Consequences of New Hermeneutics
I attended a Lord I Believe Seminar back in the spring of 1996, and came away with decidedly mixed feelings. Much of the program was highly commendable. Brother Hill Roberts did a superb job of using statistical probability to show that it was impossible for life to have originated by chance. Yet, there were several aspects of the presentation that trouble me. In particular, I am concerned about Hill's approach to the book of Genesis, especially as it relates to the issue of time and the age of the earth.
Brother Hill Roberts accepts the standard geologic timetable, which says that the universe is approximately 15 billion years old and the earth is around 4.5 billion years old. He gives the superficial appearance of accepting the Genesis account of creation, but when the issue is pressed, it becomes manifestly evident that he does not interpret the early chapters of Genesis in a straightforward, literal manner. He weaves, he dodges, and he finesses the language so that it supports his presuppositions. Simply put, Hill believes that God conceived of the plan of creation in six literal days, but then took billions of years implementing that plan. In other words, God spent six days thinking and 4.5 billion years acting.
Brother Roberts also accepts the standard geologic column that is presented in evolutionary textbooks. Rejecting the concept of a cataclysmic, world-destroying flood, Hill believes that the deluge of Noah was a rather tranquil phenomenon that left little or no evidence in the fossil record. According to Hill, the fossil record is not a testament to God's judgment of the anti-deluvian world; rather, it is evidence of the gradual unfolding of God's creative power. He believes that God's creative handiwork can best be explained by an adaptation of Steven Jay Gould's Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. Gould, an atheistic evolutionist to the core, argues the fossil record indicates that immense periods of time elapsed with little change in living things, but every so often, this state of tranquil uniformity was interrupted by short periods of rapid change. According to Gould, such change was unguided and purposeless, the result of accidental and random mutations. According to Roberts, the agency of such change was God. Millions of years passed, and then "poof," God created fish; millions of years passed, then "poof," God created mammals; millions of years passed, then "poof," God created man.
In this manner, Hill Roberts accommodates the prevailing views of modern science, and also insulates himself against the charge that he is a theistic evolutionist. To his credit, Hill does not believe in amoebae to man evolution; he completely rejects the concept of evolution involving changes in kinds and transitional forms. Nevertheless, I believe that his teaching undermines the gospel message. The position that Roberts espouses, which is remarkably similar to that of Hugh Ross, chief advocate of the doctrine of Progressive Creation, is contrary to a straightforward understanding of Scripture. I believe Hill has compromised Biblical truth in an effort to accommodate scientific theory. Trusting the assertions of modern science, he has dramatically reinterpreted the obvious and forthright teachings of Genesis 1-11.
Why does Hill Roberts take this approach? In private correspondence with me dated 16-April-1996, Hill wrote, "The answer is simple: based on the physical data it is more reasonable scientifically to believe the earth is old than young. Given that, does Genesis necessarily conflict with that data? No, not if read very very precisely, literally, in the original paleo-Hebrew language with the illumination of God's natural revelation being used in parallel. A preacher of God's Word must be just as willing to turn on that light as a scientist must be willing to hear the word. They are both the revelation of God about his creation. To pick one over the other is the same as picking Romans over James: it gives a distorted result."
Hill Roberts believes that science has proven that the earth is old. He must therefore reinterpret Genesis 1-11 to fit this assumption. He claims that he is being very precise and very literal in his approach to Genesis. However, in truth, Hill treats the Genesis account as something less than actual history. Is this approach valid? How should we interpret the Biblical account of creation? Is the book of Genesis poetry or prose? Is it fact or fiction? Is it a myth, a fable, an allegory?
According to Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, hermeneutics are "the principles and methods used to interpret a given passage of Scripture. Bible scholars believe a biblical text must be interpreted according to the language in which it was written, its historical context, the identity and purpose of the author, its literary nature, and the situation to which it was originally addressed."(1)
The Bible contains various types of literature. The Psalms are poetic. Proverbs contain pithy statements of Hebrew wisdom. Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation employ apocalyptic imagery. Occasionally Biblical authors use allegoric, hyperbolic and metaphorical language. Jesus often spoke in parables. However, most of the Bible is written in a straightforward fashion and should be understood literally.
