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The Objectivity of Biblical History

By P. Andrew Sandlin
September 01, 1998

Dualism and History
The Bible does not present a fundamental dualism between heaven and earth, spirit and matter, and eternity and history. While God is the eternal, unchangeable, and transcendent being, he is exhaustively involved in his creation. Though fully distinct from his creation, he is in no sense sequestered from it. He is actively at work in the world moment by moment (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).

God created man in his own image (Gen. 1:26-27), and man exists on the plane of history in the arena of God's cosmic actions. What theologians sometimes call "ordinary history"(Historie) is nothing other than the immediate sphere of God's dealings with man. The Bible knows nothing of a "suprahistory" or, in Bultmann's terms, "significant [existential] history"(Geschichte) of man's personal decision shorn of certain contact with "real" history (= history!). Even Cullman's "salvation history"(Heilsgeschichte), referring to God's redemptive acts in history (history as revelation), is objectionable inasmuch as it creates a semantic distinction between the nature of these historical events and all others. In God's incomparable works of creation and redemption, not to mention his numerous miraculous acts recorded in the Bible, the sphere of his supernatural activity is the sphere of "normal" history. The earth on which man lives today is the same earth whose six-day creation Genesis 1 relates, though the present earth has been cursed because of man's sin. Christ's virgin birth, sinless life, vicarious death, bodily resurrection, and witnessed ascension all occurred in human history about two millennia ago. Though they were distinctly miraculous events, they were in no sense ethereal, suprahistorical events. The history in which we exist is the only history Christianity knows anything about.

St. John warned of those antichrists who claim that Christ had not come in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-3). For nineteenth-century liberals, and many liberals today, the deity of Christ has been difficult to affirm. As faithless rebels, they cannot conceive how a man can be God. In large sectors of the patristic era, however, the problem was just the opposite: it was difficult to understand how God as Jesus Christ was actually a man.1 Numerous Christological heresies (Docetism, for example) arose as an expression of this crucial misunderstanding. At many points the church was under pressure from Greek philosophy, which usually held that the body is the cage or capsule of the soul which is freed at death and that history is somehow dirty and inferior to the Forms or Ideals which are the Reality toward which man should strive. This introduced a fatal dualism from which the church was not exempt.2 Human history necessarily suffers at the hands of this dualism, which always looks beyond history for true meaning and reality, while Christianity asserts that Christ as God of very God has entered history as Man of very man to reveal the fullness of God (Col. 2:9).

Likewise, the Bible reveals our God as actively involved in history from the point of creation, and most intensely in the incarnational and redemptive work of Jesus Christ. To those Jews who doubted his messiahship, Jesus Christ asserted that he and the Father are one (Jn. 10:30), to a doubting disciple he stated that to see him was to see the Father (Jn. 14:9), and the writer to Hebrews describes our Lord as the very image of the invisible God (Heb. 1:3). Jesus himself stated that no man may come to the Father except by him (Jn. 14:6). Man cannot be saved apart from history, not merely because man himself is the object of God's creation, but primarily because Jesus Christ as a historical figure is the subject of man's redemption. Further, while human history will one day pass into eternity after the final judgment, man's existence will not be an ethereal spiritist mode. Rather, the Bible teaches the resurrection of both the just and the unjust, the just to everlasting life, the unjust to everlasting damnation (Jn. 5:28-29; cf. 1 Cor. 15). Contrary to popular evangelical belief, the Bible does not teach that the saints will live in a heaven "somewhere up in outer space." Rather, it teaches that God will purify and renovate the present earth, and that God will descend to dwell with men (Rev. 21:1-3). This will be heaven on earth, in its most absolute sense.

