and the question of the nature of light.
[3]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae In vol. 10, Cosmogony  of St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,61 vols , trans. William Wallace (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), 71, 73.
[4]Paolo Antonio Foscarini, "A Letter to Fr. Sabastiano Fantone," in Blackwell, Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible, Appendix 6, 223-26.
[5]Ibid., 232.
[6]Bellarmine, "Letter to Foscarini," in Blackwell, Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible, Appendix 8, 265-67.
[7]Galileo, "Letter to Castelli" and "Unpublished Notes (1615)"  in Blackwell, Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible, Appendices  4 and 9, 195-201 and 269-76, resp.
[8]Ibid., 195.
[9]The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is found in various publications and can be accessed online. Soon after its formulation, it was published as an Appendix in Norman L. Geisler, Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 493-502.
[10]Hermeneutics, Inerrancy & the Bible: Papers from ICBI Summit II, ed. Earl D. Radmacher and Rober D. Preus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984). The Statement is published as Appendix A on pages 881-87. The commentary by Geisler is published as Appendix B on pages 889-904.
[11]Ibid., 283-317. This also includes and appendix on "Yom of Genesis 1: Several Views," by Norman Geisler, 312-15.

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