How should we understand Genesis 1-11? Genesis 12-49 is obviously a historical narrative, but what about the first few chapters of the book? There is no stylistic change between the two sections. In fact, they are not two distinct sections at all. The only difference is that Genesis 1-11 deals with the history of the world before Abraham, while chapters 12-49 focus on the life of Abraham and his descendants. The entire book of Genesis purports to be a factual, historical account of God's early dealings with mankind. Those who are honest with the text will interpret it in a straightforward manner. Nevertheless, men such as Hill Roberts, Hugh Ross and John Clayton, play fast and loose with Genesis because of their infatuation with the pronouncements of modern science.
Science is driving modern culture, but most of us haven't even got license plates. We are inundated with various claims of science, all of which purport to be authoritative. Yet, few people have scientific expertise. Most of us are left to wonder which claims are true and which are false.
Every day brings some new scientific pronouncement. Unfortunately, much of what passes for science is more rightly called "junk science." What do we mean? "Junk science" is bad science, untested and unproven science. It is used to further special agendas, such as personal injury lawyers who sue large corporations. It is used to support the latest warnings from the food police. It is used to bolster the claims of "Chicken Little" environmentalists. It is used to justify wacky social programs dreamed up by the helping professionals of the Nanny State. It is employed by overzealous regulators who attempt to expand their bureaucratic power and budgets. It is used by unethical corporations to make bogus and fraudulent product claims. It is used by slick politicians campaigning for elective office and wannabe scientists seeking fame and fortune.
We also would do well to be skeptical of many of the pronouncements of evolutionary scientists. Christians are honest enough to admit their presuppositions, but evolutionists often are not! The entire structure of evolutionary thought is based on the premise that God does not exist. Working from that assumption, scientists derive some naturalistic way of explaining the origins of life, the development of the earth, the geologic column, etc. These obvious biases must be weighed whenever we consider their claims.
Science has greatly improved our quality of life, and for this we should be thankful. In many ways, science is trustworthy. However, over the years, science has been wrong on a variety of issues. Scientific claims are often confusing and contradictory. The experts often meet themselves coming and going. For example, one week it is claimed that coffee is good for you; the next week it is bad. Many studies have been done to see if there is a direct link between caffeine and/or coffee drinking and coronary heart disease. The scientific evidence is conflicting, and the results are inconsistent.
Several years ago, environmental activists shouted, "Alar on apples causes cancer!" Expert witnesses were brought in to hype the danger. The news media provided extensive coverage of Meryl Streep's testimony before congress. However, later these claims were refuted. Eventually the propagandists were forced to say, "Never mind," but their retraction received scant media coverage.
Now the gloom and doom crowd has a new issue: Toothpaste. A new study from the University of Buffalo claims the hydrogen peroxide in your whitening toothpaste may be a cancer promoter. So kids, it is O.K. to quit brushing your teeth! You heard it from the experts.
For years, skeptics and unbelievers have used science to attack the Bible. It is said that evolution is a proven fact. This is not merely a gross overstatement; it is an outright falsehood. In the realm of science, it is important that we recognize the difference between a hypothesis, a theory and a law. We also need to recognize how each is subject to revision.
When a scientist observes a given phenomenon and then makes an educated guess as to what might cause the phenomenon, that guess is called a hypothesis. Afterwards, the scientist will work against the hypothesis, testing it by a series of experiments, to see if it holds up. It may quickly be disproved and discarded. It may fit the facts perfectly. However, there is a greater probability that the hypothesis will need to be modified or revised as additional evidence is considered.
As a hypothesis is subjected to repeated testing, it usually becomes more focused and refined. If, over an extended period of time, all the evidence seems to fit the hypothesis, then it may come to be viewed as a theory. Yet, even at this point, scientists still acknowledge the possibility that some additional evidence may show up that will disprove the theory.