History, the Medium of God's Revelation
History is the ordinary medium of divine revelation. To be sure, God in times past revealed himself in dreams and visions as well as in direct contact with Moses on Sinai and St. Paul in the Arabian desert. But the first chapter of Hebrews informs us that in these "last days," the interadvental era, God has spoken to us in his Son, Jesus Christ — a discrete, historical figure. God's impeccable, infallible revelation is mediated to man in the historically anchored Holy Scripture, as well as the historically anchored Son of God, Jesus Christ. It is true that some of the "history as revelation"school stress the revelational character of history to the exclusion of Scripture as the infallibly definitive interpretation of history. And so-called evidentalists hold that even the miraculous events of redemptive history are self-interpreting, not requiring the attestation and interpretation of Holy Scripture. These deviant viewpoints, however, must never corner us into adopting the opposite error of perceiving the Christian Faith, human salvation, and Holy Scripture as merely rational, experiential, intuitive, or "suprahistorical" matters not securely anchored in God's predestinating concrete historical dealings.3 For Christianity, history is an objective fact.4

Assaults on the Objectivity of Biblical History
Most modern assaults on the objectivity of Biblical history among those who nonetheless claim a measure of fidelity to the Bible's authority spring from an alleged alertness to literary analysis. Clark Pinnock, for example, who once embraced and articulated the highest form of Biblical authority,5 states in a more recent work:

Starting with some Old Testament examples, indications of the special character of the Bible's historical writing crop up again and again. At the very beginning, we are confronted with a six-day creation and begin to wonder how the world can have been created in so short a time. When we look for other explanations, we soon notice the internal parallelism of the days (days one to three describe spheres, and four to six point to inhabitants of those spheres) and contextual factors (the need to correct the theology of the Babylonian myths of creation). The problem seems to have been a misunderstanding of the literary genre. In the narrative of the fall of Adam, there are numerous symbolic features (God molding man from dirt, the talking snake, God molding woman from Adam's rib, symbolic trees, four major rivers from one garden, etc.), so that it is natural to ask whether this is not a meaningful narration that does not stick only to factual matters.6

Rather, it is natural to ask whether Pinnock's is not a patent attempt to subvert Biblical history by employing a fundamentally unbelieving hermeneutical method. This questioning or dismissal of revelation which the orthodox have routinely understood as referring to actual, discrete history is especially notable because Pinnock is regarded as an evangelical. Theological liberals have long questioned the objectivity of Biblical history on the grounds that such history — and especially the miracles of Biblical history — conflict with notions of the modern scientific and historical world view; in short, these narratives of Biblical history simply seem incredible to the modern mind.7 Evangelicals like Pinnock are not far behind in this race to undermine Biblical history. Their unbelief, one should note, is compatible with the loudest professions of adherence to formal Biblical authority,8 a fact from which we can deduce that "formal Biblical authority"is insufficient to guarantee maintenance of Biblical religion. If, for example, one claims that the Bible is certainly the infallible word of God and also that a proper hermeneutical treatment requires the symbolic interpretation of Genesis 1-11, a "metaphorical"virgin birth of Christ, or a "spiritual"resurrection of Christ, the claims of Biblical infallibility are meaningless and in fact hypocritical. A material Biblical authority sets forth the type of book the Bible is and the type of message it teaches, not merely that it is infallible. The orthodox hold that the outline of this message is enshrined in the Christian creeds, and that the divine message itself is expressed in, for the most part, simple, straightforward language in the Bible. It certainly includes figures of speech, but the language itself is ordinary language. Contrary to Pinnock, there is no "special character of the Bible's historical writing." If there were, Biblical interpretation and understanding would be the province of literary specialists, not the vast majority of Christians who lack (and have historically lacked) special literary training. In other words, the attempt to hold Scriptural meaning hostage to "special . . . historical writing"is a form of gnosticism. Biblical authority, to put it another way, is not merely a statement about the Bible's infallibility without reference to its meaning (mathematics textbooks, strictly speaking, may be infallible); rather, to assert the infallibility of the Bible is to claim that it speaks the unvarnished truth in ordinary human language; this is not a hermeneutical or exegetical induction, but a presupposition for approaching the Bible in the first place. Those who would counter that to insist on ordinary history and ordinary language is to impose our own views on the Bible are really contending that God has not been pleased to disclose himself to man as made in God's image, but only to a certain kind of man — one initiated into the gnosis of sophisticated literary analysis; this denies catholicity, a cornerstone of the Faith, and is anti-Christian to the core. The Faith subsists in ordinary history and the Bible speaks in ordinary language. Attempts to posit a special revelational language or a special revelational history subvert the Faith; they revive the spirit of antichrist.