As the evidence builds over many years, scientists may eventually decide that this theory could not be wrong, and they start calling it a law. Nevertheless, a law is subject to the same demands as a theory. Additional evidence may be discovered that cannot be accounted for according to the existing law. Over time, it may become obvious that a law needs to be modified. Laws change much more slowly than do theories or hypothesis. However, even laws of science are subject to revision.
A ready example of this revision process, even as it applies to the laws of science, comes from the realm of physics. Prior to 1945, physics or chemistry textbooks affirmed there were two fundamental laws of physics: (1) the law of conservation of mass and (2) the law of conservation of energy. These laws were viewed as separate and unrelated.
However, extensive work in atomic laboratories revealed that the original understanding scientists had of physics was simply not true. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Mass can be turned into energy, and vice-versa, but the sum total of energy in the universe never changes. Thus it became evident that the law of conservation of mass and the law of conservation of energy were not two separate things. Mass and energy are now viewed as different manifestations of the same thing.
For example, the energy in a hydrogen bomb results from the fusion (combining) of hydrogen atoms. Four molecules of hydrogen are fused into a molecule of helium. The resulting atomic weight of that one helium molecule is less than the sum of the four incoming hydrogen molecules. That mass has now become energy. It is no longer mass in the old sense of the word. Thus, instead of viewing mass and energy as separate, scientists now view them as different manifestations of the same things. Thus, a fundamental law of science had to be revised to accommodate additional evidence.
Despite the strident assertion of propagandists, evolution is NOT a proven fact. The theory of evolution falls outside the realm of empirical science. The steps of evolution have never been observed. Evolution is not subject to experimentation because the time required would exceed the lifetime of any human observer. It is impossible to reproduce evolution in the laboratory. It cannot be proven true or falsified. Therefore, evolution cannot even rightly be considered a theory. At best, evolution is a hypothesis, a guess, a working idea, and a starting point for further investigation.
Thus, a hypothesis, a theory, or even an accepted law of science can change over time. Each of these ideas can be recognized as incorrect and may have to be radically modified to correspond to present evidence. Therefore, we should be very cautious regarding any apparent discrepancy between science and the Bible.
Nevertheless, many are inclined to put absolute faith in the proclamation of science. If there is an apparent discrepancy between the science and the Bible, then science must be right and the Bible must be wrong. Therefore, the proclamation of science is elevated to a position of superiority, and the Bible must be reinterpreted so as to harmonize with science.
This is exactly what Hill Roberts does with the book of Genesis. He gives an entirely unnatural meaning to chapters 1-11 in order to accommodate current scientific opinions. He attempts to balance God's natural revelation and His special revelation of truth. He believes the two should be used in parallel; we should allow God's natural revelation to illuminate His spiritual revelation. Remember our earlier quote from the pen of Hill Roberts: "A preacher of God's Word must be just as willing to turn on that light [i.e., the illumination that comes from God's natural revelation, MM] as a scientist must be willing to hear the word. They are both the revelation of God about his creation. To pick one over the other is the same as picking Romans over James: it gives a distorted result." However, in the theology of Hill Roberts, Hugh Ross, and John Clayton, God's natural revelation is treated with more reverence than the Sacred Text. Nature is given priority. More specifically, man's pronouncements about nature are given priority. If there is a conflict between man's scientific pronouncements and Biblical truth, man's wisdom wins out. The scientific opinions of men are accepted at face value while the Holy Scriptures must be reinterpreted.
Once we accept the notion that modern scientific theory carries equal authority with the Holy Scriptures, then "Katy, Bar the Door!" The Bible must inevitably be subverted. Hill Roberts wants to reinterpret Genesis so that it harmonizes with the theories of evolutionary geologists. Others will try to reinterpret the moral teaching of Scripture so that it harmonizes with the latest pronouncements of the social sciences.
If the modern views of feminism are correct, then Paul was obviously a male chauvinist and his statements regarding the role of women must be reinterpreted (1Co 14:34; 1Ti 2:12-15). If the modern views of the behavioral sciences regarding homosexuality are correct, then the Biblical injunctions against this practice reflects the homophobic bias of an unenlightened age, and they must be reinterpreted (Lev 18:22; Rom 1:26-27). If the modern views of radical environmentalists are correct, then the scriptural affirmation of man's dominion over nature is obviously false and must be reinterpreted (Gen 1:27-30; Psa 8:4-9). If the modern views of child-rearing experts are correct, many statements in the Bible regarding the need for corporal discipline are incorrect and must be abandoned (Pro 13:24; 22:15).
Who is to say that the pronouncements of a geologist are more important than those of a sociologist? Both claim to be authoritative in their respective disciplines. If we elevate "scientific" opinion to the level of Scripture, then unbelievers and skeptics will become the gatekeepers of spiritual knowledge and wisdom. The wise, the mighty and the noble of this world will become the final arbitrators of Biblical truth. However, Paul said those who belong to this class are often devoid of truth. They are entirely too sophisticated to appreciate the simple wisdom of God (1Co 1:18-31). They have a tin ear when it comes to hearing the music of the spheres. Spiritual truths do not resonate in their hearts. They are deaf, and dumb, and blind.
In every age, man has thought that his wisdom was superior to that of God. So he attempts to explain away much of God's Word, based on his own great wisdom. Yet, in each case, it was but a short time until further study proved him wrong and made his reinterpretation of God's Word the laughing stock of all knowing people.
This sad process has been repeated time and time again. One hundred years ago, the Biblical references to the Hittites were treated with great skepticism (Gen 15:18-21). Because no reference to the Hittites had been found outside the Bible, many skeptics doubted the authenticity of the sacred text. However, thanks to modern archaeological discoveries, today the Hittites and Hittite culture are well known.
Critics continue to question the Bible. Modern scholarship argues that the children of Israel were an indigenous race of Canaanites who created the Exodus myth to set themselves apart from their neighbors. Along this same line, contemporary scholars say there is no evidence that David ever existed. Rather, they assert that his life and reign were fabricated in order to provide a motivating pseudo-historical culture for later Jews. Surely Hill Roberts knows all this. What effect will it have on his theology? Hill rejects the literal historicity of Genesis 1-11 because of modern science and scholarship. How long will it be before he also abandons other significant portions of Old Testament history? What other passages will he attempt to reinterpret? Once we begin to be swayed by Biblical critics, there is no sure stopping place!
There is only one thing that will stand: God's Word and the simple understanding of the person who takes God at his word. The 19th Century critics have come and gone, but the Word of God remains. 20th Century critics will be similarly discredited, but God's Word will continue to stand. The sadness and shame of it all is that so many Christians heed the critics. They deify the wisdom of men and discount the wisdom of God. In a state of acute embarrassment, they try to explain away the Scriptures. They try to tell us that God really did not mean what he said. All this reminds me of an old poem by John Clifford:
In closing, I would like to make a few additional comments about Hill Roberts' apparent partial acceptance of the latest model of evolutionary thought. In discussing the fossil record, Hill clearly shows there are no transitional fossils in the geologic column. He skillfully exposes the flaws of the Darwinian model, and points out that many leading evolutionary biologists now reject the idea of slow, incremental change. Instead, the current fad in certain evolutionary circles is Steven J. Gould's Punctuated Equilibrium Theory. According to this explanation, long periods of little change in living things are interrupted by short periods of rapid change.
Hill Roberts argues that the fossil record supports this basic concept. I was struck by his effort to harmonize this model with the Biblical account of creation. In describing Punctuated Equilibrium, he said, " "Now doesn't that sound like what is recorded in the book of Genesis: God said... God said... God said... let their be life..." Yet, in my opinion, Hill's approach is no different, at least in principle, from the theistic evolutionists of yesteryear who tried to accommodate the Darwinian model and uniformitarianism.