Capitulation to the Prevailing Thought Forms
This assault on the orthodox understanding of the accounts of Biblical history is often accompanied by a diminution in the confidence of Biblical reliability or an attempt to appease the baying hounds of "scientific"sophistication of the modern era. A prime example is Meredith Kline, who states in the introduction to a recent article delineating his attack on the literal, six-day creation account of Genesis 1:

To rebut the literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation week propounded by the young-earth theorists is a central concern of this article.... The conclusion is that as far as the time frame is concerned, with respect to both the duration and sequence of events, the scientist is left free of biblical constraints [sic!] in hypothesizing about cosmic origins.9

The implicit assumption seems that if we can eliminate an antiquated, constraining orthodox view of Biblical creation, we may with a great sigh of relief give modern scientism (the religion of science) free reign. One ponders whether it is possible to invent entire, structured, interpretative applications for the express or implied purpose of paying homage to the modern ethos. Unfortunately, it is. Mark Noll, for instance, championing B. B. Warfield's toleration of the evolutionary religion, holds that natural revelation (interpreted, of course, by "the consensus of modern scientists, who devote their lives to looking at the data of the physical world"10) is the key to understanding the Biblical [!] teaching regarding issues of modern science. We can expect this angle from modern evangelicalism, for whom Scripture is not and never has been the epistemological authority in terms of which all of life (including science) must be interpreted.11 In referring to the doctrine of creation as an example of "damaging intellectual habits of fundamentalism,"12 Noll is really connoting that those who espouse the straightforward Biblical account of creation refuse to surrender, in Kline's terminology, "[B]iblical constraints in hypothesizing about cosmic origins." Noll holds that in their tenacity, these "fundamentalists"are simply reflecting the "common sense" scientific approach of the nineteenth century,13 though this would not explain why Christians in earlier generations embraced creationism. Perhaps, moreover, it did not occur to Noll how his own "historically situated"assaults on creationism may not simply be — must be — instances of worship at the shrine of historical relativism and the lust for academic respectability among moderns for whom the scandal of Christ, the Bible and the orthodox Faith (Gal. 5:11) will never be respectable.

Theologians like Noll and Kline undermine the Faith and the church. Impressionable youth not sufficiently grounded in orthodoxy, dogmatics, exegesis, and ecclesiastical history are supple prey in the hands of such men who turn out entire generations of religious latitudinarians for whom Biblical history may be surrendered if it conflicts with the latest scientistic fads. We have a name for this: apostasy.

Of course, Biblical literary analysts who undermine the orthodox conception of Biblical history may accuse their orthodox opponents of confusing hermeneutics with history or theology: the intent is not to diminish Biblical history, they say, but to highlight Biblical language. It is not hard to detect the fatal flaw of this idea. For were all of the Bible interpreted, for example, mythically, or according to the canons of modern literary analysis, it would be possible to undo every single aspect of Biblical history. Then the Bible would be nothing but an interesting spiritualizing and moralizing storybook. Actually, what "post-conservative" evangelicals like Clark Pinnock and Stanley Grenz are proposing sounds quite similar at points to just this "narrative" notion. 14 The Bible then becomes little more than a Semitic literary document whose contact with the history in which it arose is not always clear.

It all boils down to the issue of what sort of book the Bible really is. Orthodox Christians hold that it is the inspired and infallible word of the Living God issuing from eternity but arising within specific historical situations and bound inextricably to human history. This does not imply that the orthodox view of Scripture requires a uniform literalism at all points, defying tropes — like metaphor, simile, allegory, and so forth. The Bible is literally true, but not all of the Bible is true literally. But, as Noel Weeks insightfully observes, tropes are possible only because they refer to some prior concrete historical phenomenon. This fact holds special significance for those who repudiate the literal, six-day creation account of Genesis. 15 The structure of the Bible's message is not tropological; it is straightforward literature — even in its tropes — and designed to be read by believers of all walks of life. 16

Biblical history, moreover, is a seamless robe. To deny the historicity of the Genesis account of creation is to establish the groundwork for an equally plausible denial of Jesus Christ's historical redemptive ministry. Biblically, creation and redemption stand in an absolute continuum. This fact is evidenced not only by Jesus Christ's direct reference to the creation account as an actual, discrete historical event and Adam and Eve as actual, discrete historical individuals (Mt. 19:4-6), but also by the clear implications of the striking representational parallelism in Romans 5: Adam, the first man, plunges the entire human race into sin while Christ, the Second Adam, restores to the elect the status Adam lost. Christ acts for the elect, not only in his full deity, but also in his full humanity — because Adam as fully man acted for those whom he represented (the entire race) in choosing sin and depravity, so Christ as fully man acted for those whom he represented (the elect) in leading them into justification and righteousness. To deny the discrete humanity of Adam is not merely to subvert the verbal and situational parallelism of this passage; it is to undercut Christian salvation. In short, the historicity of Adam is one of the hinges on which Christian soteriology swings. This is only one example of how a supposed "literary approach" to Scripture readily subverts Biblical religion.

Conclusion
Biblical history — including the creation account — is history. It is the objective history in which we presently subsist. There is no other history. Further, to assail accounts of Biblical history by appeal to modern hermeneutical methodologies is to deny Biblical infallibility and subvert the Faith. If we are to preserve the Faith, we must draw the line here.

Notes

1. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (San Francisco, 1984), 27.

2. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition From Plato to Denys (Oxford, 1981).

3. Geerhardus Vos, "Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,"in ed., Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1980), 458-471.

4. This does not imply that history is self-interpreting, or that Biblical revelation is unnecessary, or that one may appeal to bare history for apologetic purposes. As Van Til notes, natural revelation and supernatural (propositional) revelation were designed from the beginning to be complementary, "Nature and Scripture,"in eds., N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, The Infallible Word (Philadelphia, 1946), 255-275.

5. Clark H. Pinnock, A Defense of Biblical Infallibility (Nutley, NJ, 1967).

6. Idem., The Scripture Principle (San Francisco, 1984), 119.

7. L. Harold DeWolf, The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective (Philadelphia, n. d.), 31-43.

8. Editorial [Kenneth Kantzer], "Rhetoric About Inerrancy: The Truth of the Matter,"Christianity Today, September 4, 1981, 16-19.

9. Meredith G. Kline, "Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony,"from Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 48:2-15, 1996 [American Scientific Affiliation], published at http://mcgraytx.calvin.edu/ASA/PSCF3-96Klineold.html. Kline's earlier and less audacious piece is "Because It Had Not Rained,"Westminster Theological Journal 20 (1958), 146-157.

10. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, 1994), 207, cf. 196-208.

11. An idea opposed fully by Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1967 edition), 8 and passim.

12. Ibid., 208.

13. Ibid., 199.

14. Millard Erickson, The Evangelical Left (Grand Rapids, 1997).

15. Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh, 1988), 105.

16. In contradistinction to the "interpretive maximalism"of e. g., James Jordan, Judges (Tyler, TX, 1985), xi-xvii. Jordan contends that man's existence as God's created image requires a symbolic approach to the Bible's message. One may have thought that it denoted just the opposite: man thinks in a creaturely (analogically, not univocally) way, just as God thinks the Creator's way.


Topics: Reformed Thought, Old Testament History

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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