What is Hill going to do when Gould's Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium goes out of style and is replaced by another idea in a few short years? In fact, it has already been rejected by many evolutionists. A recent comment about Gould is quite interesting: "Even his critics grant that Dr. Gould is popular with lay readers, but this has also made him a favorite target of attack. In The New York Review of Books last year, John Maynard Smith, a prominent British evolutionist, said of him that 'the evolutionary biologist with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.'"(2)
Those who feel compelled to accommodate the Bible to the latest pronouncements of science are hooking their wagon to an unstable star. Scientific theories quickly change. (Are we experiencing global warming, or is the earth about to enter another ice age? Science has affirmed both in recent years.) Shall we be forced to run back and forth, always shouting "Me too! Me too! Me too!" Those who compromised their faith in order to accommodate Darwinianism look mighty foolish today. I suspect the same thing will one day be said about those who try to adapt the Scriptures to a Gouldian belief system.
The clear lesson is this: Don't compromise the truth of God's Word in a futile effort to gain respectability in a world of unbelievers. Remember that leaders in evolutionary thought have utter contempt for Creationists of every stripe! Mr. Gould is an atheist. I am sure he feels nothing but scorn for those who would attempt to harmonize his Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium with the Bible. We are not going to win any brownie-points with those of his ilk by trying to find a "reasonable" compromise between the Bible and modern scientific theory!
As I said at the start of this article, much of the material presented in Lord I Believe Seminars is highly commendable. However, I have serious reservations about Hill Roberts' approach in the aforementioned areas, especially regarding the age of the earth. He has deified the prevailing theories of modern science, and then wrested the Scriptures to make them conform to those theories. Brother Roberts is so wedded to the accuracy of physics and the standard evolutionary framework for interpreting the data that he cannot figure that the data could be interpreted in a different way.
Like his champions Hugh Ross and John Clayton, Hill Roberts argues that the age of the earth is a trivial point. Considering the emphasis that these men give to the issue of time, it is highly ironic that they would call this an irrelevant issue. It is significant. The issue is inseparably linked to the Gospel and the inerrancy of Scripture. Our view of Genesis is foundational. Most significant Bible doctrines are rooted in the book of Genesis. So also is our understanding of who we are. If you can not trust Genesis to be literally true and understandable, how can you trust the rest of the Bible?
For thousands of years, a literal and straightforward reading of Genesis has led God's people to believe that the universe was created in six literal days, the earth is only a few thousand years old, the earth was created before the stars, vegetation was created before the sun, man was created in the beginning (not at the tail end of an enormously long period of earth history), and the flood was global cataclysm (not merely a localized phenomena). The Hill Roberts, Hugh Ross, and John Clayton doctrine of Progressive Creationism contradicts all these beliefs. They claim to have finally discovered how to correctly interpret Genesis, after thousands of years of misunderstanding. Such an audacious claim should automatically raise a red flag of warning.
Rejection of the literal Biblical account of creation will negatively affect the church. Those who accept the evolutionary timetable find themselves on a path of increasing confusion and uncertainty about how to interpret the rest of the Scriptures. When uniformitarianism and Darwinism captivated the minds of leading religious thinkers in the 1800s, many mainstream denominations started down a road that would end in a complete repudiation of the historic Christian faith. One step inevitably followed another. Having compromised their belief in the Genesis account, they began to question other Scriptures. Soon doubts arose concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Exodus from Egypt, the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, the prophetic books of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, his life, his teachings, and his resurrection.
A general looseness toward the book of Genesis has already been manifest among our liberal brethren. Teachers at Abilene Christian University have taught that Genesis is a myth. Such views are the handmaidens of digression. Our liberal brethren are rushing headlong into complete apostasy. Are conservative brethren poised to follow the same course? Let us open our eyes! Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
1. 1Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Herbert Lockyer, Sr., (Seattle, WA: BibleSoft & Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986, 1996), s.v. "Hermeneutics."
2. 2David L. Wheeler, "An Eclectic Biologist Argues that Humans are Not Evolution's Most Important Results: Bacteria Are," Chronicle of Higher Education, (Vol. LXIII, Sept. 6, 1996), p. A-23; as quoted by Henry M. Morris, "What They Say," Back to Genesis, (March, 1999), p. b.
e-mail this author at MarkMayberry@worldnet.att.net
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